"I'm not really sure I am a blond handsome person," says the undeniably fair- haired actor with the face of a seminary student and the wary energy of a guy on the lam. "An actor is a vehicle a character passes through. I have difficulty having a blond person pass through me. That's why I do what I do."

What James Spader does is play the genteel creep. Although he has occasionally used his body as a vehicle for good guys-Susan Sarandon's lover in White Palace, John Cusack's ethical pal in True Colors-his signature roles are sneakier and snakier: the onanistic voyeur in sex, lies, and videotape, the predatory drug dealer in Less Than Zero, the sleazy exec in Baby Boom. His not-quite-lockjawed New England accent makes him perfectly suited to an array of yuppie scum, and he has often shone most brightly in smaller roles. "I don't like being the lead," he insists. "I don't feel the blood lust I feel when I play crusty degenerates."

Degenerates don't come any more encrusted than Spader's latest (and leading) role: In the surreal house-of-games drama The Music of Chance, the actor sports black hair and a wet worm of a mustache to play Jack Pozzi, a card player who's down to his last hand. "Jack's ratlike and subterranean, yet has this in-your-face bravado. It was hard to figure out how to jell those contradictory things," he says.

The son of schoolteachers, Spader, 33, grew up on the grounds of a boarding school near Boston and attended Phillips Academy on scholarship. He quit prep school at 17 and moved to New York to study acting, taking odd jobs along the way. (While working as a yoga instructor, he met his wife, Victoria; they married in 1987 and have two sons.)

In 1981, he nabbed his first film role as Brooke Shields' brother in Endless Love. Though steady film work followed in the decade since, Spader seems to be flooring the accelerator these days: He'll turn up alongside Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer in Mike Nichols' Wolf, and in early '94, he'll play the obsessed paramour of Twin Peaks' Madchen Amick in the erotic thriller Dream Lover.

Spader speaks with a slow, uninflected delivery, as if wrong words had fatal consequences. "I am particular about everything," he says. He holds up his Zippo lighter. "This is my lighter. It is the only lighter I use. I only wear one kind of pants; I have them in black and white and tan. I'm particular about my shoes, only Red Wing work boots or, for sneakers, Jack Percel. I park as close as I can to where I'm going. And if there's shade I park in the shade."

He sits forward and reveals a hunting knife in a case on his belt. "I take hikes in the Hollywood Hills every day," he explains, then looks embarrassed. "Well," he says, looking less like a crusty degenerate than ever, "it's perfect for opening up UPS boxes."

Entertainment Weekly, No. 176/177 double issue, June 25 to July 8, 1993, page 33
Photography by Jeffrey Thurnher (Thank you, Mina!)