"A Preppie Grows Up"

It's every actor's worst nightmare. There you are at the Cannes Film Festival, flushed in the heat of exploding flashbulbs, dapper in a crisp starched tuxedo. The star of the festival's hottest ticket, you graciously agree to another interview, another press conference, although all you really want to do is escape to the privacy of your hotel suite. And so you begin to speak. But wait a minute. What's that rumble in your tummy? Where did that wave of nausea come from? And what is that sharp stab in your colon?

At this very moment, you'd trade a thousand Palme d'Or's (the festival's highest award) for one Depends undergarment.

"Cannes was very, very funny." admits James Spader, who would walk away from the event with a case of misbehaving bowels and the best actor award for his turn in sex, lies and videotape before the thing had wrapped. "Cause you know, you're in black tie the whole time you're over there. There's press conferences and all that crap, and you go, and yet underneath it all your body is so fucked up. You're half asleep in the photo sessions, and then wide awake in your hotel. Jet lag! And your digestion is completely fucked up and you have the worst gas and uncontrollable diarrhea of your life." He laughs.

"The whole thing," says Spader, ashing his cigarette on the porch of his publicist's Beverly Hills office, "is this desperate frenzy cloaked in glamour. I wasn't comfortable with it. I don't like crowds. I need time and space."

He is a man of disquieting understatement and vocalized insecurities, and his sex, lies and videotape performance capitalizes on his passive resources. Creepy, hermetic and as vulnerable as a newborn, he dominated the film as Graham, the chronicler of women's caged sexual fantasies, yet never spoke above a whisper. Only 29, Spader is already a master at quiet control, and sex, lies and videotape is the first film to truly showcase his tremendous gift. Critics are calling him The Next Big Thing, and this, like Cannes, amuses him to no end. He stabs out his cigarette.

"That's a load of shit, really. A big load of shit." He leans back in his chair. "The next big what? That's my question. I don't know what that means, really. My concerns are that I come away from this more humane, and that as far as my work goes, I have more freedom to do good work with good people. But the next big thing? The next big what?" He is completely exasperated, at wits end. "The next big dick?" A gentle snicker. "I'm really confused about that term."

He is not at all suited for the celebrity which has come his way. A decaffeinated personality prone to thoughtful pauses and shy smiles, he is totally preoccupied with the work, not its benefits. He was too busy, he says, to zone in on the buzz that accompanied his breakthrough performance. There was Bad Influence to contend with - the already infamous film in which his character's sex and lies are videotaped by Rob Lowe-and then the little Spader, born this summer. "I haven't had time to reflect." he says indicating a subconscious choice. "It's been brushing my teeth, burping the baby, eating a meal, doing the work on Bad Influence, taking a shower, calling my wife. Every minute has been filled. When I start doing too much time reflecting is the time I pick up a book. I'm a worrier, you know? And worriers love to worry." And what does he have to worry about during his time of ascendance? "Give me something, anything and I'll worry about it."

He is completely at odds with the smarmy roles that introduced his talent. Before sex, lies and videotape, Spader was the Hollywood lockjaw master, the man we love to despise. After his debut in Endless Love, in which he played the overly concerned bro of the sleepy and enchanting Brooke Shields, he slithered through a host of films in supporting roles (he was the homosexual coke dealer in Less Than Zero, Diane Keaton's job competition in Baby Boom, the contemptible prepster in Pretty in Pink) and effortlessly showed up the starring talent. He loved his Bad Guys, one and all.

"They kick the ass of the movie along," he says of the villians. "For me, whenever things are really popping in a film, a bad guy is right there. I like all these guys, understand them. One of my favorites was the guy I played in a really awful movie called Mannequin. I loved him. He was really certifiable."

He is attracted, he says, to characters drowning in danger, guys who are coming up one last time for air and, perhaps, redemption. In Bad Influence Spader plays "a research analyst." He looks off into the horizon for a good solid minute, and shakes his head. "Jesus... it's so funny. This role is so out of the realm of my own experience. He becomes embroiled in his own worst nightmare. That's why I really like him."

Raised in an affluent Boston suburb by a pair of English teachers, Spader gravitated to the foreign, the dramatic, even as a wee pup. "I made believe," he says, "untill a really embarrassing age." He wasn't much on school and dropped out after a few painful months at Brooks Prep School and at Phillips Exeter. He remembers, however, that he had some fine tutors - "John Huston, Sam Peckinpah, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Laughton, Alec Guinness" who taught him reams at the local cineplex. At 17, he moved to New York. After a few months of voice-overs and roles in summer stock, he studied acting at the Michael Chekov Studio. In 1981 came his debut in Endless Love, and very quickly, the decade of sneer.

Sex, lies and videotape is the very first James Spader film without a trace of smirk in it, and while he claims he is "thankful" for the project, he is also a bit stunned by its success. "It's been very surprising," he says of the film's impact. "There were a lot of agents who didn't want their actors to touch this movie. Some people felt that it was too pornographic, too provocative. Well, anybody who felt that this piece of material was that didn't read the script."

From day one, he was captivated by the project's resonance. "I thought it was a very funny, very peculiar piece of work." He knew the piece was sexy, possibly controversial, knew it would be a stretch. Any possible backlash didn't concern him. "I don't really concern myself with what the viewer's needs or concerns are," he says without a trace of arrogance. "I only want to satisfy myself."

Spader's ongoing learning process continues later this month, when he begins shooting White Palace, a love story co-starring Susan Sarandon to be filmed in St. Louis. While he won't be forced to wear a tuxedo in that midwestern city, or sit for a million press conferences like he did in Cannes, his system will probably be a jangle. A desperate frenzy continues to churn around James Spader, one whipped up not by the flash of lightbulbs but by the demon called artistic doubt. Even when you're on the verge of being very big, you can feel very, very small. "I still don't know much about acting, "he confesses. "I still have a ways to go."

Exposure - The magazine for Los Angeles and beyond, December 1989 by Ryan Murphy (Thank you, Gloria)