of the Lost Archaeology
He's terrific as maligned archaeologist Dr. Daniel Jackson hired by the military to decipher hieroglyphics and open the mysterious gizmo which hurls him at warp speed to the enslaved world of Abydos. But while the actor, who shot to prominence with sex, lies and videotape, has indulged in the genre twice before(as the reincarnated Ripper in Jack's Back and Jack Nicolson's rival in Wolf), Stargate is the first time he's headlined a major Science Fiction adventure complete with complex special effects.
LONDON TOUR START
Starburst caught up with Spader in London on the first leg of his international publicity tour to promote Stargate. Sporting a surprising shock of jet black dyed hair(for his role in the new thriller Keys to Tulsa also starring his best friend Eric Stoltz), the normally blond Spader explained why he wanted to play Daniel Jackson. "It was a part so unlike anything I'd ever played before. That's why you become an actor, to play as many challenging characters as you can. For some reason I was Roland's first choice for the part. "When I initially read the script, it really intrigued me because every page was a constant surprise. It was so unlike anything I'd ever thought about doing. I love adventure movies but I'd never taken any interest in Science Fiction. I think 2001 was the beginning and end of my attraction. The whole Star Trek thing had passed me by. Yet the Stargate script had a richness to it I enjoyed. "Then I met Roland and the way he described how he envisioned the movie made me desperate to be on the set just to see what it was going to be like. He made it sound spectacular, exciting and fun. It seemed like it was going to be a fascinating journey and one worth going on. So I lept at the chance. And it was."
Spader confirmed even if he'd been a special effects technician or any other crew member, he'd have wanted to be equally involved because Emmerich fired his imagination so much. He continued, "This sort of opportunity comes up so very rarely. Stargate was going to have a cast of thousands and the biggest sets to be constructed since The Ten Commandments. Those were inducements enough in themselves. But things are changing so rapidly in movies now on the technical front, it was also my chance of being a part of that kind of cutting edge film-making. It was my first glimpse at a style of movie-making I had no prior experience with. This was clearly going to be 'Out There' even from a Science Fiction point of view and that was exciting. Roland told me exactly what to expect. He didn't spring any surprises and I respected that."
With his bumbling around, assorted allergies and arms full of rolled-up charts, Dr. Daniel Jackson could easily be seen as your typical absent-minded professor. However, Spader was keen to eschew such an easy image of his character as he explained. "He certainly was the scatter-brained academic in the script. My feeling was to go against that grain completely. I mean, if he was such a simple cypher, I couldn't imagine why he's go on the Stargate journey. He could just as easily have heard about it from everyone else when they came back. As originally written, I didn't think Daniel would be fearless enough to step thru the Stargate by choice or be so driven by his curiosity. Remember, he's the only one who does readily volunteer to go because he wants to, not because he has to." He continued, "The only people who have such a voracious appetite for knowledge, an inexhaustive courageousness and exuberant enthusiasm, oblivious to all obstacles ,are children. Kids do everything they shouldn't and everything that's supposedly bad for them. But that's how I saw Daniel more than a scatty adult. He's a child, a five-year old with the same 'need to know' qualities. Roland thought this was the perfect take on the character. Daniel brushes failure off and keeps moving forward. If he had delt properly with his life, and matured over the natural course of things, he wouldn't have taken the journey into the unknown. He would have made excuses about being the sort of person who doesn't travel well and how he'd await their return with interest. But no, his disregard for responsibility and authority is what keeps him going. Daniel is an outsider, something of an island. He's become frustrated by the world around him and then, all of a sudden, this door opens up that is..perfect."
Daniel doesn't take the hyperspace warp speed trip because he's got nothing left on Earth, or merely to prove his theories, added Spader. "The desperate stage you see him at during the opening is nothing new for Daniel. That's his life. It's not 'Oh, my God! What am I going to do next? 'He's intrigued by Catherine's offer(Viveca Lindfors)because it's the next thing, the next source of income, the next adventure. The period of his life you witness in the early part of Stargate was shortened dramatically. We filmed a great deal more. What you get to know about him in certain dialogue lines here and there are he was orphaned at a very young age, he's without a home and he's exhausted all his grants thanks to his supposedly crackpot theories. Ten years of his life was compressed into twenty minutes mainly because Roland and Dean Devlin originally wrote Stargate as a three-part movie like the Star Wars trilogy. Daniel takes the plunge because he's driven by curiosity to see what's over the next hill."
Walking through the Stargate was Spader's favourite sequence in the movie on the special effects front too. He remarked, "It's such an amazing scene. Who knows what's waiting for them on the other side or if they'll fry up taking this action. Every single army guy walks through prepared for their death. They're soldiers and that's what they've been told to do. Daniel is the only real adventurer among them. "I'll never forget the two days we spent doing nothing but walking through the Stargate. There was only one line in the script that referred to all the optical work. When I heard we'd be spending two days doing it, I thought, 'What the hell am I going to do for that amount of time with a prop? 'It boiled down to working out what would be going through Daniel's mind at the time. The Stargate would be a huge hi-tech toy for him. It's something that interests him and that's why he stops and plays with it and smiles in wonderment as he takes the final step. The scatty anal retentive professor would still be back at his desk! "I tried playing around with the strange dichotomy I felt Daniel was in. He has this life in the academic community yet he was such a lousy student. He's too distracted by the awesome possibilities of it all and makes up for his academic dryness with tremendous excitement and energy. He's more interested in the question than the answers which is why he does what he does on Abydos."
Spader didn't share the same fascination with all things Egyptian that Emmerich, writer Dean Devlin and producer Mario Kassar did. But he was intrigued by the ancient Egyptian dialect he and his fellow actors had to learn for certain subtitled scenes. He said, "To be honest, I just got by with it.I kept myself interested in the language by learning it at the same rate as our dialogue coach Stuart Tyson Smith. What I did find fascinating was how Stuart, a research associate at the Institute of Archaeology at the Fowler Museum of Cultural history, came up with the grammar and how you'd speak what wasn't supposed to be a spoken language in the first place. What you hear in the movie is what it might have sounded like if the language had developed over thousands of years. That's the knowledge Daniel would like to have had which made it important for me. I got off real easy. Erik Avari, playing Kasuf, had to spout reams of the stuff at great speed and volume. But he was fluent in several languages anyway and almost spoke like an Egyptian native. Mili Avital (Sha'uri) was the same and she picked it up because of her Hebrew and Arabic backgrounds."
Working with Roland Emmerich was a total joy for Spader as he explained. "I loved him. He gives actors total freedom. As long as what we were doing fitted in with his overall concept of the movie then he'd let us do what we wanted. I've realized after doing so many interviews about the film that he's different in the publicity arena than he is on set. He won't tell you this himself but there's a lot of Daniel in Roland. He's an exuberant elf and great fun to work with. Considering that he was in control of this huge juggernaut of enormous sets, large casts and numerous special effects he was very careful to concentrate on the smaller aspects of the story and characters rather than the epic backdrops we stood against."
Although Spader thought he had a rough idea of the epic scale of Stargate, he says the first day on the set literally knocked him for six. "I had a vague sense of the style and scale beforehand just based on production design models and art director sketches. None of it matched the actual reality of arriving by a car at the Yuma, Arizona locations. "I was driven two miles into the sand dunes on a road covered in sand-coloured rubber meshing so they could shoot over it without having to continuously disguise it. I arrived at this huge base camp installation with hundreds of tents, trailers, extras, walkie talkies, catering trucks, medical units, school areas and full department facilities for the special effects and other personnel. "I had breakfast and was then bundled into a dune buggy to drive another mile into a sand basin to the proper set where cameras and lights were all set up. That's where Roland turned his back on 2000 extras stretched out over several miles along sand ridges to greet me. Production assistants were placed every one hundred yards with megaphones in full costume, there were Clydesdale horses dressed as alien beasts, and a huge caravan looking over a valley to a four storey high village complete with gates, towers, bridges and catwalks. That was my first day and I was in shock!"
Counterbalancing Spader's intellectual Jackson in Stargate is Kurt Russell's uptight Colonel Jack O'Neal who joins him on the hidden agenda mission to the far side of the universe. Spader remarked, "Kurt was just fine. We had a great time together. He's a very funny man and loves to argue and provoke. Kurt has been acting since he was seven years old and has a thousand stories to tell. There's a pragmatic quality about Kurt which allowed him to go straight to the emotional heart of his character. Before I started on Stargate a mutual friend told me there was no better actor than Kurt to get me out of the desert alive or in one piece if any problems arose. 'Just avoid politics and social issues and you'll be okay', I was told. In truth, I found out those two were the best subjects to get him on and we both had a blast. "Spader has no idea why Stargate has been such a box-office success. "Perhaps what I enjoyed about it comes through the screen. It's a fun adventure, an enormous spectacle to watch. I had no clue to what it would end up like when we were shooting, it was just so fantastic to watch it come together every day. The playground Roland created and his vital sense of humour got us through even the hardest day. "Not everyone will like Stargate but I'm still surprised at the wide range of people who give themselves up to it and enjoy it for what it is. It doesn't put intellectual demands on you yet it's found a niche because it takes you somewhere you've never been before and that's refreshing to see. Without being derogatory at all, Kurt has called Stargate 'Big, dumb fun' and that's about the size of it." As to the early talk of a sequel, Spader stated, "I have no idea about that. Nor would I make a decision until I read a screenplay. However, if it promised to be everything the first one was I'd agree in a heartbeat because playing Daniel turned out to be more fun than even I was expecting."
© Starburst Issue 199, March 1995: "Spader of the Lost Archaeology" by Alan Jones (Thank you, Gloria)