The Actor as Explorer

Different Roles, Different Reasons

English Journal: Since James Spader first appeared on screen in 1981, he has been in over 32 films. He was asked how he decided which roles to accept.

James Spader: It's always different deciding to take a film, for me. Every film is very different. And the reasons for taking every film are always very different. Sometimes the issues and ideas in the film are so compelling to me that I want to be a part of that film. And sometimes I just am interested in one specific character that I would love to play, with sometimes a disregard for the rest of the film, but I'm just fascinated by playing a certain person sometimes. And sometimes it's the people that I would have the opportunity to work with on a film that I just, I … people that I have admired and respected for a long time, and I just want the opportunity to work with them.

English Journal: He then recalled some of the films he had found most satisfying.

James Spader: Sex, Lies and Videotape was a film I did many years ago that satisfied so many different hungers at that time for me. Another film was the film Crash, that I did. Another film was 2 Days in the Valley, funny enough, mainly because the fact that I got to work with, a wonderful group of people I wanted to work with, who I had admired and respected for such a long time. Some of them were friends, and I got to work on a role that was so exciting to me to play. White Palace was also a film that I felt that way about, and also the film Wolf. Both of those films had people involved with them, the filmmakers and also the other actors and cinematographers and production designers and screenwriters that I had admired for many, many years.

Jumping into Someone Else's Skin

English Journal: Actors must rely on personal feelings or instinct when constructing a part. This becomes quite challenging when playing killers, however, as Spader explained about his role as a psychopath in this new film, 2 Days in the Valley.

James Spader: I guess I would draw on the more psychotic aspects of myself. So I think that if one is willing to, one is able to explore nooks and crannies and hiding places within one's own personality and one's own psyche, and discover the most wonderful and sometimes frightening things. I think for any performance that any actor gives in a film, there may be small pieces of that performance that are available and alive in the real world, but ultimately I think films are fantasy, and I don't think they really represent the real world. And they jump from the imagination of other people; and therefore an actor's job is to mind their own imagination, to put a life up on the screen that is fantasy, and a dream, and is magic and a trick. And so, I think ultimately, it's a matter of simply utilizing one's imagination. That's the point of acting, I think, is to do something, to jump into someone else's skin and play around in there for a couple of months, and then jump out and go back to your own life.

English Journal: Actors who totally immerse themselves in their characters sometimes find it difficult to get back into their own skin, but Mr. Spader doesn't seem to have any trouble with that.

James Spader: The ritual that I perform to jump out of a character is to change my clothes and take a shower. (laughter from audience) And that seems to work all right.

A Dividing Line

English Journal: Spader also spoke at length about how audiences are affected by the images projected on the screen, especially when the images are violent.

James Spader: I think that's very hard to gauge. I think that human beings are inherently violent, and so I think it's a very, very difficult … I think it's a very difficult thing to gauge. I think in films, at least … films are violent, but in best of films, violence, I think, is utilized very often for a very specific reason, or should be used for a very specific reason. And it's within the context of the morality of that film and should be taken as such, and should not be extracted and looked upon as an entity unto itself, isolated in that fashion. That's dangerous to do with anything. But I certainly am not at all bothered with the notion that there are certain films that are for adults and there are certain films for children. And there should be a dividing line. Just because certain films aren't made for children. And if they happen to see them, some of those images may be enormously disturbing to them. But I'm not so sure about the correlation of the - then, whether that disturbance then manifests in actual behavior or not.

The Responsibility of Parents

English Journal: He then elaborated on the responsibility that actors and directors should take when creating images that are projected into society.

James Spader: I just, I'm not so sure that I agree with where the responsibility lies. I think that 90 percent of who we are is based on genetics and is based on the environment that we grew up in. And I think the responsibility for our children is with us. But as an adult, I want to have … I want there to be a freedom of expression, and I see a value in a film like Crash, which is an enormously disturbing film to a lot of people and deals with a lot of the issues that you're talking about. It deals with violence, it deals with mortality, it deals with sexuality - subjects that I think are … and the ways those subjects are dealt with in that film are absolutely inappropriate for anyone under the age of 17. But by the same token, for those people who are able to ingest that and ponder the ideas and the thoughts and issues that are put forth in that film, it does have a value. But the part that I do agree with is that I do think that we have to monitor the images that come into our heads. By the same token, it's more pervasive than that. It has to do with our sense of ourselves as well. And I would venture to say that maybe the people have to take that responsibility for them(selves). I don't think that people should be run by a society. I think a society should be run by people. And therefore, I think the maturation and development of children is the responsibility of parents.

Challenges Ahead

English Journal: At the closing, he spoke of the kind of characters he would still like to play on screen.

James Spader: I do know one thing that I have not played with that is something that does interest me, and that is to play an alien in a film. And I don't mean the sort of alien that … what I mean is somebody who's stranded, and unlike - not like Stargate, which was a science fiction film, but somebody who's stranded in a culture that is not their own and is alone as an alien within that culture. That's something that fascinates me, I guess maybe because I find myself in those circumstances a lot, where I am in a place that's unfamiliar to me and in many ways an enigma to me, and mysterious because of that. And I'd like to explore that in a film.

English Journal, Interview Kathy A. Sokol in 1997 and published September 1998 (Thank you, Sana)