A tired James Spader arrives atthe Intercontinental after shooting all night on his newest project, a documentary drama about the Pentagon papers, in which he plays Daniel Ellsberg. I mention to him that when I read the Mary Gaitskill story that forms the basis of the film Secretary, I mentally cast him as the male lead, an emotionally remote lawyer who becomes involved in a sado-masochistic relationship with his secretary.
Spader works up some energy and laughs. "I got the script about six months before they were going into production, and I didn't read it. I couldn't afford to commit to a project where I wasn't getting paid anything. A month later, I'd lined something up that would let me do a no-budget project, and my agent called and asked about Secretary. I told him I still hadn't read it, and he said, "You have to -- this part is perfect for you."

"But I'm not confessing to anything."

Spader's gift for a certain enigmatic blankness has led him down some intriguing career paths. He's best known for his low-key starring performance in sex, lies and videotape, and there are few things odder than seeing him in a relatively conventional action movie like Stargate or The Watcher.

His challenge in Secretary was that the lawyer was only a name, Edward Grey. He came with no history, no back story. "I was given nothing in the screenplay, no information, no pamphlet. He's an interesting character, though, because a lot of what he seems to be gets projected onto him by the audience.

"I never really knew who he was. The character grew during the shoot. I'd have a sense of him as I was playing the part, but as soon as we'd wrap for the day the character became smoke in the wind. When we go to his house in the movie, about two-thirds of the way into the shoot, that was the first time I'd seen the house, and that told me a little about him."

"But because the step from page to film is such a large one, any preconceptions you have about the character quickly bottom out. Steven (director Shainberg) had done tremendous preparation for this film -- he had to, as he was short of time and money -- so the story became much clearer to me as we started shooting it."

The story, which is really about the shifting balance of power between the two characters, is less about sex as sex than about sex as ritual.
"Ritual's important in everything. Even the least eccentric sexual encounter has an element of ritual in it. There's ritual in sitting at the dinner table and putting your napkin over your lap. In this kind of relationship, though, the lines start to get very blurry as to where the ritual ends. Is it the girl who interests him, or the ritual itself?"