Squirm In Spader's Web by Chrissy Iley

From sex, lies, and videotape to his latest film The Secretary, James Spader has built a career playing the disturbed and the disturbing. But the truth is he's no less unsettling in real life - just look at the way he eats his eggs.

James Spader wants to meet under the giant fig tree at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard on Beverly Drive. His PR is embarrassed to deliver this message. She thinks it's a weird place for an interview. Of course, it's what you might expect from Spader, purposefully odd, contentious. Not just a tree, but a fig tree - figs - with all their sexual connotations. How romantic, I thought. How typical of baby-faced Spader, who always has something cold and calculated lurking behind his preppy rims.

If you think of Spader the actor as a sum of his parts, you can build up a picture of the perfect dichotomy. He debuted in the soppy Endless Love with Brooke Shields, was pretty in Pretty In Pink, was the brute yuppie in Less Than Zero and again in Wall Street, but most impacting was his award-winning performance in sex, lies, and videotape, where he made impotence and celibacy sexy.
In his latest film The Secretary he makes sadism sweet. Truly, he does. It's one of the most touching movies I've seen. Spader plays a lawyer opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays his secretary. She has just been released from an institution for cutting herself and she finds an alternative thrill in being punished for typos. In the world where everything's turned around, she finds humiliation empowering. He tries to get away from her endless love, but can't. Pain heals and true love exists.

It's pouring with rain and although it wouldn't surprise me if he still wanted to do the interview under the fig tree, he's not there. I call him on his mobile and he tells me to go to the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It's green leather banquettes give it a strangely claustrophobic glow. It feels like the set of the movie. I select a booth and wait for him.

He arrives wearing a grey fedora. This booth isn't good enough. He tries a second and finally a third before deciding this is where we'll be. He's very precise about what he wants. I tell him I really really loved The Secretary and, in a monotone, he says: "I'm glad to hear that. I'm always surprised when anyone says they've seen something. When they like it, it's a mystery. Can we order breakfast?" Then he goes into a diatribe about eggs, warning me off a poached egg because you can't control it. A soft-boiled egg, though, he says, is pretty on the money. "I don't keep them in the refrigerator. I keep them on the counter, and on a low boil, I cook them for six minutes and 15-20 seconds and they're exactly the way I like them. I love everything about them. I like peeling back the shell. I love the firmness of the white and the softness of the yolk."
He speaks very slowly and moves his tongue in a very controlled way, like you can feel him poking the squishiness of the yolk and wrapping it around as he savours it. It's quite alarming. Then he moves on to dry-aged steaks. He tells me how they start to rot and how the moisture comes out of the meat and marbling starts: "It tenderises the meat in a very natural way so you can make something enormously flavourful." He says it in a way that you know he knows all about flavour, every nuance of it.

He is very strange, and therefore attractive. He has eyes that most of the time don't look at you, but when they do, they are extremely grey and intense. He has fluffy hair and skin which is baby soft. His hands look like they've been manicured with perfectly arched nails, with the white half moons of the cuticle looking shiny. He is wearing a black silk shirt striped with white that falls open in a louche 1970s sort of way, pale brown silky chest hair that looks altogether too intimate.

Enough talk about researching world cuisine. What kind of research did he do for The Secretary? "None really." You mean it's all based on personal experience? "Yeah. I mean, an actor is only bringing a little piece of the pie. The information was already in the script. You just let your imagination go. Actors don't really invent. They have to understand and feel it and that's fine. I think the behaviour in the film is exaggerated behaviour, but it has a basis in reality and if you can understand the basis in reality, you can understand the exaggerated behaviour as well."

Of course, he's leading me on with his hints of his potential for S&M-Iike behaviour.

So when you first got the script, how did you approach it? "With commitment," he says, and pauses. "That's sort of ducking out of the question, I guess. I found the film funny from the start. But there was a certain amount of resonance for me.

"What I liked most about the film was that it felt to me it was about being sweet and loving and caring in a desperate way. I found in playing the character I was playing, the qualities he had were heightened in spite of his behaviour (which includes him hurting her and binding her, and leaving her unreleased in a chair for days.)

"The more furiously he tried to run away from it, the closer he felt himself getting into it. The more desperately he tried to ignore her, the more aware of her he was. The more remote and uncaring he tried to be, the more sweet and loving they were together. And she just enveloped him. "Everything about her just stroked him," he says, looking at me at the most charged moment, making me feel he knows such a love. But he would, wouldn't he? So I ask, have you ever had one of those relationships where the more you ran, the more you found yourself compelled?
"I wouldn't talk about it if I had."
Can I make a guess? "You can if you want."

I tell him I remember reading that someone said he had all the essence of a bad boy, but the look of the Princess of Wales. "That's funny," he laughs. "I'll take that as a compliment. Dichotomy is nice in life. How are your eggs?"

My eggs are very squishy and blend perfectly with the saltiness of the smoked salmon, I tell him. "Well those sound very much like the qualities of the Princess of Wales," he says, dipping his crisped bacon into his egg.

He looks at me sympathetically. He knows the interview is supposed to be about finding out who he is, but he doesn't want to say who he is because that makes him more of a celebrity and less of an actor. He doesn't want to be pigeon-holed because then his work would be less adventurous. He is full of these paradoxes. He exudes intellectual from every pore, yet he likes to talk about how he dropped out of high school. What he doesn't say was that it was one of the most prestigious high schools in the US. Phillips Academy, Andover, is fiercely academic, hugely pressured and exceedingly difficult to get into, let alone drop out of.
The whole business of being an actor is extroverted. It's about "like me, like me, choose me, choose me", and, as he slouches across the booth, all brittle and distant, I'm not sure how he copes with that.

"I don't. I do the opposite."
What, you go 'hate me'?
"I've played a lot of bad guys in my career. They are more interesting to me. They are there to propel the film and I like that. I've never been comfortable with inaction."

He hates to be pinned down to absolutes. I'd just tried to ask him what kinds of things he does on a typical weekend, and as he said the word " I don't have one," he looked like I was giving him poisoned eggs.
"I need people to be able to suspend disbelief. The less they know about me, the better."

Still, the extremes to which he's prepared to go to conjure an image which serves him, but doesn't describe him, is a territory previously uncharted by most actors. Of his family, he will only say: "I have two boys. One is 13 and the other is 10. I live part of the year in Los Angeles and part elsewhere. Some of the time on location, some of the time in Massachusetts, where I grew up."
And your wife?

"I don't talk about that. I say nothing about it. There were times in my life that I had a version of what my life was like that I didn't mind putting forth, but I'm not comfortable putting anything forth right now."
He said once he read the names of his children in an article and it made him feel sick. I wonder what early life experience has resulted in this overt nature. Brought up on America's east coast, his parents were teachers and he has two older sisters. "I grew up in a household that was very comfortable with discourse and varied opinions. Disagreement and argument. There were five of us and that was five stubborn opinionated people. I was raised among adults. When my parents had a party, it wasn't like the kids were put to bed, then the party happened. As children, we went to adult things, adult pursuits, the theatre, the symphony. We travelled." Most notably summer holidays across Europe in one of those Volkswagen vans.

He has always had a strong work ethic. "I've worked ever since I was 12." He went to New York to live with his sister. "I would walk down Third Avenue and apply for a job at any place that seemed appropriate. Then I would walk up Second Avenue I'd apply for any job that seemed appropriate. I got hired and it seemed like the thing to do. I needed to pay my bills so I'd find the work and then I'd do it."
That ethos is very much still with him. Controlling though he may be, he says: "I've done healthy share of movies to pay my bills. Sometimes you do things you 're excited about as opposed to doing things you couldn't care less bout, but you're doing them to make money. It's a balancing act."

He doesn't know what he will do next. "I think business has changed a little bit for me. I don 't know whether it's my age or the film industry, but I'm finding less things that interest me."

He's 43 and "some days I blame the industry, some days I blame myself. Perhaps I should take more responsibility in terms of generating things. I can always find a couple of movies a year that are interesting to me and that I love, but it doesn't mean that there's something for me to do in them or I can make a living doing them."

While he might be remembered for his heightened macabre roles, there are also the blockbusters such as Stargate and Wolf. I get the impression that while it troubles him to do something that's less demanding, it also troubles him to be without financial control.

"I don't do much lightly," he says. "No one really does. When you see someone who looks light and breezy, they've put a lot of effort into that. It takes a lot of work to be relaxed and light." Are you relaxed and light any of the time? "No," he says.

I already feel quite worn out by him. It's nothing he has said. More what he hasn't said, more how his whole energy has consumed me, but at the same time, he has remained clammed shut.

I read that his agent gave him a book on how to deal with obsessive-compulsive disorder. "1 was very pleased to receive it and put it on the shelf unread. I was fearful I might recognise far too many of the symptoms." What did your agent think you were obsessed about? "Take your pick. Anything you'd care to mention." What are the things that make you wound up? "1 think I tend to live life in absolutes, so I always have a hard time with questions of that sort, questions that are superficial like what's your favourite food? What's your favourite music?"

Even though he remains draped over the green leather banquette, you can feel him squirming and writhing within. Finally he reveals: "Let me tell you one thing. I hate having my picture taken. I hate it. When I used to go to those functions or premieres, I would sprint down the red carpet. People would yell and I'd run and I'd be awkward and uncomfortable. I'd hear the photographers saying what an asshole I was. Then a friend said, next time, just stop. Let them take your picture and move to the next one. It will be over in two minutes as opposed to 20 minutes of anxiety and you're controlling it. All of a sudden, everything changed. I was no longer all the way to the fucking event in the limousine thinking to myself how am I going to avoid it? I surrendered to it and the anxiety emptied out. I took control as opposed to running away. So, as opposed to trying to be the square peg in a round hole, what you 're going to do is carve yourself into a circle."

For all his theories, one can't help but feeling he's very much the square peg and enjoying every second of it. He kind of enjoys being uncomfortable in his own skin by inflicting it back on you. He's still loving the idea that he's a bad boy in the body of the Princess of Wales. The idea that this hard-working intellectual grew up and wanted to be an actor is difficult enough to embrace. "1 find a lot of what an actor has to do is very unpleasant." You mean the whole 'please like me' thing? "Yes, I can't abide that. I got into it because I grew up loving reading and loved the stories. I read voraciously as a child. I loved adventure stories and I loved old movies and I wanted to live them."

He paints the picture of a simple adventurer, but the cinematic terrain has always been as a psychological warrior, as someone who pushes sexual boundaries, not someone who wields a pirate's flashing sword. Everyone has him down as a great intellectual, "and I just don't have the credentials".

Aside from that, people have put him in the position of a new-age hippie, possibly because one of his early jobs was as a yoga teacher. It was one of the times he was wandering up and down Second and Third Avenues.

"I got a pamphlet from the grocery store checkout stand about yoga. I used to lay in front of the class and fall asleep because I'd dim the lights and turn the heat up and get them into some sort of position. I've taken a yoga class since then, a real one, and I can tell you there was no relationship between what I was doing and real yoga. I don't think they were real yoga positions. Just odd contortions that were horrible for people's bodies, but I would lay there and talk them into it. I'd say in this monotone, "Breathe. Big strong breaths through your nose and out through your mouth." He says this with perfect yoga authority. "Then I'd nod off and all of a sudden come to and see everyone in this kind of contortion and they'd be looking really uncomfortable. And who knew?

The yoga story seemed to sum him up perfectly; that he can seem intensely serious and committed and profound about something he doesn't have a clue or a care about; that he can appear vulnerable when he is in fact steely; hard and polished when he's in fact as squidgy as the eggs we've just eaten.

© The Times (Thank you, Anais!)