Along Came a Spader

Actor James Spader is back on top - in more ways than one - with the S&M romance Secretary.

James Spader has never been what one would describe as a G-rated, family-friendly sort of actor. After making a name for himself as a shaggy-haired, sneering rich-kid villain in Eighties high-school flicks like Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero, then earning critical acclaim for his portrayal of the voyeuristic, sexually impotent Graham in Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape and raising hackles in David Cronenberg's 1997 Crash, he has clearly established a pretty solid working relationship with his dark side.

"I do seem to be drawn to material that's of a sexual nature and to extremely dominant characters - I don't know why that is," acknowledges Spader, 42, whose latest film is Secretary - an S&M love story costarring newcomer Maggie Gyllenhaal. "In a way, nothing that has to do with sexuality seems like that much of a leap to me. And with regards to S&M in particular, the desires and satisfactions there are not foreign to me-elements of it are familiar, but enough are unfamiliar that it seemed exciting."

Chronicling the unlikely and often hilarious romance that blossoms between a fastidious, dominant lawyer (Spader) and his gangly, submissive - and deliciously subversive - waIlflower typist (Gyllenhaal), Secretary may well be Spader's riskiest and most accomplished performance yet.
A Massachusetts native who was raised on the campus of Brooks Academy, where his parents were teachers, Spader dropped out of Andover to pursue acting in New York. "I was pretty much ready to go to university right out of elementary school," he says. "I had one foot out the door and the other one on the gas peda1."

t his bad-boy prime, he was known around Hollywood for his fondness for strip joints like the Seventh Veil and his extensive collection of weaponry. He hung out at the Ivy and Dan Tana's with contemporaries like Eric Stoltz and Jennifer Jason Leigh and lived for stretches at the Chateau Marmont. But by all accounts, the actor's marriage to longtime girlfriend Victoria Kheel, with whom Spader lives next door to his parents outside Boston, shifted his priorities away from Hollywood and toward his family (the couple has two children, Sebastian, 12, and Elijah, 9).

Before Secretary, roles in a string of forgettable films (ever heard of Keys to Tulsa, Driftwood, Critical Care, Curtain Call or Slow Burn?) and a newfound disinterest in the Hollywood social scene essentially had landed Spader in the "Where Are They Now?" file - a state of affairs he claims not to have minded in the least. "I think people tend to take the whole Hollywood celebrity thing way too seriously," says the famously press-shy actor. "I mean, acting is just a trifle, really; it's silly. My family is by far the most important thing in my life, and we live a really normal life. We don't have a fence around our front yard, we don't have to have bodyguards all over the place, we go where we want - I mean I look at a guy like Tom Cruise. The guy can't even leave the house!"

Indeed, Spader guards his private life so zealously that even his colleagues claim to have little sense of his offscreen persona. "I think I'd have a hard time saying what James is like in real life," says Gyllenhaal. "When we were on set, he was pretty much always inside this very dominant character, which was odd, but also incredibly helpful to me because it propelled me to go places I know I wouldn't have been able to go otherwise." Gyllenhaal chuckles. "I mean, he'd call me into his trailer and say, 'Would you like a piece of chocolate?' and then he'd give me one piece of chocolate and send me on my way."

Spader's close-to-the-vest manner extends even to the most superficial aspects of his life. When asked what he does for fun, he bristles. "The problem with interviews is that our agendas are completely at odds here," he says. "Your agenda is to find out something about me as a person, which completely conflicts with my agenda to reveal as little as possible." Offering up too much, it seems, would detract from the audience's appreciation. "I think that the worst thing you can do for a film is to show anything behind the scenes," he explains, "because when it comes down to it, it's just a man behind a curtain throwing levers, and I've always thought it was a lot more fun to just experience the big booming voice coming through the smoke.

"All I want is for people to go see the movie and to see if they get anything from that," Spader continues, "because even with the strangest character, hopefully there's something there that you can recognize and, on some level, relate to. I mean, you may not want to crawl in bed with him, but maybe you can stand next to the bed for a little while." He grins. "Or across the room, if necessary."

© W Magazine, September 2002, Article by Kimberly Cutter (Thank you, Anais!)