November 1993. The sun beams down on the Californian coast, but inside the Spruce Goose Dome, at Long Beach, south of L.A., it's as dark as night. It's here, in this arena-sized venue that was formerly home to Howard Hughes' most eccentric failed project, the biggest plane ever made that made just one flight, that writer-director Roland Emmerich has built the massive sets for his $55 million sci-fi epic Stargate.
The brainchild of Emmerich and his co-writer/co-producer Dean Devlin, who first teamed up for 1992's Universal Soldier, Stargate is a sci-fi adventure about an ancient Egyptian relic that turns out to be a door to the other side of the universe. James Spader plays the Egyptologist who cracks the Stargate's access code and Kurt Russell is the leader of the military unit that takes a mind-bending million-light-year journey, only to find Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game's cross-dresser, as the evil, androgynous ruler of a desert planet who visited earth thousands of years ago, created civilization as we know it, and then headed for the stars. "It's an old fashioned adventure," says Devlin. "It's Lawrence of Arabia on another planet."

Which is one reason why this film is considered a big risk. Another is the "talent". Spader is best known for playing upper-crust cads and quirky types in John Hughes comedies and dramas like Sex, Lies & Videotape, while Russell, Tombstone aside, has spent most of the last few years doing truly forgettable flicks. Further upping the odds against Stargate is the fact that, with few exceptions, the sci-fi movie has been moribund for the best part of a decade. Things are not looking rosy...

October 1994, close to a year later, and everything has clicked into place. The movie is finished and is impressively loud and full of showy, digital imaging. Spader and Russell do a good job of not being overwhelmed by the effects. And Stargate's US distributors - who seemed decidedly optimistic when they predicted an opening weekend of $12 million - were more surprised than anybody when it made $16.7 million and, after five weeks, had racked up a hefty $62 million, trampling both Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein and Kevin Costner's The War in its wake.

Doing his part for the good ship Stargate, the enigmatic James Spader sits down for his bijou meeting-ette with Empire. It's not that Spader is difficult in conversation - in fact, he's affable and self-effacing - just that the 34-year-old actor is intensely private, and says so up front. "I'm not eager at all to present my life out there for public consumption," he states. "I like to do one or two films a year and then do what is absolutely obligatory in terms of promoting them. My life outside of films is vital to me."

Spader made his screen debut with a bit part in 1981's trashy Brook Shields vehicle Endless Love alongside another then - unknown, Tom Cruise. The two actors' careers instantly diverged, and it was four years before Spader found himself co-starring with the fast-rising Young Hollywood clique know as the Brat Pack, in films such as Pretty in Pink, Mannequin and Less Than Zero. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Spader remained steadfastly out of the limelight. It may seem now prescient that he avoided close links to the likes of less-than-stellar Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy, to say nothing of Judd Nelson, but Spader was content with supporting roles in lieu of stardom. He managed to carve out a memorable niche for himself as a callow, coniving preppie, and casting directors were drawn to his WASPy good looks and laconic, lock-jaw delivery. Spader played his well-bred characters with more flair and charisma than most of his acting peers ever showed onscreen. But proficiency in character roles is the quickest route to typecasting, and Spader, as he matured, was only allowed to move laterally, from preppie to yuppie, in films like Wall Street and Baby Boom.

In 1988 he finally got hold of a sympathetic character, a doctor accused of murder in the neo-noirish B-thriller Jack's Back, but the film died. The next year, however, Spader finally broke through to something approaching stardom with Steven Soderbergh's much-lauded Sex, Lies & Videotape, which won the actor both the Best Actor Award at Cannes and a new audience as Graham, the impotent sex-obsessed wanderer with a video camera. Spader couldn't have cared less.

"I'm not obsessed with work," he states. "I'm not much of a planner. Someone recently asked me, 'What are your dreams and goals for your career?' and I realized that my dreams and goals don't really have much to do the the career." Proof of this can be found in his film choices after Sex, Lies & Videotape, when he might have capitalized on his new high profile. Although he followed it with the romantic lead role opposite Susan Sarandon in the steamy, moderately successful White Palace, he's since shown up in decidedly minor films such as Storyville, True Colors, Bad Influence and DreamLover. Last year he returned to the limelight with a supporting role opposite Jack Nicholson as a slick lawyer in the disappointing Wolf. Then in Philip Haas' off-beat The Music of Chance, Spader stretched out as a down-on-his-luck New York gambler caught in a nighmarish web of deceit, but the film was barely noticed by the public.

In the final analysis, says Spader, Sex, Lies & Videotape, far from being a turning point in his career, was something of a fluke. "You're sort of defined by the last picture that people saw," he insists. "Very often I make films that few people see. The Music of Chance was like that, and Sex, Lies & Videotape was a film I assumed was going to be like that. To be honest with you, compared with something like Jurassic Park, very few people did see that film." Spader chose Stargate the way he chooses his roles in most films, "Pretty much by whim." It's his first science fiction outing but, par for the course, he sees this as irrelevant. "I didn't have a great knowledge of this genre," he says. "The only demand I was putting on the picture was that my paycheck came in and that I had fun making it. It seemed like it would be rather light-hearted. And it was. I'm not a big fan of films that take themselves seriously."

It should come as no surprise that Spader was born into the world of wealth and privilege so many of his characters have inhabited: the old-guard Eastern Establishment. The twist is, he was always an outsider looking in. His parents, fourth generation New Englanders, were both teachers at a Massachusetts boarding school, so while he and his two sisters were able to attend some of the country's most elite institutions, they were scholarship kids. Spader never felt the typical prep-school pressure to make it into the Ivy League, so he concentrated on acting, and at 16 dropped out of school altogether - a move supported by his parents.

"I don't think my father was much of a student either," he admits. "The fact is, I was miserable in the classroom." Spader drifted down to New York, with a vague idea of acting. "I don't know whether it was very clear at all that I was gonna do that as a living. I just knew that New York was a place where I could take improvisation classes and I could be in a play." Far from being a time of ill-paying yet noble off-Broadway acting triumphs, Spader's New York years were filled primarily with menial labor. "I drove a truck for a while for a meat packing plant," he says. "I shoveled manure at the Clarmont Riding Academy in New York. Mopped floors for a while. I uploaded railroad cars and trailers at a warehouse. I wasn't really qualified for anything else."

The fledging actor also managed to talk his way into a gig as a yoga instructor, though he knew precious little about the discipline. Spader fell in love with a fellow yoga teacher called Victoria, and they've been together for nearly 15 years. They have two young sons, and it's his roles as husband and father, more than any career goals, that dictate his film choices. "I was offered a film this summer and I certainly needed a film this summer - need to pay my bills," he says. "But my family goes back East during the summer. I like to spend as much time with my boys as I can before they head off to school. So I turned down the film. If that means we have to be walking around on plywood in the bathrooms before I can put tiles down, or that our living room doesn't have any furniture except a ping-pong table, then fine. I'm willing to make that sacrifice because it's important to me. To take your career too seriously is a mistake."

Hard to do when your fee has just jumped to a million dollars a picture and you've been in some bloody good films... "I'm not trying to leave behind a legacy," he insists. "I'm not trying to leave my mark. I don't have any interest in that. My only legacy is that I would hope I can raise my sons to be fair, decent and humane." He pauses. "That doesn't have much to do with going off and jumping around in front of the camera..."

© by Joshua Mooney for Empire Magazin, Februar 1995