Digging deep with Spader

JAMES SPADER last came to London as an anonymous American actor looking for a break that would not just launch his career but also pay some of the pressing bills waiting for him at home. He did not know that the film which was to change his life was just around the corner.

That movie was Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape, which won him a Best Actor award at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival - though the actor had left the South of France and was sitting in his dentist's chair in New York when the news reached him.

Spader has remained interestingly enigmatic ever since as far as British audiences are concerned, moving between mainstream Hollywood films and his more favoured arena of the independent sector, but always registering highly watchable performances suggesting an inner life at work even when the roles barely deserved it. In sex, lies and videotape, he managed to make celibacy and impotence sexy and earned an ardent female following which includes some of the most committed feminists I know.

There is a seductive softness and sleepy-eyed charm about his screen persona which plausibly accounts for the excitement he generates, but he has also shown himself ideally qualified to play the thirtysomething generation of the 1990s. Whether as wimp, preppy hero or yuppie marauder, he seemed to personify the mood of the times.

Now 34, married with two small sons, the man himself is a more forthright, direct individual than most of his work suggests, with a loud, spontaneous laugh which I have never heard from him in the cinema. He also looked somewhat different as his hair was still dyed dark from his last film role. He has come back to London riding the success of this week's special-effects epic Stargate, which casts him as a studious archaeologist leaving an Egyptian dig to cross the known universe and do battle with an alien timelord. It follows the treacherously ambitious publisher he played opposite Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer in Wolf and the earlier hits like Bob Roberts and White Palace with Susan Sarandon.

For all the achievement of those, and other smaller scale films, there remains a suspicion that Spader could have imposed himself more on the
current film-making scene and turned his undoubted charisma and ability to challenge the likes of Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis.

It turns out he is not a man who is exactly driven by ambition. 'I have to admit I don't like to work a great deal. It's laziness, I'm afraid. I value
the time I can spend with my family and I'm grateful I have a freelance job which allows me to accommodate that. I tend to take a job only when there is a dire financial need.'

THE SON of a Massachusetts family of teachers, he mentions financial hardship with surprising frequency but settles to consider my suggestion
that he has further areas to explore, applying other criteria than simply cash. 'I'm quite pragmatic in terms of how films get made and how they turn out. To take control of your own destiny in my line of work it seems necessary to get into a lip service to the industry that I don't have the time or the inclination to get involved in. I don't want to get into that game. It's all bullshit and I won't be trapped in a load of lunches that are meaningless.' He turned to tackle the same question from a different quarter. 'Now if you are talking about stretching myself as an actor then I had better explain something that may not be immediately obvious.

'The roles that are the most difficult for me are the ones that are closest to my own character. So it often happens that the films that look like a cakewalk for me are actually the ones I really have to struggle with.

'Give me an accent or a change of appearance, anything I can hide behind, and I'm happy, but I am not at ease playing stuff that might seem like an extension of myself.

'Love stories are the most difficult. They inherently take something of yourself because they are so intimate and emotional but I hate to be
displayed in that way, and I don't mean just physically. Making it look smooth and easy is just that thing called acting, I guess.'

Whatever the cost to him, he knows the effect his work can have on female audiences. 'I guess I have to say yes to that, though I don't often find myself in the kind of areas where I'm made aware of it. I spend most of my time at home or in an East Coast town where everyone has known me since I was aged one.'

There are stories of the days when he ended the day at dawn, rather than starting it, and he has been down the familiar road of booze and narcotics. He has also been accused of obsessive behaviour, reclusiveness and a total reluctance to leave his home.

'I can't say there has been too much self-discipline along the way. Not that it's changed that much now I have a family. Families are the most chaotic, anarchic creations in the world, or at least mine is.'

He has just finished another low-budget film, Keys to Tulsa, with his friend Eric Stoltz, and is happy to have returned to that end of the market. 'If you want to keep going in mainstream films the chances are you will just be asked to repeat what you have done before. If you want to do something different, more interesting, you have to go elsewhere."

© by Michael Owen for the Evening Standard, London, 2/9/1995 (Thank you, Susan)