Sex, truth and the actor's duty to himself: James Spader

He is too much the professional to admit it or to knock it, but James Spader is surprised and embarrassed by the attention he is getting for his
performance in the low-budget film success, sex, lies and videotape. Costing just $ 1.2 million, the ironic psychological drama, the first film to be directed by 26-year-old Steven Soderbergh, shot into the limelight when it was awarded the Palme d'or and the best actor award for Spader at the Cannes Film Festival.

It has become one of the most talked about American films of the year, along with Spike Lee's trenchant examination of racism, Do the Right Thing. Dealing as it does, albeit with lashings of black humour, with the problematic nature of contemporary sexual relationships, the success of the film has forced Spader into the unwelcome position of being a spokesman for the kind of fractured male sexuality that his character, Graham, represents.

It is principally unwelcome because Graham is impotent and apparently capable of arousal only through watching videotapes he has made of women talking about their sexual experiences. Spader is married to the woman with whom he has lived for some years and they have a baby son.

But Spader has long had to deal with an apparent confusion between his screen image and his real self. In a series of roles in Pretty in Pink, Baby Boom, Less Than Zero and Wall Street, he came to exemplify the archetypal self-centred and amoral yuppie of the late 1980s. These parts got him tagged 'Mr Sneer'.

His hair shorter now, with black-rimmed glasses, and wearing jeans and polished black lace-up shoes, he expresses exasperation at the suggestion of a correspondence between his appearance and his roles.

'You just want to work. I like playing character roles and I do not mind being a real son-of-a-bitch, or embarrassing myself. But as you go along you begin to realize that the work has a criterion and and as your choices get broader you start cutting out the things that are not worth the time. On the whole I have been lucky; I do not look back with a huge amount of distaste for the work I have done.'

He started acting, or at least role-playing, very young. 'I wore a lot of capes when I was a kid; I played a lot of pirates, and I played a lot of
doctors. I was the only caped doctor in the neighbourhood.'

An inveterate traveller, he has great affection for England. He came to Europe with his parents, who took sabbaticals abroad, living for a few
months in the Cotswolds and later in Cambridge. When he was still at school he toured England with a drama company performing a version of Thurber Carnival, drawn from the short stories, thoughts and ideas of the acerbic American writer.

Late last year he was in London for some weeks working on the screen version of Martin Amis's novel, The Rachel Papers, which is released here soon.

His academic family background is still apparent in his controlled speech patterns, but Spader left school and home in Boston early, moving to New York. There he followed the aspiring actor's traditional route of day jobs (including shovelling manure in a stable just off Central Park), acting classes and parts in repertory productions. He landed his first film role in a soft-core feature called Teammates, before promotion to Brooke Shields's brother in the 1981 Zeffirelli film, Endless Love.

Spader approaches interviews with the same serious intensity that he gives to his acting. This can be trying when he takes as long as a minute, silently staring into the distance, to give you a reply to a question. His answers, when they come, are precise, articulate but self-consciously contrived. Like many actors, he performs in an interview, playing the slightly anguished role of an actor forced to expose too much of himself.

He seems unwilling to talk about his role in sex, lies and videotape, preferring to talk about almost anything other than the meaning of his
character. Why?

'I could not presume that Graham speaks for anyone except himself, ' Spader says. 'If someone else goes to the film and can relate to him, that is great, but I cannot presuppose that. I cannot speak for other people in that way. For me, the work is very specific: that guy in those circumstances.'

What was it then that attracted him to the role? 'I saw that there was a lot of room for dichotomies in the character. The material was very conducive to playing around with secrets, the secrets in his life. I saw someone who seemed to be in many ways exactly the opposite of what he presented himself to be.'

In his efforts to appear simply as a working actor who has by chance taken a role which has struck a chord with audiences, Spader can seem dismissive of his profession. 'Acting is a great way to make a living, especially when I consider what my alternatives were and probably still are. I mean, you are only making movies. It is a lot less pressure than being a surgeon; although it seemed like the only other thing that I was qualified for was manual labour.'

Later, he wants to go back over this assessment. 'I do not mean to be cavalier about my work, but it is something which demands so much attention, concentration, concern and obsessiveness while you are doing it that when you are sitting back from it, like now, you have to slap it down, force it back into the basement, so that the rest of your life can be as vital and important. Being able able to leave it behind helps me to keep a balance in my life.

'Acting creates a sort of divine anxiety that I find thrilling and which I seem to feed off and embrace fully; but it is still anxiety.'

He rejects the idea that taking the part in sex, lies and videotape was a gamble, even though some Hollywood agents refused to send the script to their clients, beause of its subject matter. 'It was a great piece of material, with an honesty and dishonesty that were both provocative. I am not going to do a film just because I think it is going to be a huge success. What is important to me is whether I can get something out of a part. Whether I have gathered something from it is decided long before the film makes it to the cinemas. Everything else is dessert.'

sex, lies and videotape (18), opens at several central London cinemas on Friday.

© CHRIS GOODWIN for The Times, 09/04/89 (Thank you, Susan)