Odd Man Out

He only works when he runs out of cash, he won't shoot big movies because that would mean doing interviews, and he alienates his fans by always choosing provocative roles. So how come James Spader still thrives in Hollywood, asks James Mottram

I HAVE just asked James Spader whether he understands what it means to be obsessive-compulsive. It's a leading question, of course. Not only does the character he plays in his latest film, Secretary - a deliciously urbane lawyer named E Edward Grey - display such tendencies, but so does Spader. After a substantial pause, he replies, "Sure... yeah." After all, this is the man who plans the music that will accompany his infamous road trips the way some would plan a battle campaign. He used to take an aluminium briefcase filled with more than 100 cassettes, each specifically targeted to the region he was driving through.

This is also the man who, when he first met his wife Victoria, spent the initial three weeks of their courtship following an unusual routine. At the
time he was taking a break from acting to teach yoga in Manhattan, and each night he'd walk with Victoria to the corner shop, buy food, return to her apartment, cook dinner, clean up, say goodnight and leave. "I don't know what this is, exactly, but I do know my agent once gave me a book on how to deal with obsessive-compulsive behaviour," Spader said at the time. And in his 20s, he used to collect knives and whips. So under the cool, calm, collected exterior, Spader is, as his old friend and fellow actor Eric Stoltz puts it, "a tad eccentric".

Not that you'd know it instantly. His dress is neat and preppy, his manners nothing less than gracious. He's been described as looking like a former head boy or a student trying to find his way back to college after a May ball. He was even compared to The Beano's Walter, Prince of Softies, sworn enemy of Dennis the Menace. With his straw-blond hair and spectacles, it's easy to see why Spader has spent a large chunk of his career portraying blue-blood Ivy League types.

His body language, however, speaks of control. I push the point, asking him what, specifically, he understands about obsessive-compulsive behaviour. "Oh, for God's sake!" he says, breaking into fits of laughter. "What? Ninety-eight per cent of the Screen Actors' Guild members are unemployed. The success rate for actors is, like, one in how many? Obsessive-compulsive behaviour will get you work!"

By now he has a wide grin on his handsome face. "Obsessive-compulsive behaviour is very handy to get done what needs to get done sometimes. Until it decisively gets in your way. It's a constant balance, I guess. It's easy to sit here and make light of it, but it can also paralyse you. Obsessive-compulsive behaviour is something I think anybody can have an understanding for."

Spader's career really began in 1981, when he played Brooke Shields's brother in Endless Love. Since then, his appearances on the big screen have been somewhat erratic, and he has often gone years between films. But it's not lethargy that keeps him at home with Victoria, his wife of 15 years, and their sons, Elijah and Sebastian, aged 13 and 10. Spader is simply one of those brave souls who dares to buck the Hollywood system.

In Tinseltown terms, he lives hand-to-mouth. "My life outside of films is just as important as my life in them - if not more so. Then there comes a time when one has to work to pay the bills. Then there are also times when one can pay the bills and do other things that do not include making films." That'll explain the yoga teaching, then.

He has a roving curiosity about what life has to offer. In his time, he has learned to play saxophone and piano. He likes sailing, riding horses and
driving. He really loves to drive.

"I'd go for long periods where I'd do other things, then when it got time for me to make another film, I wouldn't be able to find anything," he
explains. Yet unlike many of his peers, he feels no need to chase the 20 million pay-cheque, especially if the trade-off is devoting all his days and nights to publicity tours and photo shoots.

A child of the 1960s - he's 43 now - Spader retains something of the hippie mentality, which seems at war with his proto-yuppie public persona. He has dropped acid in his time and his stereo was designed by two druggies from Canada, who left out the bass and treble so that the machine would play music as they claim it was intended to sound. And nothing expresses his essence better than the Porsche he used to drive, which was decorated with Grateful Dead stickers. As he often does, Spader has long since given it away to a friend.

While he lives in Los Angeles for most of the year, his agent knows never to send him a script that shoots over the summer, because the whole family annually relocates for two months to the East Coast. There, they stay in a Massachusetts home overlooking Buzzard's Bay, in a house that used to belong to Spader's grandfather. Their next-door neighbours are Spader's folks. He says he only accepted a role in 1991's True Colours to earn the money to pay for it.

Does Spader ever go out? Is my image of him as a reclusive family man who actively shuns the LA party circuit a bit unfair? "No, I just don't go to those places. I just don't. I'm just not? yeah, I don't go to those things very much." He's almost choking on the words.

"I just don't often get to see a lot of my friends in person. I have several very, very close friends, friends I've had for a long, long time. I'm very
close to my family and my mother and my sisters. And I've got friends in a lot of different places, so I don't see a lot of them. So some of my
friendships are ones I'm forced to maintain on the telephone."

DESPITE all this on-off activity, Spader has managed to sustain his career and his reputation. "I just keep on doing it," he shrugs, attributing his
longevity to perseverance. "Certainly, there have been strands of my life where what I was doing wasn't being seen very much," he admits.

Indeed, the period just prior to filming Secretary was one such dry spell. He made The Watcher, about a serial killer, and a disastrous sci-fi movie called Supernova, both of which sank in the UK with barely a trace. But many other films never made it this far. "It makes it a lot easier to find work when your films come out and are successful," he says. "There's no question about that. But I just don't choose my films based on the audience. I don't do that."

Among the dross he's obviously taken to pay the bills, Spader has also found quirky roles seemingly tailor-made for him. Aside from Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape, which won him a Best Actor award at Cannes for playing an impotent voyeur, he is remembered mainly for Crash, David Cronenberg's adaptation of JG Ballard's controversial novel about auto-eroticism.

Playing the author's namesake, James Ballard, Spader landed in the middle of a media furore when the film opened. The film was publicly disowned by media mogul Ted Turner, owner of the film's distributor. At the time, Spader did more press to support the film than he's done before or since. Did he never think that playing a man who finds sexual excitement in car-crashes could damage his career? "Nah. I didn't give a shit about that," he answers bluntly. "I couldn't have cared less about that. It never even crossed my mind."

In his younger days, he portrayed any number of white-collar creeps, most notably the poisonous lawyer in Wall Street and the insidious drug-dealer in Less Than Zero, two works that characterised the decade of greed and excess. With his Aryan good looks, Spader would have made a good Patrick Bateman. But while Hollywood was content to see him playing the self-serving advertising executive in Baby Boom and the sniffy store manager in Mannequin, he began hunting for more extreme material. After Sex, Lies and Videotape came 1990's White Palace, an insightful love story that is mostly remembered for the scene where Spader wakes up to find Susan Sarandon with her face in his groin. He went on to work with Sarandon's domestic partner, Tim Robbins, on his directorial debut Bob Roberts, and was both unrecognisable and outstanding as card-sharp Jack Pozzi in Philip Haas's adaptation of the Paul Auster novel, The Music of Chance.

Blockbusters such as Stargate and Wolf paid his way, but by the time Crash arrived, Spader had firmly cemented his reputation as an actor with a taste for the exotic, if not the erotic. Such material, he says, "keeps me interested. To be honest, I don't really care much. I want people to
appreciate the work I do, but I don't really choose projects with them in mind. I choose films for my own interests and selfish curiosity. To keep me interested, I search for a certain provocation, I guess."

If, as one critic noted, his career has been "suits and sex", Secretary must be the ultimate James Spader movie. Directed by Steve Shainberg and based on a short story from Mary Gaitskill's collection Bad Behaviour, it's the story of Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young woman prone to self-mutilation who has recently been released from a mental institution. When the mysterious Mr Grey hires her, they begin a relationship that quickly shifts from professional to personal - specifically S&M.

As the film opens, we glimpse Lee in a flash-forward, crawling around the office with her hands tied to a steel bar resting behind her neck,
performing a variety of mundane tasks. It is a shocking image, one that speaks about the way sex, power and eroticism intertwine. Later Grey asks Lee to "assume the position" - to bend over his desk so he can spank her with all the strength he can muster. A warped substitute for a first kiss, it's agreed, yet fundamentally Secretary is not an exploitation-flick played for giggles, but a tender romance between two damaged souls.

Spader feels the film's success comes from its compassion, from not allowing these scenes "to be the punch-line. There's a great precedence for S&M in films to be the brunt of the joke. It shouldn't be high-minded. We shouldn't look upon it with bemusement. It's about two people who are hurling themselves into it because they don't have any other choice. There's real conviction on the part of the characters - obviously, as their lives are lived out in this. You can run into terrible trouble if you allow yourself to be at all objective about a scene like that. If you're going to hit, hit hard. If you're going to come, come well. If it's going to be heartfelt, have it come from the heart."

Spader originally passed on the film without reading the script because it had no financial backing. The project reappeared when an agent suggested it was "right up Spader's alley". By this, says the actor, he probably meant "that it was sexually provocative material and that it was funny, but not without a dark complexity. Just different things that might pique my interest."

Did he come to understand the psychology of an S&M relationship? "That's a very hard question. Obviously, it was something I was putting my head into, leading up to and during the shoot. I'm not involved in an S&M relationship, so there are certain qualities I wouldn't be able to fathom. To have an understanding for it, and how it relates to my own sexuality? yeah, I can see that. Listen, if someone came to me before I'd ever read this script and asked, 'Can you understand the relationship between eroticism and pain?' The answer is absolutely, I can."

If you looked for clues in Spader's upbringing about where his curiosity comes from, you'd draw a blank. By all accounts his childhood was happy and well adjusted. The youngest of three, he grew up in Cape Cod, where his parents were teachers. During the long hot summers the family would travel across Europe in a VW van, undoubtedly fostering his love for the open road.

At school, Spader found some success in the drama class but was a failure academically. "I was terrible in the classroom," he says, "a high-school drop-out. I was very interested in learning, I just didn't like the structure of the curriculum." He left high school to study acting at the
Michael Chekhov studio in New York.

He describes himself as a quiet rebel as a teenager. "It was a pleasant rebellion - I got along well with adults and I got along with my parents
fine. I maintained a sense of humour and didn't just become angry and solemn. But I just ignored authority of all kinds." He hasn't entirely grown
out of this. "I'm not the best with authority. You know when I'm best with authority? When they make it clear we're on a level playing field, and it's an agreement."

Spader was working as a janitor for a Times Square rehearsal studio when his boss slipped his photograph into a pile of pictures waiting on a casting agent's desk. It won him a walk-on role and he never looked back. Still, he sounds unsure about whether he'd like his own children to follow in his professional footsteps. "An acting career is not something I would advocate, but it depends on where their interest lay. I'm very aware of its attributes and frustrations as a profession, so I can certainly speak eloquently to them about that. But I haven't seen any such interest in them."

He may not be the best to chat to, though, in terms of how to charm the Hollywood suits. Not exactly a team-player, he talks about Alien Hunter, a science-fiction film he made two years ago that has still to be released. "I've given my best effort to persuade them to change the name, but they have decided there is value in bad taste, I guess," he says.

While Secretary reminds us that James Spader is a risk-taker in an industry dominated by cowards, he says it's not by design. "I've been a completely ineffectual planner," he concludes. "I've never had any sense of an objective view of my own career." For a man with an obsessive-compulsive streak, this is a very laid-back thing to say.

© James Mottram for 2003 Scotsman Publications Ltd.
Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), May 11, 2003 p20
(Thank you, Susan)