Spader prefers the extremes

TORONTO - James Spader's handlers have asked that any piece about Mr. Spader not include biographical material about the actor.

Mr. Spader does not want to read a story about how he dropped out of school at 17 to move to New York in the hopes of becoming an actor.

Fair enough. Nobody really cares about that stuff anyway. Where Spader is concerned, the first question has nothing to do with his family history -- but what he's been doing for the past decade.

Sure, he's been acting up a storm in such little-seen -- and some rather watchable -- reels as The Watcher, Curtain Call, Critical Care and 2 Days in the Valley. But, really, where has he been? After Sex, Lies and Videotape finally peeled him away from the Pretty In Pink teeny-bopper casting calls, Spader was poised on the verge of superstardom.

Critics called him everything from the next Cary Grant to the heir apparent to Jack Nicholson's throne of creepiness. A few standout roles in movies such as Crash, Wolf and Stargate kept Spader in the Hollywood Rolodex, but now that he's getting big time attention for his latest role as an uptight, sexually repressed psychiatrist in the Sundance winner Secretary, Spader's recent absence from the A-list comes into stark focus.

On this day in the midst of the Toronto International Film Festival, however, Spader feels a little "fuzzy" -- and has no desire to field questions about his recent whereabouts.

He has been working, after all. He's also in a highly touted film that picked up hardware at Sundance. So why focus on the past, when Spader is clearly in the moment.

"You know, to be honest, this whole [festival] thing leaves me feeling a little lost. But, here we are. I'm happy to talk about the movie," he says, almost visibly girding himself for the interrogation to come.

"It's nice to fall in love on film. I mean it, because as an actor, you're always seeking out roles that will take you to extremes. I mean, if you're going to play make-believe, why not play make-believe in extreme situations?" he says.

"The more extreme it is, the more it pulls you out of your pedestrian life. I always think it's more fun to do something fantastic than something highly

Falling in love could be seen as something incredibly ordinary -- little more than a reason to buy Hallmark greeting cards on Valentine's Day, a high-minded spiritual fantasy to justify physiological lust.

But not to Spader.

"I'm a very romantic person and I think we've been taught to believe that love is something ordinary -- that everyone can find it, but I think real love is the rarest thing in the world. I have fallen in love, and I'm lucky for it," says Spader, looking somewhat more earnest behind his designer specs.

One imagines Spader is talking about his long-term relationship with his wife, the mother of his two children, Victoria Kheel -- but he doesn't go out of his way to expound on the revelation and after the early warning about personal questions, I don't ask.

Besides, he's on a bit of a roll with the love stuff.

"I think in life, people have this confusion about love. We all want to fall in love so badly that we are almost willing to lie to ourselves, to force ourselves into believing that we are in love when we aren't. It's too bad, because in so doing, we cheapen it. I don't think we recognize the depth of the emotion at all. It's entirely transformative, and we -- like you say -- think of it as a blurb on a Hallmark card."

One could argue that all human emotion is within our control. Behavioural therapists insist we can stop ourselves from feeling powerless in the face of addictions -- that with enough discipline and training, we can control our response.

Spader couldn't disagree more -- when it comes to love, at any rate.

"When you're in love, you can't control it. It's when you can't take charge of what you feel, when you are completely powerless in the face of the emotion. When it happens, it happens in spite of you."

All this talk of love has been prompted by Spader's role in Secretary -- the part of a kooky shrink who moves through the steno pool with serial sexaholic aplomb, pulling each one into a creepy S&M game of lust and suppression. When he feels too much for his latest conquest, the good doctor tries to reform himself -- with mixed results.

It's an interesting role, and one that Spader sunk his bicuspids into because the more extreme the role, the more it pushes an actor toward self-knowledge -- at least that's the theory. Spader says he's finally grown to accept the idea that life is an never-ending series of surprises.

"I'm 42, and I have no idea who I am. At one point, I thought I knew who I was. But it really just stretches into delusion -- and you realize it's all bulls--t and you just have to give yourself a break. Fortunately, I've learned not to put a great deal of pressure on myself, so I don't really think about it anymore," he says.

"I think I spend an awful lot of time simply trying to make it from the bedroom, to the bathroom, to the dining room in a single day that I don't really have time to think of the other big questions," he says, wiping his eyes.

"I still do think of them. I do, and acting is a great way of taking you to another place. It's a way of being transported to a world that you're not familiar with. I also love to travel, and that's one of the things you can do with a job as an actor. I'm also fairly selfish when it comes to doing things that feed my curiosity."

A great day, as far as Spader is concerned, would consist of seeing friends -- and staying in bed. "I'm just a bit obsessive compulsive ... and a bit angsty," he says. "But anything you can do in bed, I enjoy immensely," he says.

© The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia, Canada), September 20, 2002 Friday Final Edition (Thank you, Susan!)