Spader Speaks

NEW YORK WHEN James Spader came to St. Louis last fall to film ''White Palace,'' a request was made for an interview with him. After several weeks and many follow-up phone calls, Spader agreed to a 10-minute interview, although in setting it up, the publicist for the movie explained that the actor ''detests'' talking about his films while they are being shot. The publicist wasn't kidding. The first question had to do with the chemistry between Spader's character and the one played by actress Susan Sarandon. The plot centers on the unlikely love affair between the two. After considering the question for two of the allotted 10 minutes, Spader answered: ''Chemistry?'' Another 30 seconds went by. ''I didn't do very well in chemistry,'' he said when he spoke again. ''I wasn't much of a science student.'' And that was one of the better James Spader quotes from the interview. Fortunately, Spader is much easier to talk to after he has finished a film. Or at least he has much more to say, which was the case when he talked about ''White Palace'' recently, in a plush hotel suite here overlooking Park Avenue. The movie, based on the book of the same name by St. Louisan Glenn Savan, will open Friday at theaters throughout the country. (It will premiere in St. Louis tonight at a benefit for the homeless). In the movie, Spader plays Max Baron, an affluent Jewish advertising executive on-the-rise, who grew up in west St. Louis County. After two years of celibacy following his wife's death, Max embarks on a love affair with Nora (played by Darandon), a boozy, lustful waitress at the White Palace. She is 16 years his senior. The relationship between Max and Nora begins after she takes him home from a bar and attacks him sexually as he sleeps off his drunkenness. This scene, which is quite graphic but also implies nearly as much sex as the audience actually sees, is probably the main reason the movie got an R rating. At least one other sexually explicit scene, shot outside the Hi-Pointe Theatre, was cut from the final version. Producer Amy Robinson said the scene went because it ''didn't help the flow of the film'' - not because she and the other producers feared a NC-17 rating. What wound up being more a sticking point, at least from Spader's perspective, is the way the film ends. On the basis of audience reaction from preview screenings, the ending was re-shot eight months after filming wrapped up in St. Louis last December. According to Spader, one of the earlier endings included some dialogue that he felt fortified certain feelings Max had for Nora and their relationship. ''I just think when they screened it they felt the extra minute and a half those lines took were just a minute and a half too much,'' said Spader. The current ending is a version of the original one, but with ''an impression of lightness and heart that I know is there for the sake of shoveling people out of the theaters with a little bit of lightness and heart themselves,'' he added. Spader won the part of Max months after Sarandon had been cast and - somewhat ironically - months after he had been rejected for the role. He described his original reading with Sarandon as a ''wash out.'' ''The only thing that made it at all redeemable was the fact that she (Sarandon was 8 1/2 months pregnant and my wife was 8 months pregnant at the time,'' said Spader. ''I left the audition and went home to find a new career.'' What he found instead was success with ''sex, lies, and videotape,'' in which he won the 1989 Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Graham, the sexually blocked voyeur. After the producers of ''White Palace'' and director Luis Mandoki saw the film, they offered Spader the part. Why Spader accepted it remains a bit of a mystery to the actor. Certainly, being featured as Max, his first true leading man role, is different from the supporting roles as yuppie bad guys Spader played in ''Baby Boom'' and ''Mannequin'' and just plain bad guys in ''Jack's Back,'' ''Less Than Zero'' and ''Pretty in Pink.'' Certainly, Max is different from the real-life Spader, 30, whose family has lived in the same small New England town for several generations; who attended Phillips Academy, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country, and who is depicted as a ''hot WASP'' in a cover story in this month's GQ magazine. He was still dressed in regulation preppie attire - gray slacks, button-down shirt with sleeves rolled up, tie shoes and horn-rimmed glasses. But different isn't reason enough for Spader to take a part. He needs more, yet, he had trouble putting his finger on the more in ''White Palace.'' In the final analysis, he said he was attracted to the story and looked forward to falling in love with Sarandon. ''When I had to make the decision of whether to do the film, I really had to base the decision on a story and casting and the director and not really on a screenplay, because the screenplay was in the process of being rewritten from page one,'' said Spader. ''At that point, how the story was going to be presented on the page was guesswork. The idea was that (the new screenplay would infuse more of the qualities that were in the novel than in the original screenplay and that pleased me.'' Ted Tally, an accomplished playwright, wrote the original movie screenplay. It was
re-written by veteran screen writer Alvin Sargent, who won Academy Awards for ''Julia'' and ''Ordinary People. In the case of ''White Palace,'' Spader said, not having a finished screenplay proved dangerous. Cast members found themselves on the first day of rehearsal with only a first draft because Sargent had just been hired. ''There was still a lot of stuff to iron out,'' Spader said. ''We also never had an ending when we shot the film in St. Louis that everyone really believed in.'' Still, Spader is pleased with the movie, although he tempered his enthusiasm with this: ''What I'm most pleased with was the making of the film. I had a wonderful time. It changed how I feel about working and how I feel what working can be, because of Susan Sarandon and Eileen Brennan (who plays Nora's sister, Judy. I would not trade that for anything. ''But I'm not going to fool myself that a great deal of that had to do with the story we were telling. It probably would have been much different if Eileen and Susan and I were making 'Cannonball Run.' We weren't. We were making this film and out of it came something I feel strongly about.'' Since he completed ''White Palace,'' Spader has starred in the Herbert Ross film ''True Colors,'' with John Cusack, which is due out this fall. Currently, he is spending time with his wife, Victoria, and their young son, Sebastian, at their new home in Massachusetts - next door to his parents. Spader doesn't seem worried about not having another project lined up, but he isn't completely laid back about it either. No
question that his performance in ''sex, lies, and videotape'' was a confidence booster and helped re-route his career to the direction of leading man. ''I don't think I would be here talking to you if that wasn't the case,'' he said. Yet he still seems surprised by the film's overwhelming
success. '' 'sex, lies, and videotape' was a film that certain agents weren't even showing their clients,'' he explained. ''My agent called me up
when she first got the script and said, 'Listen, I got this very interesting screenplay and I'm hearing that there are agents who aren't showing the screenplay to their clients because they think it's so strange, which made me think it's just the right thing to show you.' She was right. ''I didn't expect it to have effect it had. I felt the issues in the film were being presented in a very honest and intelligent fashion. But I didn't have any idea if the humor would work and felt if it didn't, we would have a huge, pretentious hippopotamus on our hands.'' Spader is a realist and views acting not only as a craft but also as a job. His humility stops him from presuming that being a ''hot WASP'' this year is anything but fleeting in terms of Hollywood's perceptions. ''You're still desperately trying to find something that you want to do next and knocking your head against the wall,'' he said. ''And you keep wondering how long it's going to take until you run out of money and you have to take something that might not be exactly what you want. ''We don't make that many good films today. To find something you care desperately about and to care desperately about the people you're going to be working with - well those experiences are really few and far between.''

© Ellen Futterman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), October 18, 1990 , (Thank you, Susan!)