LOS ANGELES -- Does James Spader have the concession on yuppie villains? In Pretty in Pink, he played the rich layabout who tried to separate Andrew McCarthy from Molly Ringwald. In Mannequin, he was an oily, unctuous department-store functionary. And in Baby Boom, he's the slimy account executive who takes over his former mentor's business.

Now, in the just-released Less Than Zero, based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel about depravity among rich Beverly Hills teen-agers, Spader steals the film with his performance as a suave but scary drug dealer. The 27-year-old actor may look like a leading man, but he's making his mark as a creepy character performer.

"There comes a certain relish, a pickle relish, with playing the extremes,' said Spader, during an interview in his publicist's Beverly Hills office. "I
enjoy that, and I guess if you enjoy it, other people enjoy watching it. I'm attracted to roles that are strange, offbeat, curious, that are strange and eccentric.

"I like to be cast against type, and I like directors who cast me against type. I like roles that are confusing to me, that have a lot of questions, questions which take the whole shoot to answer.'

As Rip, the drug dealer and pimp in Less Than Zero who becomes involved with Julian, the junkie played by Robert Downey Jr., Spader had to answer the question of how to play a lowlife who is also presentable enough to operate in the rarefied world of Beverly Hills night life.

An actor who tends to research his roles thoroughly and then "throw it away just in time, do my damnedest to forget it all,' Spader compiled the nuances of the part from drug dealers he had known, a male hustler he met when he first moved to New York, and a cruise through the L.A. club scene.

"Rip is a few years older than these kids,' said Spader. "He probably came from a family that didn't have as much money, but he hung out in the same clubs; he's known these kids for a long time. He's a member of the service community to the people of Beverly Hills. Someone cleans their pools, someone cooks their dinners, someone sells them their drugs.'

Spader has been so successful playing yuppie slime, and looks so much like a privileged son of the upper class, it's astonishing to find out that his background is altogether different from the roles he has played.

Raised in Massachusetts, the son of educators -- his father taught high-school English, his mother nursery school and kindergarten -- Spader
attended prestigious Phillips Andover Academy before dropping out in his senior year and heading to New York to study acting. Despite the academic orientation of his parents, this decision really didn't cause much trouble at home.

"I had been working at manual labor in different forms since I was 12 or 13,' Spader said. "There was no allowance in my family, both my parents were teachers, and teachers don't make money. So there wasn't a fear that I wouldn't work, make a living.

"Also, your options are so open at that age, when I moved to New York, it was to work, take acting classes and see what happened. There was no pressure in terms of academia. I always read a lot, and I ended up not going to college before anyone noticed. Because I was so vague about it (his plans), my parents never had a chance to get worked up about it.'

Once he got to New York, Spader studied acting, auditioned for parts and worked at an assortment of odd jobs. By 1981 he had earned a small supporting role in the Brooke Shields movie Endless Love, and then a major part in the teen gang movie Tuff Turf. Spader has been earning a living in the business ever since, honing his reputation as an up-and-coming character actor.

"I like being a character performer,' said Spader. "People leave you alone on the set, the powers-that-be are more concerned about what they want from the leading man or leading lady. You're given more freedom that way. When I go see a film, I always watch the character roles. It's usually the short-order cook who's in just one scene that I think is the prize.'

Spader is serious about his commitment to character work and actually acts embarrassed when told that he is good-looking enough to be a leading man. It's not that he minds the compliment, it's that he's already chosen a role model for how he would like his career to proceed.

"Humphrey Bogart was my favorite leading man ever,' said Spader, "and that's a career I admire. When you just look at him as an actor, to me that is the cake and eating it, too. He was able to move between lead roles and character parts, between good guys and bad guys.'

Spader hasn't managed to attract the broad range of roles that would put him in the Bogart category, but despite his reputation as the definitive portrayer of yuppie scum, he insists he is not worried about being typecast. "I've never been worried about typecasting until I started doing publicity,' he said, "and I'm still not worried about it. Being typecast is a confusing, sort of mysterious term. In all of my recent films, the characters have been different ages, from different areas of life.' That typecasting rap may end with the release of Red Rain (a tentative title), in which Spader portrays identical twins who are trying to track down Jack the Ripper. Spader claims the twins are "very different, more moralistic' than the roles for which he is best known.

© Lewis Beale, Los Angeles Daily News, 13 November 1987 (Thank you, Susan!)