Spader plays characters audience loves to hate

Is James Spader a jerk, or does he just seem that way?

He certainly has a feel for heels, as evidenced by recent roles.

In "Baby Boom,'' Spader was a Madison Avenue cutthroat who stole Diane Keaton's job. In "Wall Street,'' he did dirty deals with Charlie Sheen. In "Mannequin'' and "Pretty in Pink,'' he threw a wrench into Andrew McCarthy's love life. And in "Less Than Zero'' he dealt drugs to LA's rich kids, sending one to an early grave. Is there a pattern here?

"Not really,'' Spader insisted in a recent interview. "Those were simply the roles I was most interested in for those pictures.'' That interest
stemmed from Spader's love of parts given to "character actors'' - dirty, low-down, supporting roles that often have more nuances than heroic ones.

"A lot of leading roles today are everyman characters,'' Spader said, "but I like more definition and conviction than that. To some people that means playing `character' roles, but they're all the same to me - they're just roles.'' Nonetheless, Spader has almost single-handedly created a new character type for the '80s - "yuppie sleaze.''

In film after film, he's been soft-spoken, clean-cut and well-tailored - but also grasping, amoral and heartless. He loves himself; you hate him. That image may change, though, with Spader's latest movie. In "Jack's Back'' he plays a sympathetic role - two, in fact.

It's a mystery-thriller set in Los Angeles, where a killer re-creates the crimes of Jack the Ripper with historical and anatomical precision. Spader plays twin brothers who are either suspects or saviors, which is part of the mystery.

It's Spader's first top-billed work, a status he has resisted in order to explore colorful cads.

Stardom, in fact, doesn't seem to interest him much, though his role model is among the biggest of stars - Humphrey Bogart.

"Bogart made an entire career of playing leads in films,'' Spader said, "but the leads were all wonderfully curious and peculiar characters.
Nowadays I think you'd see those characters in supporting parts rather than carrying a picture.''

In "Jack's Back,'' it's Spader who must "carry the picture.'' That responsibility doesn't bother him, "except that if nobody likes the movie,
I get blasted.'' If so, he can at least find some solace in his personal life, which has changed and grown considerably in recent months. "I was busy as hell up until "Jack's Back'' finished last September,'' Spader said. "Then I got married. (His wife, Victoria, works in the art department on films.).
"We rented a house in LA and got ourselves a dog - a blue-tick 'coon hound. Then I wanted to take some time off to putter and read and raise my dog. "So I puttered and read and raised my dog right into a writers' strike,'' Spader said, laughing. "Now I'm ready to work and they're not ready for me.'' Actually, he still gets "a lot of scripts'' but won't settle for anything. Besides his yuppie-sleaze image, Spader fits another type - the Committed Young Actor.

"Acting started out as a hobby for me, and I feel very, very lucky to be able to have turned my hobby into my life,'' he said. "But because it was my hobby there's a certain sacredness to it. The acting bug bit Spader in his teens. He grew up in Boston suburbs and moved to New York at 17 to study acting onstage. At 28, he's committed to movies ("I've fallen in love with this medium''), but he might return to stage work if the writers' strike drags on. For now, he's unemployed - staying home, kicking back, reading scripts and raising his hound dog.

He is also "hungry to hit the road again.'' Acting may have turned from a hobby to a profession, but Spader has another avocation - cross-country driving. "I used to go out about every six months and just drive,'' he said. Texas? Yes. Houston? No. The vehicle? A 1969 Porsche.

There's another thing that drives him - drives him crazy. "Some people won't watch themselves on screen, but I do,'' Spader said. "And when I see myself in a movie I learn what to do and what not do the next time. "Sometimes it makes me feel better, but often it feeds my anxiety and drives me crazy. I agonize over it as much as humanly possible. It shows me I've got a long way to go as an actor - a lifetime to go.''

© BRUCE WESTBROOK, 27 May 1988, Houston Chronicle (Thank you, Susan!)