'Yuppie' villain becomes a movie star in 'sex' hit

NEW YORK Relaxing in his elegant home across Fifth Avenue from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, with his wife overseeing their infant son in an adjoining room, movie actor James Spader talked about yuppies, typecasting and his current hit, "sex, lies and videotape."

Although it concerns the relationships among four 30-ish Americans, "sex, lies, and videotape" has the aura of a European film. That was emphasized when it nosed out Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" to win the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Spader won as best actor.

It all came as a surprise to the 29-year-old performer. He began his career eight years ago, playing Brooke Shields' older brother in "Endless Love." He went on to play major supporting roles in "Mannequin," "Baby Boom," "Pretty in Pink," "Less Than Zero" and "Wall Street."

"There were rumblings at Cannes that we were getting a relatively favorable response," Spader recalled. "But as we were at the beginning of the festival, there were so many competing films to come. I just kept my mouth shut. I wasn't going to tempt fate.

"I thought Spike Lee's film was such a beautiful piece of work - stylistically and in the performances. I loved it at so many levels. I think
it deserved every kind of accolade. But how can you ever compare any two films?

"Style and quality are present in the U.S., but it's more difficult to get such films made here than abroad. There's vast creativity in this country, but there are also machines efficient at suppressing it. So it was a supreme pleasure beating the machine with `sex.'

"I find the film undeniably American. It has an immaturity about it that's inherently American. There's a wisdom to European films that comes from time and age and a well-exercised culture.

"I don't think that's the wisdom of American films, which at best show a childlike curiosity about life. Maybe it's that the U.S. hasn't learned from its mistakes yet."

Spader measured his words carefully. The son of New England academics, he left his prep school, the Phillips Academy in Massachusetts in his junior year. He never returned to formal education.

"They were very kind to me at Phillips," he said. "They accepted me when no one else would, perhaps as a professional courtesy to my parents. I just didn't have much inclination for the classroom. I was what report cards used to call `disruptive.' And I've tried to carry that through in my professional life."

Because he is so smooth-mannered, handsome and elegant, Spader often has found himself playing yuppies or worse in his movie roles.

"I don't judge any character I play," he said. "I didn't have any different feeling about Graham in `sex' than anyone else I've played. You have to embrace the soul of the man you're playing. You have to accept his values as not only valid but reasonable, really. Otherwise you can't play him with any conviction, which is the most important element.

"I have played characters who knew they were stepping into the mire and knew that for what it was. Like in `Less Than Zero' and `Pretty in Pink' - both were all the more dangerous because they enjoyed themselves so much and felt so compatible with their sins. Rip in `Zero' comes across quite black.

"But it never ceases to surprise me, playing a string of bad guys, that I'm supposed to want to get away from the Land of the Bad Guy. In fact, they brought me a great deal of pleasure - it's not some sort of banishment."

Spader defended the characters he plays by questioning the whole concept of yuppiedom.

"I find `yuppie' a very derogatory term, and very unspecific and nebulous," he said. "It's overused for just these reasons. The word offends me. I don't know what it's meant to mean, and it's not a suitable tag for what it's meant to mean. I'm not sure who yuppies are, and I get defensive about it. Every person I know is relatively young, lives in a city and endeavors to be a professional, yet I wouldn't call one of them a yuppie.

"If you look at some of the pictures I've been lucky enough to make as relatively contemporary and pertinent to the times, my job has been to
present the flavors and rancid aromas of our time. It's just strange to have 10 years of one's work categorized in one way."

© Richard Freedman, 2 October 1989, Chicago Sun-Timese (Thank you, Susan!)