The Least Likely Action Hero / Spader goes mainstream in 'Stargate'

Snooty preppies, back-stabbing yuppies, anguished lovers -- on screen, James Spader's pretty face almost always conceals a touch of moral ambiguity, if not outright decay.

Typecast early on as a handsome, aristocratic bounder, Spader broke away from the pack with his acclaimed 1989 performance as the voyeuristic wanderer in "sex, lies and videotape." Since then, he has played a number of romantic leads, but even in his most sensual roles -- the young, upscale widower who falls for an over-40 fast-food waitress in "White Palace," or the architect whose wife isn't what she seems in "Dream Lover" -- Spader's sex appeal is tempered by darker notes.

He's never starred in a big commercial hit or played a straight-ahead hero, much less the white knight of a science-fiction epic. But there he is, sharing top billing with Kurt Russell in Roland Emmerich's "Stargate" as Egyptologist Daniel Jackson, a scholar who joins a military scouting party sent to investigate a mysterious world at the far end of the galaxy.

Jackson turns out to be not only the brains but also the conscience of the expedition; and he has an oddball sort of romance. And Spader, who, up until now, has appeared mostly in psychological dramas, says he's as surprised as his fans might be to see himself in a big-budget, high-profile film geared toward the youth market.

"It's certainly the first film I've made that I've even seen the possibility that I might be on a lunch box," Spader said wryly, curled up in an armchair in a Los Angeles hotel room. Wearing glasses, a plaid shirt and casual slacks, he's every bit as attractive as he appears on screen but quite a bit more talkative.


"It's never really been in my realm of comprehension, because merchandising doesn't have anything to do with acting. . . . (But) movies of that sort, I just have always thought that they looked like a tremendously fun way to spend a couple of months, the making of something like that. And it was.

"And that's what got me into it, you know -- and with not much thought given to what the film would end up being like: just really an excitement about what it would be like to make."

Spader was particularly fired by Emmerich's commitment to filming as much of "Stargate" as possible on real locations and elaborate sets, including an enormous pyramid, a primitive, tiered village built in the middle of the Arizona desert. Much of "Stargate's" $50 million or so budget can be seen on the screen, both in terms of the production design and special effects.

"It really wasn't, `Stay in front of the blue screen and then we'll fill in everything later,' " Spader said. "A good majority of the stuff you see on
the screen is happening, and there. And we were able to witness and watch it and be part of it. I just didn't think the opportunity was going to come up a tremendous amount in my lifetime."


Spader acknowledges that Jackson is more of a stock hero than he's used to playing, but he doesn't see him as completely uncomplicated or without failings.

"No one's human if they're all anything -- if they're all one thing, no one is a human being, and it's my biggest desire in work to try and make
everyone I play a human being," Spader said.


"With him, he's fortunate enough that very quickly he's transported to a place in this film where he's able to fly and to soar, and it's able to
bring out the best that he has to offer himself and other people. And I think that this character would certainly be perceived very differently if
in three-quarters of the film you saw him trying to deal with everyday life in Los Angeles, because that is not his arena.

"He doesn't care about it, he's oblivious to it, he's impatient and restless, he doesn't value a single life tremendously, or even a single
lifetime. He thinks in terms of a different place and a different time, and he thinks in terms of centuries and he thinks in terms of entire cultures and civilizations. And therefore he's not very connected to the people in the world around him in terms of relationships and in terms of understanding or patience for that."

In that regard, Jackson couldn't be more different from Spader, who at 34 is an enthusiastic family man with two children, ages 5 and 2. He spends half his time in Los Angeles, the other half in Massachusetts, near his and his wife's family, at a home on the shore near Cape Cod.

"We all spend a lot of time together doing things that don't have anything to do with the entertainment industry," Spader said.


Spader's enthusiasm about "Stargate" is matched only by his pleasure in looking back at two other, very different, recent films. In "Wolf," he
played Jack Nicholson's two-faced colleague at a New York publishing house, and in last year's "The Music of Chance," he darkened his fair hair for a real change-of-pace role as a professional gambler who persuades an aimless drifter (Mandy Patinkin) to stake him for a prospective score.

"I think it's the only film that I've ever done that I sat in a looping station (doing voice-overs) and thought, `Oh, I don't feel like I'm done
with him yet -- I really would like to just play him for another few weeks.' I wish that had been a longer shoot than it was," Spader said, reflectively.

"I wish, actually, the fun of `Music of Chance' had gone on as long as this ("Stargate") did. This movie was fun for me for most of it, and it went on for four months, which is long for me. I know that there are some people out there that have spent six months on a picture, but it was long for me, by a month and a half."

"Wolf" was also a long shoot, but since Spader played a supporting role his constant presence was not required.

"Those three films have been a wonderful sort of shot in the arm for me," Spader said. "`The making of them really produced the same sort of
invigorating thrill that running around playing pirates did when I was a boy. . . . I feel very lucky to have been able to have three in a row like
that, and I hope it continues."

Hasn't he enjoyed his other films? Spader paused, choosing his words carefully.


"The amount of time that I want to devote out of any given year to making movies is finite, so very often I've found in years past that that time that I've really had to go back to work and felt that I've wanted to, the best thing around at that time hasn't always been something that's been fully satisfying or really held my interest.

"And on these three films -- `Music of Chance' and `Wolf' and `Stargate' -- all three came at times when I wanted to work and I needed to work and I needed to pay some bills and it was time for me to do another movie, and yet by the same token, all three of them were enormously satisfying and fun to work on, and I was able to take for all the right reasons as well as the harder reasons, which are to earn some bread."

Spader added that he's not complaining about the way his career has gone.

"My dreams and what I long for in life is not really wrapped up in work," he said. "But my perspective of my own career is very different from other people's."

"I remember when `sex, lies, and videotape' first came out, people said, `Well, did that change your life?' And I'd been earning my living as an
actor for quite a few years before that and just sort of continued doing that afterwards.

"And so it didn't change dramatically because of that. And I find also that film is like any other job in certain ways, in that it is influenced by
things you have no control over and it goes in cycles and it has slow periods and it has fast periods.

"And I've found that I've been able to keep working through them all, and that's my perspective on it, and leading a full life through the whole
course of it. Whether one film seems to be embraced more than another really doesn't affect my life tremendously."

© YARDENA ARAR, Los Angeles Daily News 31 October 1994 (Thank you, Susan!)