Creepy In Spades

As a new attorney on The Practice, James Spader is one slimy character. And if you've seen his previous roles, you know he's had a lot of experience.

It shouldn't come as a shock that James Spader is a weird guy. The actor has built an entire career playing zombified misfits and upper-crust creeps. A quick scan of his reviews tells the story. His characters have been described as "oily," "smarmy," "sleazy:' "callow:' "deviant:' "back- stabbing:' "amoral," "low-rent," "onanistic,” "voyeuristic,” "down-right scary," "merrily twisted" and, oh yes, "yuppie pond scum."

Anybody who saw him in last year's indie film “Secretary” about a spooky lawyer who doles out spankings and kinky punishments to his eager young assistant, would surely think twice before sitting alone in a room with the man.

This summer, Spader decided to join The Practice, just months after creator David E. Kelley fired almost the entire cast. It didn’t matter that Spader had never seen a single episode of the show. He just thought it sounded, as he says, "like a reasonable gamble on an interesting television program.”

Not that he knows a thing about TV. He says he rarely watches it. "I know it's out there, that people watch it, but there's always something I'd rather do first." Spader pauses awkwardly and looks away. He is always pausing awkwardly and looking away. "That's not entirely honest. I do watch television. I love religious shows. There's one with this guy [Dr. Gene Scott] who draws on a blackboard with magic markers, and he's got arrows and circles and things underlined. And it all makes so much sense to him, but I don't have a clue in the world what he's talking about.”

That pretty much sums up what it's like to spend time with Spader. It’s all circles and arrows, and not a whole lot makes sense. For instance, even after decades of being in the public eye, Spader, 43, is still unsure what to do about fame. The actor has appeared in around 40 films - he played Molly Ringwald's preppy nemesis in "Pretty in Pink,” a voyeuristic videographer in Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape" and a crackpot who gets sexually stimulated by car wrecks in David Cronenberg's controversial "Crash." Yet he's never been comfortable in interviews and still bristles whenever he's approached by fans.

"People come up to me and say, ‘What did I see you in recently?' And I'm like, 'How am I supposed to know?' Or else they'll ask me to sign something. But sometimes - they don't often say it - but I get the impression they just want to have sex with me." And is this a good feeling? "It's no different than someone asking me to sign something,” he says, quite seriously, Spader says everything quite seriously. "It's just something that happens. I'm not going to go off and actually have sex with them."

“Jimmy is the embodiment of a J.D. Salinger character,” says Eric Stoltz, who's known Spader since they played Robert Mitchum's sons together in the 1983 TV movie “A Killer in the Family”. Once, on a road trip together in the Florida Keys, Spader fired a BB gun at Stoltz's hotel window- just for fun. "He is eccentric, blameless and in a world unto himself,” Stoltz says. "But Jimmy's most consistent trait is that he's consistently unknowable.”

The good news for fans of The Practice is that Spader's oddball energy might just jump-start the law drama when it needs it the most. After seven seasons, the series has grown past the moral urgency of the early years and become less about struggles with ethical themes and more about blockbuster murder cases. (Season 6 ended with Kelli Williams' defense attorney character shooting a Hannibal Lecter copy- cat.) And with a reported $6.5 million per-episode star-driven price tag, the show had ballooned into one of ABC's most expensive properties. "Our major focus right now is finding balance,” says executive producer Robert Breech. "We're planning to inject more humor and have smaller stories, but we're also looking to take risks. That's one of the main reasons we hired James. He's a risk-taker."

Ah, the risks. With the budget slashed in half and the high-profile stars Lara Flynn Boyle and Dylan McDermott dismissed from court, the series is essentially reinventing itself to stay on the air. In addition to Spader joining the cast, both Sharon Stone and Chris O'Donnell will star in at least three episodes each, and Rhona Mitra from the film "The Life of David Gale" also signs up with the firm as a cocky paralegal.
Spader plays Alan Shore, a corporate lawyer with slippery ethics who's a bit of a square peg around his new colleagues. In other words, it's a role Spader was born to play. "Shore's somebody who definitely walks his own path,” he says. "He utilizes his expertise in law to further his own sense of what is just and what is right, and it isn't necessarily in line with the rules of the court or the justice system.”

Fittingly, Spader's approach to acting isn't necessarily in line with the rules of The Practice. "The curse of being as smart and articulate as James is,” costar Camryn Manheim says, "is that he wants to explore all the avenues and nuances of his characters. But we just don't have time for that. You get a week of rehearsals in movies. We rehearse for 10 minutes and then shoot. The first few episodes this season, we ran three or five hours over every day.”

Spader has always set his own pace. At 17, he dropped out of prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and convinced his parents, who were both teachers, to let him move to New York. He ended up driving a meat truck, cleaning horse stables and teaching yoga. But by 1981, he'd scored his first gig, as Brooke Shields' older brother in "Endless Love”.

With his feathered honey-colored locks and unblemished aristocratic face, Spader slowly evolved into America's favorite preppy sex freak. Yet the father to two young boys insists his legacy doesn't matter much, because audiences have a kind of mass amnesia. "Go into a video store today,” he says, "and the section with the older films is constantly shrinking and being taken over by whatever new films are coming out. The characters we play, the movies we make, they don't hold very long in the public imagination.”

Then again, there's usually a James Spader movie playing on a cable network somewhere. Not that he's all that interested in checking himself out on TV. "I might watch a scene or two if I happen upon something I've made," he says. "But more often than not, I'd probably move on and see if I can find that religious guy scribbling on the blackboard."

© TV GUIDE October 4-10, 2003, Article by David Hochman (Thank you, Anais!)