Days in the Valley' star's versatility gets him plenty of work,
TORONTO _ Over the years, James Spader has played good yuppies and bad yuppies, lawyers and drug dealers, twin brothers and werewolves, sensitive loners and smarmy brats, politicians and galaxy-jaunting scientists.
As an actor, he'll try anything once. And we haven't even mentioned the weird stuff yet.
"I don't scare very easily,'' Spader says. "I'm pretty selfish about my acting. I do it for my own thing. I don't do it to please someone else or to create an image to leave behind. I'm not a big believer in legacies.''
Since his debut as Brooke Shields' overprotective brother in 1981's "Endless Love,'' Spader, 36, has built one of the most unpredictable, diverse bodies of work of any actor of his generation. He's done John Hughes teen comedies and sci-fi epics. He's worked with Oliver Stone and Jack Nicholson. He won the Best Actor prize at Cannes (for 1989's "sex, lies and videotape'') and made love to Susan Sarandon in one of the steamiest sex scenes of her career in "White Palace.''
But the key to Spader's longevity has nothing to do with stardom. Despite his prolific output, Spader is far from a household name: Chances are, you'd walk past him on the street without recognizing him. He continues to get work, lots of it, because no matter how each particular film turns out _ and many of them have not turned out well _ one thing is consistent: The guy delivers solid, stand-up work.
Spader has an enviable, unteachable quality: He's a veritable chameleon, able to blend seamlessly into the mood and vibe of each film. He's equally at home in a ragged, no-budget oddity as he is in a slick, expensive blockbuster. He can play it intimate and cerebral as well as he can play it large and vacuous.
Take "2 Days in the Valley,'' which opened Friday, a sprawling drama that follows the crisscrossing paths of 10 characters in the San Fernando Valley over 48 hours. Spader is the standout of a large ensemble cast, playing a methodical, steelhearted hitman who serves as the catalyst for the film's plot. The movie isn't much, but Spader's arrogant, mannered turn bears watching. His killer takes great joy in inflicting pain and death: The merry glint in his eyes as he pulls the trigger is scarily convincing.The role also is the latest of Spader's gallery of rogues, something else that sets the actor apart: Unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn't want your love.
"I've played a lot of bad guys, so I obviously like doing it,'' a relaxed-looking Spader says between cigarettes in a suite at Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel. "It's a lot of fun: Anything of extremity is fun. A lot of actors who usually play the good guy in films, when they let themselves go and play a real s---, they go `Wow, this is great!''' because it's different.
"But it's not mutually exclusive: You don't only want to do that either. It has to be mixed up with other things.''
That's where the biggest challenge comes in. Most character actors are cast according to what they did last _ which becomes an obstacle when your last few roles have been similar.
It's a subject that Spader, who for a while played nothing but evil yuppies, knows a lot about. When he starts talking about it, he doesn't stop for nearly five minutes.
"There is a seemingly tenacious need to recast actors over and over again in the same sort of roles, and I understand that.'' Spader says. "Directors get typecast too, and costume designers, and production designers. You just have to try to find a way to fight against that. It takes being patient, waiting and saying, `I don't want to do that again, I want to do something different'.
"It's difficult, because sometimes I'll do a film that has a memorable role in it, and for the next six months that's all people want to hire me for.Sometimes I can only wait four months, and if I can't find something that's really different, I'll end up taking something that has a similar tone, because I have to earn a living, too.
"And sometimes you end up having to take a movie for a lot less money than usual so someone will take what they consider to be a risk. You might be sitting there thinking, `Well, it's not a risk. I'm telling you, I know what I'm doing.' But for them it is, because you're not a proven entity. The last thing they saw you playing was some nice, decent, upstanding citizen, and you're telling them you want to play a f---ing thug.
"A lot of actors aren't willing to do that: They either want to keep working a lot, or they don't want to (take a pay cut). I've done that a lot, and sometimes it's frustrating, because on the most superficial level, you're seeing your salary not always go up, but jump all over the place.''
But Spader is willing to do that for the opportunity to do different things. And different certainly describes his next role: He'll appear opposite Holly Hunter in David Cronenberg's "Crash,'' the already controversial adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel about people with fetishes about automobile accidents and body wounds (the film opens in Canada next week and is set for U.S. release in February).
"Crash'' is certainly the strangest, oddest movie Spader has done to date _ and it'll continue the unpredictability that has marked his career. "I was in Dublin when I first spoke to David, and he was in Disney World with his family,'' Spader says. "We were chatting about it, and I said `Boy, David, I'm sent all the odd scripts, and I'm certainly not intimidated by many of them. But this one intimidated me _ intimidating in that it was a very different language to tell a film in, and the issues it dealt with were very provocative _ and I think that's what really excited me about it. How could I turn down that opportunity?''
Away from the screen, Spader's life is everything his movies are not: exceptionally unexceptional. Born in Buzzards Bay, Mass., to a middle-classfamily (his parents were both teachers), Spader moved to New York at 17 to pursue acting. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids, steering clear of the limelight. While not exactly press-shy, he's not eager to play the interview circuit, either.
"I don't put a tremendous amount of stock in celebrity status. People's fame today is not really based on respectable achievement. It's based on a number of things, some of them rather trivial. A lot of it doesn't even have to do with admiration: It's about attention. I don't spend a great deal of time in arenas where that would play a big part, anyway. When I choose to take time off from work, I don't hit the clubs in South Beach. If I'm going to go to Miami, I'm probably going to take my kids to the Everglades or something.
"Besides, I don't think it does a great service to films to pull the curtain aside and see the inner workings of an actor's life. I don't want to know a lot about the people I go see in the movie theaters. I don't want their own personal life to be so indelible in my head that I can't suspend belief and get into who they're playing on the screen. I understand why it's happening: It's not like people don't want it. But I don't know if it's best for the bottom line, and the bottom line is people going to the movies and just enjoying the movies.''
1996, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information
Services. (Thank you, Susan!)