Hollywood yuppie cuts loose in 'Wolf'

NEW YORK - In flannel shirt and jeans, horn-rims and an air of intense insouciance, James Spader - filmdom's favorite cerebral, tortured, effete blond yuppie - has almost no memory of what Bryant Gumbel asked him this particular morning on Today except that it did involve Wolf. The Mike Nichols-directed, Jack Nicholson/Michelle Pfeiffer-starring, lycanthropic tribute to midlife metamorphosis features Spader as Stewart Swinton, scum de la scum of the New York book world.

The doublecrossing protege of publishing god Will Randall (Nicholson), Stewart mounts a Machiavellian campaign for his mentor's job, and wife, that's so ruthless it makes Randall's werewolf seem vegetarian. "I've been a louse before," the actor concedes, "but he's taken to an extreme."

It is a departure of sorts for Spader, 34, who has provided the proper note of postmodern mental anguish to such films as sex, lies and videotape, True Colors, Storyville and the recent Dream Lover. As Stewart, he's cultured and erudite, qualities not foreign to Spader's filmography. But his personal beast lies just below the surface.

"I like the role," Spader said over breakfast in the toney Sony Club in Manhattan. "It's in such contrast with Jack's character, who's struggling tremendously with this conflict about sacrificing his humanity for the sake of this beast and this new spirit of life and lust he has.

"Stewart, on the other hand, is longing for the day he can dispense with grace and charm and just get on with devouring." Considering their public personas, one might say Spader and Nicholson have switched roles.

Thirty-odd floors above Madison Avenue, there's a great view of Central Park - where an increasingly hirsute Will Randall does some horrible things to some miserable people - and of a city Wolf portrays as full of bloodthirsty publishers, editors, authors and agents spilling literary blood with patrician abandon.

"Oh, the whole world is full of animals," Spader said. "But it's funny in the publishing world, and I think that's the intention. The reason why - actually, only (screenwriter and novelist) Jim Harrison knows the reason why - but for me the intriguing thing is that it's a world so developed and evolved in its cerebral and intellectual side and its sense of the heights that humans can reach in terms of culture. And then, to have someone who is a grand gentleman in that world be faced with his beast is fascinating. It would be less so if he were in a world that already embraced the animal within him."

Hollywood perhaps? OK, no leading the witness.

Spader actually has split his time between studio features and independent film during his decade or so on the scene, with uncommon results. Although he contributed a memorable smarminess to such big-budget features as Pretty in Pink, Wall Street, Baby Boom and Less Than Zero, it was the independent sex, lies and videotape, Steven Soderbergh's much-honored 1989 film, that made Spader's name.

"Doing Wolf, of course, was certainly not taking a chance," Spader said. "The opportunity to work with the people I was working with, who will do nothing but make it more exciting and easier to do my work, in a wonderful story, playing a delicious character - that's not taking a chance.

"But I don't know what is taking a chance, because I don't have any sense of career choices. I don't know what the hell's good for a career. I don't have a clue. I don't know what dictates success in a film, or failure in terms of people going to see it. And I don't know how any of that translates into one's own facility for reaping the roles one wants to reap. I don't know how all that works. Every project I ever do is always picked quite specifically to that time in my life and that project."

And for specific reasons, he said, such as playing a particular kind of character, or paying his bills. Whatever the reason, or result, it can be said of James Spader that one often comes away from his films unable to imagine anyone else in his role.

"I don't know if that's me or the film," he countered. "I think in a weird way, if you do your job correctly and the film works around you, and the film envelops that character you play in the right way, then it has the appearance that you're just the right actor to play that role. And very often you aren't.

"I can tell you of a remarkable amount of roles I've played in my life where I really wasn't the best choice. Which ones? I don't know. Well, one film, True Colors, was a tremendous struggle for me. I really wasn't the right guy for that. I always laugh when people say to me, `Well you seemed very appropriate for sort of a well-heeled, well-educated sort I' because my education has just been abysmal. I never even graduated from high school. I didn't go to college. Even when I was in school, I was a horrible student."

Given that he grew up on the grounds of a New England prep school and that his parents were educators, Spader's scholarly image carries a certain irony. "I always feel that I'm getting away with murder," he said.

© John Anderson, 01 July 1994, Austin American-Statesman (Thank you, Susan!)