Answer the questions: "The first time I saw myself on screen I had to pee"

American actor James Spader, 43, has over 40 films to his credit. Though he's played his fair share of Hollywood leads, he specialises in off-beat, sexually upfront roles, like those in Less Than Zero, Sex, Lies and Videotape, Crash and most recently, the sadomasochistic love story Secretary, just released on DVD.

Why are you attracted to these dark roles?

I guess it is just what I am interested in. I don't know why that is. I just think certain people are interested in certain sorts of things. I am interested in this sort of thing.

Was Secretary something that you just had to do?

I am embarrassed to say that the first time the script arrived, I turned it down right away, because I didn't read it. It was first sent to me six months before they wanted to shoot it and they didn't have any money. I was broke at the time which is often the way with me, so I couldn't afford to commit to a film six months in advance that wasn't going to have much of a budget. About three months later, my agent called and said, "I just can't believe you would pass on this material, it's perfect for you!" I told him about my money problem, and luckily by that time, I had landed another film that I could fit in between that would make it financially possible for me to do Secretary.

Is your character sadistic in order to protect himself emotionally?

No, I think that he's certainly someone who is not experimenting at all. I think this is his life and it's a kind of sexual language for him. I think this is the only way he's been able to function within a relationship.

One must ask, are you familiar with spanking in the bedroom?

That's a little presumptuous, don't you think?

Did you feel uncomfortable shooting it?

No, it's never been uncomfortable for me to do those kinds of scenes. The only thing I find uncomfortable to do in films, are scenes that are approximating my life. Everything that is clearly delineated from my own life, is just fine with me, but as soon as it starts to approximate it in any way, or something that is too close to my own heart, I'm not interested in sharing that. I am not willing to compromise or exploit anything that is really truly dear to me for the sake of a film. I am always surprised when I work with an actor, who is sharing an intimate moment that lives in the deepest part of their heart and soul and they are sharing that with an audience. Sometimes it comes easy to them, but I am always a little amazed by it. I can't do that.

Do you still enjoy acting?

Sometimes I do very much, but other times, no. But that's the way it is with any job.

What did you think the first time you saw yourself on the big screen?

It would have been Endless Love. My feeling probably was that I had to pee. That always happens. I must always be the guy that the director's going: "Oh God, they're walking out." And it's just me going to the bathroom.

What influences you with your film choices?

A whole series of things. There is a matter of timing, and a matter of getting back to work, as I've got to pay my mortgage. I don't mean to sound like I will take the best paying gig there is around, but it means if given the choice, I won't work, but if I have to, I will look for the most interesting and curious piece of material available.

What has been the strangest experience with a fan?

The strangest experience was when I was driving to see a friend, down in Virginia somewhere. I stopped off in this tiny truck cafe, that was just off the side of the highway in this postage-stamp-sized town, to grab a sandwich. It was raining out and I was wearing a raincoat and I hadn't shaved in about a week, and as I am walking towards the door, this woman with her kids just stared at me. She has this look of shock on her face. I walked by her and she said: "I just saw you in a movie last night." I mean, she just looked so startled and really afraid, that somehow her life had turned into a nightmarish event. I found that very strange.

Do you have any passions outside of acting?

Yes, most of mine are outside of acting. If I told you, it wouldn't be so much mine, so I am going to leave it for just me.

Would you like to make films your kids could see?

Yeah, but Disney doesn't call me very often.

Interview by Tiffany Rose

Secretary' is out now on DVD.

© Independent on Sunday (London), January 11, 2004, Sunday (Thank you, Susan!)