Spader on 'The Practice' of playing contrary

LOS ANGELES - "It never gets weird enough for me."

So says James Spader, in response to a question about the boundaries of Alan Shore's behavior.

Shore is the lawyer whose clever mind, amoral heart, contrary soul and charming smirk are the prime surprise elements on this eighth season of "The Practice."

When David E. Kelley, creator and executive producer of the ABC legal drama, citing cost-cutting needs, fired six major cast members (including Dylan McDermott and Lara Flynn Boyle) prospects were considered dim for this season. But then along came Spader as the ethically challenged Shore, and things turned around.

A return to its original time slot on Sundays at 9 p.m. has helped the Emmy winning show's ratings. "The Practice" is up a healthy 6 percent since last season to 8.9 million total viewers from 8.4 million, and the ratings have grown 18 percent in the adults 18-49 demographic popular with advertisers. Also helping ratings along is the constant viewer buzz about Shore's unusual personal and professional practices.

Spader says when Kelley approached him about joining the series one of the reasons he gave for needing to make changes was that, "It had gotten earnest and he felt a self-righteousness about it that he wanted to upend - so he went ahead and did that I guess.

"He wanted people, not just the other members of the firm and the people who encounter Alan Shore during the course of the storylines, but also the audience, to be conflicted by him," says Spader. "He wanted this character to not be an easy person to live with. He wanted him to be somebody at the same moment that he's compelling he's appalling. He wanted him to be provocative in the real sense of the word in that he wanted him to provoke everything and everyone around him.... He wanted him to be someone who you just weren't sure what you thought of him."

Spader, with a faint murmur of humor always in his voice, is talking over the phone as he drives away from the set after a day's work, heading into Los Angeles rush hour traffic on his way "to pick up one of my sons' backpacks that has all of his school books in it that was left up at school." (Spader and his wife, Victoria, have two sons, Sebastian and Elijah.)

Spader says he accepted Kelley's offer, even though the character was little more than a sketch in the writer's head, because it matched his own concept of what makes for interesting viewing. "I've always liked watching people who are funny when they are not and are not funny when they are, and are bad when they are good and good when they are bad.... its always what I try to sort of do."

Spader is undoubtedly best know as Graham, the sexually seductive, mysterious voyeur in Steven Soderbergh's 1989 movie "Sex, Lies and Videotape," a performance which won him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Now a youthful looking 44, Spader, born in Boston, the son of teachers, laughs that his earliest acting instincts were expressed in "a lot of jumping off of furniture and out of trees wearing sort of capes and holding different implements of destruction." He was about 17 or 18 - "I can't even remember" - when he first got paid to act. The usual quota of odd jobs kept him going through the dry spells, but his yuppie looks earned him supporting roles in several conflicted youth movies until, after the success of "Sex, Lies and Videotape," he caught on as a sort of modern day George Sanders, adept at implying the perverse in an oddly sort of well-mannered way. Other notable films include the generation and class gap love story "White Palace" opposite Susan Sarandon, and the sci-fi thriller "Stargate." On television last year he played protagonist Daniel Ellsberg in FX's docudrama "The Pentagon Papers."

"The Practice" has retained established stars Camryn Manheim, Steve Harris, Michael Badalucco and Jessica Capshaw, who play stalwarts of the independent minded Boston law firm, who have varying degrees of tolerance for the off-kilter Shore. But Spader points out that this season, "I was not the only new thing, there was a lot of newness around... the look of the show is different, the manner in which it's shot is different... the tone of the show has been messed around with a little bit."

British actress Rhona Mitra has also joined the cast as paralegal, Tara Wilson, quite up to matching wits, and possibly more than that, with Shore. Room has also been made in the budget for flashy guest stars like Sharon Stone, who headlined some early episodes.

In a new story arc beginning February 15 with the episode "Going Home," Patrick Dempsey guest stars as Dr. Paul Stewart, Shore's best friend from childhood, who is accused of murdering his mistress. Jill Clayburgh is Stewart's mother, Betty White, a nosey neighbor, and Ed Asner, the judge presiding over Shore's efforts at defense. The second episode, "Pre-Trial Blues," airs February 22. Then there will be a pre-emption February 29 because it's Oscar night, so the concluding episode in the story arc, "Mr. Shore Goes to Town," airs March 7.

The third episode hadn't been completed at the time of Spader's interview, so it was with sincerity that he said of the murder case, "I'm anxious to know who did it. That is not readily apparent. There are lots of possibilities."

With Shore there always are.

© Bridget Byrne, Entertainment News Wire, Feb. 11, 2004 02:40 PM (Thank you, Sulena!)