James Spader - Life beyond the brat pack

He was the hip blond rebel who elbowed his way into such classic Eighties teen movies as 'Pretty in Pink'; now James Spader is finding satisfaction in decidedly more grown-up roles. By Lesley O'Toole
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The Independent Culture

Will you keep doing that?" purrs James Spader, not mock-seductively, just plain seductively, in a Beverly Hills hotel room. "Maybe you could keep doing it all the way home in the car?" It seems an apposite request given that Spader's name is synonymous with sex – on film anyway. He won the Best Actor award at Cannes in 1989 for Steven Soderbergh's first film Sex, Lies and Videotape, had immensely graphic sex with Susan Sarandon in White Palace a year later, and won no awards but controversy aplenty as the creep in Crash (the 1996 version) who got off on car accidents and practically copulated with Rosanna Arquette's gaping crash-caused leg wound. For good measure he even made a film called Speaking of Sex. By the time he played sadomasochistic boss Mr Grey in 2002's Secretary, which involved copious spanking of his secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal), no one with an iota of interest in film was remotely surprised.

And yet months before he turns 50, fresh off a five-year, three Emmy-winning run on TV (in David E Kelley's The Practice and Boston Legal), nothing about James Spader is what one might expect. That opening comment was directed not to me, but to the makeup artist removing his TV makeup with baby wipes. And we are meeting to discuss Spader's first big-screen role in six years, in director Robert Rodriguez's Shorts. Shorts is a children's film for heaven's sake, one he presumably made for his almost one-year-old son (with girlfriend, the actress Leslie Stefanson) to enjoy later. "Not really. I did it just for fun. I hate to be selfish but I have never taken any of the films I've done for the sake of someone else. I realise I've said yes in my career most often to things that took me completely by surprise. If something comes to me and is completely different from anything I could have imagined, nine times out of 10 I will do it. And that doesn't mean I would necessarily have been interested in seeing those films if I hadn't been in them."

In Shorts, Spader is company CEO Mr Black whose Black Box gadget (PDA, toaster, baby monitor) is the ultimate multitasking gizmo. Predictably, this is no anodyne role in a juvenile paint-by-numbers outing. The man behind the immensely successful Spy Kids film franchise, also relished by many a discerning parent, Rodriguez is a rebel who has made his discomfort with corporate American film studios' stranglehold on cinema loudly felt. Spader evidently sensed a kindred spirit and when Rodriguez promised to have him in and out of Austin in less than a week, the deal was done. "It was quick and crazy," laughs Spader, who jokingly calls his own aversion to technology "some sort of deficiency". To demonstrate, he shows me his battered-looking Razr cellphone, not even equipped for email because he doesn't use it. "I have no computer, no electronics in my life. I have this broken phone. It rings, I'll flip it open and the act of doing that shuts the phone off. " He doesn't seem to mind, but says that his two older sons (16 and 20, with his ex-wife Victoria) do. "They're in a constant state of shaking their heads in dismay and probably embarrassment."

For years, Spader professed a desire to stay home with his family and work only sporadically. "I didn't think the TV show through. I was just working all the time. Far too much to lead a very healthy life. I just don't think acting that much in a year is good for you." He also talked without apology of taking film jobs for the money. "I wasn't being flippant. Most of the films I've made were because I'd run out of money. But I'd still be looking for the best film I could find at that time."

The unhealthy-looking evidence sits before me in a suit and his trademark black-rimmed glasses (he has appalling eyesight and doesn't do well with contacts). He bears little resemblance to the handsome, dangerous blond interloper from films like Pretty in Pink, his John Hughes-scripted 1986 breakthrough, Bad Influence (opposite Rob Lowe) and Less Than Zero with Robert Downey Jr. It's unclear whether he dyed his hair then or now, but these days it is dark brown and he is much heavier.

His qualms about attaining one of life's least welcome benchmarks are not career- or even family-related. "My concerns about turning 50 are about not being in as good shape as I'd like to be. I really got out of shape while working on the TV show; it was impossible to try and exercise to the degree I need to. Being out of shape is not acceptable when I see the amount of people in their 50s dying of heart attacks."

He is alluding, of course, to Hughes, who died of a heart attack at 59 two days before our meeting. Strangely, Spader reunites with his Pretty in Pink co-star Jon Cryer in Shorts. Does he remember their memorable scene? "Don't we get in a shoving match? And do I say something terrible?" More of a fight, and yes. Spader says he has not seen the film since he made it, half his life ago when he was 25 playing an insufferably sardonic teenager.

Have his older children seen Pretty in Pink, one of their father's few films suitable for perhaps even pre-teen consumption? "Probably not. I don't know. I'm not sure Pretty in Pink is very interesting to boys." As surprising as this sounds, there is – or was – a bigger, conscientious plan at work here on Spader's part in keeping his work life distinct from his home one. "I always tried not to have my career be too much of a burden to my children, but looking back, I think that was a mistake. In retrospect I could have incorporated the kids a little more in terms of what it is I do. I've known a fair amount of kids who've grown up in a household with family members who are public figures of some sort and seen how dangerous that can be. Sometimes their parents' lives can seem bigger than life, when of course you're not bigger than life, no one is. You are who you are."

His boys show no signs as yet of wanting to act professionally. "My younger son has done plays at school and he was great and my eldest came to intern on the TV show. I will present them with limitless options but acting has to be right for you."

There was nothing in Spader's upbringing that suggested the birth of an unusual star. He was born in Boston to teacher parents and attended the exclusive East Coast schools where they taught. While both his sisters became teachers, Spader's early predilection for putting on plays and entertaining his family suggested he was unlikely to follow in the family business. He moved to New York and performed an untraditional roster of penniless actor jobs – yoga instructor, manure shoveller, railroad-loader. He knew nothing about yoga, but at 19 met Victoria, an actual yoga instructor, at the gym where they both taught. They finally married almost a decade later.

So does he have the right temperament for acting? "I don't even know what the right temperament is and I'm not sure I have it."

'Shorts' opens on 21 August

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