Strewn with all manner of kinks, hang-ups, and fetishes, James Spader’s films add up to a sexual biography of alienated modern man. “Most of the movies I’ve worked on are, for me at least, all about sex,” the actor declares, almost triumphantly. “Sexuality is human nature—it’s everything. It certainly is for me. I’ll cop to that.”
Spader, whose latest film, the sadomasochistic office romance Secretary, opens September 20, began his career with a colorful gallery of Brat Pack reprobates (Less Than Zero, Pretty in Pink) and went on to corner the market on yuppie malfeasance (Wall Street, Wolf). But his signature roles have fearlessly staked out the far corners and sweaty undersides of human carnality. As the impotent voyeur of sex, lies, and videotape (1989), he resourcefully combined a camcorder and a passive-aggressive interview technique into the Viagra-substitute of its day. In Crash (1996), as the eager tyro in a cult of car-collision hedonists, he explored the erogenous potential of head-on smashups and tailgate chases, rearview mirrors and automatic windows, smoking metal and scar tissue. And in Secretary, he’s a stern lawyer who plays hanky-spanky with a revolving door of submissive typists, asserting authority with a stoic stare, a red Sharpie, and when need be, a swift whack on the bottom.
Spader’s E. Edward Grey, Esq., is an eccentric amalgam of minimalist gestures—an opaque, unpredictable, and often hilarious performance that perfectly complements the guileless zeal of his co-star, Maggie Gyllenhaal. The actor’s eternal boy-WASP looks and mellifluous, patrician voice have typecast him somewhat over the years (he’s played lawyers on at least three other occasions). “There’s something stately about James,” says Steven Shainberg, director and co-writer of Secretary. “It’s hard to see him blue-collar.” But Spader’s air of superiority is integral to his hypnotically unnerving screen presence. He engenders discomfort like few actors can, whether cocooned in a force field of intense stillness, or radiating a nervous energy that invariably proves infectious. And so too in real life. He fills the interview tape with torrential verbosity and ponderous dead air, alternating between tart insights and contorted sophistry. Where most actors might as well be reading from multi-purpose cue cards when promoting their movies, Spader actually seems to agonize over even innocuous questions.
His analysis of character psychology is unsurprisingly thorough. On Grey’s inscrutable affect: “He probably perceives himself in an enigmatic way. He lives within that enigma as a protection against his own horror at what his life is. And his work is like a metronome—it provides a steady rhythm that allows him to lead this parallel life. He has this very easy out, too, which is simply: ‘You’re fired.’ I think he’s also a little obsessive-compulsive—he probably reads books on the life of ticks.”
Spader hastens to point out that Secretary (based on a Mary Gaitskill novella) is, at heart, one of the most conventional love stories he’s worked on—perhaps his most romantic movie since the steamy White Palace (where his young widower was summarily devoured by predatory older woman Susan Sarandon). The chemistry between Spader and Gyllenhaal ensures that even within the rough role-play configuration of their relationship, the core of tenderness is never obscured. “Her inability to clothe herself in adornment is just heartbreaking to him,” Spader says. “He cracks under the burden of her gesture. As soon as he throws up a screen, she walks right through it—it becomes smoke. He tries desperately to avert her gaze, but he can’t.”
Discussing Spader’s working method, Shainberg says, “He’s like a piano with 100 keys, and he can say, ‘Do you mean key 67 or key 68?’ He’s able to make subtle distinctions that are, despite their subtlety, very apparent.” Spader’s own explication is, of course, more prolix: “I’ve often tried to intertwine viscera and intellect—to try and surprise the character by having those two things drive him relentlesly, and at the same time, with absolute conviction, be at cross-purposes with one another.”
And yet, for all his Serious Actor Theories, Spader seems to have a bullshit detector trained mercilessly on himself. He’s liable to trail off midsentence and offhandedly proclaim, “Oh, I don’t know what I mean.” At one point, he stops dead in his tracks and basically calls his own bluff: “You realize, of course, that all of this is just guesswork.” With a theatrical, self-deprecating sigh, he elaborates: “It’s amazing how in talking about all this I realize how little I know. So much of the time I spend working on a film is really about just how to get across the room and have it make sense from here to there.”
A proudly domesticated family man who’s never been mistaken for a Hollywood insider, Spader confesses, “I’m rarely thinking or talking about my career. Outside the context of interviews, where you’re unavoidably reminded, I never step back and look at the work.” He admits, “There certainly is not enough out there in the movie industry that interests me.”
What clearly holds his interest are the high-risk, libidinous roles for which he’s so ideally suited. As he sheepishly sums it up: “I guess I see the world through a sort of, you know . . . the sheer curtain of sensuality, maybe. That’s probably why some of my films seem forthright or explicit or provocative. I’m interested in the disturbing compulsions, the curiosities that are going to kill the cat.”
It’s pointed out that he could well be describing James Ballard, his character in Crash. “That was such a fascinating figure to me,” says Spader. “He was voracious—this odd man who seemed gentle and unassuming but had a ravenous curiosity, and was hurling himself headlong down this path in the most oddly reflective sort of way.”
Spader likewise sees himself as an insatiable adventurer. “The work that interests me has got to be foreign enough that I’m curious enough to get at it,” he says. “I tend to not be drawn to things that are familiar. I like to travel, in more ways than one, get a little further from what might feel like home. And sexuality is something you can find your way in, even if it seems utterly foreign at first. If you just try it on, as much as you’re loath to admit it, it might fit. To find something that seems garish and pink—to put it on, and find that it fits, that’s sort of thrilling.” He pauses, slips into one of his silent reveries, then lets out a soft chuckle. “Though red might be a better color than pink.”