Playboy Interview: James Spader

By Stephen Rebello

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Playboy Interview: James Spader: Photography by Lorenzo Agius

Photography by Lorenzo Agius

Count on things to get exponentially more eccentric, intense and even perverse whenever James Spader is on-screen. Pick the role and the vehicle: The velvety-voiced actor, who has appeared in more than 40 films and starred on three popular TV series since 1983, brilliantly injects any scene with a brand of intelligence, menace and playfulness that is uniquely his own. As the sexually dysfunctional creep in director Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape he made such a complex, compelling antihero that he copped the 1989 Cannes Film Festival’s best actor award while still in his 20s. His gift for deep, dark comedy got a brilliant workout when he played a car-crash survivor who becomes aroused by other victims of highway mayhem in Crash in 1996 and again when he played the sexually voracious, S&M-loving boss in 2002’s Secretary. He added a welcome dose of comic rascality to Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Oscar-winning pageant Lincoln, nearly stealing the show as a flamboyantly dressed political operative.

But Spader’s light and dark sides meshed most unforgettably during his one season on TV’s The Practice, followed by five seasons playing the same character on Boston Legal. As a cocky, womanizing, ethically hazy attorney—a role for which he won three Emmys—he jousted epically with co-star William Shatner in one of the greatest relationships in TV history. Since pleading his last case on the series finale in 2008, Spader spent a memorable year as Steve Carell’s snide, toxic replacement on The Office and is now entering his second season as star of the runaway hit The Blacklist, on which he’s insanely scary, hilarious and whip smart as one of the FBI’s most wanted perps now helping the feds pursue a string of impossible-to-find villains. Spader will be seen next year making things tough for Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans and other Marvel merrymakers in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sequel to the third-biggest moneymaker in movie history.

Born James Todd Spader in 1960 to a pair of middle-class Massachusetts private-school teachers, Spader, the only boy and youngest of three siblings, was grabbed early by the urge to act. By his own admission a poor student, he ditched high school to head for Manhattan, where he studied acting while working odd jobs including shoveling horse manure at riding stables and mopping floors. There, he met Victoria Kheel when they were both teaching yoga. They married in 1987. With his petulant-preppy good looks, laser intelligence, breathtaking condescension and air of polymorphous perversity, it’s no wonder he worked early and constantly on television. But during the gaudy apex of young Hollywood’s hard-partying sex-and-drugs scene, Spader dodged a bullet, as chums Robert Downey Jr. and Eric Stoltz might attest, by making a hard right turn out of the fast lane and settling down to raise two sons, Sebastian and Elijah, with his wife. The couple divorced in 2004. Today, Spader and his longtime companion, actress-sculptor Leslie Stefanson, with whom he made Alien Hunter in 2003, divide their time between New York and L.A. with their son, born in 2008.

PLAYBOY sent Stephen Rebello, who last interviewed Samuel L. Jackson, to catch up with Spader near London’s posh Notting Hill, where the actor was staying during several months of filming the next Avengers installment. Says Rebello: “Spader emerged from a rain-spattered limo wearing a topcoat, a long scarf and a fedora pulled down to eyebrow level. He needn’t have told me how difficult, let alone rare, it was for him to sit down, be photographed and talk in depth about his past, present and future. Both of us having survived childhoods in Massachusetts, where reticence and emotion-dodging are art forms, must have helped. His exhaustion after a season of The Blacklist and getting in and out of those tight Lycra performance-capture suits to play the villain in the new Avengers epic might have helped too. He was open, funny, bright, warm and even vulnerable.”


PLAYBOY: You first caught the attention of moviegoers and critics by playing off-kilter, sexually charged dandies and creeps. You’re now entering year two on NBC’s breakout hit The Blacklist as a glib, dangerous, formerly most-wanted criminal who helps the FBI trap diabolical master criminals. Do you ever tire of being cast as reprehensible characters or being described by the press as, for instance, “the strangest man on television”?
SPADER: A recent article called me that, and an NBC publicist who handles The Blacklist didn’t like it at all. I had no problem with it. Funnily enough, my agent, whom I’ve been with for decades and who knows me well, had no problem with it either. I’m a great fan of all things strange, eccentric and idiosyncratic. Things never get strange enough for me.

PLAYBOY: That’s a good thing, because The Blacklist has made people even more curious, not only about your career but also about what some see as your personal eccentricities. There are tales of you being such a perfectionist that you keep the show’s writers on the phone for hours discussing the tiniest details of plot and character, even during vacations and holidays. Other stories claim you avoid seeing crew members eat and avoid socializing with fellow actors off camera. Do you think you’re often cast as odd because of something essential to your nature, something the camera detects about your true self?
SPADER: That’s an interesting question. I think certain qualities serve certain roles. When I started out in movies I seemed older than my years. Because you don’t seem vulnerable, you can play someone who is confident and comfortable in ways actors who look younger can’t. In the right context that can be somewhat startling, so you learn to play with it. I think in some of my earlier work I was sort of hiding, and that’s why I played so many bad guys. I liked being hired to play somebody who was so different from me. If you’re not actually a bad guy, just the fact that you’re comfortable with certain things—such as, say, sexuality—means you can tap into things that others can’t.

PLAYBOY: You tap into all those qualities and more on The Blacklist. Some TV critics have said you are almost the single reason the show has become a success.
SPADER: This has been one of the hardest years in my career—and it’s been wonderful. Starting up a brand-new show is like opening a restaurant. In our case, it’s as if two fellows in an African village decided they wanted to open an Italian restaurant and didn’t know how to make Italian food. But what if they start to figure it out and everyone in the village and even the surrounding villages, God forbid, wants to show up and eat every meal there? That’s what happened to us. A television show is your life. It swallows you whole and chews you up but refuses to spit you out. And on a brand-new television show, the writers don’t know how the fuck to write it yet. The actors don’t know how the fuck to play it yet. The editors don’t know how to edit it yet. Composers don’t know how to compose it yet. The crew doesn’t know how to shoot it yet. I work very hard on the show, and I’m lucky because it’s a wonderful character who’s great fun to play. I work closely with the people I make the show with. It’s a lot of time spent when all of us might rather be spending time with our families or doing something else.

PLAYBOY: Are you happier with how things appear to be going this season?
SPADER: We’re finding our way. I think people will see this season is different because we’re able to play with things that make a better show, like story and character. We’re not building a foundation anymore, which is what we spent last year doing. There are a lot of changes.

PLAYBOY: With those changes, what aspects of your character, the so-called Concierge of Crime, must you protect and defend?
SPADER: The balance of humor and drama and the element of surprise. When viewers respond well to a character, there’s a natural tendency for them to say, “I want to know more. I want to know everything.” But I say, “Well, you can’t. It would ruin the character for you. You just must trust me in terms of that.” That’s hard, because you feel like you’re patronizing, but I believe with all my heart that the best way to ruin this character is to tell too much about who and what he is. Part of that is a mystery. Just when you think you’re getting comfortable, do not get comfortable. Just when you think you have him figured out and you know what the boundaries and safe places are, you’re not safe. It’s never safe. The character is a funny, weird mix of things. He seems like someone who’d be tremendous to spend time with—great fun, compelling and so on—but be careful. I would be.

PLAYBOY: Are you ever a mentor or cheerleader for your less experienced co-stars, such as Megan Boone, who plays a rookie FBI profiler your character is fascinated by?
SPADER: I like working with the people I work with, and I like the writers I talk to. On our last day of filming last spring, I remember trying to thank the crew—the ones who had survived—and I said, “It’s been a hard year. A lot of people have fallen away, but you are the people who stayed with it through tremendous effort, relentless resilience and fortitude. When David Mamet was doing a television drama called “The Unit”, he said making a film is like running a marathon, but making an hour-long TV drama is like running till you die.”

PLAYBOY: What twists can viewers expect this season?
SPADER: The show is this strange amalgamation of a serial and a procedural. But if you watch it every week, if you care to stay with it this season, there’s also a much larger mythology to it. It has become something else. Our final episode last season was successful in that it didn’t say, “Here’s what you’ve seen this past year, and now we’re tying it up for you,” or “Here’s what The Blacklist is going to be next season.” Instead, it was really a door being thrown open pretty hard, and this season we’re charging through that door. By the end of the season, I was tired, tired, tired. Just weeks after we finished, I started working on Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I must say I got rejuvenated. I also found that I missed my Blacklist character a lot.

PLAYBOY: Before we talk about your big debut next year as the supervillain in a huge Marvel Comics movie, among many other topics, were you into movies and comic books as a kid growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s in Andover, Massachusetts?
SPADER: There wasn’t a great deal of extraneous income in our household. I had two older sisters. My parents were teachers, and I grew up on a boarding-school campus, Brooks School in Andover, where my father taught English. My mother taught art at another school. The TVs we had were black-and-white hand-me-downs, and the three or four stations came in only if you were holding one of the antennae yourself, thereby turning yourself into an antenna. The first real movies I saw were through a film club at Brooks. We watched great films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, like The Third Man and Humphrey Bogart movies. Charles Laughton in Hobson’s Choice, Bogart—those were the actors I liked best. I caught up later with all the great movies that were being made in the 1960s and 1970s.

PLAYBOY: What do you most remember about yourself back then?
SPADER: I disrupted class a lot. I was a terrible student. Around the age of 10 I started to make money any way I could—running errands, babysitting, anything. Work, for me, was a necessity, so anything that wasn’t nailed down, I sold. A can of anything in the freezer that you could mix with water I’d put on a table in front of our house and sell. I even did one issue of a campus newspaper, with national headlines like the Kent State shooting, campus news, some sports, local stories and drawings I did. As a kid I’d buy candy, but when I was 16 and 17, I was a pot-smoking hippie. If I wanted to buy pot or needed gas money for my old blue VW bug that was so rusted out you could see right through the floorboards, I worked. But I was undisciplined. I showed up late and wound up mostly talking to whoever was next to me.

PLAYBOY: How did your parents deal with this pot-smoking, undisciplined, disruptive son?
SPADER: Both my parents are gone now, but in their passing I was able to see how lucky I was that they truly loved and cherished their children and did the absolute best they could. My father ran the dormitory where I lived, and he was so incredibly respectful, forthright and eminently fair. He assumed the best in others. Kids who had gotten into trouble in every other dormitory on campus would come to this dorm and be respectful of him in turn. That doesn’t mean kids weren’t up in their rooms dropping acid, but they weren’t wrecking the place, throwing parties with 50 people. My father would always knock and never burst in on anybody. That’s how he treated me too.

PLAYBOY: Did you play sports?
SPADER: I’m very well coordinated but have absolutely no interest in sports. I was a tremendous tree climber, with great balance and a great strength-to-size ratio, and I was always the fastest in our games of capture the flag, things like that. But organized sports, teams, locker rooms and all the rest of that crap, I just had no interest in. My father was a tremendous athlete, though.

PLAYBOY: Did your lack of interest in organized sports disappoint him?
SPADER: The loveliest thing was that you couldn’t disappoint him. I was his son and he wasn’t disappointed. My mother was very gregarious, but he was testy, moody and very remote. He was incredibly shy and in many ways inaccessible, spending a lot of time in the cellar working on carpentry and taking a lot of long walks by himself. We’d throw the ball and take walks through the woods and down by the lake—activities where he would not have to make conversation, while I’d be talking incessantly, making up stories, asking him questions that he patiently answered. But often the sum total of the conversation from his end might be, “Yeah. Hmmm.”

PLAYBOY: In what ways would you rather not be like him?
SPADER: He was terrible—and I’m the same—in that my mother could not let him have a dollar in his pocket. Down to the last dime, it would be gone. He’d give it away, buy everyone ice cream or whatever it was. He’d spend every cent he ever had. For instance, he loved fishing, but he had more fishing rods than he ever needed, even if he used every one of them. He also clearly had certain obsessive-compulsive issues. He was always on task and had to finish one task before he could get to the next. I have a lot of similarities with him.

PLAYBOY: You have obsessive-compulsive issues of your own?
SPADER: I’m ritualistic and habitual. I have an addictive personality. I love cooking, which I’ve done since I was a kid. That’s very methodical. It requires focus and yet allows for extrapolation or improvisation and spontaneity. It’s also calming for me. I don’t sleep particularly well. If I wake up at night, everything inside turns on instantly and won’t stop. There’s a compulsion to address things. I just can’t let them fester or get pushed under the rug. I have to tie it up tightly in a box, throw it right out the fucking window into a river and let it sink to the bottom.

PLAYBOY: How do these characteristics play out on the set?
SPADER: Well, there are advantages in terms of the job I have because acting demands focus and concentration. A disadvantage is that I’m not a multitasker. I work in a freelance business. Therefore, it is part of my job to demand all the respect and all the parameters and boundaries I need. Because you’re getting together with people who don’t know you and have never worked with you, you have to establish that up front and be very forthright and forthcoming about it. That way, you’re not throwing something unexpected at anybody later.

PLAYBOY: Has any of this ever been interpreted as bad behavior or diva behavior by your co-workers?
SPADER: Television shows do not suffer fools or assholes. They get weeded out quickly. Bad behavior is when you’re way down the road and all of a sudden somebody sets the ground rules for who they are and how they work. That’s not acceptable as far as I’m concerned. That’s why I say you have to demand that sort of respect right away, right up front. If you do that, then you have to give back just as much respect. Everyone else’s job is just as important as yours. I work well with everyone. I’m not a believer that good work comes out of antagonism, fear and punishment, but I think it can come out of discourse and argument, so long as you’re open, communicative, honest and able to listen to what others’ needs are.

PLAYBOY: You said your father found it hard to hold on to his money. What do you blow your money on?
SPADER: I buy records, and I have a lot of hats. But I wear a hat every day, so they all get used.

PLAYBOY: What’s a lot?
SPADER: I don’t know. They don’t all travel with me. I have a couple of houses; like we’re here in London, then I have an apartment in New York, a house in Los Angeles and so on. They all serve different purposes. I have tall hats for colder weather; I have straw for summer. I guess when you run out of room, it’s time to stop buying records. At least I haven’t run out of room yet. They’re stacked everywhere.

PLAYBOY: You’re talking about vinyl albums.
SPADER: I like the whole process. I like to get the record out. I like the way a turntable looks. I like to watch it work as the record plays. I like to read the liner notes when I listen to a record. I don’t understand what else people do if they’re listening to a record. I love jazz and have buckets—no, boatloads—of jazz. I love blues, classical and a lot of world music. I have a friend in a Los Angeles record store who educates me, takes me through the stacks and funnels me a lot of Cuban and Latin music that I love.

PLAYBOY: Do you go to salsa clubs in L.A., New York or Miami?
SPADER: No, no, no. One of my great passions is going to hear live music, but I don’t go to clubs. I’ve never been comfortable socializing in groups. I like to travel, walk through a city and go to museums and galleries. Even now, there’s never boys’ night out for me, no poker games or stuff like that. I generally socialize with people one-on-one or in small groups. How did we get off on this topic?

PLAYBOY: It started with talking about traits you wish you hadn’t inherited from your father. How did you come by your attitudes toward sex?
SPADER: Our house was very progressive and very liberal. The bathroom doors were always left open, and half the time my mother would come out to the living room half-naked to make some announcement. My two sisters certainly were the same, as was I. I was always around dominant and influential women, and that left a great impression. I don’t know a time when sexuality wasn’t the prism through which I saw the world. During the summers, my two sisters and I lived in this summer-camp building with two bedrooms. It was a converted chicken coop made of old, thin pine boards banged together, basically between my room and theirs. My sisters would have female and male friends over all the time. With lots of knotholes I could see all kinds of things unfolding in the other room.

PLAYBOY: You felt easy and comfortable around women?
SPADER: Always and incredibly. At an extremely early age I was always the first one to say, “Let’s play doctor,” with every female neighbor.

PLAYBOY: Were girls and acting connected in your mind?
SPADER: I acted a lot in grammar school and junior high but really dug into it in high school at Phillips Academy. The lovely thing about that is you’re meeting girls, staying up late, pretending all kinds of wonderful things and exploring adult themes together. I think the greatest works are always based on that prism of sexuality and relations. It’s been that way for me my whole career and has probably informed my choices more than anything else.

PLAYBOY: It’s safe to say that sex and sensuality might have informed your decision to drop out of high school and move to New York to pursue an acting career.
SPADER: It always seems that if there are two paths, the one that looks bumpier is more interesting to me. I did a lot of theater in school and some summer stock, doing straight plays. One of my sisters was living in New York, and I moved there at the age of 17 with $100 in my pocket and got a job shoveling shit at Claremont Stables. I taught yoga, mopped office floors and studied here and there while doing a bunch of improv. But there wasn’t a career plan or anything. There’s never been a plan, ever.

PLAYBOY: Plan or not, in the 1980s you started to get TV and movie acting jobs. While Rob Lowe, Charlie Sheen and Andrew McCarthy got top billing, you played supporting roles as upper-crust cads in Endless Love, Pretty in Pink, Mannequin, Less Than Zero and Wall Street. Did you want the lead roles?
SPADER: It was an odd, youth-oriented film world, and it would have been a terrible struggle for me to play that sort of all-American guy in those coming-of-age films they were doing at the time. Instead, I was always cast as the kid who had already come of age. I think I ended up playing a string of bad guys because they were the only character roles in films, and that’s all I was trying desperately to do.

PLAYBOY: Did you have any particularly memorable auditions or meetings?
SPADER: One time after an audition a casting agent called my agent and said, “He scared me.” I was this long-haired ex-hippie who was perfectly forthright about my anxiety and discomfort with auditions and couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. Then and now, I work to work. It’s never been a “career” for me but a series of different jobs. Even if the movie stank in the end, there was something incredibly valuable that I got from it, such as making a friend.

PLAYBOY: Like who?
SPADER: Susan Sarandon and I became very close, good friends making White Palace. I was intrigued by our relationship in that movie. I was the youngest in my family, and most of the time I spent in my house was around people who were older than me. When I was young, a lot of my sexual fantasies were about older women.

PLAYBOY: Did you ever indulge those fantasies?
SPADER: I must say, if I knew then what I know now, I would’ve had many more encounters when I was a kid delivering groceries. Some of those wives would answer the door in their nightgowns in the middle of the day. I wasn’t shy, obviously, just not wise enough. I was an idiot.

PLAYBOY: Were you wiser in your late 20s, when you and Sarandon, in her early 40s, made that movie?
SPADER: We were driving around in a car after we met, and she said something about the content of the movie, like, “Aren’t you nervous or apprehensive?” Maybe she was trying to make me feel better or something, but I said, “We’re going to be just fine.” Look, we’ve certainly heard stories about people who fucking hated each other and came up with a wonderful film. But it seems to me that you have to fall in love with the person, because film looks right into your head. It’s wrenching, because you have to fall in love with that person but also accept it for what it is and turn it on and off. That’s a very important part of what is a sometimes schizophrenic job.

PLAYBOY: Is it better to fantasize or to actually sleep with a co-star?
SPADER: I think you can fuck things up, because anticipation and unrequited feelings are very powerful. Ultimately, in acting you’re always pretending you’re angry or a bad guy or that something is down the hall that isn’t actually there. But to look another human being in the eye and pretend you’re in love with them, that’s a very different thing.

PLAYBOY: Considering some of the films you’ve made—Sex, Lies and Videotape; White Palace; Secretary—have women fans come on to you, and do they still?
SPADER: Not particularly. I’ve been very successful keeping a private face on things, even out in public. If you’re recognizable and you want to draw people to you in public, you can do that. I don’t. If people put their lives in the public eye a lot, people feel as if they’ve gotten to know them through the media. I try not to open the door to my private life in a public way. I appreciate people’s appreciation, but I maintain clear boundaries. I also haven’t played a series of approachable characters. But look, it would probably be wrong if I didn’t acknowledge that over the years there has been a demographic of women older than I who saw White Palace and responded to it. I’ve done some films of a provocative nature, and you’d be surprised at some of the people who have walked up and told me they’re great fans of Secretary. I’m always intrigued whether that’s a practice in their life or not.

PLAYBOY: S&M, you mean?
SPADER: Yes, or maybe they’re just intrigued, compelled or curious about it. To me Secretary is a very funny, sweet, lovely love story—very touching in a way.

PLAYBOY: You’ve been together for many years and have a seven-year-old son with actress and sculptor Leslie Stefanson. How have you kept your relationship alive and vital?
SPADER: “Be of love a little more careful than of everything,” wrote e.e. cummings. Pay attention. Take great care, especially in things that are taken for granted.

PLAYBOY: Critics have written about your on-screen chemistry with various co-stars, including Maggie Gyllenhaal and Susan Sarandon, but that’s nothing compared with the impact you made with critics, and worldwide fans, when you and William Shatner squared off on Boston Legal.
SPADER: I’d seen Bill in Judgment at Nuremberg and a couple of episodes of Star Trek when I’d wander into a room at school and a bunch of stoners would be watching it. I don’t think he’d seen anything I’d done. We met on our first day of shooting, and it just worked right away. We don’t really work in the same way. We’re very different personalities, and our lives are very different. He’s a great man-child with a lust for life. Outside of work I think we socialized at maybe two events, and since the show I received a nice birthday or congratulations once. But the juxtaposition of those two characters was just right for Bill and me to play with each other. All I can attribute it to is great chemistry, and you can’t predict that. [Writer-producer] David Kelley watched very closely and fed whatever the nature of that chemistry was.

PLAYBOY: Back in the 1980s, you and Robert Downey Jr. made Tuff Turf and Less Than Zero
SPADER: And became great friends. We had a real fondness for each other. Most of my closest friends don’t have anything to do with the business, but I was really great friends with Robert. He and Sarah Jessica Parker were together at the time, and they adopted a cat they named Jimmy after me. But our lives drifted apart. We spoke to each other for the first time in several years just before I left for London to film Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it was like we were right back where we’d left it. To work with someone and feel the kind of safety that you can say anything to each other is such a gift. It has been a tremendous pleasure and absolute delight to be reunited with Robert on this film.

PLAYBOY: Like Robert Downey Jr. or Mark Ruffalo, you’re not necessarily an obvious choice to star in an epic Marvel movie reportedly budgeted upwards of $250 million. For those not up on their Marvel lore, who is Ultron, your character in the movie?
SPADER: I play an eight-foot-tall robot. In some ways Ultron’s a child, a brand-new being, a newly created artificial intelligence, and that intelligence is vast. He’s incredibly powerful. I had no idea about the character. [Director] Joss Whedon told me he loved that Ultron was sort of an iconic bad guy in the Avengers universe, but he also loved the idea of departing from the comic book, in which Ultron is just sort of, “I will destroy you!” and instead try to get to the root and the source of what he’s about. I don’t know if I can say anything more. I have no idea whether what I’ve said is part of the confidentiality agreement or not.

PLAYBOY: Did you have any reservations about doing the movie?
SPADER: I told them, “I’m very conscious that how your character enters this universe is very important. You’re not going to enter twice, so I want to make sure it’s the best entrance.” They said, “The title of the movie is Avengers: Age of Ultron. You’re Ultron. That’s the best entrance anyone can have.”

PLAYBOY: We’re going to assume that audiences will hear plenty of your distinctive voice, but will we actually see you under all the digital performance capture?
SPADER: We’ll see. I worked on this with Andy Serkis’s company right from the start. Andy is a great actor, and I have a scene with him, which I am excited about. I mean, here I am well into a fourth decade of acting and now facing filmmaking processes I was completely unfamiliar with. Making this movie is a grand adventure.

PLAYBOY: Adding it up, this doesn’t sound like a bad time to be you.
SPADER: I like the saying “May you live in interesting times,” because I think things are great when we accept chaos in life. That goes against my being obsessive-compulsive and ritualistic, but I don’t mind adversity. The fight is okay with me. My life is wonderful. It’s a grand time, you know?


This article was originally published in the September 2014 Issue of Playboy.


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