If you want to hire James Spader, here’s a tip: Look at every part he’s played, then offer him something entirely different. ”The way to get me interested is to surprise me,” the actor says. ”Whenever anything has just been out of left field, for some reason I really get interested.” Throughout his 30-year career, he has gone from playing preppy snobs to sexual deviants to an Emmy-winning crusading TV lawyer and, starting this fall, the Jedi-like CEO of Dunder Mifflin’s parent company, Sabre, on NBC’s The Office. As he gets ready for his return to TV, we asked the 51-year-old star to look back on his most memorable roles.
The Practice/Boston Legal (2003-08)
Spader guested as legal eagle Alan Shore in the final year of The Practice, just as creator David E. Kelley was gutting his longtime cast.
[Kelley] was tearing down this house he built. It was such a dramatic and seemingly brutal act. I couldn’t resist being a part of it. I said, ”I’ve never seen the show.” He said, ”Good, don’t. I just want this character to be sort of a Cat in the Hat who comes in and messes things up.” The tone of [Practice spin-off Boston Legal] was irresistible. Within the same episode, there’d be a scene where everything would just be silliness, and then in the next moment, we’re calling upon the audience to take a very important issue and take it quite seriously. Finally I could play the antagonist and the protagonist at the exact same time.
This controversial David Cronenberg film combined sex and car crashes.
There are films that I’ve thought would be fun to do, others I’ve done because I needed the work. And Crash was one that I just was so curious about. I was very conflicted about it in a way that I liked. Ted Turner [owner of the U.S. distributor] hated, hated, hated the film, so he buried it. I can tell you the single worst date to release a movie, because that’s when Crash was released in the U.S.: Friday before the Academy Awards.
He signed on to this sci-fi epic without a shooting script or a U.S. distributor.
They had 2,500 extras and a huge eight-story pyramid built in the desert, and they had no deal in place to get the film out there. My eyes were wide through a lot of that, and it made the job easy because that’s what I had to do in the film. We started talking about how much fun it would be to make the sequel in the jungles of Puerto Vallarta. But [then] MGM started making the TV series.
The actor juxtaposed his sexually daring image with sweet romance when he starred in this S&M-heavy indie opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal. He took his mother to the premiere.
Someone had sent me the script and I hadn’t gotten into it. Then an agent at ICM called me up and said, ”You didn’t read the whole script, did you? It seemed to be right up your alley.” And I just did love it. I’ve had a strong understanding of the association between pleasure and pain, but I hadn’t been able to put it into a context that attached emotion to it. In that film, I finally was able to marry it to a very strong emotion and a relationship with another person. [My parents] were very patient and sat through an awful lot of stuff over the years.
As an alcoholic going through the 12 steps, his character, Jason, angered George by not apologizing for mocking the size of his head.
Jerry is a good friend of mine. He said, ”This is going to be our last year, so you really should come on the show.” I’d seen a bunch of episodes ’cause my friend made the show. I knew Jason Alexander — we’d worked together in [1990’s] White Palace. So I said, ”Okay, well, write something [for me].” I did it, and had a ball.
Endless Love (1981)
At 21, Spader was a high school dropout living in New York City.
I did one film where I was credited as ”Drunk Guy.” Then I was mopping floors and working the graveyard shift, where my boss also happened to run this casting office downstairs. They were casting Endless Love, and she took my picture. I met [director] Franco Zeffirelli on a Friday, and the following Monday I was getting ready to start shooting.
sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
He captivated as a sexy, impotent loner in Steven Soderbergh’s indie sensation.
A certain amount of my early work I don’t think really indicated what I was interested in. This sounded exactly like what I liked. I thought it was funny and strange. Everything came together in a way that people wanted to write about it. The title became part of the national lexicon. I became associated with the burgeoning [independent] movement in film.
The Office (2011)
He plays the powerfully magnetic (and, of course, oddly sexual) new CEO, Robert California.
I’ve been an actor for over 30 years, and I’ve never had an experience like this. I thought I was going to get away with an entire season of short clips. I did not expect that they were going to write a four-page monologue for me. I played squash [for a scene] for the first time since I was a young boy — that was funny. I had not seen a great deal of the show, so really all of it is coming as a surprise to me. You also are doing something that [as an actor] you never do — breaking out and looking into the camera. There’s a dialogue with the audience going on all the time, and I like that stuff. I often want to take advantage of that, [but] I’ll forget about it entirely.
Pretty in Pink (1986)
Spader is reluctant to discuss the breakout hit, but he does have fond memories of director John Hughes.
I was living at the Chateau Marmont, and we became great friends. He’d invite me over to his house. We’d sit around and laugh and listen to music and eat hamburgers and go swimming with his kids. That’s what I remember most, because I wouldn’t have gone to see that film if I hadn’t been part of it.