A man of many faces (and a couple of alter egos), he was also this year's triple threat: Director (Being John Malkovich), actor (Three Kings) and choreographer (don't ask)

By Tricia Johnson
Updated December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

In a year dominated by glossy teen pop, beefy-brained wrestlers, and a sixtysomething quizmaster named Reege, how did an iconoclastic music-video director with the unlikely name Spike Jonze manage to bust through the clutter?

Let’s review: First, there was his award-winning Fatboy Slim video, which helped make ”Praise You” one of the ubiquitous tunes of 1999. Then there was his big-screen acting debut in the underrated Gulf War drama Three Kings, with his turn as dopey redneck Private Vig nearly stealing the show from costars George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. And, of course, there was Jonze’s feature directorial debut, Being John Malkovich, a delectably subversive, astonishingly original, and critically cheered film about a mysterious portal that deposits people inside actor John Malkovich’s brain (played, in an inspired bit of Method casting, by John Malkovich, in one of his liveliest performances in years). All this, and he still found time to marry Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sofia last summer.

And yet, for all the notice Jonze earned this year, he’s succeeded in remaining enticingly, even maddeningly mysterious. Aside from a few basic biographical factoids — born Adam Spiegel in 1969, heir to the Spiegel catalog fortune, former competitive skateboarder, director of groundbreaking Beastie Boys and Puff Daddy videos and commercials (notably the dog pushing the man in the recliner for Nissan)—very little is known about the man. ”He’s like Andy Kaufman in a way,” says Kings costar Ice Cube. ”You don’t know when he’s in or when he’s out [of character].”

Like Kaufman’s Tony Clifton, Jonze has an alter ego—a spastic dance-troupe leader named Richard Koufay (you can see him doing a pretty good Elaine Benes impersonation in that Fatboy Slim video). And also like Kaufman, Jonze takes his not-so-secret second identity very seriously. According to Fatboy Slim (a.k.a. Norman Cook), calling Jonze and Koufay the same person is considered ”libelous”; an assistant at Jonze’s production office claims that Koufay sent Jonze a cease and desist order for hogging too much credit for the ”Praise You” video; and at least one journalist was duped when he wrote a profile of Koufay, identified by a large photo of a bearded Jonze.

Don’t bother asking Jonze to explain it all. ”I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says sheepishly when asked directly if he and Koufay are one and the same. Okay then, how did he hook up with Koufay in the first place? ”Umm, we uh, h-he’s, uh….” Shielding himself behind an armor of shyness, he isn’t any more articulate about his artistic process: ”I think about what the idea is and whatever the best way to execute the idea is.” Now we get it.

Fortunately the work speaks for itself. ”Spike likes to hide behind other people and use them as his mouthpiece,” explains Cook. ”And he does things that are really confrontational without seeming confrontational.” Like his latest commercial for Nike, a savvy send-up of Y2K jitters in which a jogger trots through the streets of a decimated Los Angeles, passing money-spewing ATMs, combat tanks, and a roaming giraffe.