The strangest man on TV
As a young actor, James Spader was too pretty for gritty roles, but he found his niche as the devastatingly despicable villain. He tells Andrew Goldman how he found a flair for comedy in his 40s, how he makes a positive of his OCD, and how life can never be weird enough for him
For anyone hoping that James Spader, in real life, may share any traits with any of the endearing, but oddball, James Spader characters that James Spader has become famous for, James Spader does not disappoint. "It can never, ever, ever get weird enough for me," he likes to say. Indeed, his work reflects him, and, at first glance, the Spader who strides through the doors of New York's 8th Street Stumptown cafe might actually be The Blacklist's criminal mastermind, Raymond "Red" Reddington.
Spader wears a Reddington-esque forest green felt fedora that matches his forest green scarf, which matches the lenses of his sunglasses. "It's a fine hat, it's not a great hat," Spader corrects me when I note the similarity. "Red wears finer hats than that.
"It's an everyday hat for me. I've got a lot of hats." (In fact, between his summer-straw and winter collections, divided between New York and his home in Los Angeles, he reckons he owns around 30.) He's also wearing a black wool overcoat, which, a bit later, I learn conceals a heavy cowhide motorcycle jacket, which itself covers a down vest, which he wears over a cashmere cardigan. True, it's a cold winter day, the morning after a big snowstorm, but the sheer bulk of his outerwear suggests how your mom might dress you for [Alaskan sled-dog race] the Iditarod. "Incredibly wind-resistant," Spader says of his outfit, thumping his midsection proudly, only the faintest hint of a smile on his face. "All elements, this is impervious to." We drop by his Greenwich Village carriage house, which he shares with his girlfriend of more than a decade, actress Leslie Stefanson. The couple have a five-year-old son, Nathanael, who, in addition to two sons in their 20s from his previous marriage, will be Spader's final offspring. "I believe in a negative population growth," he says. "The other two were with another mother, so we have three boys that will replace all three of us."
Until you understand one thing about Spader, there's an oddness about him that is difficult to put a finger on – how intent he seems to be in depositing each of the American Spirits he finishes directly into garbage cans, how seriously he takes the task of providing a walking tour of his neighbourhood, trotting around and showing the mews where E E Cummings once lived ("He changed the energy of poetry, but there were some anti-Semitic problems that bothered me").
"I'm obsessive-compulsive," he admits later. "I have very, very strong obsessive-compulsive issues. I'm very particular." There are rituals common to obsessive-compulsives Spader must do – step-on-a-crack-break-Mother's-back-type stuff – but it's even more pervasive than that. "I rely on a certain routine," he says. "It's very hard for me, you know? It makes you very addictive in behaviour, because routine and ritual become entrenched. But, in work, it manifests in obsessive attention to detail, and fixation. It serves my work very well: things don't slip by. But I'm not very easygoing."
His co-stars agree with this assessment. "He has all his own idiosyncrasies," says William Shatner, Spader's former Boston Legal co-star. "I really love him. And when you love someone, that's part of why you love them. Of course, if you fall out of love, they become beyond annoyances."
Spader couldn't watch people eating on set. "Our craft-service table was located near the stage entrance, so he had to avoid walking by and watching people licking their fingers or spreading butter on a bagel," Shatner recalls, noting that, for kicks, he would occasionally smear Vaseline on Spader's prop glass. "He'd react with horror."
In light of these revelations, everything makes sense. Why, after agreeing to do the interview, it took months for Spader to come up with a good day to sit down, and why, at 11am on a Tuesday, we are descending the staircase into the subterranean darkness and chill of the Village Vanguard, the legendary jazz club he frequents.
Spader had decreed he wanted to conduct the interview at the Vanguard. Being a night club, the Vanguard isn't open during the day, but, rather than deviate from Spader's plan and choose from one of the tens of thousands of establishments in Manhattan that are, NBC arranged for the club to open up. "I didn't know where else to go," I overhear him explaining to Deborah Gordon, the daughter of Vanguard founder, Max Gordon, who greets him with a hug. Spader removes his many layers, reveals his head (shorn for The Blacklist of its trademark Caucasian 'fro) and sits at his regular seat (Table Four) on the red banquette to the right of the stage.
"This is a great seat," he says. He's put a lot of thought into why this is. "First of all, it's low profile," he says, pointing out that whoever's sitting at tables One and Two, which, though closer to the musicians, are illuminated by the light of the stage, while good old Four is always in shadow. From Four, he can always see the pianist's hands, "as long as there's not someone too big in that chair there." Then Spader hops up and demonstrates the perfection of Table Four's location vis-a-vis egress, how he has a direct path between tables to anywhere he might ever want to go, be it the bathroom, the bar or the exit, so he can smoke on the street.
"Deborah," Spader calls out into the darkness. "You don't have any cold beer yet, do you?" The first Stella of the day is cracked, just before noon. In person, Spader shares the patrician bearing that comes through in many of his roles. It's not his fault; all he knew growing up were the kinds of prep schools favoured by Boston Brahmins.
He grew up in faculty housing at the Brooks School, a prep school where his father taught English (his mother was a teacher nearby), and then went to high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. There, he thrived doing stage plays so much that he decided it was a waste to continue attending, and dropped out when he was 17 to seek his fortune in New York, where, while waiting to be discovered in the theatre, he did odd jobs, like shovelling horse manure out of the Upper West Side's Claremont Stables and sleeping through yoga classes he was, ostensibly, teaching. "The lights were turned down, the heat was turned up," he explains.
Being gorgeous and young, as he was then, at first prevented him from being the kind of actor he felt himself to be. "I didn't really look like a character actor, yet those were the roles I loved to play," he says. "If you were a character actor, who didn't necessarily look like a character actor, you had to play bad guys." He excelled at it, and spent much of the Eighties trailing slime through Brat Pack vehicles, like the scummy coke dealer, Rip, in Less Than Zero.
So convincingly despicable was Spader in his audition for Steff, Pretty in Pink's rich, sneering high-schooler, with those linen suits and the dangling cigarette, that the film's casting director had to overcome a visceral dislike of Spader to even get in the mind frame to hire him.
The late Eighties and the Nineties ushered in a period of leading-man roles – but kinky, weirdo ones. There was the bedroom-eyes voyeur with a camera in Sex, Lies, and Videotape; the guy who did it to – yes, actually put it in! – Rosanna Arquette's leg wound in Crash; and the insatiable cunnilingus enthusiast of White Palace, who spent much of the movie with his head buried in Susan Sarandon's lap. It wasn't an accident, he says, an admitted "early . . . voracious . . . masturbator" who acknowledges, cryptically, that he'd always had an experimental sexual side.
"You know, I had two older sisters, and everybody seemed to be naked all the time, my parents and my sisters," he says. "Our household was very comfortable with sexuality. There was just a lot of girls around. And guys. I played doctor with both."
Then, after he hit 40, when show business can resemble a cruel tundra, something wonderful happened to Spader. He was never the most driven guy in the world; he took every summer off when his sons were small, and, when he undertook a role, it was inevitably "because I'm out of money and I need to pay my bills." But he started to get a lot of truly great parts.
A watershed moment came with 2002's Secretary, in which Spader played E Edward Grey, Maggie Gyllenhaal's sadomasochistic boss, who also, it should be noted, was obsessive-compulsive. For Gyllenhaal, the oddness began the moment she met Spader at a script reading. "He was always Mr Grey," she says. "There was no small talk. He just sat down and started staring at me. I was both taken and taken aback." Gyllenhaal never had Spader's phone number, never knew the first thing about his life off set, but, midway through the shoot, Spader took her aside, and said, very slowly, as though there were periods between each word, "I always have an ally on every project I do. And, this time, my ally is you."
Not long after, he began his ritual of sending a production assistant to fetch her, though their dressing rooms were in the same trailer and shared a flimsy wall. "Literally, he could have called to me and I would have heard him," Gyllenhaal says. "But I left my room and walked two feet to his, knocked on his door, and he invited me in and offered me a chocolate. That became a sort of S&M-type ritual between us."
Hollywood realised that this kind of chilling affectlessness might be best played for comedy. His portrayal of charming sleazeball lawyer, Alan Shore, on The Practice, and its spinoff, Boston Legal, saw him beating out the likes of James Gandolfini for two consecutive Best Actor Emmys, and then came The Office's skanky Robert California. (Those plum gigs keep coming, and he will soon be donning one of those ridiculous motion-capture suits to play the titular robot character in Joss Whedon's The Avengers: Age of Ultron.)
But it is The Blacklist and its antihero, Reddington, that allows Spader to incorporate all of his best gifts – the kink, the unfathomable darkness, the suggested violence and the ability to deadpan his way through the campy bon mots in the script. "Janice, my sincerest apologies," Reddington chirps to a woman he's just stuffed into her own closet, a moment after shooting her husband's knee. "I'll take a rain check on the stroganoff. It smells delicious!"
When screenwriter, Jon Bokencamp, conceived his pilot for The Blacklist, he pictured Gary Oldman or Kevin Spacey as Reddington, who is referred to in the show as the "concierge of crime" for his mystifying desire to give himself up to the FBI and then assist a junior agent – who may or may not be his daughter – in capturing his criminal associates. Before the script made it to Spader, several actors passed on the part, which, Bokencamp says, turned into an unexpected bit of luck. "Now I can't see anyone else in this role," he tells me. Not that it's been easy. These days, Bokencamp and fellow executive producer, John Eisendrath, spend a good chunk of their time ministering to Spader, a tradition that will continue for at least another year, since NBC picked up the show for a second season. Bokencamp knew nothing of his star's obsessive qualities.
"Oh, God, no," he says. "But we learned very quickly." Spader says they speak to each other seven days a week. No topic is too small. "I haven't talked to him today yet," says Bokencamp, "but, last weekend, on his birthday, we were on the phone for two and a half hours, and, on Thanksgiving, when I was in Colorado, I was out pacing on the phone for two hours. This stuff keeps him up at night. He can dig his heels in. The conversations can be frustrating."
The shit hit the fan when Spader got a two-part script, in which the secret FBI black site, where Reddington meets his handlers, is invaded by assassins aiming to kill him. "I called up the writers, and I said, 'You understand the collateral damage of this, correct?'" Spader says grimly. "'You understand this is a game-changer. You're burning down this house! This means there's a terrible security issue for Reddington. How do I go back there? How do I trust anyone moving forward?'"
Maybe it has something to do with the fact we've killed three beers each in the past 90 minutes, but Spader seems genuinely worked up, like a fictional character's safety is literally a life-and-death issue. He's collecting a paycheck, so why on earth would he care so much? "Because I have to perform it," he says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. Though the writers had other ideas, Spader insisted, and so episodes were rewritten, schedules rejigged, network executives inconvenienced – all so that Red could don a yarmulke and hide out in a synagogue for a few episodes, until he could smoke out his betrayer.
"I have a plan," says Spader, stubbing out his cigarette in a bowl, sounding as buzzed as I feel. "We're going to bus our table, I'm going to take a piss, and then, if you don't mind, there's a place I like to go and grab a slice of pizza. Is that good by you?"
Before we go, Spader spends a few minutes war-gaming pianist Gerald Clayton's show he'll be coming to with friends in a few days. He slides back and forth along the red leather banquette, eyes fixed on the stage. "Piano will be there, horns in front, bass back there, drums here?" he asks Deborah. She nods patiently.
We blink as we ascend the stairs and hit the bright sunlight of Seventh Avenue. Spader is buoyant now. As luck will have it, Spader saves my life – wrenching me out of the way of a speeding car as I step out against the light on Perry Street – then, afterwards, holds his hands up to the sky, marvelling at the snowcapped trees. "God Almighty," he says. "It's lovely." We stroll downtown and end up at Joe's Pizza, a dumpy hole in the wall and Village landmark, where you must stand to eat your piping-hot, delicious New York slice.
Spader is a regular. "I take this little walk with great frequency late at night," he says, "sort of stumbling out of the Vanguard, as you can imagine, at one in the morning, leaning on the person you're with. Usually, it's been quite some time, at that point, since dinner, so I come down here and I grab a slice." The thought crosses my mind that he might have made this trek hundreds of times in the dark – it suddenly seems possible that Joe's might be the only restaurant he has ever been to in the city.
"I'm going to have a plain cheese and a pepperoni as well, please," he says to the guy behind the counter. "And I'll have a root beer." Of course, it's his usual.
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