James Spader is a charismatic chameleon. He has presented many different faces and behaviours over the course of his 30+ acting years and his on-screen look has fluctuated dramatically from project to protect. One thing that has most definitely remained the same, however, is his intense magnetism. Spader’s on-screen persona oozes a sexual and intellectual charm unmatched by any other actor I know. Sex appeal is a quality he has in spades (pun intended!).
Eccentricity comes naturally to the 57-year-old Boston native, and as an actor, Spader is refreshingly unpredictable and uninhibited. “The weirder the better” he says, in art and in life too. Although he has never hidden the fact that money is a major motivation when it comes to choosing roles (well, isn’t that really the case for us all?), Spader makes sure he picks characters that intrigue him as much at it will audiences, and so far he hasn’t disappointed once.
He was front and centre when director Steven Soderbergh burst onto the scene in 1989 with Sex, Lies and Videotape, seemingly at home playing an overt voyeur. Soon after he progressed with ease to an even more controversial and explicit film – David Cronenberg’s Crash in 1996 (based on the novel of the same name by English author J.G Ballard). Focusing on a group of car crash fetishists, Spader and co unsettled the minds of thousands of moviegoers that year, but also won the hearts of some at the Cannes Film Festival, nabbing the Special Jury Prize and going on to win six Genie Awards from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. He was also the one and only and original Mr. Grey in the 2002 erotic comedy Secretary alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal, which has been completely ripped off by the Fifty Shades franchise. These roles attracted something far more important than fame for the unconventional rising star – a cult following.
Something about Spader was resonating with film lovers. Was it his versatility? How comfortable he seemed with his sexuality? His husky, whispery voice or the way he swaggered into a scene and stole every moment with a steely, brooding gaze? Or was it that thing he does with his tongue and his glorious chest hair? Whatever it was, it was working, and many were taking notice of his growing and impressive body of creative work.
Despite being known almost solely for his more brash roles, Spader has appeared as many decidedly “normal” characters over the years too. He played fluffy blonde-haired rich kid Steff McKee in the John Hughes-penned Pretty in Pink; a young man drawn to an older woman (Susan Sarandon) in White Palace; a cop caught up in a dangerous love triangle in The Stickup (where he met his long-time partner, actress/sculptor Leslie Stefanson); the lead in historical telemovie The Pentagon Papers; appeared briefly alongside Charlie Sheen in Wall Street; portrayed a businessman embroiled in the seedy side of life by Rob Lowe in Bad Influence; acted as a flighty book publisher who winds up in a house haunted by the ghosts of Michael Caine and Maggie Smith (as you do) in 1998’s little-known Curtain Call; and even had a cameo in Seinfeld‘s ninth season, playing a recovering alcoholic in the episode titled ‘The Apology’.
He’s had two standard sci-fi outings to date, donning oversized specs and a cute nerdy deposition as Egyptologist Daniel Jackson in the 1994 Roland Emmerich epic Stargate, and sporting a short dark do’ and a seriously muscly physique alongside Angela Bassett in 2000’s Supernova. His only family-friendly outings so far seem to be as a cheesy villain in the b-grade kids film Shorts, and most recently and more importantly, he lent his velvety voice to the motion-capture role of mega robot Ultron in the second of Marvel’s hugely successful Avengers series, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
His film career has been extensive to say the least, but it’s on the small screen that Spader is most recognised in the mainstream arena, and arguably where he made the most impact. He won three Emmy Awards back to back to back for his portrayal of unorthodox lawyer Alan Shore in the TV series The Practice and it’s successful spin-off Boston Legal (which ran from 2004-2008). From the outside, the show essentially saw him play one half of an amusing double act with larger-than-life legend William Shatner. However, Spader’s Shore stole the show each episode with his quirky personality and long, eloquent, rousing courtroom speeches on inequality and industry corruption that still (often sadly) ring true today. Even with a rotating door of a cast that often included notable faces and cameos, Spader managed to command every scene and – dare I say – almost always upstage Shatner’s kooky kingpin Denny Crane.
Another obvious point was that, once again, Spader was almost unrecognisable. Carrying a few extra kilos at the time (by his own admission in an interview with Jimmy Fallon years later, due to “a life of indulgence”), he had short dark hair for a change, and was forever stuffed into a plain suit and tie. Unusually for Spader, barely any flesh was seen across all five seasons. Although physically he’s never been a typical Hollywood matinee idol, it’s actually his unpredictability in terms of appearance that makes him all the more irresistible and interesting to watch evolve.
Off-screen, Spader is an enigma too. Despite many years in and out of the spotlight, he has managed to keep his private life very private (perhaps a skill acquired from a close-knit family upbringing and many years slogging away at menial and physically taxing jobs to get into acting). Apart from the odd appearance on the likes of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (someone he seems to admire greatly due to their shared love of jazz), Spader has rarely ever done press. Although his close friends have included Robert Downey Jr. and the late JFK Jr., you’re more likely to find Spader in a booth at the Village Vanguard on a Saturday night than at an industry event. He has his girlfriend, one ex-wife, three sons, a great interest in music and property, and plenty of stories about his teenage friendship with JFK Jr., but little is known about his lifestyle, and he likes it that way. After all, personal life should be just that – personal, and with Spader giving us almost too much information on screen, the balance is perfect.
After Boston Legal, he acted generously in 23 previews and 297 performances of David Mamet’s Broadway play Race alongside Kerry Washington in 2009. He then disappeared for a while, as he often does between projects, before rocking up out of the blue in Season 8 of the American The Office. Once again, he got your attention, this time as Robert California: the odd new company CEO. The character was completely original, and cast and critics alike were quick to praise Spader’s new turn and commitment to intensity. One part inspiring, one part intimidating, California completely altered the tone of the show whenever he was present, and was a credit to Spader’s ability to effortlessly flesh out cool and creepy simultaneously.
He then cameoed in the likes of The Homesman and Lincoln before once again gracing us with his larger-than-life presence on TV in the NBC hit The Blacklist (currently in its fourth season). He debuted his brand new look too in the pilot – shaven hair, tinted glasses, three-piece tailoring and fancy fedoras – as the incredibly charming yet dangerous criminal/FBI informant, Raymond “Red” Reddington, alongside Special Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). The ongoing “is he/isn’t he the father” arc is among many fascinating things about the unusual crime show, and as our anti-hero leading man, Spader is perfection. Many argue that the Concierge of Crime is possibly his best role to date.
Deviant and manipulative yet loving and protective, Red is a role that allows Spader to utilise his maturity, worldliness, playfulness and impeccable line delivery. All of his dialogue is peppered with perfect pauses and inflections. He can communicate huge, wordy chunks of procedural text with aplomb, and just as easily turn a few simple words into a bold statement. Known for his naturalistic and consistent expressionisms too, Spader conveys a lot with Red’s face – eyes narrow and misty in deep reflection, tongue flicking when being sarcastic, lips smacking together at the end of a dramatic comment, mischievous head tilts and hearty laughs in the face of comedy and tragedy.
Although James Spader is not really a household name (he should be), he has given us many memorable and sexy performances, and all the while enjoying his life away from the screen in relative privacy (impressive). Like he says in life and art, “the weirder the better”, and seeing he is still in the prime of his life and career, we can hopefully look forward to many more quirky characters to come.