The day before James Spader won an Emmy for his portrayal of Alan Shore, the morally dubious lawyer on “The Practice,” the actor was at the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA, admiring the statues -- especially the female forms. “Look at the beautiful curve of her back, right at the base of her spine,” he said, noticing a dancer at the top of Robert Graham’s “Dance Columns.” “It’s the most perfect curve in nature.” Then Spader felt a breeze and started ambling in the other direction. “I just want to walk into it,” he explained. “Oh, my God, that is nice.”
The sculpture garden, a favorite hideaway of Spader’s, brought out in him a charming mix of formality and earthiness. When Gaston Lachaise’s bronze powerhouse “Standing Woman” caught his eye, the memories rushed out. “My sons, when they were growing up, always enjoyed her rather ample” -- here he used a word not proper for this newspaper but that means “derriere” -- “and her rather ample breasts,” he said. The boys, Sebastian, now 15, and Ellijah, 12, would come here with their scooters. “So you come around,” Spader explained, “and lo and behold, you have that beautiful” -- that word again -- “over there. You can hardly resist scootering by and giving her a poke. She has nice calves too. She’s ample everywhere. She’s spectacular.”
James Spader, network TV star: To anyone familiar with the 44-year-old actor and his work, it sounds almost absurd. With the outre air of highbrow naughtiness and deep but slightly distracted intelligence he’s been known for since his 1989 big-screen breakthrough in “sex, lies, and videotape,” Spader could hardly have cooked up a more improbable career move. And yet starting tonight on “Boston Legal,” the new David E. Kelley show spun off from “The Practice,” TV viewers will get a weekly taste of the actor who has specialized in finding an endearing human side to wealthy school bullies, creepy cocaine dealers and sensuous sadomasochists.
Spader headed toward a section of the UCLA campus blanketed by California sycamores that he and his sons, he said, often climb and swing from. “See that?” he asked, pushing a branch down. “This is a perfect perching spot. I’d do it more aggressively, but there’s people around and it makes them nervous.”
Making people nervous is, of course, a Spader trademark.
“When we first went to the network about James, they shrieked in horror,” Kelley said. “James Spader is not a network face. They didn’t think he was the kind of persona American audiences would want to welcome into the living room on a weekly basis. But once we began to focus on him, he was the only choice. What James does so well is there’s a nucleus to this character that is humane and decent. He manages to let that nucleus shine through even when he’s committing egregious, contemptible acts. You don’t know if you like him or not, but you can’t wait to see him next.”
Kelley hired Spader to play the brilliant agitator whose dirty ways forced the firm of Young, Frutt and Berluti on “The Practice” to close its doors last year, after ABC slashed the show’s budget, forcing Kelley to fire half his cast. Spader, whose most recent television appearance had been a guest spot on “Seinfeld” in 1997, was supposed to play Alan Shore only long enough to shake things up.
“The goal in the beginning was to bring new life to the show, and the luxury we had as storytellers was that we didn’t have to protect the character for the sake of a long series run,” Kelley said. “You can only do so many things with a character that are overtly unlikable and still keep him redeeming and a character that people want to tune into and cheer for. Since we didn’t have that burden, we could swing away with him.”
The high-end firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt might prove a better fit for Shore, who will be surrounded by other conniving legal eagles, including William Shatner as his boss, Denny Crane, and colleagues played by a cast including Rhona Mitra, Lake Bell, Monica Potter and Mark Valley. Alan Shore, Kelley promised, will “defy this law firm as he defies the conventions of regular characters on television.”
“When we watch James, there’s a lot of unknown complicated stuff in his mind, but we don’t know what that stuff is,” said Steve Shainberg, who directed Spader in “Secretary” (2002). “There’s something very unusual about him we can’t put our finger on, but that makes it more intriguing and exciting -- God help us.”
Yet for all the unpredictability that comes across on screen, Spader’s “Boston Legal” co-stars described him as meticulous, exact and particular on set.
“He’s always looking for the truth of the moment, and he gets fidgety when it’s not there,” said Shatner, who won a guest actor Emmy for his portrayal of Crane on “The Practice.” “He becomes as recalcitrant as a donkey until he can find the right way to deliver a line. He never says a word that doesn’t seem to come from the organic character. That’s because James himself is a little weird. But we love him for it.”
The Un-Brat Pack career
Two days after Spader nabbed the top acting award for a drama series, beating out television heavy hitters James Gandolfini, Martin Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and Anthony LaPaglia, he was on the “Boston Legal” set at Raleigh Studios in Manhattan Beach. Three episodes of the show were being shot simultaneously, and he had found no time yet to contemplate his win. The Emmy, he said, was tucked away in a corner full of boxes as Spader, who recently separated from his wife, Victoria, waited to move into a new house.
“I was surprised at how quickly I lost the feeling of stunned confusion and ignorant bliss and how quickly it turned into work and pragmatism,” Spader said. “The award doesn’t mean anything to me -- and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. I just haven’t had time to go there yet. Even when my older son called to congratulate me, we moved rather swiftly on to the subject of an upcoming concert” -- the Pixies at the Greek Theatre -- “and the best way to score tickets, which is a much more constructive conversation for us.”
Like other actors who started taking shape in the ‘80s, Spader could easily have cultivated a Brat Pack aura. Instead, he went for a more original brand of alienation, playing seemingly WASPY characters with a devious air and an anti-WASPY erotic charge to them. The roles he took in movies such as “White Palace” (1990), “The Music of Chance” (1993), “Stargate” (1994) and “Crash” (1996) didn’t always hit big but always set him apart -- none more so than “Secretary,” in which Spader played E. Edward Grey, a lawyer who draws his self-mutilating young secretary into a joyful S&M; relationship.
“James is very formal and specific and respectful,” said Maggie Gyllenhaal, his costar. “I remember when we shot a five-page scene in which Mr. Grey asks me not to cut myself anymore, James noticed and responded to everything I did: every breath I took, every shift of my gaze, every movement of my hand. His work is very specific.”
And that, according to Camryn Manheim, who starred on “The Practice” for eight years, can be intimidating. “After you saw ‘Secretary,’ wouldn’t you be scared to go on a date with him?” Manheim said, laughing.
“I was scared of him,” she added. “He’s weird and strange and eccentric, and I mean a lot of that in the very best way. He plays all of these sexually charged characters. He looks at you too hard, like he’s got your number. But behind all of that, he’s a very simple man who is very thoughtful and insightful about the world and humanity.”
Confronted with the praise of his colleagues, Spader took a deep breath and looked skeptical. “Maybe this thing they are describing is just obsessive-compulsive. It just seems to be what the job is, to just try and get the right intention of whatever ... you’re saying. Who is to say if whether what you end up tumbling toward is the right place when you’re standing on your feet in the middle of it? I’ve had a lot of fun acting, and that’s been the only reason to continue doing it.”
Spader, who dropped out of the 11th grade to pursue acting in New York, attributes his interest in acting to the love of storytelling he inherited from his family. The son of teachers Todd and Jean Spader, the actor grew up with two sisters on the campus of Phillips Academy, a fancy Massachusetts prep school. “My father was an English teacher and he taught literature and poetry, and my parents would read aloud and my grandparents read aloud,” Spader said. “My grandfather would write stories and we would make up little plays to read and perform during the holidays. There was always a tremendous amount of humor in all the households I spent time in.”
But there were other reasons for wanting to become an actor. “I started doing theater when I started thinking of nothing but girls,” he said. “I can’t imagine that the two don’t relate. I don’t mean to be glib. In sports and in many other areas, girls and boys are separated. But in theater, you’re all mixed in together. How can it get any better than that?”
Being an actor, for Spader, has never been about celebrity. The press tent for interviews with winners at the Emmys came as a surprise and an “indignity,” he said jokingly. When someone at the Governors Ball on Emmy night remarked how rare it is that Spader has succeeded at being famous and simultaneously living a private life, the actor was incredulous.
“I don’t try to be mysterious,” Spader explained later. “I just protect my private life very carefully. I don’t go out a great deal. To see and be seen I could care less about. I don’t go to see movies at big premieres. If I go out, I go to a quiet place for a meal or I might go to listen to live music with a whole lot of people who are more interested in listening to the music than who is sitting next to them at the show.”
His new TV world
Spader may be on his way to television stardom, but he has never followed a television show from beginning to end -- the way he hopes viewers of “Boston Legal” will.
“That’s something I had no concept of,” Spader said. “Working on the show, I was experiencing the same anticipation for what was going to happen from week to week as the people who were watching it. When you do a film, you know what is going to happen to your character from start to finish. I knew very little about Alan Shore at the end of last season, and I still don’t. I like that constant shift because what I like the most about all of this is the telling of the story.”
What he likes the least is the fuss. He refused to hire a stylist for Emmy night, picking out his tuxedo and shoes himself. He did not prepare a speech. When his name was announced, Spader charmed the crowd by complimenting the women in the room: “You’ve all made wonderful choices in shoes and dresses tonight, and you all look absolutely beautiful.”
“I realized I was going to have to put together some sentences quickly and I wasn’t going to be yet another person to make a music joke,” Spader said. “It worked so well when the gentleman from ‘Arrested Development’ made the singing reference, but I knew that that couldn’t be used again, and certainly not by me. I really don’t have any idea what ... I was saying. Certainly, during the course of the four hours that I was there I had spent enough time admiring women’s shoes and dresses and how well they filled them.”
But as offhand as he may be about that trophy, it’s fitting somehow that Spader will be in the rare position of starting his new gig already having won an Emmy for the role. To his surprise as much as anyone’s, the TV gods have smiled on him. “Does anybody have any illusions about the fact that the Emmys come at the beginning of the television season? The timing seems precise to me,” he said. “And I think it’s grand.”