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James Spader: The Strangest Man on TV

Why the gloriously bizarre James Spader is the most intense guy in any room

April 21, 2014 11:00 AM ET
James Spader
James Spader
Max Vadukul

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 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 twenties 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."

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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 neighborhood, 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 behavior, 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 11 a.m. 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-à-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.

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"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 favored 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 theater, he did odd jobs, like shoveling 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, says Spader, 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.

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