James Spader Interview, Shorts

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

We sat down with James Spader to talk about his new movie, “Shorts,” written and directed by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.

The magical fantasy adventure tells the tale of eleven-year-old Toe Thompson who is the designated punching bag for the bullies of the suburban community of Black Falls, where his and everyone else's parents work for Black Box Industries, makers of the do-it-all gadget that's sweeping the nation. During a freak storm, a mysterious Rainbow Rock, which grants wishes to anyone who finds it, falls from the sky. Suddenly, the neighborhood that Toe already thinks is weird is about to get a lot weirder. As the Rainbow Rock ricochets around the town--from kid to kid and parent to parent--wishes-come-true quickly turn the neighborhood upside down in a wild rampage of everything from tiny aliens to giant boogers.
Spader plays the powerful Mr. Carbon Black who owns Black Box Industries. Since virtually everyone in the community works for Mr. Black, he owns the town. Suffice it to say, Mr. Black is not your typical villain and Spader plays him with tremendous imagination.

Spader has earned praise from critics and audiences for his film and television roles, many of which have explored the darker side of human nature. This fall, he will make his Broadway debut starring in David Mamet's new play "Race" opposite Kerry Washington and Richard Thomas.

James Spader has the rare distinction of winning three Best Actor Emmy Awards for the same role but on two different series. He won two Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his multilayered portrayal of Alan Shore, the ethically challenged attorney on David E. Kelley's widely acclaimed ABC series "Boston Legal." He had originated the role of Alan Shore on Kelley's series "The Practice," for which Spader won his first Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

Earlier in his career, Spader starred in Steven Soderbergh's controversial breakthrough film "sex, lies and videotape," for which he won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. He returned to Cannes for the premiere of David Cronenberg's "Crash," which won the festival's Special Jury Prize. Spader more recently starred opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal in the critically acclaimed independent feature "Secretary," directed by Steven Shainberg, which won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Originality.

Over the course of his career, Spader has also starred in a number of major studio releases, including Roland Emmerich's sci-fi actioner "StarGate"; Mike Nichols's thriller "Wolf," with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer; Luis Mandoki's "White Palace," opposite Susan Sarandon; and "Less Than Zero," with Robert Downey Jr. Spader's credits also include such diverse films as "The Watcher"; Sidney Lumet's "Critical Care"; John Herzfeld's "2 Days in the Valley," opposite Charlize Theron; "The Music of Chance," based on the Paul Auster book; Tim Robbins' political satire "Bob Roberts"; Herbert Ross's "True Colors," with John Cusack; and "Bad Influence," for director Curtis Hanson, among many others.

James Spader is a terrific actor and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about “Shorts”:

Q: Is it freeing for you to play a character like this in Shorts?

JAMES SPADER: It’s even more freeing once it’s over. It was really fun doing it, but it was a whirlwind. I was down in Austin for about a week. Yeah, I was amazed too when I read the script and I saw this part that was throughout the picture and a conventional film and a conventional film schedule that probably would have taken a month and a half to shoot that. I think they shot me out in 5 or maybe 6 days. It was a function of Robert. Robert Rodriguez has such a tremendous confidence in terms of how he puts the film together. And he has found a way through technology and also the people that he works with and the facility he has down there and also through his imagination in the scripts that he writes. He’s found a way to be able to shoot an incredible amount with very little, and I think working on the kids films that he’s made ever since he was very, very young – I mean, even the little short films that he would make when he was first starting out, he would cast different family members. He has a large extended family to cast his family members from.

As long as he’s been making those sort of grown-up, different genre films, he’s been making kids films and always concurrently, and what he learns from one, he applies to the other. Because he’s used to shooting these kids pictures where he’s having to constantly schedule around the kids going to school, or the kids taking a break, or the hours that they can work and the hours that they can’t work, and so on and so forth, he has found a way to actually make that work for himself. Therefore, when they called me up and sent me the script. I thought, “Well, I don’t know how the hell I’m going to do this ‘cause I’m shooting Boston Legal and we’re on hiatus and I need to take a break.” They called up and they said, “It’s going to take us about 5 days to shoot you” and I was just “Okay.” I went down there, I think as much for anything else, just to see how the hell they could possibly do that and they did.

Q: Part of that energy that he has is expressed in the way the characters are over the top or could be over the top.

JAMES SPADER: (laughs) Could be?! What? Are you kidding me? They’re completely over the top. I mean, I think it’s absolutely what the picture is. When I went down there, and even before I went down there, you know, just having a small sense of Robert’s work, and then when I met him and read the script for Shorts, it was clear it is his film. This is a man who writes, he directs, he produces it, he shoots camera, he edits the films, he composes the music, he plays the music, he does visual effects. His hands are on every single, solitary frame of this picture and every performance is shaped by him. The pictures are his, every one of them. Every one of the movies he makes is entirely his. Everybody is there to serve whatever it is that’s jumped out of his head. And so, when I showed up there, I showed up with really almost the opposite work ethic that I had on 6 years of playing this character that I had played on Boston Legal and a lot of other films I had, which is to bring an awful lot to the table myself. It’s to bring as much as I can to bear. And there, instead, I just sort of gave it up to Robert and whatever he wanted. If he wanted me to say it louder and scream it louder with eyes wider and bigger and flail my arms around even broader, then so be it, because he’s got it in his head what this is going to look like. And, it’s impossible on the set to tell yourself, to have any idea what the hell it’s going to look like because so much of it is created behind the scenes.

Q: Have you seen the finished film yet?

JAMES SPADER: Yes.

Q: How surprised were you by what you saw?

JAMES SPADER: Well, I’d read the script so I did have some sense, certainly on paper, of what it was going to look like. Yeah, all of it is new. All of it is new. I mean, surprise even in the scenes that I’m there not just with visual effects but also to see some of the other performances that are across from me, because very often, if I’m shooting it at 10 o’clock at night or 11 o’clock at night, and I’m doing a scene where I’m playing across from my son or my daughter in the picture, well, they’re not there, you know. They’re at home asleep or they’re in school. And yet, the next morning, when they’re shooting their part of some little scene, I may not be there because I finished working at midnight the night before or something. So, even some of the performances that I’m seeing in that way, I was seeing for the first time.

Q: Although this is a kids movie, there are some themes that adults can relate to certainly with the miscommunication and being so preoccupied with technology and ...

JAMES SPADER: Not listening.

Q: Not listening. Exactly. So, were those things that appealed to you?

JAMES SPADER: Yeah. I loved all of that. I mean, I loved that. Somebody asked me when you were a kid, did you ever have a wish that you would have wished for and I remember I said to them -- and I think that it is part of what the movie is about too -- is that you don’t have one wish when you’re a kid. You’ve got a limitless number of wishes, you know, and we do too as adults, I think. Sometimes you would think that with time and wisdom that maybe you’d realize that you should prioritize your values and prioritize your wishes. We don’t though. We don’t really. Robert’s got a large family and, not only did he grow up in a large family, but he’s got a large family himself. He’s got a lot of kids and they’re around a lot. It was always hard to tell on the set which kids were acting in the movie and which kids were playing around on the set. There are always a lot of kids around and he’s really comfortable with that. He’s great at communicating with young actors. He communicates with them exactly the same way that he communicates with me. I don’t think I’m unique in terms of the adults on the set. (Laughs) Maybe I am. Maybe I’m the only adult on the set that he communicated as he did with a 10-year-old. No, he’s very, very adept at that.

Q: What would be your selfish childhood wish if you had this stone?

JAMES SPADER: Well, I mean, there’s the most immediate which is to wish for a few more wishes. That was always the first wish for me and that always seemed rather intuitive. To wish for more wishes always seemed like the smart thing to do and then it would just fall off precipitously from there to walkie-talkies or something. (Laughs) You start out strong by wishing for more wishes, and then, instead of expanding on that, it then immediately distills and gets reduced to walkie-talkies and mini-bikes or something else depending on the day. It could be some pocket knife that my friend has that I wish I had.

Q: Were you comfortable with so many kids on set? For some people, that can be kind of inspiring and, for others, it could be a total headache.

JAMES SPADER: Oh, no, no, no. It was never a headache. I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of kids on the show that I worked on for awhile. Regularly, we had episodes that had the younger actors and actresses and I’m very comfortable with that. I find that young actors and actresses are tremendously eager and also very often, and understandably so, much more professional than some of their older counterparts. I mean, they just are. They want to do the right thing.

Q: Did they ask you about acting tips? Were they familiar with your work?

JAMES SPADER: No, no, no. I don’t know if they’re familiar with my work really. I haven’t really spent a great deal of time doing films that would be appropriate for kids to see. So, this may be the first. (Laughs)

Q: If they ask you about Secretary, you might worry. What about Pretty in Pink?

JAMES SPADER: Yeah, but even that I think is like teens and older maybe, you know.

Q: Robert is certainly a very original voice and, no doubt, John Hughes was also unique to his generation. When you were working with him, did you realize the impact his work was going to have?

JAMES SPADER: I’ve never been aware of any. I hate to say it, but my head is buried when I’m making a picture. It’s just buried. And sometimes even through to this process where you have to [talk about your film]…you know, this is always the first step in reflection on what the hell you’ve done. This is it. Very often in this arena, you’re faced with having to be objective in a way that you haven’t been up until that point, at least for me. The making of a film, for me, is so subjective. Depending on what the picture is, I sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees because I really have to immerse myself in the making of it. Certainly, I don’t have the objectivity to be able to step back and say “Oh, what’s the impact of this?” or “What is this?” and very often, sometimes have not even had the objectivity to be able to speak very eloquently about what the hell it is that I’ve done. I remember there’s been a couple of pictures where I’ve called up the director before doing something like this and said, “What was the film about?”

Q: Could you talk with the benefit of hindsight about what sort of legacy John Hughes had from your perspective?

JAMES SPADER: I’m not entirely sure. It’s not something that I’ve talked about or reflected upon at all, but I will say this:  I have noticed that the people that grew up watching those pictures are now adults and I run into them every so often and those pictures were part of their childhood. That’s a different perspective for me. I mean, for me, that was a job that I did and it was one of many jobs. It didn’t inform who I am very much -- I mean, in terms of I didn’t grow up doing that. I became an adult and I went and did a picture and when I wrapped that picture, I went and did another picture. But, when John died the other day, I read a couple of things in the L.A. Times and saw some quotes from even some directors who are working today. Judd Apatow was quoted quite heavily in the article I read. All of a sudden for the first time, I actually thought about the notion that there were people that were growing up at that time and seeing those pictures and were influenced by that.

Q: Are you looking forward to your Broadway debut in David Mamet’s new play, Race?

JAMES SPADER: I am, very much so, yeah. I am, very much so. It’s funny, as it’s turned out, two things are following doing this TV show – first, doing this Robert Rodriguez picture, and then, going and doing the play, this new David Mamet play. I’ve never been good at planning anything in my life and least of all have I been any good at trying to plan any kind of a career and yet, just dumb luck, this picture and this new David Mamet play seemed to be the absolute perfect thing for me following doing that TV show.

Q: I don’t know anything about it, other than the title and your castmates, Kerry Washington and Richard Thomas.

JAMES SPADER: Yes, and I think David Alan Grier is doing it. I’m not sure.

Q: The name “Race” seems like it opens up a door, just as the Gates arrest at Cambridge did. Is it stepping into that kind of minefield?

JAMES SPADER: I spoke to David the other day and I think he mentioned that he wishes that Professor Gates and Officer Crowley had actually waited just a few months before they had their encounter for our sake. But anyway, maybe there’s a way to keep the conversation going. Maybe the press will cover their next get together, for instance, that they referred to at the White House. Yes, I think David Alan Grier is set for it as well now. I’m in a frustrating position in that I would love to sit and talk about this play for an hour because I’m really excited about doing it, and I hope that it is everything that it could be. But, what you know about the play is what David wants anybody to know about this play before it opens.

Q: Talking about the TV show that you mentioned, what did you learn, if anything, about the politics of television in doing that show and how much improv was there between you and Bill Shatner throughout the series?

JAMES SPADER: There was no improv between Bill and I during that series. By the time we would show up on the set, the script was set. Our schedule was such that we were never able to really rehearse prior to showing up on the set on the day that we were going to shoot it, and then we would rehearse as much as we needed to figure out the shot and to figure out where Bill and I or Candace or any of the rest of the cast members would be at any given time during the scene. But beyond that, that’s how much time we had for prep. Any discussions or any reworking of dialogue and everything always happened prior to showing up on the set.

In terms of the politics of television, I learned a lot actually. I knew absolutely nothing going in about television. Absolutely nothing. I know little more now, but I know ‘try very, very hard to do a television show that the network that you’re on owns the show.’ Very important, I think. And, I think that a strong dialogue and relationship that is constructive between network and production is enormously important for a show to be able to work efficiently, which we didn’t have so much on that show. ABC did not own the show and we didn’t have the most constructive dialogue between network and production and that was hard. It ended up burning up a lot of time, and on a TV show you have no time. I think the network and the shows are always better served if they have that symbiotic relationship, which I think now really is mostly served by shows and networks that have a financial relationship of ownership. It’s funny, I don’t know if it was always that way because I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I know now it’s become that way. I know that the shows that ABC owned and on some of the shows they didn’t, the relationship was just so different. I mean, just entirely different.

Q: Where do you think Alan Shore would be 10 years from the time that he finished the show?

JAMES SPADER: (whispering) Oh God, I don’t know. I hope we don’t find out. He’d be on Broadway now.

Q: Doing Mamet?

JAMES SPADER: Maybe. (Laughs) Nice to see you. Thank you very much.

“Shorts” opens in theaters on August 21st.

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