It’s hard to define the career of James Spader. The actor starred in iconic ‘80s flicks such as Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero and then graduated to a wide range of films, including the groundbreaking Sex, Lies and Videotape, Secretary and Crash. He is also well known for his multi-award-winning work as Alan Shore, the lawyer audiences loved to hate, on both The Practice and Boston Legal. Now Spader is winning acclaim in his Broadway debut as (another!) fast-talking lawyer in David Mamet’s new play Race opposite David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington and Richard Thomas, directed by the playwright. Broadway.com caught up with the thoughtful, bright actor via telephone to ask him about Mamet, getting mistaken for his characters and what’s up with playing all of those lawyers.
Your big Broadway debut is behind you now. How are you settling into the routine of doing a show eight times a week?
It’s changed enormously throughout the relatively short time that I’ve been doing it. It’s been so funny to me how every step along the way has been such a different experience, and every one of them has been so satisfying.
Have you always wanted to perform on Broadway?
Sure, at different times in my life, though there have certainly been times where it wouldn’t have been appropriate. I love New York so much and I feel so at home here. It was the first place that I chose to live as an adult, and so it feels like home and always has. Performing here in front of a live audience is very satisfying because it feels like you’re performing in your hometown. All of it seemed to work out really nicely. I’m not even talking about the play very much. Just the fact that I came here in the fall, and I could ride my bike to rehearsals. Rehearsing this play was such a wonderful way to spend the day.
And the timing finally felt right?
The timing was right. There’s never a right time to do a play financially. It’s almost like when people say to a young couple, “Are you going to have children?” And they reply, “Well, we’re waiting ‘til the time is right.” There is no right time. I mean, it’s much different if you live in New York, but I live in Los Angeles. I’ve just finished doing a television show for a bunch of years and this is exactly what I wanted.
What were your expectations when you decided to do this play?
When I first read the play, I liked it so much. I thought it was funny yet provocative and ambiguous, and it required multiple readings. I knew that it would sustain over a period of time to perform it and that was a requirement for me because the commitment was fairly long if the play lasted. I liked that I had to read it a bunch and wanted to read it a bunch. And as soon as I met David [Mamet], I liked him immediately and was just curious and hungry for more in terms of getting to know him.
Tell me more about David Mamet.
Very quick, very sharp, and he’s really funny. He’s a lethal combination of being a real troublemaker and honestly generous. It’s a very lucky combination for those of us that are fortunate enough to be his friends because you never know when and what you might receive in the mail or what might be waiting for you around the next corner that has his hands all over it. He loves theater. He hadn’t directed in I think 10 years or more, so he was very excited to be doing this.
Did you read his book on acting?
I haven’t read it. People have asked me questions about specific things that they’ve read in the book that I haven’t wanted to debunk, but they’ve amused me because what David says and does are sometimes different things.
Meaning his philosophy doesn’t always apply to practical matters?
I think it’s all by design. Working with him, I found that he pleads with you to do absolutely nothing as he’s challenging you to do everything. It is a wonderful work environment. At the same time that you are working extremely hard, it’s incredibly entertaining. He’s very anecdotal. He sometimes likes to present a very simple idea in the most complicated fashion and sometimes a very complicated idea in a very simple fashion. These qualities all provoke great work. I absolutely adore him.
David Alan Grier told me his character in this play is a “truthsayer.” How would you describe your character?
I don’t know if I would. I think that David Mamet is very happy with the notion that every character in this play—and therefore the actors playing those characters—believe with all their heart that they’re telling the truth. That’s what he wants this play to be about; he wants it to be about truth and lies. It’s one of the things that makes for the excitement in the play—and there’s something terribly tragic about these four characters—all of them absolutely believe that they’re doing the right thing. But what you believe is the truth may turn out to be a lie. I think where the play lives and breathes is that idea.
Race is a play that provokes a lot of discussion.
This is a play that benefits from murmurs in the lobby. There is also a palpable response from the audience as we do the show. They’re responding demonstratively.
Do you mean audiences are verbal during the performance?
I’m not really listening to it, but I feel it. I know some people hear things, but I don’t hear much. To me [the audience] is a very large amorphic, undulating sort of demonstrative character that’s in the corner. Or not in the corner—it’s taking up much more than a corner of the room. I guess it’s like a huge houseplant.
That’s hilarious. I’m going to think of myself as a houseplant the next time I see a play.
[Laughs.] Except this one can eat you.
Did you read the reviews?
I read a couple. I didn’t really pursue that very much. I couldn’t avoid it really. The paper came and I saw it.
So good or bad—you didn’t take it to heart.
There were some mixed reviews, some lovely reviews and some not. Who do you believe, who do you not believe? I’ve never needed anyone to tell me whether I liked a movie or a play that I was watching or a painting I was looking at or a piece of music I was listening to. I never needed anyone to tell me if I liked or didn’t like it and I never needed anyone to tell me why. I certainly don’t need anybody to tell me whether something works that I’m doing. I know whether it’s working. If it’s working, it’s working. If it’s not working, it’s not.
You’ve played a number of lawyers, and you’ve played a number of characters that can be described as cynical. Is there a certain appeal in tackling characters like that for you?
I like confrontation. I like argument and drama. Those definitely exist within the stories that take place in the world of law. If one day, there was an edict that was passed that there could be no more plays or movies or television shows about the world of law, the world of medicine and the world of cops… well, that would be the end of that. It makes sense that they are popular; those are the worlds where stakes are very high very often. They’re fertile ground for drama and for comedy, too.
Your characters are certainly a lot peppier than most real-life lawyers.
I don’t know how much relation there is between the law or medicine or police work of the fictional world and what exists in real life. I don’t think any of us really endeavor to depict real life—that would be awfully hard on the audience.
True. We would need a lot of intermissions.
Intermission would become like recess. That would be the art of the day.
Do people have misconceptions about you based on the characters you’ve played?
I’ve been doing this for over 30 years—being an actor professionally—and I understand that people can get confused about the characters you play. Or it may be three characters you’ve played when you’ve done in fact a hundred, and they may have just seen three. I understand that they have a hard time confusing that with who you are. That’s fine by me, because of the other deal that I absolutely insist upon, which is: I don’t care for them to know anything about me. I insist on that kind of privacy. I don’t really like to open up my world to people. I’ve got a life that’s my own. Therefore, if I’m going to make the deal that you don’t get to know anything about me really, then I’ve got to settle for the fact that you’re not going to know who the hell I am.
You’ve done so many movies and TV shows. What do you think is your best work?
I don’t know. Sometimes it’s just sole moments here and there. I don’t have a great sense for that. I just keep sort of doing it and seeing how it goes.
It sounds like this production is one of your highlights.
Yeah, I’m having a grand time. The audiences are coming, and the people who come to this show are really a great group. I think there are a lot of things happening out there in the dark.
See James Spader in Race at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.