Ahead of the DVD and Blu-ray release of Avengers: Age of Ultron next month, it seems like the opportune time to delve deeper into the cinematic career of the man behind Ultron himself. James Spader has been in the acting industry for more than 35 years, and has proven himself to be an intense and enigmatic performer – forcefully taking on interesting roles that explore the very strangest of human behaviours.
Spader first started out in the late 1970’s with small parts in minor films – but his initial breakthrough role was in the 1985 teen drama, Tuff Turf, in which he played a rebellious teen who falls in love with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Though not a commercial success, his appearance in Tuff Turf lead to memorable appearances in several bigger films of the decade, such as Pretty in Pink (1986), Mannequin (1987), Baby Boom (1987), Less Than Zero (1987) and Wall Street (1987). His performance in the former – John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink – was perhaps the most successful of his early career. His role as the rich and arrogant playboy, Steff, not only earned him a life-long affiliation with the so-called ‘Brat Pack’ era, but also showcased his ability to play suave, yet manipulative villains.
It was in 1989 however, that Spader really made an impression on cinema, showing himself to be an actor with gumption in Steven Soderbergh’s independent drama, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. In an understated, yet simmering performance, Spader plays the role of an enigmatic sexual voyeur at the centre of a married couple’s undoing. For his portrayal, Spader won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
The 1990’s then brought the actor a wide range of unique roles, in films such as True Colors (1991), Wolf (1994) and 2 Days in the Valley (1996). However, two films stick out as Spader’s most prominent performances of this decade; Stargate (1994) and Crash (1996). In the former, Spader played Daniel Jackson – an Egyptologist who cracks the hieroglyphic code that holds the key to interdimensional travel. Spader has famously stated that he found the script for Roland Emmerich’s crazed sci-fi romp “awful,” but accepted the role anyway because of how well it paid. However, in David Cronenberg’s controversial thriller, Crash, Spader found a juicier character to sink his teeth into. Playing the role of a car accident fetishist is no easy task, but Spader took to it with confidence, adding another interesting character study to his filmography.
Spader continued to perfect his flair for bringing intriguing characters to life, in the 2002 film, Secretary. Starring opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal, he played ‘the original’ Mr. Grey – a sexually dominant lawyer who enters into a BDSM relationship with Gyllenhaal’s submissive secretary. In an intense yet sympathetic performance, Spader undercuts the forceful dominance of his character with a constant sense of hesitation – making for a far more eloquent depiction of character than the Mr. Grey of recent times.
Since then, Spader has been working mainly in television (on shows such as Boston Legal, The Office and most recently, The Blacklist) or on small low-budget pictures. He did however make his return to the mainstream in 2012, when he appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning drama, Lincoln. He also appeared in 2014’s The Homesman, before taking on the role of Ultron in Marvel’s latest Avengers flick, at the age of 55. Performing both vocally and with the help of motion-capture, Spader has made his cinematic resurgence in the biggest, baddest way imaginable.
Did you know?
- Though they play mortal enemies in Age of Ultron, Spader and his co-star Robert Downey Jr were once very good friends in the 1980’s – so good in fact, that Downey named his pet cat ‘Jimmy’ as a tribute to Spader.
- JFK’s widow, Jackie Onassis helped Spader get his first job as a waiter in New York City. Spader also dabbled in several other professions before acting, including a brief stint as a yoga instructor.
- Spader made history when he became the first performer to win multiple Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the same character in two separate television series. (The character in question, Alan Shore, appeared in both The Practice and Boston Legal).
- Complex and unusual characters that, more often that not, have a distinct sexual history (as evidenced in three of his most acclaimed films; Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), Crash (1996) and Secretary (2002)
- Robert Downey Jr. is perhaps Spader’s most frequent collaborator, working with him on three films; Tuff Turf (1985), Less Than Zero (1987) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).
- Like his character in The Blacklist, Spader has a very particular love for jazz music. Similarly, he also has an impressive collection of hats.
The Film You Should Watch: Sex, Lies and Videotape