The Blacklist star says changes in the way we watch movies mean their legacy has gone
Film has lost its status as a great, enduring art form superior to television, according to James Spader, the award-winning actor who has played a series of famous roles in independent cinema since the 1980s. “There is no legacy in film any more,” he told the Observer this weekend. “I am not so sure that even classic films really live on now – and that means ultimately that maybe film is really an entertainment, or a provocation, just for a specific time.”
The enigmatic star of sex, lies and videotape; the film of JG Ballard’s Crash; and the disturbing Secretary – who is currently holding American audiences spellbound as the ruthless star of the violent thriller series The Blacklist – has called for more honesty about the transitory impact of even top-quality film entertainment.
Spader, 54, who recently appeared in the American version of the sitcom The Office, believes good and bad films, just like good and bad television, are both doomed to be forgotten by the next generation. “People don’t have access to classic films,” Spader said, “but it is worse than that. A few channels on television still play classic films, but with the closure of revival picture houses and the closure of video stores with classic film sections, there is no film heritage.”
This does not mean that a film or a television show cannot be art, Spader argues, but neither should aspire to having any lasting impact. Acting on screen is ephemeral, like other forms of performance art, or else it is just commercial entertainment.
The film star, who first won recognition for unsettling performances in Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero and had a much-admired comic cameo in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, is not giving up on film.
In January he is to appear alongside his former co-star Robert Downey Jnr as Ultron in the new addition to the Avengers franchise, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and he hopes to be able to carry on combining film, television and stage work.
As the son of teachers, Spader said he rarely watched television as a boy, but had an unusually good introduction to cinema. “I grew up on a boarding school campus and there was a guy there who ran a film club that was available to students on campus and to faculty children of a certain age. Every other week he would rent a print of a film and screen it. So I was able to watch a broad spectrum of films from different eras, from an English film like Hobson’s Choice to a western like Hud. It was fantastic and completely informed my film-watching experience.”
Perhaps as a result, the young Spader felt uncomfortable with playing teenage heroes, despite his fresh-faced looks. “When I was first finding my way there was a spate of coming-of-age films, but I had already come of age. I didn’t find a place in them, except to play the antagonist or the one character in the film who felt like he wasn’t an innocent.”
His current performance, as the evil genius “Red” Reddington in The Blacklist, has taken the show to the top of the ratings, winning the biggest audience for the opening episode of its second season last month. “He is either a good guy who is capable of very bad things or a bad guy who is capable of good things, and that depends on the day,” said Spader, who is closely involved with the writing of the show and prepared to defend its violence.
“There are times that I have suggested a level of ruthlessness, or a certain form of decisive action that might be jarring, because I feel that is the world in which this show exists, but there are times when we change something because we feel it is gratuitous.
“We are very aware that it is extreme at times but, in for a penny … That is the show. That is the world we are depicting. That is this guy,” he said.
Five years ago Spader won acclaim for his stage performance in David Mamet’s play Race on Broadway. Variety’s critic said he was “right at home in the smooth, almost likeably reptilian role, and he gets most of the best zinger distillations of ruthless pragmatism to come out of a Mamet play since Glengarry Glen Ross”.
From 2003 to 2008 Spader appeared as lawyer Alan Shore in the long-running television shows The Practice and its spin-off, Boston Legal, winning three Emmys in the process. The stage role, he said, had proved therapeutic after work on a long-running television show.
“There is no question that whenever The Blacklist comes to an end, as it inevitably will, theatre will be the very first thing I do. Being in a run on stage is the perfect antidote to a long-running television show.”
Season two of The Blacklist airs on Sky Living on Fridays
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