James Spader spent a significant portion of the 1980s and '90s playing villains in films such as Pretty in Pink, Mannequin and Wolf, which may be why he seems particularly comfortable playing another one in the new family fantasy film Shorts.
Spader said that he relished playing a bad guy again, since it afforded him the chance to indulge his inner kid, for better and, especially, for worse. "If there was a moment where I was getting too clever, then I certainly trusted the fact that [director] Robert [Rodriguez] was going to tell me if I was complicating things," Spader said in a group interview last weekend in Beverly Hills, Calif.
"I said that to him right up front," Spader said explained. "I said, 'I want to know what you want from him to best serve what you've got going on.' We talked a little bit about that prior to going down there."
Spader plays Carbon Black in the movie, which is a series of interwoven tall tales about what happens in a small town when children discover a magical rock that grants wishes and adults get their hands on it.
"I thought that [what] was important with that character was that the things he's doing wrong are because he's oblivious to it," Spader said. "Or there's nothing Machiavellian about him; everybody in the picture is caught up in the story of the picture, and he is too. And he's completely caught up in it: Maybe even most of all, he's caught up in it."
Spader said that Rodriguez was himself childlike in his indulgence in using tricks and techniques, even if he executed them in a decidedly adult way. "It's amazing how he's been able to take these things that are so often treated as toys and novelties in our lives, and they absolutely serve every single solitary part of filmmaking for him," Spader said. "His hands are in every single frame of the picture, and every aspect of what goes into the frames. He is cutting the picture in his head as he's shooting it. He's written the script, and, therefore, the edited version of what that [is] has jumped out of his own imagination [and] has already started to take shape."
Spader also marveled at how quickly and efficiently Rodriguez worked. "He's got three monitors set up, all of them working in high definition, and he's working in video, so he's able to fast-forward them and rewind on all three monitors at the same time," he said. "We'll shoot something, and they'll be rolling continuously, and we'll stop shooting the scene. We go back behind the monitors, and he'll show me what the cut version is going to be ... between the three monitors. It's going to cut from that and then to this, and back to this, and I can look at the scene right there. And he knows exactly when to walk away."
Before Shorts, Spader spent several years working in television in more mature roles (most notably in ABC's Boston Legal), a difference he appreciated even more once he got on the set of Rodriguez's film. "It just couldn't be more dichotomous, really," he said. "It was just such a different world. After doing five years of Boston Legal and the last year of The Practice, working in that environment and how that work was, it turned out to be the most perfect thing to go from that to doing this."
Shorts opens Aug. 21.