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It's tea time at the Four Seasons in Toronto's Yorkville, and the dainty café just off the main lobby of the five-star hotel is brimming with folks nibbling on sandwiches or canapés, and sipping Earl Grey tea.

In this halcyon setting, it's incongruous that James Spader, with his choir-boy good looks and delicate manners, could be speaking so calmly, so elegantly, about the fundamental merits of S&M. About the little-known benefits of a healthy smack on the bottom to enliven and embolden your sex life.

At nearby tables, the conversations have stopped as patrons cock their ears to hear better how the 42-year-old actor, who heartily spanks co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal in his latest film, Secretary,felt about swatting a woman's behind. And getting turned on by it.

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(A woman at a table to the right, whose face is burning as she stares intently at her book, looks like she may choke on her petits fours).

Spader, perfectly pressed in a black suit and crisp white shirt, is oblivious to it all. No, he was not at all uncomfortable spanking Gyllenhaal, who plays an emotionally needy legal assistant who likes to be manhandled, tied up, well, pretty much anything smacking of sexual perversion that her new boss (Spader) can dish out.

"For me, it wasn't difficult to shoot the spanking scene," says Spader, eyes unblinking behind his funky glasses. "I was hitting a woman, yes. But it's hitting in the context of these characters, and this setting, and this story. Of course, it's not without some difficulty, but it's just one of the scenes in the film. It was a scene dealt with great care, and thoughtfulness, as the rest of the film was as well."

Secretary, which had a showing at the Toronto International Film Festival last week and will be released in theatres tomorrow, is the second feature by director Steven Shainberg. Called simply the "spanking movie" by the media, it's a bizarre, sometimes touching, sometimes funny, definitely perverse love story that presents sadomasochism as a natural expression of love -- for the right couple. The film's tag line? Assume the position. And the press kit came with a handy little black whip.

"The spanking scene is a very important scene in the film," says Spader, who plays E. Edward Grey, an eccentric loner and joyless attorney, who, until Gyllenhaal's twentysomething Lee Holloway came knocking on his door with her CV in hand, had only verbally denigrated his female employees. The rest of the time he trapped mice, tended exotic flowers, and ran (frantically) on a treadmill.

Some festivalgoers called Secretary "shockingly perverse." Spader doesn't see that. Sure, the film (which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year) is edgy, the actor admits. But not overly kinky. God, no.

"I think this film is about the fact that the most conventional and simple and innocent of love stories can live in a world where you have to look further than you might have looked before to see it and understand it.

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"I thought the sexual relationship between the two was eloquent for them," continues Spader, in his quiet, Boston-bred drawl. "And that's the only demand that's put on consensual sexual relations between two people -- is that it be eloquent and healthy and constructive for them. The burdens of other people's morality in the bedroom have no business being projected or foisted upon this."

Then he goes on to deliver his opinion on which sex is more comfortable with whips, chains and harnesses in the bedroom. "I think men, in the bedroom, embarrass more than women do," says the actor, who is married to Hollywood set designer Victoria Rheel and has two sons. "I think women, if given the right touch, the right freedom and trust, and if they are treated with respect, I think women are more eloquent sexually than men are."

And at that, the poor woman beside Spader's table starts to cough, and asks the waiter for water. Spader looks over, a small smile on his face, and then turns his attention back to the conversation. It's all business.

Despite his boyish appearance (he could pass for 32), Spader does have a few wrinkles about the eyes. He's been in Toronto the past few weeks shooting The Pentagon Papers, in which he plays Daniel Ellsberg, the government official who leaked the U.S. Defense Department's top-secret study of the expansion of American military involvement in Vietnam in 1971. For that role, he's been filming every night until 4 a.m.

During the 1980s -- the reign of the Brat Pack -- Spader's marquee looks and unctuous charm made him a staple in teen comedies and dramas (remember the effete, chain-smoking snob in Pretty in Pink?). This soon followed with roles that defined him as the king of choir-boy creep (his unnerving performance in Less Than Zero caught the attention of critics, as did his stint as the unprincipled trader in Oliver Stone's Wall Street).

In the following years, Spader made good impressions and bad. On the plus side were such films as Bad Influence (he played a gullible young businessman opposite the manipulative maniac, Rob Lowe), and White Palace (he was the inexperienced rich kid who falls for the down-to-earth waitress, Susan Sarandon). Forgettable was Jack's Back and The Rachel Papers.

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But cinephiles remember him best for his performance as the dysfunctional filmmaker Graham in Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape, which won him the best-actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989.

Not limiting himself to independent films, Spader also appeared as a nerdy archeologist in Stargate (1994), a big-budget action-adventure that was critically panned but scored well at the box office. At the time of that film's release, Spader told a New York journalist that he took the role because "the script was just awful, and that sort of intrigued me.

"Acting, for me, is a passion, but it's also a job, and I've always approached it as such," the actor said. "I have a certain manual-labourist view of acting. There's no shame in taking a film because you need some f---ing money."

Spader's performance in Secretary is in keeping, it seems, with the idiosyncratic spirit that has steadily marked his 20-year career since graduating from the Michael Chekhov acting studio in Manhattan.

Spader insists he never reads reviews. And only chooses scripts in which there is a dichotomy in the character that he can't quite put his finger on, and therefore, is intrigued by. He chose Secretary, he adds, because of the complex characters that both he and Gyllenhaal had to play.

"Her character was so intense. And I had a very hard time figuring mine out too," says Spader. "She's such a beautiful and graceful and lovely and bright coloured flower. That if allowed to blossom in the right garden, would be brilliant. I think he is the most gentle and delicate and caring and thoughtful gardener. And they provide each other with exactly the right setting for each of them to try and bloom and grow."

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By this point, Spader's publicist is frantically waving her arms to signal a wrap. But Spader, who is as intense in person as he appears on screen, is not quite finished.

For him, the most difficult scene to shoot had nothing to do with tying Gyllenhaal to a tree (naked) or any other sadistic stunts the pair had to pull off for this film. He recollects that the toughest scene for him was when was Gyllenhaal marches into his legal office, and catches him on the floor frantically doing sit-ups.

"It's just that scene where she surprises him there," the actor muses. "That single moment. Any scene of surprise is difficult to shoot. Because it's such a conceit. Because the surprise doesn't truly exist and you have to contrive. You have to be so creative. Because you are truly lying.

"When I choose a script," Spader goes on, "it's because it makes me question motive and intent." He loved this role as the sadomasochistic lawyer, he adds, because "it was worthy of discussion and worthy of thought."

And with that, Spader, gets up, smoothes his hands down his pants, and sticks out his right hand. "It was nice to meet you," he says, with a firm shake. Then he glances around at the tables nearby. Gives them a nod. And walks out of the room.

"Wow, he's some intense guy," whispers the woman to the right.

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Maybe. With Spader, it's impossible to tell.

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