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Spence Account

There's a woman in Little Rock, Arkansas, who has devoted an entire page of her website to Sebastian Spence. His eyes, his hair; his brand of cigarettes. His pets. "A pit bull named Cappo," it says. But when I ask the St. John's actor if he has a pet, he looks at me somewhat apologetically. "I had a goldfish for three years once."

The story of the relationship between Iris the goldfish and her owner doesn't have a happy ending. But by the time Spence finishes describing Iris's demise, I'm laughing so hard I'm choking on my cigarette. Not Spence; he can laugh and spin a yarn and walk along Gower Street and smoke and punctuate it all so perfectly you feel it's a shame there isn't a camera rolling along beside him.

There usually is: Spence, 37, has rarely been out of work as an actor - stage, film and TV - since he was a child. The son of local actress and playwright Janis Spence, his mother regularly wrote him into her productions. "She's responsible (for my career choice), entirely," Spence says.

In the early '90s, he moved to British Columbia to try his luck in film, and hasn't looked back since. Well, that's not strictly true. Spence pulls a face.

"When I first went to B.C., I must have gone to 300 auditions, and nothing was happening for me - all I remember is doors being slammed in my face, people being rude. I called Mom, I said 'I'm coming home, I don't like it here, I don't like acting - I don't like actors.'" But his mother told him to persevere. "Persevere," he repeats, and he smiles and reaches over and touches his mother's arm.

The summer afternoon is doing her ageing debutante thing, all pout and cold shoulder, when I walk into the Fairmont hotel to meet with Spence, his mother, and his sister Sarah Spence. Shortly afterwards we're in the middle of what seems to be a kitchen party at their table in the bar - yak yak yak, laugh laugh laugh. Coffee by the tank load.

We're in the throes of some decidedly non-linear linguistic lunacy when the waitress suddenly appears, drawn by the steady click-click of the camera. Arms akimbo, head tilted to one side, she looks at Spence and says, in an amused yet defiant tone, "Are you supposed to be somebody famous or what?" Everyone laughs, Spence loudest and longest. And then he says "No!" Quite firmly.

If Spence isn't famous, he's at least very well known in an industry in which thousands of talented, good-looking young actors don't get to to dip their toes - much less land a part on Dawson's Creek for five episodes. I watched two episodes of Dawson's Creek back to back once, and felt a distinct need for insulin afterwards. "Katie Holmes," I say, crossing my fingers under the table. "Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise - do they deserve each other or what?"

"She's really sweet," Spence says, his voice sinking to a reverent register. (Damn!) "She was as nice as pie. And at that point it (the show) must have been on for six seasons. They wanted to get out of there, they were like, 'We want to get back to Los Angeles, we're sick of North Carolina - please (referring to Spence's character), kill me on the show!'

"And I was quite happy to be down there," Spence continues. "I was like, 'God, I'm on this, this …'"

"I'm somebody important?" drawls his mother, in a voice of false disdain and genuine pride.

"No, girl," Spence says, sounding deflated. And then he catches her eye and they both throw their heads back and nearly laugh the roof off the bar.

Dawson's Creek is only a ripple in Spence's career: there's 46 listings on his spot in the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) - roles in the X-Files, Dark Angel, Battlestar Galactica, The Boys of St. Vincent, Andromeda, Crossing, Drive, She Said, Category 7: The End of the World - the list, as they say, goes on. As does the list of familiar names Spence can call co-stars: Katie Holmes, Charles Bronson, Richard Dean Anderson, David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Beau Bridges, Robert Wagner, Ione Skye, Swoosie Kurtz, Randy Quaid …

Spence is probably best known for his starring role in Francis Ford Coppola's science-fiction series First Wave. From 1998 to 2001, for 66 episodes, he played alien-hunter Cade Foster in the Emmy-nominated, Gemini-winning series, which is in syndication and still has a serious fan base in several countries.

Fervent postings on the web as recent as last Tuesday beg for Cade's return, or at least the release of First Wave on DVD. I tell Spence I heard that Coppola himself picked him for the part. He smiles and says, "Yeah, I heard he might have had something to do with it." A smile without a soupçon of smug.

Spence's recent roles include two films featuring a gay detective, played by Chad Allen, formerly Dr. Quinn's (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) oldest son, Matthew. (The second, newly released detective movie just got good reviews in The New York Times and Variety - the Times mentions Spence - and he doesn't know a thing about it until I tell him.)

Spence, who plays Allen's significant other in the films, says the gay role was difficult at first. Eventually, he says, he and Allen became friends, which made the intimate scenes a little easier. ("Ah, c'mere, Allen, honey - give us a hug!" Spence mimes this, grinning.)

Spence says he's just finished a movie in which he played Justine Bateman's romantic interest; even if you're straight, he says, you're frequently called upon to fake passion with someone you don't feel passionate about - and vice versa. That's why it's called acting.

Doesn't the camera pick it up, the lack of chemistry? I ask. There are ways to fool the camera, he tells me, all blue-eyed innocence. (If I were a camera, I think to myself, I bet I'd get taken in if this guy kissed a table lamp.)

Does he get homesick? "All the time. That's the truth. I dream about coming home. In my own mind, I feel like I'm prepping to come home." He returns to the province as often as he can - "I love coming home in the summer because you can actually see the town." He and Sarah are leaving the next day for Random Island, for a stay at his father's former home. Spence's father, Michael Cook, also a playwright, died in 1994, but nevertheless gets his share of Spence stories as the afternoon slip-slides along.

While her brother and mother are having their pictures taken in the hotel's atrium, Sarah and I fall into conversation. Sarah is a textile artist who specializes in footwear; she's shy, she says. While she is describing her recent work for Ontario's Stratford Festival, I almost miss her footnote reference to Lord of the Rings.

"Wait a minute," I say. "Back up. You made the footwear for Lord of the Rings?" She looks at me as if I've accused her of drowning kittens. "There was a group of us," she says, quickly. It wasn't all her fault, then.

When Spence filius and mater get back from their photo session, I ask him what his plans are. He tells me he and his mother are working on a script; he knows enough producers now, he says, to believe he has a shot at getting their script read. No mean feat; he mentions that a friend of his in the business sometimes gets 100 scripts a day delivered to his door.

We drink up and pay up. (He pays and I forget to thank him - actually, it doesn't occur to me that I walked out of the hotel without paying or even thinking about paying until I'm almost home. Some slick, that Spence boy. And generous.) And then we go out the door of the hotel in a gaggle, into the peevish weather, heading east against a wind that would prefer we went west.

Iris the goldfish has just flipped her last flop as Spence and I catch up to his mother and sister, who are standing in front of the house on Gower where Sarah is staying. "It was lovely to meet you," he says, and gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek - brief shelter from the irritable air. Then he turns away, calling: "Sarah, are you warm enough?"

As I walk on down Gower by myself, getting progressively colder under a peepshow sun, I think of Spence's story about overhearing someone call his mother a nasty name one night when he was 12, and a member of the audience of a play she was acting in. "I felt myself tremble all over," he said, "and suddenly I was standing up and shouting, 'You can't say that about my mother!'"

And then I remember reading somewhere that the part of Cade Foster was reworked shortly after Spence took the role. They recognized his depth of feeling, his compassion, the writer of the article said, and decided to give it to his character.

Luckily, there seems to be lots left over.

By Susan Rendell for The Independent. Susan is a freelance writer and editor living in downtown St. John's. Her collection of short stories, In the Chambers of the Sea, was published by Killick Press in 2003.