Being Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze doesn't want you to know what it's like being Spike Jonze. His mind wears a little sign on it: KEEP OUT. Jonze, 29, sits on a Soho stoop in the early fall sunshine, looking unabashedly youthful in a slouchy skateboard T shirt and khaki cargo pants. His short, sandy hair is pushed around his head at conflicting angles; his eyes are guileless blue. Now that he's making the move from ultracool video and TV commercial director to big-screen buzz guy, Jonze is ostensibly here to talk about two big fall projects: his forthcoming directorial debut, "Being John Malkovich," and his first substantial acting role, in the recent hit "Three Kings." Jonze's interview approach seems an adaptation of the standard adolescent way of dealing with a prying parent. He doesn't say much, which only makes you wonder what kind of wildly eccentric thoughts and ideas he's hiding. Could he talk about his role in "Three Kings"? "The um, the um, the um," Jonze says, then clears his throat. "I play a character that is Mark Wahlberg's friend, who looks up to him and, ah, I don't know." Could he shed any light on "Being John Malkovich"? "I think there's a lot of--I haven't been--I don't know, what did you think?" How did he get those little scratches on his arm? "I don't know!" he wails, rubbing bicep protectively. "I'm not sure!"

Jonze has an advantage: his work is so good, it can speak for itself. "Being John Malkovich," which opens Oct. 29, is a bleak, bizarre comedy about a bunch of New York City no-lifes (John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener) who find a door into actor John Malkovich's head. They sell tickets, and manipulate Malkovich (gamely playing himself ) into doing all kinds of embarrassing things. Jonze brings a special touch to the script, by first-timer Charlie Kaufman: he plays the whole thing straight, layering a nearly conventional narrative and full-fledged characters onto a story that should be preposterous but winds up feeling eerily real. "Spike wanted it to be extremely naturalistic," says Kaufman. "There's a stylized quality, obviously, to the idea and to the script. Spike underplayed everything."

He brings more than you'd expect to "Three Kings," too. Clooney, Wahlberg and Ice Cube get top billing, but Jonze's portrayal of Pvt. Conrad Vig is at the heart of the movie: he's a wisecracking Army redneck who's always landing the team in hot water and inspiring them to pull themselves out again. Although Jonze had never really acted before--he had blink-and-you-miss-'em walk-ons in Allison Anders's "Mi Vida Loca" and David Fincher's "The Game"-- director David O. Russell wrote the part with him in mind. "You know, Spike always wanted to be a stuntman when he was a kid," Russell says. Uh... yeah, we knew that. "So I knew he had that daredevil quality. He did two of the biggest stunts in the movie. One is where a car blows up and almost lands on him. He took a total face plant on that. Just fell right on his face as he was running away from that car. One take, and it was perfect."

Here are a few things worth knowing about Jonze. He grew up in Bethesda, Md., with an older sister, raised by a brainy mom who now does communications for the World Bank. There's a rumor that Spike is the heir to the Spiegel catalog fortune, but he says it's not true. His real last name is Spiegel (his first name is Adam), but he's only distantly related; his father, who divorced his mother when Spike was young, is a health-care consultant. As a kid, Spike wasn't much into school. "I skated and rode bikes on ramps, and my mom was always super-supportive," he says in a rare burst of verbal inspiration. "She was one of the only divorced moms in the neighborhood, so all the other parents looked down upon her for letting her kids do that kind of thing."

By the time he was done with high school, Jonze was already enamored of cameras, but not in some passive, stand-back-and-watch-it-happen kind of way. He liked instigating things; he liked action. So he skipped college and moved to L.A., where he began making skateboard videos with friends. His do-it-yourself post-punk spirit perfectly fit the emerging alternative scene, and in 1992, he shot footage for Sonic Youth's "100%" video. Soon, he was the hip director on MTV. Jonze's great asset was his youthful exuberance. He could talk people into doing anything. For 1994's "Sabotage," the Beastie Boys dressed up in bad wigs, schlumpy suits and aviator shades, like in a cheesy '70s cop show; for "Buddy Holly," Jonze computer-imaged Weezer into a "Happy Days" episode. Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" was an "Umbrellas of Cherbourg"-style musical romp. Jonze's videos have a unifying thread: no angst. "I always make the Spielberg connection," says Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. "He has a real instinct for what people like."

And he wasn't limiting himself just to videos. In the early '90s, Jane Pratt, then editor of Sassy and now editor of Jane, hired Jonze to run a short-lived teen boys' magazine, Dirt. "Spike and [his coeditors] would conference-call me," Pratt says. "They'd go, 'OK, we want to do this issue where we take this mannequin head, and drive across the country and put the head on different people's lawns. Then we're going to set it on fire...' I was like, 'Um, OK.' But I always let them do it. That's the way Spike is: you never quite get it when he tells you what it's going to be. You just have faith, and it always turns out amazingly well."

There was just one thing missing from Spike's life. Kim Gordon and "100%" codirector Tamra Davis used to visit Jonze in L.A. and crash on his floor. "We were like, 'Why doesn't he have a girlfriend?' " Gordon remembers. They introduced him to actress Sofia Coppola. "I actually worked on it for a couple of years," Gordon says proudly. "They'd hang out together, but it was almost like the he's-too-nice syndrome. I was like, 'Show her your dark side!' We'd go to Thrifty's and try to find sunglasses for him."

Jonze and Coppola recently got married. After the interview, she's waiting for him, in the most demurely protective way, back at their Soho hotel with some friends. They don't kiss or act effusive; it's just a flash of the eyes, a secret recognition. Somehow you get the sense that they're great for each other. But how or why? They're not telling you.