AARP The Magazine
One Life To Give
by Kevin Spacey, September & October 2004
His parents taught him to be himself. Jack Lemmon taught him to give of himself. They’re gone now, but Kevin Spacey is still building monuments to his mentors.
Over the past few years a number of things have happened in my life that have made me think a great deal about the importance of helping others through life’s rough spots. My mother became quite seriously ill, I lost my friends and mentors Jack Lemmon and Jason Robards, and I dedicated myself to making a movie about Bobby Darin that nobody wanted to finance.
When my mother fell ill with terminal brain cancer two years ago, I took a year off to be with her and with my family. It’s not easy to say this, but during that time we had a remarkable experience.
You see, even though I was the one trying to help, she was the one helping me, by setting the tone. The doctors said there would be a period of denial, and then acceptance. But she skipped the denial and went right to acceptance.
My mother had one of the great senses of humor that I have ever known, and she kept us laughing right to the end. It was an incredibly beautiful time, to be able to spend endless hours and hours together. I’m definitely closer to my sister, my nephew, and my niece as a result of that year. We were all together a lot more than we had been before. It was my mother’s last gift to us.
Oh, there was one other thing: for some reason, my mother always wanted me to make a movie about Bobby Darin, the singer. And her last year was no exception. No matter how sick she was, every day she would ask me for a “B.D. update,” as she liked to call it. And I always had news. I was always trying to raise the money for production. I think part of the reason she cared so much was that my parents both loved music—they had a gigantic record collection and they often played Bobby Darin in the living room. But also, my mother knew that Bobby Darin’s life was a pretty incredible story that nobody knew. Genius, romance, politics, tragedy—it’s all there.
What’s interesting about Bobby is, you say “Bobby Darin” to people of this generation and they cock their heads, but then you sing four bars of “Splish Splash” or “Mack the Knife” and they go, “Oh! Bobby Darin!” Still, it was very difficult to get the movie made because the American movie studios hold this odd belief that people will go to see biographical movies only about people they already know. So I would pitch the film and then hear: “Yeah, but how many people are gonna know who Bobby Darin is?” That won’t be a problem for an older generation, but this is the type of resistance one faces in attempting to do a film also driven by music. I would answer these concerns with, “Whoever heard of Forrest Gump? Just pretend Bobby’s fictional!” Ultimately, I couldn’t make the movie in the United States. I couldn’t raise the money.
Within a couple of weeks after my mother passed, though, I said, “All right. I’m going to try to see this through.” I found the funding in the United Kingdom and Germany. We started shooting in Berlin last November. During the entire process of making the movie, I felt my mother looking over us. No matter what we did, she made it work. In November and December and January, Berlin is not known for its fantastic weather. But whenever we had to shoot outside, every time, the weather was beautiful. Then we went inside and it poured rain again. We’d go out and it would be beautiful. I swear, I really felt her presence. She was our weather god.
The idea of being an actor occurred to me at a young age — and my mother and father both gave me absolute support from the get-go. They never said, “You’ve got to have something to fall back on.” Instead, they said, “Great. What can we do to help?” By high school, I had become obsessed with drama. I’m the guy who did all the plays. I was directing plays, I was doing one-acts, I was doing festivals, doing musicals, I worked in summer theater. There always seemed to be 13 plates spinning.
We moved a lot when I was a kid. My father kept losing jobs. He wanted to be a writer, and he job-shopped a lot. So while when most people think of home they think of a particular place, I think of many places. Maybe that’s why I never minded the actor’s life, traveling around so much.
Now I live in London full-time. It is a place that holds fond memories from my childhood. My parents used to take us to London for vacation because my mother was a member of the Dickens Society. One of the things she did was take us to a play at the Old Vic Theatre. I remember being at the Old Vic when I was seven or eight years old. Now, not only am I living in London and still going to the Old Vic Theatre, but I’m the artistic director of the Old Vic. So these connections with my parents and the ways they encouraged and nurtured me as a child keep cropping up.
Doing theater is not easy. That’s what makes it worthwhile. A lot of times people in Hollywood will say to me, “I want to do a play, I want to do a play,” for years and years. I believed them years ago, but I’m not entirely sure I believe them anymore, after eight or nine years go by and they still haven’t done a play. I’m not one of those. To me, getting up every single night and trying to reach out to an audience, and trying to dig deeper and further into the play to serve the writer and to understand yourself in that context is how you continue to grow and learn.
One of the great influences in my life, as an actor, was Jack Lemmon. He consistently came back to the theater during his entire career. As did Jason Robards, whose theater career was one of the finest and with whom I not only shared roles in the theater (we both played Hickey in The Iceman Cometh) but also the same birthday.
I first met Jack when I was a junior high school student. I was about 13 years old. My class had taken a trip to see a production of a Sean O’Casey play called Juno and the Paycock, which starred Jack, Walter Matthau, and Maureen Stapleton. They did a Q and A afterward, and I asked Jack for advice: “What should I do to become an actor?” He looked me directly in the eye and he said, “If you’re really serious about being an actor, then you should go to New York and study theater.” And I did. It was great advice.
‘If you’ve done well, you’ve got to send the elevator back down.’
About 11 years after I first met Jack, I auditioned for Long Day’s Journey Into Night with him in New York. I couldn’t sleep for weeks in advance. To act with Jack Lemmon was a terrifying prospect. But I’d been really working and preparing, and we did about four scenes together, very rapid and fast. The relationship is between a father and a son, and the son is very volatile. The way I played him in that audition was kind of relentless. Jack put his hand on my shoulder once we’d finished and said, “You know what? I never thought I’d find the rotten kid, but you’re it.”
We did that play in New York and Washington and London, then put it on tape for American Playhouse, and we then did a feature film called Dad together, then a miniseries entitled The Murder of Mary Phagan, and then the David Mamet movie about salesmen, Glengarry Glen Ross. As you can see, in a very brief number of years, we ended up working together quite a lot, purely by happenstance. I didn’t even tell Jack when I was auditioning for Glengarry Glen Ross. The director had asked me to do a reading and I knew that Jack had flown in for it, and I remember I walked into the room and Jack was sitting there with his script and he looked up and saw me and went, “Oh, can’t you do something on your own?”
I really do miss Jack. We used to take walks around London and talk. He was somebody I always sought advice from. He taught me that one of the most satisfying things in the world is helping others learn to do their work. I just think it’s important. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
People like Jack gave me chances and opportunities when I was starting out, and I think it’s important to pass on the good fortune that’s come to you and you’re putting it to use. It’s a very rich idea. That’s why I helped to start an online showcase for novice filmmakers called Trigger Street. The original idea came from my business partner, Dana Brunetti, and we try to give exposure and support to filmmakers and screenwriters who might not get recognized otherwise. We have a saying at Trigger Street (also the name of my production company), and it’s a direct quote of something Jack used to say: “If you’re lucky enough to have done well, then it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”
It comes back to my work now at the Old Vic. It opened in 1818. John Gielgud made his debut here in 1921. Richard Burton was there. Judi Dench made her debut there. Peter O’Toole ran the theater for awhile. Laurence Olivier did some of his greatest work there. You know how sometimes you walk into a building and feel that it’s alive? There are very friendly ghosts at the Old Vic.
To me, it is the responsibility of this theater company to present new writers and new plays. To discover and nurture new talent. So that’s going to be a mandate of ours.
That’s where I find myself right now. I did stop for a while, took time for myself and my family. But now I’m reenergized and ready to dive back in. We’re opening the Bobby Darin movie at Thanksgiving, and I believe that the way to sell the movie is through the music, so I’ll be performing the music in lots of cities across America.
In some ways, I’m right back where I started in high school, with 13 plates spinning. The only difference now is that my mom can’t come and see what I’m doing. But she still does see it in her own way. It’s a nice thing to imagine that she is still tapping her feet to the music somewhere, beyond the sea, even today.
Kevin Spacey stars as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea, opening in theaters this November.