Biography 2003

Celebrities: Kevin Spacey: A Candid Conversation

By KATHY PASSERO

BiographyFeb2003A throng of eager fans is nearly knocking over the orange-striped barriers around the stage door to get Kevin Spacey’s autograph. But Spacey, politely scribbling his initials again and again, seems oblivious to the chaos. He glances up and spies a short, grandmotherly woman struggling to hold her ground amid the frantically waving arms and jostling elbows. Ignoring more aggressive autograph seekers, he calmly reaches over to take her program and signs it with a dramatic flourish. “For you, signorina,” he says, bowing low as she beams.

Clearly, Spacey knows how to tune out distractions and focus on what he considers important. Sometimes that means rejecting big, lucrative offers in order to work on small films or plays for minimal pay. Other times it means shrugging off prying speculation about his personal life and steering public attention back to the projects that matter to him.

Right now, it means ignoring my gushing praise for a past performance (I was in the stage-door crowd after seeing him on Broadway in The Iceman Cometh) and talking instead about his latest film, The Life of David Gale. Spacey plays the title character, a death penalty abolishionist who is on Death Row for the rape and murder of a fellow colleague (Laura Linney). The plot unfolds in flashbacks as Gale tells his story to a reporter (Kate Winslet), who finds herself struggling to determine whether he’s a monster or an innocent man.

That same enigmatic quality is a large part of Spacey’s own appeal. It’s why reporters are always griping that he’s hard to read and what allows him to slip convincingly into the skin of so many different characters. And it’s how–despite average-Joe looks, thinning hair, and a slightly nasal, decidedly non-movie-star voice–he has won two Oscars, earned fierce admiration from fans and colleagues alike, and become firmly ensconced among Hollywood’s heavy hitters.

Spacey doesn’t mind being labeled an enigma at all. The way he sees it, the less people know about an actor the easier it is to believe him in his roles. Fortunately, though, he’s willing to forego that viewpoint today and reminisce about his early life, his breaks in acting, and how he got to where he is now–the top.

I was always the performer in my house,” says Spacey, born Kevin Spacey Fowler in South Orange, New Jersey, July 26, 1959, one of three children of a technical manual writer and a secretary. “I loved to tell jokes, be silly, and make my mom and dad laugh. I was also lucky that my parents took us to the theater from the time I was very young.” Even as a kid he loved movies and would often sneak downstairs to watch late-late shows on TV after the rest of the family was asleep. The Fowlers moved to Southern California when their children were small, renting houses in Malibu and other towns a stone’s throw from Hollywood. By the time Kevin reached adolescence he had entered a rebellious phase, and after he accidentally torched a shack in the backyard and found himself abruptly shipped off to military school.

“It wasn’t as if I had some deeply troubled childhood,” he explains it. “But I did become very undisciplined. My father was a disciplinarian, so he sent my brother and me to Northridge Military Academy. Clearly I wasn’t meant to stay there, because I quickly got myself thrown out.” He was expelled for flinging a tire at another student during a fight–just after he earned a medal for leadership, ironically enough.

“I’m actually grateful because it led me to a guidance counselor who saw that if I focused on something creative I might be better off. A series of electives was suggested, and one was drama.”

Kevin transferred to a local public high school, signed up for the drama club, and proved such a natural that word of his talent reached nearby Chatsworth High, which recruited him. It was there that he realized acting was his calling.

“I can pinpoint the exact performance where it all came together,” he recalls. “I was playing a very negative character in the Arthur Miller play All My Sons in 11th grade, and the audience virtually booed me offstage. I had this strange feeling of ‘Wow, I just did my job; I convinced them to think what I want them to think.’ It was profound–it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. From that moment I knew what I was meant to do.”

After graduating, Spacey headed to Manhattan’s Juilliard School as 1 of only 28 students accepted to its prestigious acting program in 1979 (to give you an idea of just how prestigious it is, Spacey’s classmates included Kelly McGillis, Elizabeth McGovern, and Ving Rhames). But, impatient to get on with life, he dropped out after two years and started auditioning. He landed a series of small roles in New York Shakespeare Festival productions and struck up a friendship with late producer Joseph Papp, who hired him to work odd jobs for the festival…then unceremoniously fired him nine months later.

“[Joe] came to see me in this off-off-Broadway play–it was an unpaid workshop production–and kicked my ass out the door right after that,” says Spacey, with a laugh. “He thought I’d become too safe making my $125 paycheck every week and that I ought to be doing what I loved–acting–so he forced me to go get a job as an actor. I was shocked, but I will forever be grateful because four months later he was at the opening night of my first Broadway play.”

Unfortunately, a series of unsuccessful auditions followed that debut–enough to convince him to leave Manhattan and spend several years doing regional theater. When not acting, he worked the stand-up comedy circuit.

“When I was about 17, I started doing impressions,” he says. “I would do Johnny Carson, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant in various situations; that was the basis of my act. I did comedy clubs, talent shows, I even auditioned for The Gong Show. I didn’t even get the official gong; I got pre-gonged, which was a great embarrassment because my classmate, Mare Winningham, won the damned thing.”

As a starving actor in New York, Spacey’s gift for impersonating celebs proved a boon: “We’d go to clubs and I’d claim to be Johnny Carson’s son, Kevin,” he says. “I’d say [and here he slips into a dead-on imitation of the famous Tonight Show host], ‘Daddy’s supposed to join us at 10.’ Suddenly we’d find ourselves at a table with a bottle of champagne. I guess I abused it, but hey, when you’ve got no money in New York you do what you can.”

It wasn’t all laughs, though. In fact, Spacey looks back on his early years with some chagrin; he’s dubbed the phase his “attitudinals.”

“I was very young and insecure and naive, and I probably thought I was better than I was. That manifested itself in a way that was arrogant and obnoxious,” he says. “I was also drinking too much. If I had kept drinking and drowning my life in that, I could have ended up on a bar stool saying, ‘It should have been me.’ Luckily, I stumbled into the right people and the right influences and eventually made a life adjustment.”

One of those influences was Jack Lemmon, with whom Spacey starred in his breakthrough Broadway performance in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1986. “You couldn’t ask for a better mentor, teacher, and father figure,” Spacey says. “He had reached the height of Hollywood glory, but always kept one foot firmly planted in the theater and never lost his sense of humor or became something he didn’t want to be. He was the first to admit that he went through a period in the late ’60s and early ’70s where he was drinking too much and his behavior was beginning to manifest itself in a similar way to mine. To have these conversations with somebody of his stature was remarkable.”

Another mentor was Katharine Hepburn. “When I was 14, I saw her in a production called A Matter of Gravity. I found out where she parked her station wagon–which she drove herself–and when she came out of this loading dock, there I was with a bouquet of red roses. She took them and said [perfectly replicating Hepburn’s famously quavery voice], ‘You waited for me. How lovely.’ She stuck the flowers on the passenger seat, then sat on the bumper and talked to me for 10 minutes.

“When I was doing Long Day’s Journey, she came backstage, but I was so overcome with excitement that I couldn’t bring myself to tell her we’d met before. The next day I sent her a letter and a bouquet of roses. She sent back a note saying it was the first time she’d received flowers for going to the theater, and we began a correspondence that lasted for years. She’s been incredibly supportive.”

Around the same time, Spacey made another important connection in the form of director Mike Nichols. Nichols hired him to understudy for the male roles in Broadway’s Hurlyburly in 1985, and one year later gave him his first film role, in Heartburn, as a subway thug who mugs Meryl Streep. (He was supposed to wink at Streep, but was so nervous his face wouldn’t stop twitching.)

Next came a recurrent role as a menacing international arms dealer on TV’s Wiseguy, then a return to the stage in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, for which he won a 1991 Tony Award.

By the early ’90s, Spacey’s name was appearing more often in movies (1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross and 1994’s The Ref ). And in 1995 he hit a trifecta with Se7en, Swimming With Sharks, and The Usual Suspects. His portrayal of the deceptively meek and hapless con man “Verbal” Kint not only earned Spacey a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, it made him an overnight sensation.

He followed Suspects with a number of acclaimed performances, including L.A. Confidential (1997) and American Beauty (1999), for which he won a Best Actor Oscar.

Unfortunately, with increasing fame came unwanted scrutiny of his private life. When a 1997 Esquire article presumed to “out” Spacey as gay, he was incensed enough to issue a statement accusing the magazine of homophobia and McCarthyism. Though Spacey is still loath to discuss his personal life with reporters, he talks enthusiastically about his hopes of having children someday and, in his Best Actor Oscar speech at the 2000 ceremony, surprised fans with an emotional tribute to a long-term girlfriend few knew he had.

“I don’t spend much time thinking about what people know or think they know or speculate on,” he says. “I know what I participate in, what I’ve said, and what I haven’t said. There’s a lot you don’t have control over, so you just try the best you can to stay under the radar. I focus on my work and the things I care deeply about.”

Among those are numerous humanitarian, educational, and social causes. Last year he accompanied former President Clinton to Africa to study the AIDS epidemic.

Before that, he worked with Camp Broadway to give students discounted tickets to The Iceman Cometh and tirelessly toured area schools to discuss the play with them. More recently, his production company, Trigger Street Productions, developed a program to nurture new screenwriting, acting, and directing talent.

“I believe very strongly that if you’ve done well in your profession your obligation is to spend about half your time sending the elevator back down–to help others fulfill themselves,” he says. “I had such great fortune because people believed in me, took me under their wing, and supported my talent long before I had ever displayed any. If you nurture someone at the right place and time, who knows what they’ll do. You have to try to give it back in some way because at the end of the day that’s all you can do with it. It’s not like you can take it with you.”

Kathy Passero is a senior editor of this magazine.

Biography, February 2003.