Broadband Monthly

“Spacey’s Parade” by Lori Lundquist

By the looks of him, he could be a well-liked middle school teacher.  Or maybe one in the flock of nine-to-fivers loosening their ties and tongues in suburban sports bars across the land.  He could be your alderman, your golf buddy, the guy across the street.  But somehow, in a business populated with the likes of Clooney and Crowe, Costner and Cruise, those plainly pleasant features have helped make Kevin Spacey a star.

How the actor made his marks in the annals of Hollywood depends on who you ask.  Fans of the hourlong television drama remember Kevin Spacey as shifty-eyed bad guy Mel Profitt in the late-80s series Wiseguy.  Didn’t succumb to the wiles of Wiseguy?  Perhaps you were lured by David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross by a then-white-hot Alec Baldwin, only to leave the theater wondering about the guy who played the white-knuckle office manager.

But it was in 1995 that Spacey put up a pair of winning, wicked performances in Seven (wherein beheaded neophyte Gwyneth Paltrow) and The Usual Suspects that made his face – if not his name – instantly recognizable.  Not that he seemed worried. For Seven, he specifically requested no credit so as not to give away his pivotal role in the film.  And when he got the chance to work with director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie, the darlings of the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, he made interesting use of his good fortune.

Spacey mutilated the bottoms of his shoes, glued his fingers together, and adopted a modified Eddie Munster hairdo for his turn as Suspects’ physically challenged, motor-mouthed con “Verbal” Kint. The freewheeling performance earned Spacey his first Oscar, and even he had to forgive fans who gleefully whispered “Keyser” in place of “Kevin” whenever his affable mug appeared.

With his star now turbocharged, the kid once known as Kevin Fowler, who ditched classes at Chatsworth High School to catch revival films in West Los Angeles, had become Kevin Spacey, man with many options.

Options of which he took full advantage, taking roles for the script, the adventure, the sheer fun of it all. He astounded Al Pacino with his knowledge of the Bard when he took part in Looking For Richard, Pacino’s quirky documentary about Shakespeare’s King Richard III.

He voiced a bullying bug in the Disney/Pixar collaboration A Bug’s Life.  He took a role in David Rabe’s big-screen adaptation of his celebrated Hurlyburly – in which Spacey had already done time in every male lead role for the stage.

Still, it was his nuanced performance as Sgt. Jack Vincennes in the atmospheric 1997 adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential that held critics and moviegoers even deeper in his thrall.  Cinephiles grumbled when Spacey was ignored by the Academy – though the actor himself probably never noticed.

“I’m motivated by real motivations, by real characters, by real stories, and I try not to be impressed by the elements of the film,” he told Bravo’s James Lipton during his 2000 turn in Lipton’s Inside The Actor’s Studio hot seat.

Then along came American Beauty. Written by Alan Ball, creator of HBO’s macabre comedy hit Six Feet Under, the unflinching, unfettered story of what festers beneath suburbia’s polished veneer was a veritable playground for Spacey.

“I couldn’t have done this role after Suspects,” the actor admitted shortly after the film debuted. “Because this industry loves to have you the way they discovered you, and they don’t want to let go of that idea.” But Spacey was ready to let go.

From the attention-getting shower scene that opened the film to the kitchen-table shocker that closes it, the actor was Lester Burnham, the henpecked yuppie who kicked his keeping-up-appearances life to the curb and replaced it with the cocksure insouciance of a trust-fund kid on summer break. He scored pot. He pumped iron in his garage, worked a BS fast-food job and lusted after a hot high-school chick. And he bought himself some fine new wheels (“1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted and now I have it.  I rule!”).

While critics’ associations across the nation fell over one another to honor him for the feat, they were ultimately overshadowed by the mighty Oscar.  A few journalists found the actor’s choice of date more newsworthy than his accomplishment – but the evening was clearly Spacey’s. And the actor clearly enjoyed it. Teased by a red-carpet reporter about the toned physique he maintained for Beauty, he used the moment to tweak a highbrow newspaper whose ill-timed poll predicted victory for Denzel Washington.

“Are you saying I was nominated because I’ve got a good ass?” Spacey demanded playfully.  “Is that what you’re saying?  Maybe the Wall Street Journal should do another poll about that.” And when victory was indeed his own, he surveyed the crowd soberly, then deadpanned, “This is the high point of my day.”

As 2001 came to a close, folks thought Oscar might come calling again after Spacey turned in another pair of disarming performances in K-PAX and The Shipping News – a film that seemed to wear its Oscar longing on its sleeve.  Asked his opinion, the actor admitted he doesn’t concern himself with awards because he already has plenty of them. “I don’t think it should be about awards and honors,” he says. “It should be about a good role.”

Ironically, Spacey was first pegged for the psychiatrist role in K-PAX, with Will Smith slated to play the whimsical is-he-or-isn’t-he alien, Prot. When Smith opted out of the project, the challenge-happy Spacey lobbied for the part that he really wanted to play and won it.

Though the film had an Autumn 2001 release – a time when most Americans would have happily traded this planet for another – Spacey wanted to make sure that the film was not so “out there” that its gentle-spirited message was lost. “Realism is important in what may seem to be an improbable part,” Spacey offers. “We wanted Prot to have certain eccentricities, but we wanted it to be real.  The premise of the film was very funny, but in order for it to be able to take a successful turn down a more serious road, you really had to make sure the comedy wasn’t ‘the wacky people in the mental home.’”

The actor especially enjoyed having the chance to “talk” to a dog, razzing that “the dog was one of the better actors I’ve worked with. Knew his lines. Didn’t pee on me. Actually, what was great about the particular take they used is that that dog wasn’t being cute at that moment. The dog interrupted me. I was supposed to go straight on with the rest of the dialogue and he started barking. So I said, ‘I bet he’s got more to say.’”

About Prot’s quirky eating habit of munching on fruit, peel and all?

“He really did that,” assures director Iain Softley of Spacey. “It took 10 takes, and he did gag a few times…but we didn’t show that.” Though it’s doubtful Prot’s alter ego would have minded if they did.

Spacey seems perfectly willing to sacrifice appearances – film or no film – if the end result is worth it. The actor says he was once at a benefit when a 7-year-old boy approached him and said, “So, you’re a movie star?”

Spacey responded, “Well, yes, I’m an actor in movies.”

“You don’t look like a movie star. You’re bald,” the boy informed him. (In many of his films Spacey wears a hairpiece.)

Spacey explained to the child that some of the most important movie stars – Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart – were follically challenged.

The boy considered that, then asked, “Can I be a movie star?”

Spacey smiles as he remembers his response. “I said, ‘No, you have too much hair.’”

AT&T Broadband Monthly – May 2002

Thanks to Chris for the scans and to Candis for the text.