Seriously Spacey

As he makes his directorial debut with Albino Alligator, Kevin Spacey talks to Mick Brown about acting, the cult of celebrity and how he keeps his head in a crazy world.

Over breakfast in the dining room of the Dorchester hotel Kevin Spacey had waxed long and eloquent on the actor’s role, the actor’s responsibility–serious subjects, but then Kevin Spacey is an actor who takes himself very seriously indeed–through cereal, scrambled eggs, toast, and three refills of coffee, until the maitre d’ asked if we would mind continuing in the lounge, the better for them to get with the vacuuming.

In the lounge, Spacey’s thoughts turned to Samuel Beckett. “I love Beckett…” he said, a glimmer of almost beatific enthusiasm passing across his face. “Let me tell you a story…”

Some years ago, he said, he had been in Paris, filming Henry and June, but also thinking about Beckett, talking about Beckett, looking for Beckett. Each day, he would take lunch in an open-air cafe in the Place des Vosges, from where he would watch an elderly woman taking the air on the balcony of her apartment. He became, he says, obsessed with this woman, to the point of photographing her each day with his telephoto lens. “She looked like Beckett…You know how some people’s lives are just etched in their faces…” Spacey swung his expensively-shod feet on to one of the Dorchester’s gold-embossed, antique console tables. (You can’t do that in here, I thought: but he was too preoccupied with his story to notice.)

You mean, the woman had character, I said.

“Exactly! There’s a wonderful play, Hospitality Suite, which describes this perfectly. A young man asks an older man, do you think I look as if I have character? And the older man says, no, for the simple reason that you don’t know yet what you have to regret.

“He says, you have things to regret, but you just don’t know it yet. Because character is when the things you have experienced in your life, and what you’ve learned from them, map themselves allover your face.” By that definition, I ask, does Spacey think he has character? “Buckets…”

So let’s look at Kevin Spacey’s face. The first thing to be said is that for a movie star Spacey is no matinee idol. At first glance, he looks as anonymous as a clerk in a hardware store: an oval face, crevassed cheeks, a certain hauteur around the mouth; a receding hairline; eyes that regard you with a certain guarded wariness. It’s a face that is capable of hiding as much as it reveals–a very good face for the kind of roles which have made Kevin Spacey one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood.

Spacey limped into public recognition playing the crippled conman, Verbal Kint, in the demonically clever thriller The Usual Suspects–the role which last year won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Spacey was the serial killer who put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box in Seven. Less well known, but no less powerful, was his starring role in the low-budget Swimming With Sharks, playing a bullying, utterly amoral movie executive, lording it over his hirelings.

In all of these films, Spacey’s performance rested on having the kind of face you would pass on the street without a second glance, but the sort of presence that draws you compellingly into the skin of whichever character he is playing.

They were performances that suggested that in the field of quiet menace, unsettling psychopathology, all-purpose creeps and conmen, Kevin Spacey is impressing as a worthy successor to Dennis Hopper.

Spacey, who is 37 belongs to that select club of ‘overnight sensations’ who have spent years painstakingly building a career, only to have the public at large believe that they have appeared from nowhere. Seven, The Usual Suspects and Swimming With Sharks were all released within the space of a few months in 1995–the tip of an iceberg of years of acting in films and theatre–projecting him from anonymity to instant recognition.

But whatever joy Kevin Spacey’s new-found fame may have brought him is tempered by a wilfully serious demeanour. Luxuriating in success is not Spacey’s style. His manner suggests that would be unseemly, that it would offend his sense of gravitas. Stardom is regarded with the kind of wariness that people usually reserve for rattlesnakes, the razmatazz and hoopla of Hollywood with an almost calculated indifference.

Most actors nominated for their first Academy Award might be expected to arrive at the ceremony with their wife, girlfriend, or at the very least some photogenic starlet, provided by central casting, on their arm. Touchingly, Kevin Spacey arrived with his mother, “Sure, winning an Oscar is nice, but The Usual Suspects was written as an ensemble piece, and to be picked out of an ensemble is a little bit embarrassing”,” He shifts in his seat, “All this emphasis on winning and losing instead of just wanting people to experience and to progress and to find something out about each other…” Spacey shakes his head. “There’s too much of that in this business. It’s all about who’s up and who’s down, who’s hot and who’s not. And it’s all just copy, and it’s trivia and it’s meaningless.”

Of course, Hollywood is full of rebels, publicly disavowing the system that sustains them, while living it up to the hilt. But Spacey is made of more serious stuff. He spent the day after winning his Academy Award not with a champagne hangover or en route to the Caribbean, but holed up in an editing suite, working on his first film as a director, Albino Alligator.

For Spacey, being given the opportunity to direct is clearly a much greater thrill than anything the Academy has to offer. “I’ll never forget the day I got the phone call from my agent,” says Spacey. “I’d had three or four conversations with him about the desire I had to direct, and forgotten all about it. And then one day he just called me out of the blue and said, you’ve been given an offer. I thought, what! I’d never met with anybody, never discussed it with anybody. Later on, I learned that my agent had been working on these producers for four or five months.” Spacey laughs. “I shudder to think of the restaurant bills. And I said, what’s it called? And he said, Albino Alligator. And my first thought was, what the hell can that be about?”

What it’s about is sacrifice. Albino Alligator tells the story of three smalltime criminals on the run from the police in New Orleans, who take refuge in a basement bar, holding the handful of customers hostage. It is a tightly-plotted, high-tension ‘chamber’ piece, a conscious homage to the ‘box dramas’ of the early Hitchcock films, which throws all the emphasis on acting, rather than style or special effects–exactly the kind of directorial debut, in fact, you would expect from someone as thoughtful and as intense as Spacey. (The performances Spacey gets out of Matt Dillon and Faye Dunaway are the best either actor has given in years.} The ‘albino alligator’ is the creature which, in the wild, the others sacrifice to make a deliberate gain. How far will the hostage takers go in order to save their own skins? Which of them will be the ‘albino alligator’?

“For me,” says Spacey, “the drama of the story lies not just in whether people live or die, or even who lives or dies, but about the choices people might be faced with in this sort of situation, and what they are willing to live with. That’s a compelling idea to me, and it was an idea that on a certain level I had been dealing with in terms of my territory as an actor . What is it that people are prepared to do to get what they want? Everyone is faced with that question. And certainly in an industry that has as many traps and seductions as the film industry  you’re faced with it all the time.”

Spacey’s road began as a peripatetic teenager growing up in California. His father wrote technical manuals for the aircraft industry for a living, but was often unemployed, and the family moved frequently. Spacey was a difficult child. At the age of 14, his parents shipped him off to military academy following a domestic fracas–“let’s just say it involved my sister’s tree-house and some matches”–where he lasted only a few months before being expelled for hitting a classmate with a tyre.

“I didn’t like the mentality of military school,” he says flatly. “I didn’t like its violence, and I responded to being hit in the only way I knew how, which was to hit back, and I got thrown out. And I was f***ing delighted.”

An interest in drama, and the support of his mother, turned him round. Leaving school, Spacey made an abortive foray into showbusiness as a stand-up comedian, doing impressions of Gary Grant and James Stewart before enrolling for two years at the Juilliard school of acting in New York. This led, in turn, to a job as an assistant to the legendary Broadway producer Joseph Papp, “handing out pens and pencils” while acting in “off-off-Broadway” roles.

“Joe came to see one of these plays, and the next day he called me into his office and fired me. I remember sitting there thinking, he comes to see a play I’m in, then fires me next day. What the hell does that mean? And he said, ‘Young man, you should be acting, and you’ve gotten too comfortable sitting here making $125 a week; go and do what you have to do.’ And he pushed me out of that door in the most fatherly way. And four months later, he and his wife were in the audience for the opening night of my first Broadway play .”

Spacey concentrated on building a career on stage and in television, winning a Tony award for his role in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. It was that play which brought him to the attention of Hollywood, and a role in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

Since then he has worked methodically, turning his back, he says, on offers for films and television pilots which might have provided “gobs of money”, but would have hampered his ability “to look myself in the eye when I shave in the morning”, he adds. “I made a conscious decision to never allow myself to be put in a position where I had to make a choice that I did not want to make.

There are not many people, I say, who could say as much. “I know. But while I’ve been working, I’ve also been watching, seeing how people respond to what happens to them–in terms of success or non-success.”

This, he suggests, has not provided an altogether happy spectacle. “How many times do you say to yourself about someone who you once thought was interesting, whatever happened to them? And I know that when that happens it’s because I feel that someone has taken advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given and just run to the bank. That’s the thing that I always find distasteful.”

Who, I ask, has disappointed you? Spacey frowns. “The bigger question is, who hasn’t? It’s a much smaller list. No, actually, there are quite a few who haven’t. But when I grew up I was lucky enough to have discovered people like Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy. Those were the people I grew up watching. The greats who remained great; who didn’t disappoint.”

All of this merely confirms your suspicion that Spacey regards acting less as a job than a higher calling. He talks earnestly of the “responsibility” of being an actor and director; the obligation “to honour that role, not to take advantage of it”; of the moral imperative of putting the work before the career.

“1 think it’s important for an actor not to get seduced by the elements of a film–who else is in it? What percentage points am I on? The point is not what this part is going to do for me, but what is this story going to do for us. That’s what our job is.” For this reason, he says, he has tried to make it a policy to read scripts without knowing which role the producers want him to play.

“There’s a terrible temptation as you move up in the business to think, oh that’s a good monologue, as if your role is more important than anything else. But the function of an actor is, first and foremost, to serve the writer; and if you serve the writer, and understand the world the writer has created, then you will ultimately serve yourself, because you’ll be on the right track. If I respond to the story, then I’ll want to pursue it. If I don’t respond to the story, then I shouldn’t get near it.”

His work to date has borne out the success of the theory. When he first read the script for The Usual Suspects, he says, he had no idea which part the producers had in mind for him. “I just knew I wanted to do the film. I called Bryan [Singer, the film’s director], and he said, is there any part you like? I said the character of Verbal is the one I’m most attracted to. And it turned out that was the one they’d written for me, because they knew my work from the stage.”

The background to his role in Seven, playing a serial killer pursued by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, suggests an even more idiosyncratic approach to the question of casting. Spacey says he accepted the role on the condition that his name did not appear on the billing.

“When I read the script I thought, OK, here’s a character that for half the movie, you don’t think the police are ever going to catch. You don’t know who he is. He’s a frightening, unseen presence. I said to my agent, by the time this movie opens, Swimming With Sharks and The Usual Suspects will both be out, so my screen persona might be higher than it is today. So if I’m an audience member and I’m sitting through the opening credits of the movie, and there’s Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and presumably I would have been the next name after the title, and it’s a movie about the two of them chasing this serial killer, and I don’t show up for the first 30 minutes, who do you think I’m playing?”

“So I thought, let’s not tip off the audience. Then maybe the tension of whether they’ll ever catch the killer will be greater than it is already .”

On the one hand, this shows a commendable selflessness in the interests of the film at large. On the other, it should be remembered that when the serial killer finally appears on screen, there is only one question in the minds of the audience: who’s the guy playing him? For Kevin Spacey, not having billing turned out to be a very good career move. “It also meant for me that I got to be in a movie that has made $400 million worldwide, and I didn’t have to do a single interview with the press.” Spacey’s tone suggests this may have been the biggest blessing of all.

He is as guarded on the subject of his life off the screen as he is eloquent about his life on it, which can make him an extremely elusive man to interview. He is prepared, for example, to tell you that he lives in New York, but not which part of New York. By the end of our conversation I have no more idea of whether Spacey is single, married or a monastic celibate than I did at the beginning. The closest he comes to any kind of revelation about his personal life is when I ask what he thinks about as his head hits the pillow last thing at night.

“When is she coming to bed…” He laughs. Who is she? “Ah…” He arches an eyebrow. “You never know..

Spacey offers an actor’s justification for his reticence. ‘Personality’ journalism, the public’s inexhaustible appetite for tittle-tattle and trivia about an actor’s personal life, the cult of celebrity…all of these things are not only invasive, a violation of privacy; on a more pragmatic level they make it harder for an actor to convince an audience of the role he is playing on screen. “The job of the actor is to convince people that you’re somebody else for a couple of hours and the more I’m out there yapping, the less my ability to do that becomes successful.”

He shifts in his chair. “Let me put it this way. I never knew f*** all about Spencer Tracy; I didn’t know a thing about Henry Fonda. I believed that they were the people they were acting. I don’t want to know anything about the actors I see on screen except their performance. I’m not going to complain about suddenly having found myself a public figure, but I will say there is a time and a place. I show up at a premiere, hey baby take my picture…But I truly believe that no amount of verbiage that I carry on about in the course of a conversation, or that gets written about me, means anything at all.”

There is a darker side to this argument. More than ever before, the lives of film stars have become the stuff of public speculation and private fantasy. The Internet has provided an electronic grapevine to feed the obsessive. While filming A Time to Kill” with Sandra Bullock, Spacey says, the Net would be filled with reams of gossip and innuendo– presumably posted by extras working on the film–about the relationship between him and Bullock, “all of it complete fabrication. The Internet has become the place where anybody can write anything about whomever they like, with impunity, and that’s dangerous.”

Since the murder of the television actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a stalker in 1989, Hollywood at large has become infected with a paranoia about the invasiveness of fans Madonna, Michael J. Fox and Jodie Foster are just three actors who have been prey to obsessives.

The nature of his most recognizable roles–sinister, mysterious or flat out psycho–has meant that Spacey has also attracted the attention of cranks who, he says, his voice heavy with irony, “believe they need to save me.” It is not a subject he is comfortable with, and he soon steers the conversation back to acting. Cranks, his attitude suggests, are like press interviews, even like Academy Awards. They come with the territory , but they’re not the territory itself .

“My reasons for wanting to be an actor haven’t changed. What’s changed is the public recognition–neither of which bothers me. You have to remember, always, the important thing is the work.” His father, he says, worked all his life writing technical manuals and nobody sang his praises for that. But he also wrote fiction. After his death three years ago, Spacey had the opportunity to go through his notebooks. “Even though we were close, it was like meeting someone I didn’t know. He never let anybody read his work while he was alive.” Spacey shakes his head thinking of this. His family were not wealthy, he says, and sacrifices were made to enable him to pursue his interest in acting. “When I started drama school my mother used to leave work early, drive me to acting class, go for a coffee somewhere, come back and pick me up, take me on to another class. She wasn’t a stage mother, pushing me. I wanted to do these things. I owe her a lot.”

So having her accompany you to the Academy Awards was by way of a thank you? “It meant a great deal to her to be there. And it meant a great deal to me.” He laughed. “It upset a couple of people, but I was very proud to have my mother on my arm.” This, I thought, shows character.

By Mick Brown; The Daily Telegraph, August 9, 1997