Lost in Spacey
Kevin Spacey has always been notoriously hard to pin down, both in his work and his private life. But there are two passions that he is more than happy to discuss: the Old Vic theatre and the 1960s singer Bobby Darin, the unlikely subject of his latest film. By Jessica Berens
Here we are, major luvvie and me, staring at each other in an office lined with champagne bottles and ostrich feathers and pictures of Mick Jagger when he looked like a girl. It’s not his office, I hasten to add, before I give the mistaken impression that Kevin Spacey is at all camp, it is the office of Sally Greene, the chief executive of the Old Vic Theatre Trust.
I arrived expecting to have fun with a man reputed to be both clever and funny, to have a laugh and learn something. I hoped to broaden the conversation beyond the confines of the hallowed opus, but I do not care if Spacey is gay or not. I don’t care about anything really, except the truth of the moment. I don’t have any questions; I work in the way that he has said he prefers writers to work, to have a conversation where the tape-recorder is forgotten. But, today, he can’t allow this. Today he is tired. He is seeing the headlines and projecting the outcome and it must be exhausting to be so caged in.
‘Everything I say has been misinterpreted,’ Spacey says. ‘I will give you a recent example. Three weeks ago I did an interview with Radio 4. The chap was very friendly. The conversation broadened out to some of the disruptions in the theatre and to mobile phones.
‘The next morning there were headlines that said I had attacked theatre-goers. For weeks now they have been writing stories about the draconian sensibility that we have at the Old Vic, how outrageous, arrogant and snotty our attitude is, when we share exactly the same policy as any other theatre in the land – that of a polite inoffensive pre-show announcement about mobile phones.
‘Now why is that? Is it because I said it? I realise that a great amount of copy is written because people need to write something but the point is that the impression that gets out there is that I stood on the roof of the theatre and gave a speech. Does the British public out there actually think that I disrespect audiences who pay good hard-earned money to come to the theatre and enjoy a performance?’
The past month has not been easy for the new artistic director of the Old Vic. The reviews of Cloaca have been relentless in their universal disapproval. Everyone has been on his case, writing this and that, and the tabloids have been delighted to report that ‘Kevin Spraycey’ painted his head to hide a bald spot.
‘It’s not a spray,’ he says. ‘At every single premiere or television appearance that I have done in the last six years I have always put a little make-up on the back of my head for the simple purpose of not letting the television lights see the beach-front property. My hair has been going since I was in my twenties.
‘If I wanted to fool anybody about it I would have a weave or a wig, but I take the Sean Connery school of thought which is you wear one in movies but you don’t wear one in real life. Look, the fact of the matter is that they were running stories about how I was going bald, and how embarrassing that was. Now they are running stories about how I am trying to hide going bald. You can’t win. Actually it is better to start shutting up… Which I am going to start doing…’
I am on the sofa. Spacey is higher, stretched along two chairs, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. His apparel is low-key, a palette of caramel and blue; the eyes are cold and brown; the voice is a monotone American accent whose timbre does not alter to register emotion. Irritation arrives in the form of cool comment, as does opinion, so it takes more time for the listener to perceive the difference, than, for instance, if the voice resonated to reflect the content of its delivery.
Spacey decided to move to London and help run the Old Vic when, having donated funds to prevent it from becoming a strip club, he realised he wanted to become much more involved with the life of a theatre for which he feels real affection. He had recently finished American Beauty; he knew that a peak had been achieved that would be difficult to top. Spacey started off as a stage actor, and running a theatre was something he had always wanted to do.
Cloaca, which he directed, is the first in the season of plays that he has chosen for the Old Vic. It is about middle-aged men suffering various forms of mid-life crisis and presenting various degrees of disloyalty, loyalty, infidelity, mutual understanding and suicidal ideation.
‘Trite, manipulative and sentimental,’ was one critic’s opinion. I ask Spacey if men are really like those characters drawn by the Dutch writer Maria Goos. I don’t know the answer to this myself, though I suspect that yes, they are, that there is some truth in presenting the white, middle-aged, middle-class man as an impotent self-centred egomaniac trying to come to terms with his sense of disappointment.
‘It is not my job to defend this,’ he snaps. ‘It is my job to provide an entertaining play that audiences will enjoy.’ He claims that while the play did receive ‘a drubbing’, the morale of the production did not suffer and he remains optimistic about the audience reaction to it.
Cloaca is the first part of a considered strategy from which he does not intend to deviate.
‘Our objective in this first season was to do what we thought would be popular work that was fresh and inviting to a wider audience. We chose not to begin with a classic play because that would be what people would expect us to do; I’m more interested in the future of the theatre than its history.’
I suspect that Cloaca has suffered from the counter-effect of very high expectations. Spacey is right when he says that the audience likes Cloaca. There was a lot of clapping and laughing on the night I attended; and, as we all streamed out towards Lower Marsh, the night rang with enthusiastic praise.
The two hours drag slowly on. We talk of the culture of celebrity and he says it will go on until it stops making money. I wonder how he would like to be perceived and he says he does not want to be perceived. ‘I am my work.’ I ask if he knows what makes a good profile and he says, ‘I haven’t read a good profile in a long time.’ He says he doesn’t like it when people take pictures of him with their mobile phones; dislikes sneakiness in general, actually. ‘I shut down when I smell a directive from the editor.’
There is little laughter; when it does arrive it is as a low snigger (him) or an inappropriate outburst due to nervous hysteria (me). We skitter here and there and to his dog, Mini, a terrier mix that he adopted from Battersea Dogs Home as a puppy. She is not here today, unfortunately.
Is a dog a child substitute?
‘I don’t think so.’
Do you want children?
‘That’s my business.’
Do you think you would be a good father?
‘I don’t know if anyone knows that.’
What is a good parent, do you think?
‘I’ve seen examples of great parenting. You see that the children are both respectful and also free.’
Do you like children?
‘Yes. They are so untainted by the things that taint adults.’
What are adults tainted by?
For someone who shows little enthusiasm for the interview process, Spacey has done a lot of them. A wad of profiles describe a dedicated workaholic for whom invisibility provides protection, but who has ironically chosen the exact profession that corrodes the carapace because it demands exposure, not only in the making of the project, but in the social dynamics that are required to sell that project. His trajectory has been well traced from his youth in California to New York’s theatreland, then to television (a cop series called Wiseguy) to the breakthrough Glengarry Glen Ross in 1992. The Usual Suspects promoted him to the big time. He won an Oscar for the role of ‘Verbal’ Kint and went on to do memorable work in LA Confidential and Hurlyburly. He has purposely tried to remain unfathomable as a person and as an actor and, to an extent he has succeeded, turning himself into a chimera with no absolute truths. People’s opinions have turned him into an automaton that is the creation of everyone but himself. ‘The fact of the matter is that, so far, they haven’t gotten close. If they got close then maybe I would be upset. But I keep reading the same stuff because it is all they have got.’
His job at the Old Vic (and his support for local community projects), his work in Africa with Aids clinics, his democratic politics – all these reflect integrity. Warmth, though, rarely appears in interviews and, when it emerges in roles, it is often subsumed by sentimentality. As Eugene in Pay It Forward, for instance, he was a scarred teacher in a mawkish tale described in one accurate review as a ‘godsploitation atrocity’. It is no coincidence that his most successful character was Lester Burnham in American Beauty, a part that allowed him to combine his signature urbane delivery with a sexy susceptibility that gave truth and dimension to a great performance and allowed him to reveal vulnerability within the safety of a character.
Not today though. What does he like to do in London, I wonder. Are there any restaurants or shops he enjoys?
‘I eat and I shop.’
Where do you go?
‘Why would I tell you?’
Because I am trying to get an impression of how your life is here.
‘I live here.’
It’s not a sinister question.
‘If I tell you where I like to go…’
Everyone will turn up?
‘Yes. And that’s what I don’t want. Journalists have done that consistently in my life where they actually tell people where I live.’
I am trying to get an impression of what delights you about the environment rather than specifically encouraging the dangerous fan. Do you like English food? Which would make you very unusual…
‘Look, I don’t live in a world of cliche.’
Have you seen Puppetry of the Penis?
Have you been up the London Eye?
He has liked England since his parents brought him here as a child, but he has not been out of the city much. Cloaca demands his presence every night as he likes to go to the play and write notes for the actors. He will have more free time, he thinks, when he appears in the theatre’s production of Dennis McIntyre’s National Anthems next year. Recently there has been a lot of work, not only at the Old Vic but also in Hollywood, where he has been finishing his new film Beyond the Sea, a musical about the life of Bobby Darin, which he directed and in which he stars. Bobby Darin is a strange body to exhume. A lounge singer of the early 1960s, he is known for songs such as Splish Splash and Dream Lover. His legend, to date, is recorded in the form of esoteric websites and as a peculiar tribute on a 1995 edition of Stars In Their Eyes. Kitsch is a word that springs extremely easily to mind, but Spacey loves him and, looking at the later pictures of Darin, looks very like him. I show him a picture to prove this. ‘Well,’ he says, scrutinising the Bobby portrait carefully. ‘In the film I actually wear a nose, as he had a quite a honker, particularly from the side, which I don’t. They did a remarkable job because I don’t think it is noticeable, you’re not staring at the nose.’
Beyond the Sea sees him singing and dancing, if you can imagine such a thing. ‘There were many days when I would shoot all day long and then go to dance rehearsal,’ he says. There are a lot of MGM-style numbers and his legs whirl all over the place in ways that are almost miraculous.
It’s a long way from the psycho who chopped Gwyneth Paltrow’s head off in Seven, an act for which we must all be grateful.
This year he goes on the road as Bobby Darin and will tour America with a band singing the old songs. It is a bizarre career choice and he risks attracting hilarity, but, if there is one thing that is true about this cold person, it is his determination to do what he wants. He grew up singing along to Darin and he has wanted to play him since he started as a stage actor in his twenties. Why? ‘I think because he made decisions to reinvent himself. He wasn’t the Bobby Darin that people wanted him to be and the fact that he died so young has denied him a rightful place. He has in some ways been forgotten. It would be great if the spotlight was to come on him.’
What was it about him as a man that you connected with, as a character?
‘Obviously there are things about him that bear no relation to me but in the past five years there are aspects of his life that I have started to feel – the conflict that all artists face, which is that between professional expectation and personal freedom. Bobby chose personal freedom to the detriment of his career. I have experienced a number of years of people not wanting me to try the things I want to try. At the end of the day I think you do have to follow your heart. It is all part of a journey, but it has to be your journey.’
His mother, Kathleen Fowler (née Spacey, the surname the actor adopted in high school after the death of his maternal grandfather), also loved Bobby Darin and had always been keen on the idea of her son playing him. Fowler, who worked as a personal secretary, was always supportive to her son, encouraging him to attend Juilliard Drama School in New York after he was expelled from a military academy for fighting. ‘My mother thought I should do what made me happy and not be terribly worried about career moves, and I think that’s pretty good advice.’
She died of a brain tumour last year and Beyond the Sea is dedicated to her. The family received counselling to help cope with her illness and the prospect of her death, but nothing could have prepared Spacey for the ‘devastating blow’.
‘I always admired my mother,’ he says. ‘But I don’t think I fully appreciated the nature of her character until I saw how she dealt with her illness and how she taught us how to come to grips with it. She had a great sense of humour and she was funny right to the last week of her life.’
His father, Geoff Fowler, wrote aviation manuals but was often unemployed, and the family moved around, causing some instability. Kevin, the youngest of three, has described his father as a frustrated writer; his brother, Randall Fowler, however, has described him as a violent sexual predator. Speaking to a Sunday newspaper this year, Randall said that their father (who died in 1992) was a neo-Nazi sadist who had consistently beaten him and then raped him (Randall) when he was reaching adolescence. ‘He was a sick man,’ Randall said.
‘I have no comment,’ says Spacey.
There is a gloomy silence as the rain spits on the window framing the dusk descending on Waterloo. The shadow of the father hangs heavily in the air as I think about how the youngest person of this family kept himself safe and about the defence mechanisms that the psyche creates in order to survive. Invisibility is useful in scenarios where protection is of paramount importance.
OK, I say, we won’t go there.
‘Well, you might, but I won’t.’