by Eric Koch

Of course he was proud of his Oscar. But in the golden mark of honor for his role in The Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey saw dark spots. Now, four years later, he has cleaned them carefully. The result of his efforts will show in March. Then it will be clear if a new Oscar crowning will add lustre to his impressing, versatile performance in American Beauty. “I could have earned a country estate in Malibu by playing cynical bastard roles, but as a purebred New Yorker, I don’t give a damn”, says Spacey at the presentation of his new movie in London. “Interesting roles mean more to me. American Beauty is my new showpiece.” “I’ve been looking for a movie like this for a long time. Hollywood likes to keep seeing you the way you we’re discovered. I debuted in ’95 on the white canvas with three dark roles, and it’s hard to get rid of that image. I’ve carefully chosen movies in which I could show a different facet of me every time, so that in the cinema I could finally could play the kind of persons that I’ve portrayed for over 2 decades on stage. People like Lester, in American Beauty, with their dreams, their ambitions and their disappointments.”

No matter how typical American Lester Burnham’s suburbia is, his dilemma’s are universal. “Lester has lost his dreams”, judges Spacey. “He realizes that what was important to him, actually doesn’t matter at all. His ideals were wrapped in materialism; the right house, the right car, the right body. Like a lot of people he then tries to change that outside, only to finally realize  the change has to be on the inside. Changing isn’t easy, especially if you don’t know what to look for. You do what everyone does. Our life is based on perception. You see what you want to see. You believe what you want to believe. A wrong judgment can easily lead to a tragedy, like in American Beauty. With many events in the world you think; How could this have gone so far? Simply because people misunderstand each other. We’ve  meanwhile entered the 21st century, have an enormous technology and almost unlimited access to information. But that still doesn’t mean understanding, or better communication. Lester’s growing process takes place almost unnoticed. “That was for me the biggest challenge of this role”, says Spacey. You can’t see him change any moment. It had to be organic, small shifts in the way Lester emotionally,  spiritually and physically behaves at a certain point”.

The most obvious is the physical improvement of the main character. To impress his daughter’s girlfriend Lester manages through radical fitness training to change his flopped out belly into a tight torso. “Deceit”, admits Stacey. “I was at the beginning of the filming  as fit as at the end, but with grimy make-up, sagged shoulders and a stuck-out belly, you look like you just came out of a bar. You have to use this kind of tricks when the shooting period is limited. That was also because Annette Bening and I played on stage at the same time” Spacey grins.

Sam Mendes didn’t like it at all. As a stage director he always had to change scheme’s because  actors had to go and make movies, and at his movie debut  he was forced to adjust the shootings to the theater shows. No matter how important American Beauty was for Spacey, he wouldn’t let it get in the way of his role in The Iceman Cometh. “Theatre still is my base. And not only mine. What would film or tv be without theatre? Without the writers and the ideas it has generated?” The fact that people only come to the theatre because they know me from a movie doesn’t matter. Important is that they do come. At The Iceman Cometh we have each night 150 seats reserved for students. Those seats were more or less sponsored  by the other visitors, who had to pay $ 100 for a ticket. This way we have reached 12,500 youngsters in 6 weeks time, who otherwise never would have come. And maybe we’ve given some of them something that will enrich their lives. I’ve done seminars with 7000 of those young visitors. If we don’t encourage a new generation, then in the future no one will care about theatre anymore. In my way I’m trying to give something back for all the prosperity acting has given me. Fame and money have never been a reason for me to do crazy things. I don’t want to have anything to do with colleagues gone loose. That’s why I take the time to consider who to work with. You don’t ask that to a producer. He will always say that your opponent or the director is a great guy and a pure professional. If you want to know what someone is really like, you gotta talk with the film crew. Then you hear that that fantastic director of that much admired actor is a s.o.b on the set, who snaps at everyone. I don’t want to have negative feelings with acting. That’s also why I turn down roles of which I think I’m not the right person. The story, the role or the director may be really interesting, but I must feel that I can add something to the product”.

Because of collegiality he won’t mention names, but other actors have been really successful with roles Spacey declined. “I’m happy for them. I think in those cases that the movie would have had less quality with me in it. You can better be remembered of your best roles. Like I keep in mind my youth idols Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. I wanted to be that subtle. Never caught acting.” ~

De Telegraaf, January 2000
Dutch to English translation thanks to Sandra.