ELLE (UK) 2006

AND NOW FOR THE BAD GUY

Two time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is returning to the big screen as Superman’s arch enemy Lex Luthor. Janice Turner meets him to talk sleep deprivation, table tennis and nicotine addiction.

ELLEaugust06oneI blunder  into Kevin Spacey five minutes after I check into the hotel. Looking for the stairs, I wander along a corridor towards a pall of cigarette smoke. Spacey and an assistant look up from a landing table, spread with papers, laptops, coffee cups and a scrunched-up Marlboro Lights pack. Spacey shrinks into his seat eye and avoids eye contact, his whole self screaming, ‘Go away!’

The showbiz cliche ‘very private person’ goes nowhere near describing Kevin Spacey’s loathing of celebrity, being written about frivolously or even being branded a Hollywood movie star. We meet in Germany because he and the cast of London’s Old Vic theatre – of which Spacey is artistic director – are performing Shakespeare’s Richard II at an arts festival. You wonder if he’s chosen the obscure Recklinghausen as it’s so far away from the media hoopla.

When we speak, Spacey’s mind coils round our conversation, sifting for traps. I say that Greg Wise (husband of Emma Thompson) who plays Bolingbroke in the play, is a sexy guy and he replies woodenly, ‘Er, he’s a very talented actor.’ I ask if he still has a flat near Kennington, where he was mugged late at night in circumstances that had the tabloids agog, and he freezes until reassured it’s an innocent inquiry about living near his theatre.

Spacey appears in the hotel garden in a cream jacket and matching cap. I tell him he seems to be channeling The Great Gatsby and he smiles languidly. ‘I’ll take that,” he drawls in his rich, gorgeous growl. ‘I’ve always been a hat man.’ Is that because you have, erm, a hair issue? He whips off the cap to reveal a thinning pate. ‘Oh God, no! I am what I am. I have a bald spot. It’s fine. My feeling is, if it’s good enough for Nicholson, it’s good enough for me.’

Spacey is shortish – about 5ft 9in – but broad in the shoulders with a large head and meaty hands. Tufts of chest hair protrude from his shirt. His allure comes less from his looks, which at 46 are grumpy in repose, than from virility and an unexpected litheness. Many of my friends find him hot: humour and intelligence play behind the eyes, suggesting someone temptingly twisted.

These qualities have helped him create arch villains who look like they’d be great company at dinner: ghastly John Doe in Se7en, the hellish boss in Swimming With Sharks, Dr Evil in Austin Powers and this summer the most iconic baddie of all, Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor. Played by Gene Hackman in the Christopher Reeve movies, Luthor was an almost comic adversary. But Superman Returns is ‘a richer, deeper, darker, more emotionally involving Superman than we’ve seen; says Spacey. ‘I think Luthor is decidedly different. This is a Luthor out for revenge.’

Superman Returns could be Spacey’s first hit movie for seven years. His recent choices – K-Pax, Beyond the Sea – have been poorly received. But, he insists, he was only serious about movie acting for 10 years. When he reached 40, speaking other people’s words no longer seemed enough. ‘I wanted to utilize my talents and position to do something that’s not just about making more movies and more money and buying more things.’

Besides, he’s never enjoyed the circus that accompanies Hollywood stardom. ‘The attention, praise, awards, the yada-yada! I have never liked it at all. I play a good game, but I’m very uncomfortable.’

So three years ago, Spacey moved to London to run the Old Vic. This is his full-time job; movie acting is a sideline now. And, boy, is he serious about his work. He’s staying 10 years and has plans not just to put on hit plays but to change the world. He has a prograrnme to get low-income families to his shows, after finding 98 per cent of those living near the Old Vic had never set foot inside this ‘rich person’s island’.

Usually, he’s up at 6am. ‘I’ve always survived on four or five hours’ sleep. My mother was the same.’ He runs or plays tennis before walking to work, getting into the office before anyone else. His day is a whirl of meetings, which, if he is performing, stops at 5.30pm for a 45- minute catnap. He’s home at midnight and ‘my Los Angeles day begins’, making calls to his production company until 2am.

So what of tales of gossipy nights spent at the Ivy with Peter Mandelson and the Pet Shop Boys? Spacey recoils, ‘It’s crap! I’ve read so many reports about me being friends with people I’ve only shaken hands with at parties. I take my job seriously. I’m not in it for all this fluff they want to write. I’ve only been to the Ivy six times!’ Then Spacey recounts his favourite untrue story, that he is desperate to make a sequel to The Usual Suspects with Gabriel Byrne and Benicio Del Toro. ‘Think about that,’ he says. ‘They both die in that movie. ..,

His friends are mostly high-school pals, not famous folk. Except Judi Dench, whom he met while filming The Shipping News a month after her husband died. Spacey made it his mission to make her laugh, and taught her table tennis. ‘She’s a lovely, funny, genuine woman. We make each other giggle.’

Travelling by Tube or on his scooter, Spacey is seldom recognised in London. ‘I can get in and out of anywhere and no one ever knows I’m there!’ he says with triumph. ‘But I don’t have a sense of home,’ he adds. Spacey’s childhood was fractured by frequent moves to wherever his father, who wrote technical journals, could find work. ‘It was tough, but I adapted to it and turned it into a virtue.’ Home now is not a place but a feeling. ..and photographs. ‘I have photos of people who’ve meant something to me; he says. ‘It brings me comfort to look across the room and see someone’s cheeky smile.’

Are friends more important than relationships? ‘No, but I don’t talk about relationships. Those are private. Always will be. Until the day I die.’ But isn’t the quid pro quo of fame that you get the acclaim and riches, the audience gets to know the star? ‘I’d look any fan in the eye,’ he says, ‘and say you have no right to anything from me except the best performance I can give.’

By the end of our interview, Spacey’s ashtray is brimming. Do loved ones never nag him to stop smoking? ‘No, because they know I could stop any time.’ Why don’t you stop now? He narrows his eyes and says in a playful voice, ‘Are you nagging me?’ and for a second I get an insight into how wicked and uproarious he must be in private.

When I check out, Spacey descends into the lobby. He has to brush past me to exit the hotel but, perhaps because he’s had enough yada-yada for the day, Kevin Spacey ignores me.

Superman Returns is out on 14 July.

ELLE (UK) – August 2006