KEVIN SPACEY: Oscar-winning talent, psycho du jour, the new Jack Nicholson. It just keeps getting better. And now, with ALBINO ALLIGATOR, he’s doing the directing thing. Adam Smith goes out to lunch with the man who has put the cool back into “Kevin.”

“How the hell did that happen?” Kevin Spacey is staring at the distressed remains of his cheeseburger which – rather than resting neatly next to a pile of five dollar fries where it had been a second before – is decorating the well-scrubbed terrace of The Chateau Marmont, the kind of swish Hollywood hotel in which such things just aren’t meant to happen. “This is just so wrong,” he laments. “If it had stayed on the bun that would have been fine…”

But there are no psychotic outbursts directed at quivering underlings along the lines of Swimming With Sharks. No long-winded dissertations on the essential s***iness of everything, or calls for bloody retribution in the style of Seven. Instead, there’s just a sigh together with desultory attempts to remove unwanted grit from the mozzarella with a napkin Because here’s the thing. Kevin Spacey is not the sadistic fruitcake he’s been tending to play in the movies recently. The fact is, he’s a very nice bloke indeed.

“I’m not like those characters at all,” he protests from beneath a distinctly Village People-esque moustache – sprouted for his role in Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming film adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. “That’s the great thing about playing these characters, I’m given this great opportunity to go places that I’ve never been. I’ve never explored those characters in the theatre. In the theatre I’ve played completely different kinds of men.”

So whither the confusion?

“Perhaps it’s because we live in a world in which most actors play themselves. Most, not all, thank the Lord. And we see a great deal about people, there’s a great deal of behind-the- scenes stuff, an enormous amount of exposure. I’ve managed to avoid both those things. So I think there is a question which people are left with which is, ‘Well, is he like this? Is he really dark?’ ”

It’s easy to forget that for most of his audience, Kevin Spacey is a relatively recent invention. You wonder why an actor who has made such an impression, delivering three of the most memorable villains of the 90s, hasn’t been decorating awards ceremonies forever. In fact, while The Usual Suspects and Seven were his twin breakthrough movies, he’d been toiling at the thespian pit-face for a decade-and-a-half before cropping up in the likes of Heartburn in 1986 then Rocket Gibraltar, Working Girl (a film he tends to avoid discussing) and, just five years ago Glengarry Glen Ross. But 1995 was the year he launched a triumphant three-pronged attack on the multiplexes of the planet, with The Usual Suspects, Seven, and Swimming With Sharks introducing slack-jawed filmgoers to the blend of menace and wit which would, a mere two years later, rocket him into the much-demanded character actor status that has led to roles in Curtis Hanson’s forthcoming James Ellroy adaptation LA Confidential and the aforementioned Eastwood flick. But for the majority of moviegoers, one of the major questions that they left their auditorium reeling with was, “Who the hell was that?” A question not answered by the credits.  “My only concern with Seven, was that I had just shot The Usual Suspects about four months before and it looked like it might be going in the same direction,” he says of his first reading of the script. “I’m thinking that my name as an actor in film is starting to mean something to people. The audience is beginning to connect the dots. I imagined myself as an audience member and looked at it from a practical point of view, from the storytelling. If I see a name come up third in the credits and I’m familiar with that person and they don’t show up for the first 55 minutes of the movie, and the movie’s about chasing a serial killer, who am I going to figure’s playing that part? I think it’s better for the film if you don’t only not know who’s playing the part, but you can’t even figure out if they’re ever going to catch the guy. So this became the deal breaker. I became so annoyed, I said, ‘This is what you can do: you can use my name .at the end of the movie but you cannot advertise me in the movie, you cannot use my photograph, you can’t put me in ads, and I can’t do any interviews.’ It turned out to be the right choice and even the company was happy because it became something people talked about. And I was able to be in a movie that’s made hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide and I didn’t have to do a single interview.”

Not that either he or the execs at New Line Cinema were prepared for the success of the movie.

“Shocked the hell outta me,” he admits. “When they did tests, it got the lowest score in the history of New Line. And I heard that people were getting letters, death threats like, ‘You should all die you horrible, pig-stinking,’ you know? And I thought, ‘Oh man, jeeze, we’ve sunk a great deal of money into this horrific tale and they’re not buying it…’ ”

They bought it. In fact, they bought $350 million worth of it.

Some of that behind the scenes stuff. Born in New Jersey but brought up in California, Spacey was, according to some reports, something of a wild kid who wound up at Northridge Military Academy.

“I got very wild there, very – and very aggressive and very angry,” he says. “I eventually got thrown out the same week I won the leadership medal, so figure that out. They would take us out into the Los Angeles forest to do these war games and we’d shoot each other with chalk bullets. It was f***ing s****y. I’m glad to say I’ve not gotten into too many brawls since. I always manage to see when they’re coming and get the hell out.”

Post-ejection from soldier school, Spacey wound up at Chatsworth High School along with Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham (this is L.A., these things can happen), which is where he discovered the joys of thesping.

“It turned me off violence,” he remembers. “It was pretty cool. I started taking these theatre classes and it was really sort of open and fun and we’d stay after school and rehearse. Then I went to Juilliard and dropped out after two years. I’d learned what I went there to learn and it was time to move on.”

And then…well, as far as the flicks were concerned, not much. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Spacey spent over a decade scratching away at the sidelines, first trying stand-up comedy before making his stage debut as a spear carrier in Henry IV.

“Thank the Lord it was a slow burn,” he says of the early years. “I went through a couple of years where I was looking around at my classmates who were making movies and doing very well, and I had a certain jealousy that it wasn’t happening for me. But I sort of readjusted my thinking because in a certain way you had to or you’d go f***ing nuts.”

He didn’t of course. He just wound up playing them.

“Do you smoke cigars?” Kevin Spacey asks, having long since given up on his cheeseburger. Empire admits that it’s been known to indulge in the odd Hamlet around Christmas time. “Good,” he grins. “I brought an extra one just in case.”

But what he pulls out of his jacket pocket resembles not so much a cigar as a tobacco telegraph pole. Ten minutes of struggling with childproof lighters ensues, together with enough vigorous sucking to put Divine Brown to shame, and finally Empire gets something approaching smoke emerging from it. Slightly baffled by the struggle, Spacey tells of his directorial debut, Albino Alligator.

“I think in my heart of hearts, I always wanted to direct. I mean, I always did in high school, but I never went to film school or anything like that. I sort of put the feelers out that I was interested about two years before I read Albino. There was some other stuff I considered and then I read this script, and my first reaction was very different. As for the reaction to the script then, well, to make a long story short, everybody died. And I just read the thing and put it down and I thought, well, maybe not. But then about three days went by – this is in October ’94 – when I was in the middle of shooting Outbreak, and the idea of it, the idea of the Albino Alligator speech, that idea was so interesting to me. I thought there’s this really f***in’ great idea here, it just hasn’t quite made it. So I asked if I could meet with Christian Forte (the scriptwriter) and we talked about how we could take that idea and expand it from a film in which there was a massive death into one in which people lived. I got the green light on March 2 and we were shooting by June 23.”

The result is a low-key heist-gone-awry flick with some neat directorial touches and a classily eclectic cast (Matt Dillon, Viggo Mortensen and Faye Dunaway being among the talent who wind up under police siege in a basement bar for the duration). But how did Spacey prep for the transition from in-front-of to behind-the-camera?

“I phoned Sidney Lumet a couple of times, who had at one time wanted to do a film with me and for a number of reasons couldn’t do it. And it seemed to me that his first movie (Twelve Angry Men) presented him with similar problems and he had a few tricks up his sleeve. And I just watched lots of movies, which I have always done. I was also lucky enough to have Bryan Singer in my life at the time, who looked at the drawings and came in at about five strategic points in the production.”

The movie took something of a critical drubbing in the States – partly, he thinks because of his name being attached to it.

“All the hits I took in the States were just stupid hits. There are some people that are just dumb, you know? ‘ I expected more of him’ .Well, if you come with expectations, you’re going to leave disappointed. If people just see the film, and they’re patient and willing to let things develop in a slower way, remembering that it’s a first film, I think they’re going to take more away from it. ”

“In the end, I’m happy with something that’s flawed, as I usually am. I’ve never done anything that’s been perfect. But sometimes a work has to live with its flaws in order to be what it is. I am happy that I did it and that I had such a pleasant experience. It’s a good little crime drama. What I didn’t expect was the politics. I had been told about that, and after having had such a good experience, and being so happy with it, I didn’t want to leave it with this bad taste. But I didn’t. I learned to adjust to that reality. Next time, all that stuff will have to be determined before I begin Day One. Or I won’t begin Day One.”

Spacey doubts the Hollywood machine often serves its customers well.

“I think audiences are constantly underestimated,” he declares. “I don’t think there are stupid people and then there are smart people. I think there are just people. This was the experiment that Bryan Singer and Chris McQuarrie did on an audience with The Usual Suspects. They said, ‘ Let’s see if audiences are as smart as we think they are. Smarter than most people treat them. So let’s use an audience’s intelligence about movies. They know movies, they go to movies, they watch movies over and over again, they know dialogue from movies, they know archetypes, they know plotlines, they know storylines, they know where a movie’s going. Let’s take all this incredible intelligence that an audience has about movies, and use it against them.’ And it proved that you can tell an incredibly complex tale in which the audience gets completely lost in the middle because if they feel they’re in good hands, they’ll find their way back.”

Away from the screen since A Time To Kill, Spacey is currently finding his way back donning a prison uniform for his role as accused murderer Jim Williams in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. (“Oh God, it reminded me of my time at Military Academy .”) But it has given him the chance to observe another actor/director at work. One Clint Eastwood.

“I think the way he makes a film is really admirable. Not everybody can do it,” he says. “Not everybody has that level of respect. When he walks into a room, you’re like, ‘That’s Clint Eastwood !’ It’s an extremely respectful set; everybody’s very quiet, nobody yells’ Rolling’, he never calls’ Action’, he never calls ‘Cut’. Very often you don’t know if you’re shooting. You find out after the fact. You have to learn to be very prepared. It’s all very Zen. The result is, he’s not answering questions all the time. But if there’s a problem, you bring it up. If you want another take or the camera’s out of focus or the costume’s wrong, you’d better f***in’ tell him. Because he’s going to see it in the dailies. So he just forces collaboration in the quietest way possible.”

If there was one event that defined the moment Kevin Spacey “arrived,” it was his inspired Christopher Walken impression at this year’s Oscars – though as one critic rather cruelly pointed out, this may have been a case of one actor of whom half the money-stoats present had never heard impersonating another .

“You know how that started? I hosted Saturday Night Live in January, and I’m sitting around with the writers and they start talking about Walken. Now, I don’t do a Walken at this moment. All my friends do. I have these five friends, including one girl, and breakfast consists usually of nothing but doing Walkens. So they say, ‘Remember that time he took us to dinner and he told us he auditioned for Star Wars, and then we went bowling?’ And I’m like, ‘Guys, guys, what did you just say? You said he auditioned for Star Wars? That’s a sketch!’ So we did it.”

He proceeds to lapse into an almost perfect simulacrum of Walken’s syncopated drawl as he would recite Han Solo’s cantina speech.

“My friends, by the way, have become very pissed because they do Walken better than I do, much better than I do. But I did it on TV first, so now I’m stuck with it.”

It’s an impromptu performance that will finally lead him onto delivering a perfect rendition of the “fishy fishy” speech from The Meaning of Life. Time, obviously, for a final word about his future behind the Arriflex.

“There is something else I’m going to be working on,” he reveals. “But I just can’t talk about it now. But yeah, sure, it’s something I want to do again. Because,” he glances disappointed at the remains of Empire’s stogie. “You know, if you do it for long enough, you might just get good at it.”

by Adam Smith; Empire, September 1997