The Negotiator is Hollywood action hardcore

Violent cops, strafed cars, fireballs, decimated real estate. But there’s a subtle new ingredient: the gift of the gab. Meet Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, the new breed of action hero. 

Talking tough: Adam Smith. Photo by Lorenzo Aguis.

NegotiatorEmpire1“They want to know about your lovers, ” says Kevin Spacey on the subject of journalists, leaning forward in the minimalist splendour of London’s Metropolitan Hotel {the kind of place where, bizarrely, you pay extra for things not being there) .”They want to know about your wife. They want to know about your divorce. They want to know about everything. They think they have a right. Well that’s fine. We have a free society. But I also have a fundamental freedom to say no. I don’t choose to go there.  I choose to talk about my work. Beyond that is my business.”

We’ll talk about the work – in this case Spacey’s latest film The Negotiator – in due course. But for now, a word or two about the man himself. For a start, talking is something that Kevin Spacey does exceedingly well. Like the majority of the characters he has played thus far, his conversation is effortless and, tragically rarely for a Hollywood actor, intelligent. Without any apparent effort, sentences emerge perfectly formed, decked out in grammatical Sunday Best. And today is indeed a special occasion. After six months of radio silence while treading the boards of London’s Almeida Theatre in a critically acclaimed production of The Iceman Cometh, he has agreed to talk about his latest film, The Negotiator. While part of this silence may be to do with his not wanting to be distracted from the draining nightly performances – performed unusually without the safety net of an understudy – another reason might be that his last major interview, with a well-known American magazine, led to a public lambasting of both the magazine and the journalist who had, in a generally incomprehensible piece, seemed to suggest that Spacey was gay.

“What tends to happen is that presumptions are made,” he sighs. “In my case, simply because I won’t talk about my private life. So they write that I’m gay and I’m this and I’m that. It’s just kind of unfortunate.”

For a man fiercely protective of his private life, it must be at the very least irritating to have speculation plastered across the media.

“I look at that stuff and think, ‘Oh, you need to sell a magazine. Go ahead, do what you have to do.’ That’s okay, but if someone steps up and accuses me of something I find reprehensible, you can bet your ass you’ll find me in court with them. And they’ll have to prove it. But so far nobody’s accused me of being a racist. Nobody’s accused me of being a shoplifter. When that happens you can bet your ass that I’ll defend myself against those things. The thing that I do get angry about or get bothered by is when people write he only does that or he only does this. Oh wake up! Do your research. Don’t just watch three movies and then jump to conclusions about what it is that an actor does. ”

In the 21 movies and wide variety of roles that Spacey has undertaken, he’s never appeared in what could be termed a traditional actioner. And, according to him, with The Negotiator, he still hasn’t.

“This was a genre I wanted to try but the movies I’ve been offered in the past have been ones I’m really happy I didn’t do. They didn’t have any credibility, they were more about the elements than they were about the characters. From the outset I thought that this, while satisfying all those big ticket action things the audience wanted, was also a pretty interesting cat-and-mouse thriller. It was a good actors’ piece. I had worries that were addressed during the script and rehearsal process – just to make sure it was not going to be silly. I often go to movies of this type and they’re just dumb.”

“Dumb” is not a word likely to be applied to The Negotiator. Director F. Gary Gray’s action thriller sees Spacey attempting to talk down fellow police hostage negotiator Samuel L. Jackson after the latter is framed on a corruption charge. Unlike the vast majority of this year’s action films, it flings around as much verbiage as it does lead.

“I believed in the situation,” he continues. “I thought the set-up was pretty good. Movies like this usually get bigger and bigger, and we took the risk of letting the movie get bigger and bigger and then making it very small. It ends with three people in a room. Movies of this type tend to end with the World Trade Center exploding, so it was a risk. The original script ended in a train station with the evidence in a locker and 150 cops all pointing guns at each other. And I said, ‘Guys, I don’t want to do the OK Corral. We’ve seen it before. Let’s go somewhere else with that.”‘

Was there ever any pressure or temptation to beef up the action content of The Negotiator at the expense of character?

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Spacey admits. “But I’m willing to listen to any argument as long as it makes sense. If you present a solid argument as to why you want to go in a certain direction. .. Look, this film was produced by Arnon Milchan. This is the guy who greenlit LA Confidential on the basis of 12 black-and-white photographs and allowed two Australians to be cast as leads. This is a producer who takes risks and takes chances with films that aren’t necessarily that commercial. So he was an easy guy to say, ‘Let’s do something else with that.’ And if we fail, we’ll fail on our own merits. But let’s not fail on somebody else’s tired old merits. ”

For the last six months, Spacey has eschewed the big screen for the pleasures of the theatre. Needless to say, the promise of seeing the man in the flesh resulted in the extended run of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (an existential drama set in a bar full of losers) being completely sold out before it opened. It’s an experience Spacey relished, as have a number of other Hollywood stars who have cast their eyes towards the boards. A case of the Hollywood glitterati seeing the venerable London stage as being the latest chic career accessory? Spacey reacts somewhat tetchily to the suggestion.

“That is an unfortunately arrogant perception, generally within the media, because I don’t think the public feels that way. I don’t mind anybody, no matter who they are, having a shot at something. In fact, I have to say that some of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had were when I’ve been to see a movie or a play and I see somebody I thought I had pegged give a performance I didn’t think they were capable of. So you’ve got to give people a chance to do what they want to do. If they don’t succeed, or you think it’s some kind of bull*** star-turn or they’re just trying to add to their CV, then make a judgement after they do it. They seem to be taking some knocks at the Almeida because they’ve become popular. There’s this perception of ‘How dare they!’, well that’s not their fault. That happens to be their gift.”

NegotiatorEmpire2

“YOU DID ALL THAT?” questions Samuel L. Jackson, walking into the room in the middle of an acting masterclass in which Kevin Spacey is describing how he would perform a scene differently every night just to keep the other actors and himself sharp.

“Every night. ..” replies Spacey. Jackson frowns suspiciously and then shakes his head. The lure of the London stage appears to hold no attraction for him.

The pairing of Jackson and Spacey in a big budget blockbuster with action leanings would seem to be something of a risk. But then, actors who normally inhabit the rarefied world of the American indie scene have been cropping up in more mainstream fare with increasing regularity – witness Steve Buscemi’s outing in Con Air and Armageddon. (“I hope Sam and I are not just a marketing gimmick,” muses Spacey.) And it was a pairing of which Jackson was keen to be one half.

“It’s a joy to step into an acting situation with an actor you respect and admire and who understands the process as well as you think you do. At the end of the day, you leave feeling energised by the experience, rather than drained from working with an actor who’s less good.”

As an example, both Jackson and Spacey spent hours off-camera having unheard phone conversations with each other while shooting the lengthy negotiation scenes.

“I was there,” remembers Jackson. “There’s no way another actor could read the lines to him the way I would do it so he could react dramatically the way he needs to. A lot of actors don’t do that stuff, they go into their trailers and it’s, ‘Can’t somebody else do it?’, And then there are times you prefer the stand-in to do it because you know the stand-in is gonna act. ..”

If Jackson is outspoken about bad actors (“I wouldn’t want to direct. I’d be frustrated by actors who couldn’t act”), it’s only one of the subjects about which he has sounded off. A less-than-friendly remark about long-time nemesis Spike Lee (a row which developed over Tarantino’s appropriation of the word “nigger” ) is politely struck from the record. And then there was the infamous outburst over the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, widely thought to have its roots in Jackson’s disappointment to losing out to Ed Wood’s Martin Landau for Best Supporting Actor, having been nominated for Pulp Fiction.

“Everyone’s talking about me hating the Academy and I didn’t say it that way,” he groans. “It was a joke. I was saying that they ship all the ballots to Price Waterhouse, and Price Waterhouse is these nine little old guys sitting around and looking at them. And they’re saying, ‘You must be crazy,’ and asking each other, ‘Who do you like this year?’. And they write that down. And all of a sudden it’s ‘Jackson Says It’s A Raw Deal!’ In terms of me being bitter because I don’t have an Academy Award, my career is not going to be validated if I have a gold statue in my house for people to look at. When I walk down the street, people tell me they enjoy my work. When I meet people in airports, they tell me that or quote a line from a movie I’ve been in. So I know I’m appreciated. That’s a greater validation than one evening of joy that will probably turn to horror for a lot of others before the night’s out. Because for every one person that leaves there happy, there’s another four people really pissed off.”

KEVIN SPACEY IS PONDERING THE COST of fame. He seems less keen on being “validated” by the public at large. At least, face to face. While only a few years ago, he could wander round unhassled by the great unwashed (in fact, he walked through central London unnoticed to collect his Empire award for Best Actor earlier this year), these days getting around anonymously is less common.

“Many kids who came to see the play only came because they saw me in some movie,” he says, defending the upside of popularity. “Many had never been to the theatre before and now they’ve had this experience of seeing this great play. And that’s fine with me.”

But being hassled on the street? “Other aspects aren’t fantastic. It’s odd going out in public and being generally recognised. Sometimes it’s terrific and people are very nice. Sometimes people aren’t. And the rude ones. ..” he pauses, “have to be put in their place.”

Empire 1998 Pages 90 – 95, also includes photos of Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Giamatti and  other cast members.