“TOP CAT”

Some actors steal scenes; he steals entire movies. Other proffer airhead soundbites; he cuts the crap. As another career best is effortlessly achieved with (this month’s) American Beauty, meet Kevin Spacey – greatest actor of his generation and the undisputed champ of Hollywood cool.

Words by Adam Smith. Pictures by Julian Broad.

EmpirecoverEmpire is in the lav with Kevin Spacey. There’s a slightly camp little bald fella (with tattoos) in here as well, so even though it’s quite a spacious lav it’s still a bit on the crowded side. To be frank, it’s one of the odder places we’ve tried to conduct an interview, but no matter. And before the nation’s tabloid headline writers frenziedly begin to compose their, “Kevin Spacey Spotted In Lav With Slightly Camp Little Bald Fella (With Tattoos) And Best Selling Movie Magazine” headlines, we should point out that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the latrine scene: Kevin Spacey is having a quick haircut before having his picture snapped for Empire’s cover, and since we’re round an actor friend of Spacey’s cool but somewhat bijou Islington Flat, this is the best place for said trim to take place. Not, it has to be said, that Kevin Spacey is any stranger to unwarranted and unwanted speculation.

Specifically (and you may have heard this one…) that he’s – wait for it – gay. Which, as a matter of fact, he’s not.

“You know, part of all this is that I made a decision very early on that I was going to let the work lead,” he sighs as his barber snips daintily away around his sideburns. “And by leaving anything personal on the other side of the fence, I became the subject of speculation, trivia, all that sort of crap. I don’t know if it’s as true here as it is in America, but there’s a real use of people’s sexuality as a weapon. It’s always referred to in derogatory terms. So for a long time I felt, ‘I’m not going to go there, I’m not going to play those games with them.’ But that opened things up to people going, ‘Aaaah, well, he must have something to hide.’ I realised I’d become one of a long, illustrious line of people whose lives are speculated on.”

Indeed. It’s one of the hardy perennials of Hollywood commissary gossip that inevitably attaches itself to any male star who achieves a certain degree of fame. In fact, it’s almost an index on your level of importance in the Hollywood pecking order. Frankly, if no-one’s casually intoning that, “Of course, he’s gay,” you may as well pack up your Stanislavsky and head back to Hicksville, actor-boy.

But it was the, “speculation, trivia, all that sort of crap,” that recently convinced him to finally put the kibosh on that rumour at least, by giving an interview to the resolutely heterosexual Playboy, informing the world that he wasn’t, as a matter of fact, gay.

“These conversations were happening that I wasn’t a part of, many of them amongst columnists who have an agenda,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s time. If I’m not going to tell people what I am, maybe it’s time to tell people what I’m not.’ I don’t think it’ll stop them yapping, but I never tried to stop that. I mean, some people like to wake up to a coffee and a tabloid. It’s not the way I like to wake up, but that’s alright. All I tried to say was, ‘Here’s my point,’ and leave it at that.”

“In the end, it doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s literally like someone saying, ‘We heat you’re an archaeologist…’ and you go, ‘Actually no,’ and they’re, ‘Well, we hear that you are and we’ve seen you with other archaeologists and we’re going to write a story about all the digs you’ve been on…’ I mean,” he gasps, “good luck, have fun.”

The result of the soft-core set confessional wasn’t entirely what he’d intended. “The funny thing is now there are writers that say I’m, ‘Loudly Protesting My Straightness’,” he smiles. “I’ve had approximately two conversations about this. A lot of other people are, ‘Loudly Protesting My Straightness,’ but I’m not. It’s really no big deal.”

What distinguished Kevin Spacey’s response to the inevitable gossip from the other Hollywood talents’ refutations was the reasoning behind it. He wasn’t so much worried what people thought of him, as much as he was that they thought anything about him at all. As Spacey’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) co-star Al Pacino recently commented, “The less the audience knows of your personality, the more accepting they’ll be to the characters you’re playing.”

“I used to love the fact that I knew nothing about the actors because I just believed in the characters they played,” Spacey echoes. “To me, Spencer Tracy was a lawyer… a ship’s captain. And Jimmy Stewart was a politician or he had an imaginary rabbit…”

In other words, it’s all down to the work. Anything that might interfere with Spacey’s audience’s suspension of disbelief is de facto “a bad thing”. And that includes the media. Well, some of it, anyway.

“Someone said to me, ‘Isn’t there a contract between doing this publicity and being a celebrity?’ Well if there is, I haven’t signed it. I don’t want to take a cynical view of the media. I think there are fantastic, talented people in the media who write things of substance and then there’s a lot of people who jerk off and happen to have a column… WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?! I LOOK LIKE PEE-WEE HERMAN!”

Hmmm. It seems that while pontificating on jerk-off journalists, Spacey has finally caught sight of himself. Bald Slightly Camp Fella (With Tattoos) looks aghast for a moment before realising that Kevin Spacey is to use the vernacular, “having a laugh”.

There is, however, apparently more work to be done on the actor’s coiffeur, so we’ll leave them in the lav while we ponder things of substance.

IT MUST BE A GREAT DEAL OF FUN being Kevin Spacey at the moment. As well as the irritations of increasing fame there are, it has to be said, the slightly more pleasurable compensations – to wit the smoke glass BMW currently idling outside and the personal assistant (in this case, the standard issue “serious-looking young man” with a mobile phone welded into one hand and an electronic organiser of sufficient baffling complexity to hack into the CIA, or order lunch, perch the other). There is the growing band of fans and critics who casually bandy about phrases like, “most exciting character actor of the decade” whenever the “K” word is mentioned. There is also the undeniable satisfaction of watching thespian flibbertigibbets who rocketed to fame while Spacey was patiently learning his craft in regional theatre and then movie bit-parts slowly fade from sight, while he, it seems, is in it for the long haul.

It is in fact that bedrock theatre train that accounts for some of Spacey’s unique popularity. For the last years he’s been importing the serious dedication craft and material that characterises a good actor and bolting it to the more populist medium of the movies. The result is a trick Suspects’ Keyser Soze would be proud of: a string of films and performances that effortlessly walk the tightrope between critical respectability and mass audience appeal. 1995, the year most people discovered him, typifies his careful choice of classy projects. There was the barnstorming aforementioned Verbal in indie classic The Usual Suspects, as well small part in pox-flick Outbreak, plus his famously uncredited role as hyper-articulate nutcase John Doe in Se7en. In the three that followed, the pattern repeats itself: LA Confidential (1997), Looking For Richard (1996) and Midnight In The Garden Of And Evil (1997) rub shoulders with Grisham courtroom drama A Time To Kill (1996) and action thriller The Negotiator (1998). If the early Spacey was characterised by ferocious “forces of nature” characters with a penchant for icy sarcasm and wallpaper peeling dialogue – and Spacey has provided something of the most memorable verbal fireworks of recent times, from 1995’s Swimming with Sharks,’ “This isn’t what I asked for…” berating of a personal assistant, through Suspects,’ “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled…” to Se7en’s soul-scorching back seat manifesto of grim revenge – more recently he’s been presenting his audience with more complex, human characters.

LA Confidential’s morally ambivalent cop Jack Vincennes, and Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil’s Jim Williams, a Deep Southern socialite and gay murder suspect, are examples of the more subtle, less obviously villainous characters he’s been assaying recently. Not that that doesn’t preclude a spot of top notch speechifying.

“I CERTAINLY ENJOY IT IF A character has a moment or moments where they finally decide to express themselves,” Kevin Spacey concurs, relaxing on a couch and sipping a vodka and orange after the shoot is over. “Particularly with the characters that I’ve done in the past, those sorts of manipulative ‘forces of nature’. I’ve enjoyed finding those sorts of juicy moments where the writing is ironic and funny.”

Ironic and funny are pretty much the best way to describe Spacey’s latest, American Beauty, a bittersweet, darkly comic tale of one man’s desperate attempts to recapture a happiness he last remembers having when he was a teenager spending a summer flipping burgers to save money for a car. The results of his quest are pretty much disastrous to him and his family, particularly since part of this attempt to recover his lost youth in his romantic pursual of his 17 year-old daughter’s best friend. It’s a movie that, at first glance, appears to fit neatly into the new American cynicism mould alongside Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1999) or Neil La Bute’s Your Friends And Neighbours (1998), peeling away the layers of hypocrisy at the surface of suburban “ordinary” life to reveal the void beneath. It’s not a view he concurs with.

“I thought it was one of the most outstanding, brave, funny, accurate scripts I’d read in a long time,” he says. “We don’t pretend this is a film ‘about America’. I never viewed the film cynically. There are times when it’s been talked about in relation to other films like Todd’s film. I think it’s actually uplifting and spiritual. It’s incredibly poignant and heartbreaking and funny.”

If there are two moments you will take away from American Beauty, they will no doubt be a performance by a plastic bag for which they should create a new Oscar (Best Performance By An Inanimate Object, maybe – more later), and the trademark Spacey barnstormer of a speech, in this case after being asked by his weaselly boss to prepare a statement of what his job is. “My job requires mostly masking my contempt for the assholes in charge, and, at least once a day, retiring to the men’s room so I can jerk off while I fantasize about a life that doesn’t so closely resemble Hell”, he responds. It is for anyone who has ever wanted to quit a bad job, a fantasy made real. “Yeah,” he laughs when reminded of the sequence. “I was really sad that Sam (Mendes, making his directorial debut with American Beauty) cut down that letter because it went on. It had a few more paragraphs, let me tell you.”

As for the plastic bag, well, you may find this a tad difficult to believe, but a sustained Camcorder shot of a discarded placcy bag blowing about in the wind that appears half way through the movie is probably one of the most arresting, whimsical, downright moving images of recent cinema. And if proof is needed, when Empire mentions the sequence to Spacey, there is more than the suggestion of a tear in his eye.

“I don’t think I’ve cried so long and hard as when I saw the movie for the first time,” he says. “And that scene, to me it was everything that the movie was about: ‘Don’t miss that moment of your life.’ That scene just kills me. I mean, I hear Sam talk about how difficult it was to film that scene. He was screaming at a plastic bag at six in the morning in a parking lot going, ‘Fucking move.’ It’s pretty hilarious, but to me that’s what cinema can do.”

“20 uses of the most foul of the foul words. Teen arrogance against parent. Adult male masturbation (from rear). Drunkenness. Sexual innuendo, comments, insults and references to human sexual anatomy.”

AH, SOUNDS LIKE JUST ANOTHER DAY in the Empire office. But in fact, it’s a mere sprinkling of the “sins” that a sinister Christian organisation called the Childcare Action Project have levelled at American Beauty. It’s a brouhaha echoed in quite a few sectors of American society, and one that Spacey (whose rear, by the way, is the one from which the aforementioned “adult masturbation” is viewed) doesn’t have much truck with.

“These people aren’t living,” he says, discarding the proffered four-page document (and we hadn’t even got to “teen boy and girl in bed together”). “You know what? If all this stuff were a little more discussed and a little less ignored by the ‘offended masses’ who say this is wrong, then maybe a dialogue, an actual conversation and examination of feelings and frustrations might lead to more understanding.”

It’s possibly surprising then, given the somewhat controversial subject matter, to find that American Beauty is bankrolled by DreamWorks and that its prime benefactor is one Steven Spielberg.

“Spielberg to me is a hero,” says Spacey warmly when we refer to this apparent culture clash. “He read the script on a Saturday night and on the following Monday morning he said, ‘Let’s make this movie and let’s not change a word.’ And he was a man of his word. There was never a single time during rehearsal or filming where anyone came to us to water it down or to make it ‘nice’. And if this movie does a hundred million, maybe the executives at other studios who are sitting on projects that are a little dicey will have the courage to do them. I think that’s great.”

“WHAT HAVE I LEARNT?” Kevin Spacey is pondering Empire’s final question before shooting off for an extremely late dinner of London’s fancier eateries. He pauses for thought.

“That the theatre is the greatest experience that a human being can have, whether the stage or in the audience,” he says slowly. “That we’re in the infancy of our experience of learning what cinema can do and…”

He pauses once again. “That I’m just getting started…”

Empire Magazine, February 2000 (Issue 128)

Thanks again to Jaye for sending the article for everyone to read.