Kevin Spacey Comic Genius

By the time he collected an Oscar for ‘American Beauty’, a string of outstanding performances in quality films had established Kevin Spacey as the world’s greatest living screen actor. So what’s this most thoughtful of thespians going to do next?

DMSUKEsquireMarch20021A SILVER CAR PULLS UP to the kerb. The windows are heavily tinted, almost blacked out. A passenger door opens slowly and a guy in a black leisure jacket, cream T-shirt, jeans and white no-name running shoes emerges. It is dusk, yet he pauses on the pavement blinking, adjusting to his surroundings. He stands erect, holding a beige bag in his left hand, full of magazines and books. Somewhere in among the literature is a notebook and pen, to remind him of the name of a good book, an interesting film or a new record.

He needs no introduction, but still he extends a hand. “Hi, I’m Kevin.” We are standing on the pavement outside the Groucho Club in Soho, London. We have turned up at exactly the same time. “Perfect,” he says, holding the door open for me. He wanted to meet here because, after the premiere of his new film K-PAX earlier on in the week, he ended up at the Groucho getting a little drunk with some new friends. In the bar, two cracked leather sofas face each other, pushed close together with a small round table in between. Spacey decides to sit here, his back to the window. He climbs onto the sofa and sits with legs crossed. The barman asks if he is ready to order. “Can I get just a coffee? Like a latte? A latte would be fantastic.”

He talks about the Esquire photo shoot, where he has just spent the afternoon. “We ended up doing some fun things. This one of me holding a comic magazine and laughing is my favourite shot of the day,” he says, rummaging around in his bag to find a Polaroid. “I keep all the Polaroids I get on shoots to give to my Mom,” he adds, smiling.

His voice is astonishingly deep, much richer and more resonant than on film. He talks fluently, sometimes in italics, particularly when he says “f***ing”. He laughs a lot, head thrown back. His passions flow close to the surface and he does not hold back; he vacillates from anger and sadness to hope and exuberance. It is all in his eyes, the eyes that made John Doe, Verbal Kint, Sergeant Jack Vincennes and Lester Burnham so very real, so terrifying and compelling.

Just before the latte arrives, Spacey peers inside his bag again. “Look!” He says, pulling out a T-shirt with a cartoon of a kangaroo on the front. He holds it up and reads the slogan: “‘If you smoke, chances are your kangaroo will too.’ I just love Mambo; normally I have to buy all their stuff on the internet, but when I come to London I can actually go into the stores. This T-shirt is just so cool.” He laughs, a loose, booming laugh and stuffs it back into the bag.

KEVIN SPACEY FOWLER was born in South Orange, New Jersey in 1959. His mother was a personal secretary, his father a technical writer, and he was the youngest of three. When he set the garden shed on fire, his father sent him to Military Academy. He didn’t last long; he was thrown out in the first term for throwing a tyre at another pupil’s head.

He moved schools again, ending up at The Juilliard School in New York to study drama, but he was too impatient to finish his diploma. He had grown up doing impressions of Jimmy Stewart and Johnny Carson, and had occasionally even pretended to be the latter to get free bottles of Champagne at nightclubs. For a while he tried his hand on the comedy circuit, but it was too terrifying (he couldn’t cope with dying on stage), so at 22 he signed up with the New York Shakespeare Festival. His first professional stage appearance was as a messenger in Henry IV Part One.

Somewhere along the way he dropped the “Fowler” and by 1986 he was acting in a London theatre in Long Day’s Journey Into Night with his teen idol, Jack Lemmon. “He actually picked me to play one of his sons and he was like a father figure to me. He was so hard-working, so kind. Even if he was in a bad mood, he was generous. He didn’t give two hoots about all the attendant stuff, he just wanted to always do good work.”

Although he would later return to the London stage for an acclaimed revival of The Iceman Cometh, Spacey began to take movie roles. In 1992, he acted once again with Lemmon, this time in Glengarry Glen Ross, but it wasn’t until 1995 that he gave a hint of the depth he was really capable of. Bottom of the bill in The Usual Suspects, he outclassed both Stephen Baldwin and Gabriel Byrne with his subtle, chilling portrayal of Verbal Kint, winning himself an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The same year, he had a cameo role in Se7en as serial killer John Doe and managed to be viler than Hannibal without even appearing to act.

Since the mid-Nineties, he hasn’t stopped working, bringing his understated yet charismatic presence to films such as LA Confidential, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and, most notably, as the embittered Lester Burnham in Sam Mendes’s modern masterpiece, American Beauty. Just four years after that first Oscar, he was awarded a second, this time for Best Actor.

By 1999, aged just 40, Spacey was one of the most respected actors in the world, the actor’s actor, a name able to add credibility to virtually any project. And, best of all, he was still living in New York with his two dogs and riding a scooter to work.

AS A CHILD, Kevin Spacey had a nickname. Other kids would call him “Moody”. As he talks about this, Spacey sits forward on the sofa and leans his chin on the table. He looks like a little boy. He has never had to get over his face like, say Brad Pitt, but then his face is incredibly expressive. He can even look completely blank if he so chooses, as if he has not a thought in his head. Yet when he talks about his childhood, there is a sad look in his eyes, a look that turns to indignation very quickly and almost without warning.

“As a child I was painfully shy, to the point that if I was at a party or in some other social situation, I would be the person in the corner not speaking to anybody. So my friends used to call me ‘Moody’. They totally misread it. They thought I was in some bad mood, you know what it’s like when you see somebody at a party and you wonder what’s wrong with them? Often that person is just not… comfortable in their own shell yet.”

Spacey knows why he was like this; his family was always on the move. “By the time I was 14, I had changed school about 10 times. I was always the new kid on the block. It was great training for me as an actor, but it was terrifying, it was lonely, it was scary. To always have to make new friends…”

He sips his latte. “We started moving when I was three. Not because my father was in the Navy and I was some exotic Navy brat, but because my dad was unemployed, we lost the lease on places and we had to move. So there was this upheaval all the time…” He pauses and looks away. “There were times I was so angry with my father for moving us around. I couldn’t have done better in his shoes, I suppose…” A deep sigh. “But I remember being very angry nonetheless, and f***ing pissed off that we were going to move the next day and I was never going to see my new best friend again.”

His dad was strict, but not in a particularly straightforward way. “He was very normal middle-class, born in Casper, Wyoming, but he had an absolute love of England. He spent the war here; he was a medic in World War II. You know, I think he always fancied himself as an aristocrat. He admired things of that kind of sophistication; leatherbound books, beautiful watches, cufflinks…”

Suddenly his face changes. “There was a time when my parents actually had plastic I on the f***ing furniture. Have you ever seen that before? I would have huge arguments with my dad, asking him why. He’d say it was to keep the sofa clean, but I’d always want to know why he couldn’t clean it after someone has sat on it. I was like, ‘How can we ask anyone over and ask them to sit on plastic?’ So I began to rebel against all that very early on. Oh yeah. Oh yeah.” He closes his eyes.

Spacey’s father died on Christmas Eve 1992. He has talked in the past about how typical it was of his father to go at a time of celebration, a time to be with the family. But today he is more considered. “My mother has kept everything in my father’s office. She didn’t want to go through it herself, so I actually went back recently and went through all his files.”

It’s hard to tell – the lights aren’t too bright – but Spacey’s eyes appear to be watery. He sits back on the sofa, crosses his legs again. He is not sure looking through the files helped him make sense of his father. “It did to some degree, yes, but what was most startling was finding letters he’d written to me when I was a student at Juilliard – long, handwritten letters which he had never sent. Warning of the evils of the world… I read them and thought, ‘Why couldn’t you have sent them? Letters are meant to be shared!… His voice is a little croaky. “Maybe he thought I wouldn’t have been able to accept the things he was saying when I was 20. Maybe I’m a different person now.” He laughs. “Yeah, maybe I’ve grown up a bit.”

PERHAPS, AS HE SAYS, Spacey’s childhood has helped him become the actor he is today. Perhaps it is the experience he gained from his years in the theatre. Whatever it is, he takes his acting very seriously. In 1995, he read The Shipping News, E Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and fell in love with it. He was desperate to play the main character, a passive, hopeless hack by the name of Quoyle. At that point, it was, bizarrely, a John Travolta film. Then Billy Bob Thornton planned to star and direct.

After standing by patiently, asking his agent to make enquiries every now and then, he was cast as Quoyle by Swedish director Lasse Hallström. Was it worth the wait? Spacey laughs. “Well, I have never looked worse in a movie in my life. Red hair, over- weight… Quoyle is truly pathetic. It’s startling. It’s so right that I look that bad.”

He plays with the teaspoon. “For me it was challenging to play a character who is not actually trying to do anything. Quoyle has no goals. When I play a central character in a movie, I feel an obligation to drive the story, to really make sure it has energy. But Lasse was telling me to do less and less. I thought I was doing nothing and he’d still be saying, [Swedish accent] ‘No, it’s too much, too much, it’s not right.”‘

Sometimes Spacey hunts projects down, but mostly scripts come to him. When he was in London in 1998 acting in The Iceman Cometh, he was sent two scripts in one week: American Beauty and K-PAX. He read them both on the bed in his rented Hampstead flat.

He occasionally gets into trouble reading scripts, because he never asks which role the director has in mind and never demands to know the fee involved. When he read American Beauty he was so impressed, he said to himself.- “There is hope. There really is hope.” Everyone knew he was Lester Burnham. Then he read K-PAX, based on Gene Brewer’s cult novel in which a psychiatric patient believes he has come from planet K-PAX. He saw himself in the role of the patient, Prot (it rhymes with “goat”), but he was down for the role of psychiatrist.

Finally, Spacey was asked to be Prot and Jeff Bridges became the psychiatrist. I am anxious to know whether Bridges was really The Dude, the character he plays in The Big Lebowski? Spacey smiles and slowly nods. “Oh yeah. I went up to Santa Barbara and we spent a day and night together. He took me to see Neil Young and Beck in this out- door arena and then we sat around singing Beatles songs. He has his own studio, he plays the drums and guitar. We just clicked.” He lowers his voice. “He was so The Dude. It was perfect.”

TOMORROW, KEVIN SPACEY will go home to New York. He loves London. His mum and ,dad brought him here as a child, took him to the theatre, showed him the sights. Some of his earliest memories are of London, of staying in a hotel opposite RADA and gazing at the drama students wandering in and out, of a mouse crawling across his mother’s foot in a restaurant. Spacey loves London but at the moment he feels it’s important to be in New York. He wasn’t in his home city on 11 September and couldn’t get back there, so he had to watch the events on television. He still hasn’t found the words to express his feelings about it. He simply says “There is nothing in anyone’s experience ever that could have prepared us for any of this. No tragedy, no sadness.”

He sits back on the sofa, his hands become fists. This time there is no mistaking it: he is close to tears. “Since it happened, I have been both depressed and inspired. I’ve felt sadder than I’ve felt in my entire life and more hopeful too, sometimes in the same day. We have all had this collective experience that has changed us…”

He blinks hard. “I don’t think you can let go of hope, I don’t think you can let go, I just don’t think you can. I know people who are really f***ed off with New York, who are saying, ‘I’m never f***ing going back.’ Why? People who are refusing to get on a plane. Why? The chances are greater that I’ll get run over by a bus here in London because I’m looking the wrong way.” He shakes his head. “What’s interesting and perhaps surprising for most people is that we are the richest country in the world and yet look at how fragile we are.”

Spacey has been reading books to try to make sense of what happened. He mentions One Day in September and The New Jackals, both by Esquire writer Simon Reeve. “They are both very, very good books.” I ask if he has come across Zadie Smith’s White Teeth ‘ He immediately reaches into his bag, finds the notebook and pen and writes the details down. “I’m a magazine junkie, I love reading magazines, just piling through them. But the thing that will be my downfall is book- stores.” He smiles. “I go in and it’s just madness. It’s very hard for me to walk out of a bookstore without four of five.”

Although he became an even more voracious reader than usual in the days following 11 September, Spacey still felt impotent. I ask if he feels more or less American than before. In the background, the barman tips a bucket of ice into the sink. “And Kevin gave the strangest answer, it sounded like ice,” he laughs, happy to break the tension a little. “Because of the way America has responded, I feel very proud to be American. I think it’s very important to be patriotic but also to be patient and to be questioning. To make sure that civil liberties aren’t taken away.”

He sits forward. “It’s not good enough for our leaders to call all of these people fanatics and evil because it doesn’t help us understand how we got where we are. It’s just not useful. We have to try to understand. Some of the early rhetoric was a bit Wild West and I think it’s now important for all of us to hope and pray that our leaders can find it within themselves and their policies to have a wisdom we may never previously have afforded them.

BECAUSE HE COULDN’T TO to Ground Zero and “help bury the dead”, Spacey became involved in the fund-raising John Lennon tribute concert at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on 2 October. He has been singing for as long as he can remember, doing musicals when he was young, singing in the car and the shower as he got older. On the Saturday, the organisers suggested he do a cover of “Mind Games”. He found it tough. “The way Lennon did it, man, he was so high.  Someone wrote the lyrics out for me on two pieces of paper towel, you know the stuff you dry your hands with after you’ve been to the bathroom. I stumbled through it, played it to a few friends who were really encouraging, rehearsed some more…”

On the Tuesday night it was show time. “Just before I go on, I look at my friends and say, ‘I’m – f***ing – on – crack.’ I’m going to walk on stage at Radio City Music Hall where people have no idea I sing at all and I’m going to do this song in front of Yoko Ono and every other f***ing person and it’s live on f***ing g*****n television and I’m out of my f***ing mind.”

He pauses for a second, draws breath. “My friends keep saying, ‘It’s gonna be great’. I’m like, yeah, right. I’m going to follow f***ing Stone Temple Pilots doing an unbelievable version of ‘Revolution’. Never mind Dave Matthews and Nelly Furtado. I am, like, the biggest dodo head…”

The whole experience was only heightened by the fact that Spacey is a huge Lennon fan. He remembers his room mate coming home from school in December 1980, when he was 20, and telling him that Lennon had been shot. “We walked to the hospital, St Luke’s or St Clare’s, I can’t remember. We didn’t even say anything, we just got our coats and walked. And a little while after we got there, it was quite clear he’d died. We still didn’t say anything, we walked and walked and ended up at the Dakota. By l am there were thousands of people outside the building.”

I ask if he remembers crying. “Heavily. Actually, not until later, but yes, absolutely. And for weeks and weeks afterwards there was like this… yearning on people’s faces. Like people were trying to engage rather than just exist in their own little worlds.” He sips his cold latte. “I have been mad in New York twice: when Lennon got shot and after 11 September. I was so f***ing pissed off that day. That anybody could in the name of Allah or God or any religion do something so, so… stupid. So f***ing stupid.”

Waiting to go on stage at Radio City, Kevin Spacey was hoping to make a differ- ence, to help raise money. Of course, the childhood nerves which have never left him, which make him look aloof and in control while his stomach is full of butterflies and his legs are shaking, the feeling which makes him feel like he’s skydiving, evaporated as soon as he got on the stage.

Afterwards, Yoko Ono came running backstage. “She was unbelievably kind. She was very generous, she said John would have been so happy that I sang ‘Mind Games’ because it was the song he’d always loved and felt should’ve been a hit. She was incredibly sweet, phenomenally sweet.”

In fact, Kevin Spacey was so impressive that the next day he was asked if he was planning an album, perhaps a tour. He bursts out laughing, collapsing back into the sofa. “In the right context, maybe. But for now I’m an actor, not a singing actor.”

KEVIN SPACEY HAS A REPUTATION for being fiercely private, for giving nothing away. He says he is mostly treated with respect but that occasionally he comes across a ‘poncey’ person, a ‘numbnut’ who asks the wrong questions about his personal life. He sighs and says: “We live in a free society, people can do whatever they want to do. I don’t have to answer all that jazz. I don’t feel any obligation to be understood, I just don’t.”

He was astounded when he sat at the back of a cinema once and heard two people discussing Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck. “They had this completely, false impression of celebrity. They really thought they knew those two people who they had never even met. You know, I feel so removed from most of the characters I play… I won’t ever do interviews on set, in costume, because that’s – not – me. There has to be a mystery, a magic about acting.”

He remembers Katharine Hepburn, with whom he regularly corresponds, saying  “We had all these actors who are trying to become movie stars and now we have all these movie stars who are trying to become actors.” he thinks this may still hold; of course, Kevin Spacey wants to bean actor, not a movie star, which is perhaps what makes him unique.

After he had sung “Mind Games” at Radio City, his friend told him he looked as though he worked on Wall Street, in his blue shirt and pants. “It’s the way I’ve always been, I don’t look like I’m in movies at all.” In fact, I’m just some f***ing guy from New Jersey who got lucky.” He jumps up from the sofa, grabs his bag and zips up his jacket. “Sorry, gotta go. Thank you so much.” We shake hands and he is gone. ~

‘The Shipping News’ is out on 22 February and ‘K-PAX’ on 12 April 

Esquire – March 2002 – Words by Amy Raphael, Photographs by Lorenzo Agius