Film Review 1998 

If The Negotiator is anything to go by, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of stars Kevin Spacey or Samuel L. Jackson.  Marianne Gray discovers why she just can’t say ‘no’

FilmReviewNegotiator1Over the past couple of years Kevin Spacey has changed from being one of those talented guys you spot in a film and conspiratorially nudge your cinema-going friend at his first glimpse, to an actor of distinction. It’s not unfeasible that in the not too distant future his hope of becoming a romantic leading man could come true.

Since his Oscar winning trickery in The Usual Suspects, his talents have been on display in LA Confidential, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and a riveting performance in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at London’s Almeida Theatre. Now there’s the intelligent, gripping cat and mouser The Negotiator.

The film is a psychological thriller that focuses on Samuel L Jackson, who plays a Chicago police negotiator named Danny Roman, and Spacey, who plays Chris Sabian, a man with the same job description and sharp intellect.

“I was keen to see if I could do a film of this type – two characters in conflict – which I’ d never done before,” says Spacey, an intelligent and gracious interviewee. “I’d always worked in ensemble pieces. Danny Roman has been caught in a frame-up and is buying himself time, by taking people hostage, to prove his innocence. My character, the undefeatable Sabian is called in to mediate. They don’t know each other as they both work in different areas of the Chicago Police Department, but they know of each other.”

It was an opportunity for Spacey to look at a hostage crisis from a different perspective.

“It was a change for me to be the negotiator as I’ve directed a film called Albino Alligator which was all about a hostage situation, and I played in a film called Hostile Hostage in which I was taken hostage. Hostages cower, negotiators stay cool.”

“For me it’s been very interesting to work with the experts, technical advisers, on both sides, as hostage and as negotiator. For negotiating they teach you to never say ‘no’ , only say ‘I’ll see what I can do about it’ .I generally take very little from my films into my own life, laughs Spacey, ‘but I think I might occasionally say ‘I’ll see what I can do about it’ nowadays.”

Nowadays Spacey has a lot more to see about. He’s just completed a film of the Broadway play HurlyBurly, is signed up to star in Mel Gibson company Icon’s production of Ordinary Decent Criminal, a classic gangster movie set in modern-day Ireland and there’s more in the pipeline.

He looks mildly surprised when I ask if he feels like ‘a player’ yet. “Er, no,” he stammers. “But when I was 171 went to a psychic who said I would travel to an island, I would be surrounded by music and then would leave the music and start my life.” He leans back in his chair. ‘I thought, OK, take another Quaalude. But a year and a half later I travelled to the island of Manhattan, went to the Juilliard [School of Drama], where the drama department is literally surrounded by the Juilliard School of Music, stayed two years and then left and started my life.”

A veteran of Broadway, we first noticed him in films like Consenting Adults and Working Girl, a selection of gagged-and- bound-to-a-chair roles (Swimming with Sharks and Hostile Hostage) and as one of the most evil men in cinema history in the masterful serial killer movie Seven. But The Usual Suspects was the film that made the man.

“The way I see it I’ve been very quietly weaving my basket under the bridge for a while. I can still walk my dog [an ancient canine called Slate] around my Greenwich Village neighbourhood and not be recognized. I’ve avoided career moves with opportunities to make gobs of money and opted to keep a lower profile and be able to look myself in the eye when I shave in the morning. It’s when I start wearing a beard…

Spacey is 38, encyclopaedically well-informed about movies and everyone in them and does a mean impersonation cabaret from Jack Lemmon, with whom he’s worked three times, to Marlon Brando, with whom he hasn’t.

I’m not one of the in Kevins [Costner, Kline, Bacon]. In fact the only dirt that has been dug on me was after the Oscars when somebody did a story on the fact that Mare Winningham and I – we both got our first nominations this year – went to high school together and played the Captain and Maria in our class play The Sound of Music at Chatsworth High School.”

Born in South Orange, New Jersey, he grew up in Southern California but spent most of his childhood uprooted, moving around with his father’s work. He got kicked out of military school for hitting a classmate with a tyre and the school’s guidance counsellor suggested he channelled his ‘excessive energy’ towards drama classes instead of playground skirmishes.

He cut his teeth in stand-up clubs, made his Broadway debut in 1982 opposite Liv Ullmann in Ibsen’s Ghosts and film debut in 1986 with Heartburn. After Henry and June he nearly gave up movies and in a fit of pique went back to the theatre where Al Pacino spotted him. The next thing he knew he was in Pacino’s Glengarry Glen Ross and reappeared with him as Buckingham in Pacino’s wild Shakespeare documentary Looking for Richard (“we got $40 a day and all the dough-nuts we could eat”). Then he directed Albino Alligator.

“That was probably the most sublime experience of my life. I am thoroughly hooked. The needle is fully in my arm and I’m running out of serum.”

Maybe a romantic film will stop him expiring.

“The hardest thing is finding a romantic role with all the elements. I go back to the Preston Sturges romantic comedies, so intelligent, full of double entendres, quick witted, sexy and fun without being graphic. That’s what I’d like to do next.”

Samuel L. Jackson started taking people hostage as long ago as 1969. As one of a bunch of students at Morehouse College, Atlanta, who took the board of trustees hostage to talk to them. Apparently they listened to them and let them go (after two days of captivity). He was expelled but was later re-admitted and graduated in drama.

The actor is very monosyllabic about it all now as he puffs hard on a cigarette. It’s one of those bothersome things about interviews – unwanted questions. He strokes his greying beard and rolls his eyes.

“It was so long ago I’ve forgotten how it was,” he splutters. “I wasn’t able to use it to research my role in this film. We were just a bunch of kids from the Sixties and I’m definitely not into politics any more. I vote, I don’t break the law, I pay my taxes, give money to charity .It was not the reason why I thought I’d like to do this film! It was actually Kevin [Spacey] who attracted me to the project.


“We’ve known each other for nearly 20 years. We used to go to the same auditions way back and had had a small chance to work together on A Time to Kill and liked it a lot.

“So this script came up and we bumped into each other at agent Ed La Motta’s party the night before Kevin won the Oscar. Kevin was reading the script and said he’d do it if I’d do it. I was already doing it so that was great!”

“Apparently it’s based on an actual event that happened in St Louis but it’ s not a re-enactment of it. Our story is the story of Danny Roman, a Chicago hostage negotiator who is wrongly accused of murder and ends up taking people hostage to prove his innocence and in the taking of these hostages he calls for another hostage negotiator, played by Kevin Spacey. They both have totally different negotiation approaches. The strength of the film is their great conflict of styles.

“We rehearsed a lot, went through the script word by word, line by line, made the writers change certain things, like the ending, to make it work for us and keep all the dramatic elements intact. I think we have a film that makes sense to the marketable public and to people who want to see a story about negotiators.

“Researching was interesting and completely by accident I met a retired hostage negotiator for the FBI in a LAPD golf tournament , who was prepared to talk about his job to me. Of course, they play for real, for higher stakes. We were just playing a role.”

Jackson, 50, talks quickly, gesticulating with his hands. He is witty and cool and, raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has his feet well anchored in reality. He lives “close to work” in Los Angeles with his wife of nearly 30 years, actress LaTanya Richardson, and their 16-year-old daughter.

“I grew up during segregation in the South, all signs saying ‘No Niggers, No Dogs,’ he tells me. “I spent a lot of time in one of the two Jim Crow [black] movie theatres, the Grand and the Liberty, seeing the same films that were shown to whites, but were edited for blacks. For example, Sidney Poitier never slapped Yvonne DeCarlo in our version of Band of Angels.”

He doesn’t tolerate fools -when I asked him during a TV interview what the ‘L’ in Samuel L. Jackson stood for, he snapped at me: “Gee everyone knows that, haven’t you done your research?” It stands for Leroy, although he says it depends what day it is and today it stands for Lucky.

He has made 49 films in his 50 years. His first was in 1981 (Ragtime) and he made good in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and then Pulp Fiction. He says he feels that generally his roots are in the independent film world “where the directors are young, they are hungry and their energy is a lot different from films like Die Hard“.


“I’ve always believed that somebody is looking after me. You might call it luck. I let the choosing process take care of itself. If a film comes along and I’m not doing anything that means that’s the film I’m supposed to do and I’ll do it.” :

His last film was as both actor and producer in black family drama Eve’s Bayou and he has a glut of films coming up -a Jedi master in the Star Wars prequel, a job he describes as wish-fulfilment, one he asked for. There’s also The Red Violin, playing a violin evalutor, Training Day, Mephisto in Blue. 

“I’m on my way to do an epic monster movie [The Deep Blue Sea for Renny Harlin with Stellan Skarsland being shot in Scandinavia], running away from sharks, wet and scared.

“If could find a comedy or a romance that was good and interesting I’d do it. I don’t even like being a hard guy – it’s much more fun being the softie! Danny Roman’s a soft guy. You don’t have to be hard to shoot guns.”

Film Review
December 1998
Pages 40-45. Twelve color photos, 5 of Kevin Spacey, 2 are full page.