Kevin spacey takes on his biggest challenge yet by co-writing, directing and starring in Beyond The Sea, his vivid, colourful and unconventional biopic on sixties pop star and actor Bobby Darin. But if there’s one thing Kevin Spacey likes, it’s a challenge.

By Philip Berk

There was a time when people were more interested in Kevin Spacey’s sexuality than in his Academy Award winning performances. But nowadays no one seems to care. Spacey, however, has a knack for keeping people on their toes, and while doing press for Beyond The Sea – his grand, splashy biopic on sixties pop star Bobby Darin, on which he served as co-writer, director and star – the assembled media were hooked on the circumstances surrounding his often controversial stewardship of the prestigious Old Vic Theatre in England. Has any other American ever been so honoured? “For me, this is a remarkable thing,” Spacey says. “I feel that everything in my life has been leading up to this. This is what I was meant to do.”

Thus far, however, his record has been spotty to say the least. Among his failures have been the obscure Dutch play Cloaca and Arthur Miller’s misbegotten Resurrection Blues, for which he hired Robert Altman to direct. His only success has been in casting Ian McKellen in the Christmas pantomime Aladdin. “We’ve had our growing pains,” Spacey responds, “but I hope we’ll be given a chance to make mistakes and our worth will be judged over a reasonable period of time.”

His other dream come true of course is Beyond The Sea, which ultimately became a gargantuan task for the actor. “It’s been the single hardest film to raise financing for,” says Spacey, who made his directorial debut with 1996’s highly underrated Albino Alligator. “Thankfully, films driven by music are back in favour, although I don’t think they were ever out of favour with audiences. I just think people in this industry have short memories because they don’t remember films like All That Jazz and Fame.”

Spacey also does all of his own singing in the film, delivering pitch perfect versions of Bobby Darin favourites like “Mack The Knife”, “Dream Lover”, “Simple Song of Freedom” and “Splish Splash”. What convinced him he had the chops for that? “I sang an old Frank Sinatra once when I hosted Saturday Night Live,” Spacey explains. “Clint Eastwood saw the show and called to say that I had a nice set of pipes. That’s how I came to do “That Old Black Magic” in his film Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. But I’ve always had a definite musical sense, even when I read something. As a kid I was able to do impressions because I was able to hear how it sounded.”

To get his voice right, Spacey worked for a long and intense period with respected jazz artist Roger Kellaway. “He was one of Bobby’s accompanists,” Spacey explains. “We started working on the music in’98. We worked anywhere we could. I’d do a benefit performance just to find out if I could sing in front of an audience. Then we brought in Phil Ramone, and we went into a recording studio where we laid down about twenty tracks. So while I was acting in other movies, I was preparing and working with orchestrations without my vocals.”

So it’s been almost a decade long journey? “Even longer,” he replies. “The project was at Warner Bros. in development about 15 years ago. I kept my eye on it, and kept tracking it, there were a lot of rumours that other actors were cast, but for one reason or another it never happened. It just so happened that from 1996-1998 I did a series of films for Warner Bros. I began to have a relationship with executives who had the key to the golden box where the rights to Bobby Darin’s story were. It took about 5 and half years to convince Warner Bros. to hand over those rights. Generally they don’t like to do that even if they don’t end up making the film.”

The problems, however, were just beginning, “Not only had I bought the rights, but I had acquired a property with a reputation that it couldn’t get made. In addition, the films that I did between 1999 and 2000 after American Beauty didn’t do well, and you know the way this town thinks: you’re only as good as your last film. So there I was trying to figure out how to tell the story and trying to raise the money to get it made. It’s no secret that I was turned down by darn near every studio in this town, the argument being, “Who ever heard of Bobby Darin?”

Ultimately, the ever daring Lions Gate (“They’ve been a terrific partner,” Spacey says) stepped up to the plate, and the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival two years ago. It was greeted by a rave review from respected American critic Todd McCarthy of Variety, and then scored Spacey a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. Since then, however, the response has been tepid and the reviews downright hostile. A fair chunk of the criticism focused on Kevin’s age: Bobby Darin died at 37, and Spacey was in his mid-forties at the time of shooting.

“That negative commentary hounded me for over two years before we started shooting; ultimately I told my producer, ‘You just have to recognize the elephant in the room and then move on.’ That’s why I ended up writing a scene in the movie where a reporter asks that question. (One of the film’s strange stylistic conceits has Darin involved in a film version of his own life as the movie begins.) That way people know that I know it too. I’m not so blind that I don’t get it. Maybe then people will relax and start enjoying the film. At the end of the day it was never a big issue because in the first scenes I wasn’t playing Bobby at seventeen. It’s the mature Bobby and the idea to me is, ‘Is it a memory, is it a dream, is it a movie, is it a movie within a movie, is it a nightmare?’ I don’t want the audience to ever know. I want the audience to decide for themselves what it is. So for me, the age issue is minimal. At the end of the day, we did the movie we wanted to, and we addressed that issue with some degree of humour. And for me, Bobby Darin is timeless.

His wife Sandra Dee (played by Kate Bosworth) was a far bigger star than Bobby in the very early sixties. The film suggests otherwise. How come? “Well, you’re right,” spacey responds. “I think for three or four years she was one of the biggest box office stars in the States. But I didn’t set out to tell the Sandra Dee story. I set out to tell the Bobby Darin story, of which she is a large part. There’s no doubt that when Bobby went off to make Come September (the 1961 film in which they co-starred and first met), he had seen her on magazine covers. I think he targeted her. I think he thought what a great marriage that would make. I think he was surprised when he ended up falling in love with her, They were two people both deeply sheltered by their families, she by a mother who was overly protective. She was also so much younger than him; he found out on their wedding night that she was only seventeen. They didn’t have a lot in common except for the fact that they fell in love. It’s always difficult when you’re making a film about somebody to know what an audience is going to accept, you want the character to be likeable. But I wasn’t afraid to show Bobby as difficult, arrogant, and insensitive, particularly in his relationship to her. At the same time, I had to be smart about how much of her story I was going to tell. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

Beyond The Sea surprisingly has much in common with the smash Broadway success, the Boy From Oz, which of course features Hugh Jackman as Australian musical icon Peter Allen; both share the conceit of the adult star coming to terms with his teenage self.

“Someone told me about this, but I was never aware of it,” Spacey responds. “My bigger influence was the musical Nine, which oddly enough is where I found William Ullrich, who plays little Bobby. He played little Guido opposite Antonio Banderas in the Broadway production. The reason I used him was because Bobby Darin had said several times in his lifetime that he felt like two people. Walden Robert Cassotto (Darin’s birth name) had spent half his life trying to become Bobby Darin and Bobby Darin spent the rest of his life trying to get back to Walden Robert Cassotto. That to me was a very compelling comment about the duality and the struggle between these two forces. So that’s why I decided to use the boy as his muse almost.”

Getting back to the Old Vic, what does he hope to achieve? “I am excited at the idea of running a theatre because I believe an enormous amount can be accomplished and I can use what has happened for me in films as a magnet not just for actors, directors and writers, but I hope for a whole new audience that wouldn’t necessarily come to the theatre otherwise. There’s been a bit of misreporting about the theatre having been some kind of failure and that I’m riding in on a white horse and saving it, which is a bit of a disservice to the people who have been working there for the last five years doing major productions that have been selling out; the theatre has actually been running at a profit since we redesigned the board in 1998, so it’s been doing quite well.”

Has he any misgivings about living in England? “There’s nothing I don’t like about London,” Spacey laughs. “And I don’t mind the weather either. I can understand people who live there all the time complaining about the weather, but that’s like people who complain about never being able to get off the isle of Manhattan. I live a life that allows me to go to other places, so I always have something to compare cities to, and I never get stuck in one place for long. Clearly I’ll be there six or more months out of the year running a theatre, but whatever downside there may be, there’s a huge upside. I’ve been going to London since I was six or seven years old. My parents took trips to London. I saw my first plays at the Old Vic when I was that age.”

Is that when he decided to become an actor? “My parents say I was born an actor,” Spacey laughs. “There were a series of things that I did as a youngster that my parents frowned upon, and for which I was duly reprimanded. So I punished the punishers and kept going. My parents sent me to military school which I didn’t take to well. I didn’t like violence, and it was a very violent atmosphere. So I was happy when I was kicked out, although it puzzled me that the week I was kicked out, I won the leadership medal, so figure that out. In any event, Out of a very troubled and difficult time when I was not happy, I discovered theatre. But there are so many examples of people from difficult, humble beginnings who have made extraordinary lives for themselves. Not that mine was difficult, but it was mine.”

As Spacey says earlier, it was in London that he saw his first play. “I was with my family,” he explains, “We saw a number of plays. On one incredible evening at an early preview of one of those plays, part of the set fell over the actor. The play was Sherlock Holmes, and the actor was playing Dr. Watson. They quickly repaired the set, and when the play resumed, he walked down centre stage, took a cigarette out of his pocket, looked back at the set, and said to the audience, “I knew I should never have moved to Kensington.” This is a story I’ve been telling since I was a kid. I told it one night in the dressing room at the Old Vic when I was doing The Iceman Cometh, and Tim Piggott-Smith – who was with me in the play – quietly said, ‘That was me.’ It was just incredible.”

Spacey achieved unprecedented acclaim for his performances in that Eugene O’Neill drama, becoming the first American actor to win the coveted Olivier award. He repeated the role in new York but lost the Tony to Brian Dennehy for Death Of A Salesman. “One of the great joys of working on The Iceman Cometh was the opportunity it gave me to spend time five and half months with eighteen actors with not a single ego between them. There wasn’t a moment of tension, not a moment of crap, not a moment of b******t, and not a moment of wasted time.” As opposed to working in film? “I’ve been fortunate on many of the films I’ve done,” Spacey offers. “The environment has been terrific. But there are times where people aren’t getting along. You spend a great deal of time trying to put out fires. I believe if people are taken care of, if they’re protected and told they’re appreciated, then something great will come out of it.”

Someone who does that is Clint Eastwood. “He makes you feel that your contribution is extremely important,” Spacey reminisces of their time together shooting Midnight In The garden Of Good And Evil in America’s Deep South. “He forces you to become responsible for your own performance by not saying a lot. He’s an almost zen-like presence on the set. It’s a very quiet set. We speak the same language, because very often he shoots rehearsals or uses first or second takes. You learn very quickly that you better be prepared – not just the actors but every single member of the crew. And if something’s wrong, you better tell him because he’s going to see it in the dailies.”

Another of Spacey’s inspirations is the late Jack Lemmon, with whom he co-starred in the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross as well as an early stage production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “Jack did a lot of good things in his life that he didn’t talk about,’ Spacey offers. “And he always used to say to me, ‘There is only one responsibility you have if you’ve done well in this business, and that is to send the elevator back down.’ That’s just what you’re supposed to do with it. And that’s just what I believe in my heart. And I couldn’t have had a better example. When I did Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I was twenty-six years old. It was my first big role. I was playing Jack’s son, and every night, he was an example of how to behave and what to do with success and all that attention. So for me, there’s nothing worth having unless I can share it.”

Speaking of which, is it true that he discovered Colin Farrell? “In the sense that I was in London eight years ago rehearsing The Iceman Cometh and someone suggested we see the show at the Donmar,” Spacey replies. “About fifty minutes into the play, a young lad comes bounding down the stairs playing an autistic child and within five minutes everyone in my row was asking ‘Who’s that? He’s really good.’ We all met afterwards. Colin and I ended up having a conversation. I knew he was going off to Ireland to make a film. A couple of months later I suggested Colin to the director Thaddeus O’Sullivan, and they met for Ordinary Decent Criminal, which,” Spacey laughs in reference to it’s poor box office, “was released on an aeroplane. But then I started talking to some of my colleagues back in the States. ‘There’s something about this kid, I’m telling you.’ I sort of put the word out, and a year later Colin got the lead in Joel Schumacher’s film Tigerland, and he’s been quite kind in acknowledging that. But it’s just thrilling to see what’s happened to him. And the good thing is, he’s the same guy he was then. He hasn’t changed, and I don’t think he ever will.”

Though Kevin Spacey will also appear in cinemas this month as evil genius Lex Luthor in the highly anticipated blockbuster Superman Returns [ which reunites him with his Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer], his dance card – despite his duties running The Old Vic – is surprisingly not that full. “If I get one good film script a year, I’m lucky,” he laughs. “So it’s not really an issue.”

Maybe that better for the audience…it may mean that Kevin Spacey will have to pen another strong, well crafted script like Beyond The Sea to keep himself busy…

Beyond The Sea is released to cinemas on July 13 in Melbourne, with other states to follow.

FILMINK – July 2006 – Brandon Routh as Superman on the cover, three page interview/article with Kevin Spacey plus pictures from Beyond The Sea. Also includes a column about the history of Bobby Darin