September 2, 2000

An interview with Kevin Spacey

He rushes into the restaurant head down, just like a Hollywood star; he orders Coke, just like a Hollywood star; he toys with his pasta, just like a Hollywood star; he is shorter than you imagine, just like … But, unlike a star, Kevin Spacey does not want to talk about winning Oscars, or his next movie, or his neuroses, or to lay down the law on the state of the world. He certainly does not want to talk about his private life. With the self-contained concentration that he brings to his screen roles – the Mr Big in The Usual Suspects; John Doe in 7; this year’s Oscar-winning performance as the menopausal male in American Beauty – he is having lunch for one purpose: to discuss the theatre, in particular London’s Old Vic Theatre, its past and its future.

We are meeting at La Barca, a traditional neighbourhood haunt for Old Vic actors, its walls plastered with fading photographs. Spacey nods a greeting to a young Timothy West, an even younger Derek Jacobi, whose faces decorate the walls. Spacey has popped across from the nearby theatre where he has been giving total commitment to Old Vic Productions, the company that is busily raising Pounds 1m from the public to ensure the future of the South Bank theatre. The money is almost in the bag and Spacey, the artistic consultant, talks like a zealot about his plans for the theatre, how he hopes to act there often, how he sees it as a social magnet, a force for good in the area.

This is not just talk. Spacey has enjoyed a long love affair with the Old Vic, which he first visited as a five-year-old. When his great London success, The Iceman Cometh, was looking for a larger venue in 1998 after its Almeida run, Spacey insisted on the Old Vic, discovering on its stage the famous “sweet spot”, so loved by Olivier, where acting becomes effortless. “It’s my favourite theatre of all time.” Although a committed man of the theatre – “it’s more important to me than acting” – Spacey is far from being a luvvie: the stage is much too serious for that. “I really do believe in its redemptive qualities; it not only makes you a better movie actor – it makes you a better person.

“My film experiences are great but, as an organic experience, making a movie is about as interesting as building a shed. I love movies but they also serve an extremely philanthropic purpose.” What he means is that they subsidise Spacey’s stage work. This was literally true when he took The Iceman Cometh to New York. “I rehearsed it to 4 o’clock every day and then for 16 nights filmed the movie The Big Kahuna with Danny DeVito. It cost Dollars 1.8m to make but we have sold it for many times that. It is doing very well.” In contrast: “I devoted a year of my life to Iceman. As the producer I got to lay the gauntlet down.

In New York I insisted that we charge Dollars 100 for some seats so that there could be 125 student seats at Dollars 20. All my fellow directors voted against that but it was my play. We controlled who got the tickets and 12,500 students saw Iceman. I did workshops with 7,000 of them. And we also made a big profit.”

His faith in the theatre, in its ability to change lives, reflects personal experience. Born in New Jersey 41 years ago and raised in California, he rebelled against strict parents. Sent to military college to improve his self-discipline, he was expelled for fighting. It was acting in school plays that gave him a purpose. From his early teens he wanted to be an actor. To such a true believer, incidental happenings, such as winning an Oscar, have made little impression.

“I’m trying to have the same point of view that I had 10 years ago. It only matters if I’ve got a good story. One of my next movies is The Shipping News, about a man who, after his marriage breaks up, goes back to Newfoundland to work on a newspaper. It won the Pulitzer Prize. They expected me to demand all the money in the world, but I’ve made a deal that will help them make the movie.” Spacey is setting aside the next three years for the movies, kicking off with Paying It Forward: “My first romantic comedy.”

Whether he will be able to keep away from the stage is doubtful. “I left the theatre in 1993 to focus on film for five years, but I was looking for a play after three years.” He expects to produce off-Broadway – “which is really booming” – while making movies, and he will be constantly popping over to London to see friends such as Sam West perform in Richard II, and to check up on the Old Vic. There is no doubt where his loyalty lies. “I am a better movie actor when I’ve done a play.”

He also insists on bringing the techniques of the theatre – the cast reading the script through together, long rehearsal times – to his movies. He attributes much of the success of American Beauty to the fact that it was the film debut for a theatre director, Sam Mendes, who prepared the actors as if he were directing a play. These days, movie and TV actors seem more inclined to expose themselves on the stage. Keanu Reeves had a stab at Hamlet in an obscure Canadian theatre; Kelsey Grammer (or Frasier) recently bombed as Macbeth. They will often find Spacey supporting them in the audience.

“You must be generous to people giving their best shot, yet they get criticised for trying. I often see somebody who I think I have got pegged, do a great performance on stage. In the past the greatest Hollywood actors, the ones we all admire, like Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, were always returning to the stage.” He is suddenly animated, shedding his serious and reserved exterior. You remember he is an actor, trained to hide himself behind a performance. But it is still a shock to learn that early in his career he wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and that he has a reputation as an impressionist.

“Comedy is a great part of what I am. I’d love to do a comedy with Peter O’Toole,” preferably on the stage of the Old Vic. But that is in the future. For the present, there is a string of movies, some for money, some for love, but the money will free Spacey to work for love, in the theatre. He hates being specific about roles. “I’ve got no hit list; I like to discover parts as they come along.” But surely one day he will get round to Shakespeare, perhaps at the Old Vic. If he does attempt a Macbeth, or even a Lear, the circle will have turned. His first public stage role was for Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park company in New York, where he was the messenger in Henry IV: “There was not much work after that. I obviously did not kill the lines.” When not acting, Spacey was an assistant to Papp, who became a father figure. “There will never be anyone like Joe, a true fighter for the theatre.

I remember the day in 1982 when they knocked down two theatres in New York that Joe had campaigned to save, to build a hotel. I vowed then that if there was ever a time when I could pick up Joe’s mantle, I would do the same.” He has found the challenge in the Old Vic. It hardly matters to Spacey that the Old Vic is in London. He spends much of his time writing letters to American Equity arguing the case for a British actor to take his part to New York and vice versa. To him the whole world really is the stage. He hardly seems to acknowledge his food or his surroundings; the other diners in their turn do not give him a second glance.

Spacey once said that “the least the audience knows about me the better I can do the job” and he is extremely successful at defending his privacy. For more than two hours he talks with intense concentration about the theatre, displaying amazing knowledge about developments in the career of Tom Stoppard, what is worth seeing on the London stage, about the regeneration of the South Bank and American politics – he is for Al Gore.

But probing behind the facade is impossible. Spacey spends much of the year on the move, living in hotels, or with friends, or in rented apartments. He has scotched rumours that he might be gay by admitting to a long-term girlfriend, but he will not talk about her. He is marginally more forthcoming about his dogs, which he dotes on, not least for “their unconditional love”. Only when the photographer turns up, unexpectedly, to take a picture does he look flustered. “I’m not ready for that today,” he says, smoothing his hair, patting his casual jacket. The photographer slips away.

Unusually for an actor, Spacey does not seem to seek love, either in the roles he chooses, or from his fans. He does not seek to charm, although he is polite and responsive. He is remarkably self-contained, his own man. The inner demons, which must have haunted him as a child, have long been exorcised by an actor’s control. Stardom, with the support system that money and fame can buy, provides extra protection. He lives for his craft, for the theatre, about which he is optimistic. “As long as there are stories to tell, and people who want to hear them, there will be a theatre. The theatre is in fine shape and always will be.” He smiles, shakes hands firmly, and disappears into the Old Vic, to find his “sweet spot”.

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