Giant Interview

He’s played everything from gimpy thief to spineless office manager, evil Hollywood agent to emasculated suburbanite .

And with his Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, we learn he can sing and dance, too. Kevin Spacey is so versatile, in fact, he can begin an interview all by himself!

By Mark Remy Photographs by Sean Gleason

GIANT3SPACEY: Welcome to London.

GIANT: Thank you, good to be here. How long have you been a Londoner?

I’ve been here now a year and four or five months, living here pretty much full time. I’m kind of loving being here.

Are you able to move around here and not get mobbed everywhere you go?

Well, I never get mobbed anywhere I go. Walking down the street? No. I’m not one of those guys. I have a perfectly normal existence. Which I prefer.

Do you, in fact, consider yourself a Londoner?

Maybe in four or five years, when I’ve been here and they’ve adopted me, then maybe I’ll be a Londoner. But at the moment I’m Gene Kelly but I’m in London. I’m an American in London.

As an actor, do you find yourself “becoming” more British, because you treat being here like it’s another role?

I don’t know yet. My friends kid me about some of the phrases I’ll use that I’m not even aware of.

Cheers.

Wanker. There are certain words that you just kind of pick up. I’m probably saying those things more than I recognize.

So: Beyond the Sea. Why Bobby Darin? What was it about his story that you found so compelling?

The simple answer is that, for me, he’s been the forgotten one. Of all the Rat Pack – Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, ring-a-ding-Bobby was incredibly talented. And the fact that he only had a 15-year career because of his illness, that he’s been denied the recognition that I think he might have had if he’d lived. I also just think that his story was pretty interesting: what he overcame, where he came from. And I’ve always loved films that are about entertainment or an entertainer. I don’t think we’ve had one in a while that wasn’t a plodding biopic, which I was trying to avoid with this film.

What’s the last movie you remember that did it right?

For me, All That Jazz. And All That Jazz influenced this film, without question. I just found the concept of that film so interesting. And also because – not unlike in this movie – [Bob Fosse] ran out of money. There are sequences in that film where he had planned big dance sequences but they had no money to build sets, so he stuck it on b a soundstage and created a concept that worked. It was very tough for him to I finish that film, but he did.  It’s just a classic.

What kind of research was involved in writing , Beyond the Sea, and directing, performing?

I feel like I’ve been pouring a big bucket of Bobby Darin over my head for the last 10 years.  Research involved talking to people who knew him. There was about three and a half or four months where I was on a soundstage in Los Angeles. We built a kind of nightclub where we had a band, and Roger Kellaway, who was one of Bobby’s accompanists, was working with me. We had a big computer screen up above us where I could punch in any performance of Bobby’s as we were trying to decide which we wanted to include. There were a bunch of performances that we ended up cutting out of the movie. They may end up on a DVD special or something.

One of my favorite Spacey performances, believe it or not, is when you were on Saturday Night Live years ago, and there was a skit where you were doing screen tests for Star Wars.

Yes, the never-before-seen screen tests for Star Wars.

Where did that come from?

Well, Lorne Michaels said, the more you come in armed with sketches that you think are right for you, you won’t be saddled with sketches that aren’t.. So I came with a whole bunch of things, and there were a bunch of impressions that I wanted to do.

What happened was, you end up spending hours with the writers. They came up with some great stuff. So it was probably like 2 in the morning, and we were sitting around having coffee, and I said to some of the writers and the cast, ”Tell me stories about other hosts – who was cool, who was drunk, who was on coke – so they started telling stories, and they got to Christopher Walken. And somebody said, “Remember when he told us he auditioned for Star Wars? That was really funny.. I was like, “What did you just say? And they said, “Yeah, Walken screen-tested for Han Solo in Star Wars.”

They were serious.

They were completely serious. I said, “That’s a sketch.” So we went on the Internet and pulled up dialogue from Han Solo. I called a bunch of my friends and had them teach me how to do Walken.

I’d think that if you want to learn how to do Walken, you call Walken.

Yeah, but I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about it. I did run into him at a party months later and he walked up to me and went, “Yeah, I saw your little sketch. It was funny ha-ha.”

You actually did stand-up for a while, didn’t you?

Yeah. When I first started out, I  was just trying to do anything I could to get noticed and get a job. And so I started doing the clubs and I did impressions. It’s not something I would want to do as a living. It’s insane.

I also read that you were on The Gong Show in 1978.

I was not on The Gong Show, no. I auditioned for it, but I did not get asked to be on.

That’s actually worse.

Especially since my classmate at Chatsworth High School, Mare Winningham, did get on, and she won.

Do you think actors are intrinsically one or the other: comic or serious? Or is everyone a little bit of both?

Some can’t do either, let’s face it. There are some actors like Jack Lemmon who could do both remarkably well.

Why haven’t you had more comic roles?

I have no idea. Some get offered to me, but most of the comedies that are made, they’re  just not on the level of sophistication that I would want to do.

Meaning they’re not that funny to you?

Not that funny to me. Kind of toilet humor . Which is funny for about five minutes. But I love injecting stuff with comedy. Most of the stuff that I’ve done, even the most serious like Se7en, I think there’s some moments in that that are funny.

When was the last time you laughed out loud watching something?

Super Troopers. Super Troopers is a very funny movie.

When you were starting out, did you always want to be a star?

Well, it’s strange. You have such a different view of what you think that’s going to be. I mean, no, I never thought that I would have the opportunities that I’ve had.

Because for Bobby Darin-to draw a very clumsy parallel – that was pounded into his head from a very early age: “You’re gonna be bigger than Sinatra. You’re gonna be a star.”

Yeah, they started calling him “The King” when he was about 13.

So when did you know that you’d made it? 

In my case it was really an accumulation of stuff. I’d been working regularly as an actor from about 1986. I did a whole lot of plays, I did a couple of small parts in movies. It wasn’t until ’93, ’94, ’95 that I focused on, “I’m just going to see if I can  make a break in film.” And I got a whole series of roles and in ’95 all those movies came out. And suddenly I became rather ubiquitous.

What do you consider your big break? Your first movie role, in Heartburn, in 1986?

I wouldn’t say that was a break, no. I would say that was an incredibly generous offer by Mike Nichols, who had just directed me in [the stage version of] Hurlyburly, where I was the understudy. Really I think my break came in theater, when I did Long Day’s Joumey Into Night with Jack Lemmon. That was really the first major part that I played in a high-profile play that was received very well. So for me  it really started in theater. And in film it wasn’t just one thing. I think s it was an accumulation of things. The fact that Swimming With Sharks and Outbreak  and Se7en and. The Usual Suspects all opened within about a six-and-a-half month period just suddenly put me on the map. If those movies had been spread out, it might not have had that effect.

I’m guessing this happened by luck. It wasn’t part of some grand scheme.

No, there was no grand scheme.

You’ve acted in a lot of movies,  produced a few, directed a couple. But five or six of your roles are just  burned into people’s brains. The first,  chronologically, being Glengarry Glen Ross.

I got that role because of a theater job. I was doing Lost in Yonkers on Broadway and my dresser had worked with Pacino when he did theater. So she’d invited him to come see the play and he showed up one night, which I did not know. I didn’t know he was there. Then about two weeks later he came back to see the play and he brought Jamie Foley, who is the director of Glengarry, because Al had thought I would be a good John Williamson. About a week after that, I got an audition.

So I auditioned, and then they had me come back and read again, and then I finally did a reading of the whole piece with a bunch of actors including Lemmon, who didn’t know that I was auditioning. I walked into the room and he looked up from his script and went, “Oh, Jesus Christ. Not you again; Do I have to hold up your end of it one more time? Can’t you get a job on your own?”

I got the part and it was an incredible process where we rehearsed it like a play, down in a Broadway rehearsal room, for a bunch of weeks before we started shooting. By the time we got to that set, we all knew each other very well and we really worked on the timing of it, the language of it. I just loved that experience. People quote that movie a lot to me.

Were you jealous of Alec Baldwin’s role? The breezy, bombastic asshole who just rushes in and rushes back out? 

No, he does the breezy, bombastic asshole much better than I do. So it was a good part for him.

“F*** you, that’s my name.” Ha-ha. The Usual Suspects is another great one. First of all, I have to ask: Keyser Soze, Kevin Spacey, both initials “K.S.” Coincidence?

I think it’s a coincidence. It was my understanding that, although they wrote the part for me, Keyser Soze was actually the name of Christopher McQuarrie’s lawyer.

Really?

Yeah. But they did write the role for me, although I read it not knowing what part they wanted me to play, because that’s the way I like to read scripts. And I remember calling Bryan [Singer, the director] after I’d read the script, and there were a couple of roles that I thought were pretty interesting. And then I said, ‘I don’t know, this Verbal character is really interesting, and he was like, ‘That’s the one we wanted you to do.”

What were the other roles you found interesting?

I thought the Gabriel Byrne part was good. I thought the Chazz [Palminteri) part was good. But there was just something about Verbal.

GIANT5

Se7en is a movie where you don’t get a lot of screen time compared with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, but your role is still very powerful.

Well, at first I auditioned for that movie and didn’t get it. I’d auditioned like three months before.

For that role?

Yeah, for that role. And didn’t get it. And then I believe they shot with somebody else for a little while, and for whatever reason that didn’t work. So on Christmas Eve I was in New York, with my family, and my phone rang. It was the producer: “Kev! How are ya, ha-ha-ha, what you doin’?” So he explained what had gone down and they wanted me to get on a plane two days later, fly to Los Angeles and start shooting on that Tuesday. So I read the script again the next day, I had a lengthy discussion with my manager and my agent, and came up with the idea that I would only do it if my name would not appear on the credits at the front end of the film. And they couldn’t use my photo or advertise with me.

How come?

Because the more I looked at the script and the more I thought about the fact that he doesn’t show up until practically the last reel of the film, and knowing that the films I had just done would probably be released before Se7en, I thought, “If any of those films do well, I’m going to have a higher profile than I do now and I don’t want people to know it’s a movie about a serial killer that they can’t find – whose voice you hear – and already know who it is.” So it was a bit of a fight with the studio, because they didn’t understand why I was insisting on that. But it was a deal-breaker. And so, about 24 hours later, they said OK, reluctantly. I think it ended up being very cool, because there were two things that happened: It was, ”Oh my god, there he is,” when he first shows up in the police station. And then, ”Oh my god, who’s playing him?”

Your character sidesteps this question in the movie, so I’ll put it to you right now: Do crazy people know they’re crazy? Do they sit there thinking, “Wow, I’m really nuts”?

No. I think that crazy people think they’re not crazy. You get a little of that with some people who are fans who cross the line into developing a fantasy relationship that can sometimes be frightening. They don’t think that there’s anything wrong with believing that you’re speaking to them through your films, that because you’re born on a certain day you’re meant to be together.

Do you get a lot of that stuff?

Yeah. I think everybody does. Michael J. Fox does.

Moving on, L.A. Confidential was a fun movie.

Yeah.

Rollicking, you might say. Another great cast. How did that come together? 

Well, that happened because [director] Curtis Hanson had been trying to get me in films of his for about four years. He wanted to cast me in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, he wanted to cast me in two other films of his. And because I had no film profile, the studios were always like, “Huh? Who? That theater actor? No, we want a big name.” It was after Se7en and Suspects had come out and I think I’d been nominated for Suspects that Curtis called me and said, “Well, there’s a movie I want you to do and I don’t think they’re going to be able to say no to you now.” And I read it and fell in love with the story. I thought Curtis was being incredibly smart by casting unknowns at that time, Russell [Crowe] and Guy Pearce in the leads.

GIANT1Was that the same deal, where you read the script without knowing what character they had in mind for you? 

Yes.

And you zeroed in on that character?

I zeroed in on that character.

Next on the list is American Beauty

Yeah.

I heard someone say once that when you strip them down, American Beauty and Fight Club are the same movie. Do you see that?

I don’t see that. But I guess if you boil it down – so what is the message of both films?

What it means to be a man today, getting back to basics, materialism is bad…

Well, they both use fantasy as a device. But one is a real fantasy and one is not. ‘Cause in Fight Club, he doesn’t exist. It’s in his head. Whereas she definitely exists in American Beauty.

American Beauty is a dark movie.

Yeah. Dark but funny. I think it’s a very funny movie. But it’s also very truthful. Which I think makes the comedy work even better than if it was just jokey.

You’ve worked with a lot of directors: Sam Mendes, Clint Eastwood, Joel Schumacher, David Fincher, Bryan Singer. If you left them alone in a room, what do you think they’d say about you? 

That I showed up on time. [laughs). I hope that they’d say I did my best to serve the piece. And each of the ones that you’ve mentioned were really great experiences. In fact, I’ve had very few bad experiences, even though some of the movies I’ve done haven’t worked or haven’t made money, which for some is the barometer of whether a movie is successful.

That’s not the barometer for me. I’ve just tried to do things that I thought would be interesting and challenging. It’s funny: Once I did American Beauty, I thought, it’s going to be a long time before I find another movie experience that’s going to match this. So when the films I did after American Beauty  didn’t do well and I got a lot of critical attacks, it was so expected. We tend to live in a world of who’s hot, who’s in, who’s now, who’s up, who’s down. And I just don’t live in that world.

Let’s talk about Swimming With Sharks and Hurlyburly. In both of these you play Hollywood executives who are essentially shallow, degenerate assholes. Were these fairly satirical pieces? Or frighteningly true to life?

Well, I suspect it’s frighteningly true to life. Although in my own experience – other than battles that you have about marketing and posters and trailers – I really haven’t had to deal with too many. I mean, when Swimming With Sharks came out, everybody was coming up to me saying, “Oh, I know you based your character on so-and-so.”  The truth was, I never met any of those people that the movie was supposedly based on. I try very hard to not surround myself with vacancy. So I’ve been pretty lucky.

Speaking of Hurlyburly, there’s a lot of serious dialogue in that movie, ideas being bandied about, that kind of thing. But I couldn’t get past the sheer amount of drug use.

Oh yeah. It’s a coked-up group of people.

There’s more drug use in that movie than there is in Blow, which is a movie about drug use. 

Yeah.

Sean Penn…

Oh, Sean was out of his mind.

Do you know how he pulled that off?

He’s the greatest actor of our generation. That’s how he pulled it off.

But physically, the red eyes and all – did he not sleep, or what?

You know, Sean’s process is his own. I can only tell you it worked.

All these roles over the years…do you absorb these characters, store them like on a hard drive in your head? Or do you completely forget one before absorbing the next one?

It’s probably easier to remember film dialogue than play dialogue, because a play is ephemeral. It’s there and it’s gone. And you know it in your head for a period of, say, eight months or however long the play runs. And then you don’t know it anymore’ cause you’re not in the routine of doing it and you never see it again. With film, once I see them initially, I don’t sit around and watch them again. But some of that dialogue people say to me, so those lines are sort of in my head.

Let’s put that to the test. I’m going to read you some lines of dialogue from characters that you’ve done and see if you can…

Guess what they are? All right.

Number 1: “You have to be a little more thick-skinned, you turd.”

Swimming With Sharks.

Correct. Number 2: “Every being in the universe knows right from wrong, Mark.” Negotiator.

No.

No? “Every being in the world knows right from wrong, Mark?” Is that right? Mark?

Yeah.

I have no idea.

K-PAX

Oh, wow.

Number 3: “I’m looking for the least possible amount of responsibility.”

American Beauty.

Yes. Number 4: “Do you realize that you’re now toking up at 8:58 in the morning, on top of the shit you’ve already put up your nose?” 

Turkeylurkey, as I like to call it.

Correct, Hurlyburly. Last one is easy: “Now will you go to lunch? Go to lunch. Will you go to lunch?”

[Laughs] Yeah. Gene Barry, Glenn Close.

Close enough.

Giant 2004