Kevin Spacey Needs A Hug

by Terrence Rafferty

He’s made the leap from respected character actor to our finest leading man. Terrence Rafferty explains why he’s so, well, interesting.

(Kevin Spacey Just Wants To Be Honest With You)

GQCover2000Actors are difficult to know, and the best actors may be the most difficult of all. Kevin Spacey is an extremely good actor – so good that in “real life,” as well as on the stage and the screen, his presence can be a little unsettling. As I watched him and listened to him over a couple of days in LA. recently, I sometimes felt as if he were simply not being himself, but most frequently felt as if the distinction were purely meaningless. Within about half an hour of meeting him for the first time at the offices of his production company, I hear him telling someone on the phone that there’s a journalist observing him “and I’d doing some of the best acting of my life,” casting a mischievous, knowing glance in my direction as he says it. This is a classic Spacey effect, bold and yet perfectly, irreducibly ambiguous. Is he acting now, or is he joking, or is he somehow doing both things at once, being weirdly honest about the nature of the game played by journalists and their subjects? I think he’s telling me, “I’m going to play myself for a while – pretend that I’m pretending that you’re not here, scrutinizing and evaluating everything that I do – and them you’ll go home and write a piece in which you pretend to give your readers ‘the truth’ about Kevin Spacey.” Actors have pretty complicated relationships to the truth, and the best actors have the most complicated relationship of all.

“Kevin is not the kind of actor who shuns the limelight and only blossoms when you say ‘Action,'” according to Curtis Hanson, who directed him in L.A. Confidential (1997). “He’s somebody who loves to tell stories, loves to do imitations – he just loves to entertain. If movies didn’t exist, he’d be on stage, and if the stage didn’t exist, he’d go on the radio; he’d find a way. Kevin is a born performer.” Judy Davis, Spacey’s costar in The Ref (1994), confirms this view. Between takes, she says, he would tell jokes and do impressions – Brando was her favorite – and she was struck by his “awareness of all kinds of show business, especially stand-up comedy; he admired Johnny Carson enormously.” (He did, in fact, briefly try his hand at stand-up in the early days of his career.) In the course of my conversations with him, Spacey effortlessly – and gleefully – slips into the voices of various actors and directors: Jack Lemmon, John Huston, John Gielgud, Peter O’ Toole and (his masterpiece, I think) Jason Robards, Jr. Popping a disc into the CD player of his Porsche Boxster as he weaves through traffic on Sunset Boulevard, he suddenly begins to sing and finger-snap along to Bobby Darin’s rendition of “Call Me Irresponsible.” His timing and phrasing are eerily precise.

At this moment – and it’s a longish moment – since he follows “Call Me Irresponsible” with an equally enthusiastic, full-throated sing-along to Darin’s “The Curtain Falls,” a maudlin ballad with which the singer used to close his nightclub act – I feel that the world is stranger than I ever could have imagined. Or at least L.A. is. But, in fact, Spacey’s impromptu Darin concert isn’t wholly gratuitous: It’s work, sort of. He’s producing and starring in a biography of Darin, which he wants to start filming next year. “He was 37 when he died, so I’ll have to do it soon or I’ll be too old to play the part [Spacey is 41]. Fortunately, he always looked a little older than he was. Maybe it was the tuxedo. I sense this is right for me. The nightclub life and the idea of being that kind of performer have been inside me for a long time. My father had a great collection of 78s (which I still have) of people like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. And I used to do musicals as a kid. So this, I think, is going to be kind of liberating for me – to discover, literally, that voice in myself, the performer’s self that I haven’t found the right vehicle for. I’m really excited about this.”

Can this be Kevin Spacey? Clearly it’s a Kevin Spacey that Curtis Hanson and Judy Davis would recognize, but it’s hardly one that movie or theater or television audiences are familiar with – not audiences that associate him with say, the insane arms dealer Mel Profitt of the Wiseguy series (1988) or the chillingly mild-mannered serial killer of Seven (1995) or the enigmatic felon Verbal Kint of The Usual Suspects (1995) or the tormented traveling salesman Hickey of O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh (on Broadway in 1999) or even the puzzled, doomed suburban rebel Lester of American Beauty (1999). To name only a handful of roles that have helped make Kevin Spacey a very, very unusual kind of star.

But of course, Spacey is a star largely because his persona is elusive, wildly unpredictable. That’s what keeps our attention. And don’t think he doesn’t know it. When he talks about acting – and that’s practically all we talk about – he constantly emphasizes the importance of challenging himself and surprising the audience. In his case, this isn’t just an actors’ cant.: Even a casual acquaintance with him tells you he has a restless imagination and an absolute aversion to theatrical cliché. Here’s a fairly typical Spacey riff on his craft: “Every time I see a movie where someone’s playing a bad guy, and all they’re doing is intense, intense, intense, intense, it’s just like watching a flat line. That’s interesting for about two seconds. The memorable villains are the ones where you have no idea how much power they have until they decide to wield it. They’re not going around trying to prove what tough, mean characters they are, they’re just living their life, maybe having some tea and then, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, take that person’s head off.'” One of the things I can say with any certainty about the “real” Kevin Spacey is that he’s terrified of boring either his audience or himself. He’d stop short, I’m sure, of decapitation, but if necessary he will break out in a Bobby Darin number on Sunset Boulevard. Whatever it takes.

To that end (and maybe one or two others), Spacey tells me he doesn’t want this article to be the “usual” profile. “Let’s do something different,” he says, with an air of complicity. The most “different” thing I can think to do – in the spirit of self-awareness that Spacey’s presence inevitably suggests – is to drop any pretense that I’m solving the mystery of his personality. A few years ago, Spacey was burned by an Esquire piece that purported to out him as gay, and since then, he told a later interviewer, “Everybody comes on like they’re Sherlock Holmes.” ( I offered him the opportunity to comment on that piece, and he declined.) So he’s pretty guarded with journalists, and that suits me fine. I’d just as soon not play detective in his personal life, because this is a mystery whose solution could only make him less interesting. Mystery is the source of his power as an actor: Audiences are drawn to him because he’s not the usual suspect.

GQOct20002One of Spacey’s favorite concepts is that of being “in on the joke.” He uses the phrase when I ask him about Mike Nichols, who gave him his first movie jobs – bit parts in Heartburn (1986) and Working Girl (1988). Actors like Nichols, he says, because, “he’s in on the joke, having been a performer himself and having done it in the irreverent way that he did. You walk into a room with him and you know that he gets it.” And later, speaking about the ultimate effect of The Iceman Cometh – in which Spacey’s character, Hickey, tries to cajole the alcoholic regulars of a seedy bar into giving up their “pipe dreams” about themselves – he says, “Finally, you don’t quite know what to think about Hickey. And with the other characters, you don’t quite know – are they really changed or are they still deluding themselves? Or are they being more honest than you’ve ever been, but now they’re in their own joke? If you’re in on your own joke, that’s a good thing. Then, at least, you can move ahead.” This is a useful concept. At a certain point, Spacey and I seem to recognize that each of us is in on his own joke. And we move ahead.

First, however, we rehearse some of the conventions of celebrity-profile journalism. We hang out. I go to his office, soak up some atmosphere (casual, low-key, humorous), listen to him make and receive calls (some personal, most business, all of which he handles with a salesman’s easy charm), go to lunch at one of his favorite restaurants (where he jokes with the waitress, lays a few entertaining showbiz anecdotes on me and receives several more calls on his cell phone). He’s putting on a nice show for me, letting me see what a busy, connected guy he is. He has the good grace to be slightly apologetic about all this activity, though, explaining that there’s a lot he wants to get done because he’s taking a few months off to drive across the country before starting to film The Shipping News (with director Lasse Hallström): “Nobody believes me, but I’m not taking any acting jobs now. Not even if David Lean came back from the dead.”

Thoughtfully, he also establishes as part of his performance a running joke – a German-tourist impression (originated, he says, by Skipp Sudduth, who was in the Iceman cast), which he launches into without warning every ten minutes or so. Then, at his suggestion, I accompany him to his regular boxing lesson at the Hollywood Gym on La Brea, where a smiling ex-lightweight named Terry Claybon subjects him to an amazingly grueling workout. It’s considerate of Spacey, really, to provide me this ready-made colorful setting, and it’s not  entirely useless to me: As Spacey’s instructor puts him through his arduous paces, I get a vivid sense of his powers of concentration, along with his doggedness, his stamina and his willingness to learn something new – all qualities that help account for his success as an actor. According to Claybon, he’s doing “unbelievably well” in only his third week of lessons, but after a while I begin to feel awkward just sitting outside the ring staring at this 41-year-old man sweating and breathing hard. This is not what I need to know about Kevin Spacey.

The best way to “get”  Spacey, I think, is to listen to him talk about acting and the world of the theater. His knowledge of his profession is encyclopedic, and his attitude toward its practitioners, particularly the leaders of the tribe, is positively reverent. (Not a word you’d associate with him in any other context.) And his fellow actors and other show folk are starting to sound almost reverent about him. Curtis Hanson says, “He’s a dream to direct.” Judy Davis – one of the greatest actresses alive and a person who, one senses, is not easily impressed – describes him as “terribly funny, very smart, very generous.” Helen Hunt, who plays opposite Spacey in the new Pay It Forward, quietly gushes, “I’ve felt rapport with a lot of actors I’ve worked with, but rarely have I worked so deeply and so sort of intricately with another actor.” And she makes a prediction – “I think he’s fated to do big, huge things creatively” – that echoes something Jack Lemmon said to me: “I know that the future is rosy for him.” After talking to Spacey’s colleagues, I feel as if I’ve sat through one of those AFI Life Achievement Awards dinners.

But I’m not surprised, because in listening to Spacey describe his creative process, expound on the history of his profession and reminisce about past productions, I begin to suspect he’s a different person – more alive, more fully engaged – when he’s working than when he’s not, and also that theatrical people are more real to him than the rest of us, who aren’t in on the joke. He has studied his acting heroes so thoroughly that he can speak of the dead as if he had known them: His analyses of Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Montgomery Clift and his “all-time favorite,” Spencer Tracy, are like eulogies. He even thinks of his boxing lessons (which he’s taking solely for exercise, not as preparation for a role) in terms of acting: “Terry keeps telling me, ‘If your foot’s too far off the ground, I know you’re coming at me. You have to not telegraph what you’re going to do.’ It’s the same thing in acting. You don’t want to telegraph what’s coming. You want it to make sense when it happens, so the audience says, ‘Of course.’ You may even have done twelve takes, seven angles, but it all has to look like it just happened, at exactly that moment. That’s really the trick – the trick is not getting caught acting. And Tracy didn’t get caught at it better than anybody.”

Not getting caught at it is clearly Kevin Spacey’s highest goal, but it’s one that, for all his skill, is tougher to achieve in what we nonperformers consider the real world. When he tries to show me he’s a regular guy, I can catch him acting, because actors are not regular guys. They just play them in the movies. Effects that work superbly on stage or the screen lose a little something in the less orderly realm of ordinary life. Spacey knows, for example, the power of anticipation in theater and film – the interest an audience builds up while they’re waiting for the appearance of a character that the other characters have been talking about. Iceman is a prime example. For a good hour, we hear, from everyone in Harry Hope’s bar, “Where’s Hickey? Where’s Hickey? He should have been here by now” – and when he finally makes his appearance, it’s like the Second Coming of the Messiah.

And that’s not the only role in which Spacey has played the man everyone has been waiting for. He has done it in Seven, in The Negotiator (1998), to some extent in The Big Kahuna, and – in a peculiar way – in The Usual Suspects. (He’d play Godot if it were humanly possible.) But when he makes me wait, for an hour and a half past the time we agreed to speak, I somehow fail to experience the thrill of anticipation I might feel at a performance of Iceman.

But it’s a beautiful, relatively smog-free L.A. day, and we’re sitting in the courtyard of the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood with the sun reflecting softly off the pool, and the tension quickly dissipates, because all we talk about is acting, which is what Spacey knows best and seems to care most deeply about. And if he’s being anything less than honest, I’m  not catching him at it.

GQOct20001He doesn’t say a lot about his nonprofessional life. He was born Kevin Spacey Fowler, grew up in an ordinary Valley suburb, got involved in his high school drama club and then headed for New York to study acting at Juilliard. Although he left school at the end of his second year, he appreciates the value of the “mostly technical training – learning about speech, voice, accents, posture, even fencing” that he received there. “I know that if I hadn’t had all that, I  wouldn’t have been able to get through Iceman.” (The school recently awarded him an honorary degree.) Within a couple of years, he was appearing on Broadway in Ibsen’s Ghosts, with Liv Ullmann: He claims to have been “the worst Oswald in history,” although he’s had a hard time convincing Peter O’ Toole that it was worse than his.

After leading the life of a young New York actor for a couple of years, somehow avoiding doing soap operas and commercials (be blew his one commercial audition by arguing with the casting director about the meaning of the word nebulous), he was cast in a high-profile Broadway revival of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, where he found a mentor, Jack Lemmon. Lemmon, who says he thinks of Spacey “like another son,” tells me that Spacey got the part by stealing – from an old lady, no less – an invitation to a reception for the play’s director, Jonathon Miller: “And he confronted Jonathon and said, ‘You’ve got to read me, because I know I’m right for this.'” Lemmon adds, “There’s a difference between raw nerve and chutzpah on a healthy level. Kevin has plenty of ego, but it’s balanced, and he points it in the right directions. He goes after things that are terrific for him. He has very, very good judgment.”

Spacey, in fact, prides himself on knowing what’s right for him, and has no patience with actors who think they should be up for every part. “You can only think that if ego and ambition are more prominent in your psyche than anything else, and those are not two good things for an actor to operate on all the time.” What strikes me as I listen to him tell stories about the various plays and movies he has worked on is how detailed his memories of his creative process are: He defines the problems each role presented with remarkable clarity and specificity, is surprisingly candid about instances in which he felt he needed help and manages to turn every one of his theatrical anecdotes into a shapely little lesson on craft. He speaks, for instance, about using his TV stint on Wiseguy “as a way to learn about myself on film,” because the small roles he had been getting in movies weren’t teaching him enough. He illustrates the importance of having historical references by pointing to the hairpiece he wore in L.A. Confidential. “I wanted Montgomery Cliff’s head. We called my piece ‘Monty’ whenever I put it on.” And he gets really animated when he explains to me how, during rehearsals for Iceman, he discovered that he couldn’t do Hickey’s famous fourth-act monologue the same way every night. “I told the director (Howard Davies), ‘It’s going to be self-loathing, it’s going to be funny, it’s going to be terrifying, it’s going to be a lot of things a lot of times, but I don’t know when and I don’t know why. I just want to show up every night and be honest; that’s all I can hope for.’ And approaching it that way kept the play incredibly alive for all of us.” That’s my condensed version of what, in Spacey’s telling, is an extremely long and meticulous narrative of the rehearsal process, a kind of epic account of the planning it takes for an actor to arrive at something spontaneous and instinctual, and of the infinite resources of artifice he needs in order to be honest. He has an almost blissful look on his face as he tells it.

That’s what actors on Spacey’s level live for. I ask everyone I talk to about him why they think it is that this man – who is not young and not remarkably handsome, and who has been for most of his career a versatile character actor rather than a romantic, leading man – has become a star, and even a sex symbol. No one can give me a satisfactory answer. They all cite his sense of humor (which Judy Davis perceptively characterizes as “knowing, modern kind of humor”) as one component, and then they get stuck, or fall back on vague concepts such as “courage” – a quality that impresses other actors, I’d guess, more than it does audiences. As I watch him talking about Iceman, it occurs to me that the most distinctive and appealing aspect of Kevin Spacey’s persona might simply be the obvious, completely unapologetic joy he takes in acting. There’s something disarming about it, this innocent delight.

At one point in our poolside seminar on all things theatrical, Spacey tells an anecdote about John Huston on the set of The Night of the Iguana. One night, apparently, everyone was sitting around playing a game in which each person has to choose just one word to describe the most important thing in life. “Someone said ‘beauty’ and someone said ‘wealth’ and someone said ‘family.’ And when it came around to Huston, he said, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’d have to say “interest” – to stay interested.’ And I think that’s a great lesson.” And just a few minutes later, I hear Spacey saying, ” I want to continue challenging myself, to try to stay aggressively – uh what’s the word I’m searching for? [perfectly judged pause] Interested.” I knew exactly what that word he was “searching for” was going to be, yet I find myself, somewhat to my surprise, charmed and pleased when it actually arrives, right on schedule. I also know he is telling the truth, in his own way – maybe his best way. It’s an actor’s truth. And I say that with respect.~

Terrence Rafferty is GQ’s critic-at-large.

GQ, October 2000
Photos by Michael Thompson

Also contains one picture each from Pay It Forward, American Beauty, L.A. Confidential, Working Girl, The Usual Suspects, The Iceman Cometh and Glengarry Glen Ross.