Laugh I Dare You

No more Mr Bad Guy for Kevin Spacey. The actor, who won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, has played some of the nastiest screen villains. But now he’s turning his back on fear. He’s going to make you laugh… or else! 

– words by Paul Gains

HighLifeCoverBalanced  precariously  on a roadside kerb with his heels literally hanging over the edge, Kevin Spacey has nowhere to move. Television cameras are inches from his face. A quartet of burly minders, hired to keep the fans at bay, are torn between enforcing the no-touch policy and propping their client up so he doesn’t fall backwards.

It’s only 15, maybe 20 feet to the door of Toronto’s affluent Windsor Arms Hotel, where 150 invited partygoers have been waiting for an hour and a half, but it’s going to take an eternity to negotiate a way through the mayhem. Kevin Spacey, in his navy blue suit, crisp white shirt and a silver monotone tie, is loving every minute of it.

“This never used to happen when I first came here,” Spacey says of his sudden popularity. And that’s a fact. Even though he won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role as the ruthless criminal Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint in The Usual Suspects, Spacey has been one of those obscure faces that pops up in some great films as well as on the stage – usually to critical acclaim – but whose name doesn’t necessarily ring a bell. Indeed, ask most people to name a film in which he’s starred and they are at a loss. Despite playing the vicious serial killer in Seven, a film which starred Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, he was not even listed in the credits.

Generally speaking, his movies attract a vociferous following amongst a unique group, of well, usual suspects. That probably explains why LA Confidential and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, for starters, actually made more money in video than in the theatre. Now his career is headed in a different direction and the actor’s actor has become a star.

“Two years ago I spoke to you about Albino Alligator…” a statuesque blonde reporter begins, thrusting a microphone in his face. But before she can ask her question Spacey counters, “You haven’t changed at all!”

Pleased with his witticism the actor allows a sly grin to crease his face. The reporter is equally pleased knowing the exchange is captured on film. From that point on, Spacey could recite the alphabet, bark like a dog or say anything and she wouldn’t care, she has her sound bite. And it’s not as though he doesn’t know this.

Articulate and, while appearing to be spontaneous, the 40-year-old puts some thought into every word, unlike many of his genre. he politely answers a few questions, then an anxious publicist, charged with the responsibility of delivering the star on time, reminds him he is wanted inside and struggles to create space. But Spacey appears to be in no hurry. taking a couple of steps he turns and signs a few autographs, then answers more questions.

Almost apologetically, he admits to having less box office panache than some of the great leading men, even though he has worked with the best and, occasionally, outshone them. He is under no false illusions as to where his place is in Hollywood’s pecking order though and that there is a gap between him and, let’s say, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. If hard work is the secret it’s certain he’s headed in the right direction.

With two films set for UK release in January 1999, The Big Kahuna and American Beauty – which won the People’s Choice Award at the acclaimed Toronto International Film Festival, Spacey’s career has taken a sudden departure from the path he strolled effortlessly along. In danger of being typecast, destined to play sullen, brooding villains, Spacey is relieved to have found a couple of comedic roles. And he is decidedly very funny, particularly in Beauty where London-based director Sam Mendes coaxed him and co-star Annette Bening to sublime efforts.

“The fact is I love comedy and I always have,” Spacey, who once toiled as a standup comic, explains. ‘I felt I could use humour to finally get to a place that is actually quite dramatic, quite poetic and quite beautiful. I was so blessed that Sam not only understood what I have been trying to do these past couple of years – walk a farther distance from the kind of roles that I got known for – but that DrearnWorks supported him in his choice. They could have fought for an actor who was a lot more box office than me.”

Spacey is delighted with the opportunity to show another side of his character. On the set of American Beauty he instigated humour to help his co-stars deal with, shall we say, compromising scenes. A tender seduction scene involving Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, and his daughter’s teenage friend took several takes before they could get serious.

“He advised me to have a great time,” explains Mena Suvari, who plays the object of Spacey’s character’s desire, “And to let myself go. But at the same time revert to being serious once the camera started rolling. Kevin always made me feet I was on his level, and his equal. We laughed a lot. We really had a good time.”

Diehard Spacey fans will worry if these two movies mark the end of the Kevin Spacey they have come to know and love. Does this mean, they will ask in disbelief, that if a role like the Usual Suspects is offered again he wouldn’t take it?

“No, I am on new ground now so I am not going back. I am going forward,” he declares rather abruptly. “I’m a person who is led by a story. I look for what I think is a moving and interesting plot and then if the role is right then I am delighted to take that on. But it’s all about the ideas. If I think they are interesting or pose interesting questions then audiences will respond. I am looking for films that will throw a lot of challenges out there.”

HighLifeArticleClearly here is a man devoted to acting. It’s been that way since he was a kid. After a somewhat unruly period in high school, his parents sent him to a military academy for a spell. Then at Chatsworth High School in Los Angeles he discovered acting. His mother drove him to acting classes in the evenings when he was 16. During the day he would sometimes cut high school classes with friends and head straight for a movie theatre. Two years at the Juilliard Dramatic Arts School, at the behest of his good friend Val Kilmer, further developed his love of the theatre. A few short years after he made his stage debut, as a messenger in Henry IV, Part One, he found himself on stage with Jack Lemmon – someone whose work provoked an inspiration.

“I am a man of the theatre,” he explains without a trace of arrogance. “I have been trained there so I keep going back every chance I get because there is no experience like live theatre. It was seeing great actors in the theatre, seeing Katharine Hepburn in a play or Jack Lemmon in a play that did it for me.”

Inside the private party he stops and talks briefly, casually, without leaving the impression he’s late to meet fellow celebrities, producers, directors, and others of that ilk, at the far end of the room. Women surround him. They are attracted to him. Arms draped over his shoulder, they pose for pictures on Instamatic cameras. When a television camera gets a little too intrusive, one of his hired security people invites the offender to leave telling him, “If you want to cause a scene, we can cause a scene, sir!”

Then, mostly to placate the publicists with their particular agendas, Spacey saunters into a sequestered area as two minders slide the doors shut neatly behind him. A sign taped to this room warns the less privileged: “Reserved for The Big Kahuna’. During the evening this takes on an enormous sense of irony as Spacey-watchers are rebuffed by the doormen and are left straining for a glimpse of him through the glass. The ‘big kahuna’ himself only emerges to pose for pictures with Danny DeVito with the pair puffmg away on fat cigars. It was Spacey, through his role as producer of the film, who asked DeVito to climb aboard.

Two years ago he formed his own production company, called Trigger Street Productions, which produced Ordinary Decent Criminal – the soon-to-be-released film loosely based on the life of Irish gangster Martin Cahill. The Big Kahuna and a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh, for London audiences, followed. In typical Spacey fashion, he read Roger Rueffs The Big Kahuna script and didn’t let the fact this was the writer’s first full- length work colour his opinion.

“It was only in December we made the decision to do it. We raised the money in seven days then started shooting just after that,” he reveals. “John Swanbeck gave me the script to read, I read it and an hour later signed a deal. I was amazed that Roger Rueff was a chemical engineer at the time and had never before written a full length play.”

The call to DeVito followed almost immediately. Four days after he was handed a copy of the script DeVito found himself in rehearsals, such was the allure of Spacey’s invitation. And, to underscore Spacey’s commitrnent to his profession, rehearsals would take place in the mornings while in the evenings he would act in The Iceman Cometh.

“He’s a brilliant actor and a great man,” DeVito says. “It’s wonderful to have good friends with you when you are doing something you believe in. I am really glad he called me in desperation from London.”

They have known each other for ten years. DeVito invited Spacey to audition for a movie he was directing in the early Nineties, called Hoffa, a biography of the legendary union leader Jimmy Hoffa who vanished without a trace in 1975. It was during this initial interview that the pair became friends. Seated across from one another, only DeVito’s desk separating them, they were suddenly interrupted by what Spacey describes as a near death experience.

“All of a sudden Danny’s eyes go wide open and this stage prop fell on top of my head,” Spacey says laughing. “I was lying on the floor and he’s saying, “Oh my God I’ve killed him. the papers are going to say DeVito killed Spacey!”

While Big Kahuna is a captivating piece of work, it’s American Beauty that is sure to evoke the most discussion. Is it another example of Hollywood contributing to the downward turn of American values or merely a mirror of society?  The film encroaches upon uncomfortable material: homophobia, extramarital sex and in particular the forbidden lust a middle-aged father has for his daughter’s teenage girlfriend. You can hear the moral conservatives cringing already.

“We are going down to Washington to show this film to Democrats and Republicans equally,” Spacey retorts.

“Maybe when we have events that happen in the United States and people ask the question “How did this happen? How could this happen?” Well, maybe the film starts to address what has gone on at a certain subterranean level of most people’s quite complex lives.”

Spacey himself is reluctant to speak of his own private life. In fact he is protective to the point of paranoia. It’s as if the intrusion would somehow disturb his growth or perhaps take away the focus on his ability as an actor. But who can blame him after his experience with the American magazine Esquire two years ago. After agreeing to be interviewed he was horrified to see that the headlines above his cover picture read, “Kevin Spacey has a Secret!” The article addressed rumours that he was gay.

“Esquire has made it abundantly clear that they have now joined the ranks of distasteful journalism, and this mean-spirited, homophobic, offensive article proves that the legacy of Joseph McCarthy is alive and well,” he said in a statement at the time. Since then he has done little to assuage the innuendos except to say his love life has actually picked up after women tried to seduce him with the hope of “changing him”.

True, Spacey has never been married nor has he been romantically linked to anyone in particular and that has caused tongues to wag. He emphatically denies he is gay. At the same time he doesn’t believe his private life is anyone’s business. Instead he is content to hang out with his dogs in his New York apartment when he is not working.

After American Beauty was screened in Toronto to absolutely splendid reviews there was much talk of Academy Award nominations for Spacey and the film. That of course remains to be seen. Other projects lie ahead and to be sure he will he offered some choice roles in the future. But the stage is where his heart is and where he is happiest and it is to the stage he will no doubt retreat.

“I prefer the theatre as an actor because as good as anyone might think a performance is in a film, that’s as good as it is ever going to be,” he says. “In the theatre you get the chance to get up there every night and try it another way, work on your performance. What you can learn about yourself in six or eight or 12 months is really sometimes quite miraculous.” ~

British Airways High Life January 2000 Pages 42-44, other photos included a smaller version of the cover photo and pictures of Kevin and Danny DeVito in L.A. Confidential and Kevin and Annette Bening in American Beauty.