Jane Oddy meets Kevin Spacey and finds the man behind the actor’s mask is not quite as audiences would suspect

HiltonGuest2000Getting a handle on Kevin Spacey isn’t easy. He is a private, self-effacing man, carefully camouflaged behind a brusque, rather glacial exterior. Or so it seems. Over afternoon tea in the heart of London’s Knightsbridge, he appears unusually relaxed and waxes long and eloquently on the actor’s role, the actor’s responsibility and is all very serious. But get him away from talking about his craft and the atmosphere lightens and reveals a man who really doesn’t take himself as seriously as he first appears.

In fact, he can even be a clown and according to his teenage co-star Thora Birch on his recent movie AMERICAN BEAUTY, he kept the set alive with laughter on some days, wisecracking and playing the fool with the crew. “He is quite an entertainer. I remember shooting one scene which I thought we’d never finish because we couldn’t stop laughing,” she smiles. Spacey agrees, “We were laughing about 17 hours a day. We were having so much fun it was probably illegal.”

Yet on other days, she recalls, he was withdrawn and quite fiercely silent. It is this paradox that some of Hollywood’s top directors are desperate to tap into – an unpredictability, a masked menace, while also exuding an air of control – and never more successfully than in AMERICAN BEAUTY, a dark but extraordinary film, which has earned him an Oscar nomination. In AMERICAN BEAUTY he plays an Everyman, Lester Burnham, trapped in a loveless marriage and unable to communicate with his troubled teenage daughter. He hates his job and the audience witnesses his bleak despair. A chance encounter with his daughter’s nymphet schoolmate acts as a catalyst for a life transformation and suddenly Lester begins to discover feelings that have been dormant for years and realizes the lack of honesty in his life.

First-time English director Sam Mendes has an extracted an electrifying performance from the actor, “I needed someone who would be very vulnerable at the beginning of the story and gradually grow in strength,” Mendes explains. “Kevin was one of the few actors who I felt was going to be able to convince me that he was a normal person. I really pursued him for the role.”

The movie also reveals he has impeccable comic timing and that he can convincingly play a male lead and not merely a showpiece villain. It is a shift that started with L.A. CONFIDENTIAL in which he played a ‘shady but basically OK’ private eye. Spacey – master of the smile that turns into a sneer – finds his more recent status as Hollywood’s Mr. Sinister and the idea of being ‘discovered’ when he is 40 faintly amusing.

Immaculately turned out in a navy blue suit and open-necked shirt, he uses his long elegant hands to express his feelings, even cracking his knuckles on the table to emphasize a point. “When I got known in movies in 1995, I got known primarily for three movies that came out in a six month period and in those films I played dark, creepy sickos. So this impression stuck and it seemed to have wiped out 17 years of work in the theater and other places where I played people much more like Lester. If you looked at the trajectory of the kind of plays I’ve done over the years, they were all men suffering from inner turmoil, trying to better themselves. That was what interested me.”

It is only latterly that the world has begun to be aware of his screen powerful presence, clinched possibly by his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for THE USUAL SUSPECTS in 1996. Until then he was little known outside Broadway and then only to followers of serious theater. In 1991 he won a Tony for Neil Simon’s LOST IN YONKERS. Two years ago he played to sell-out houses in London in Eugene O’Neill’s four-hour epic THE ICEMAN COMETH and won a Tony for Best Actor for the Broadway revival this year which he also produced.

Spacey was born in 1959 in East Orange, New Jersey, but grew up in California where his dad wrote technical manuals for aerospace companies by day and unpublished novels by night. He was a difficult child and aged eleven was sent to Northridge Military Academy, in the hope that they might instill some discipline. Instead he was expelled for hitting a classmate with a tire. His guidance counselor suggested he might like to try channeling his energies into something less destructive – acting, perhaps. After one drama class he was hooked.

It was mostly musical at first, which seems strange for someone now associated now with mobsters, killers, and corrupt cops. Yet, he was an excellent Baron Von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC a couple of decades ago when he was 16 and in high school. He invited Robert Conrad, he-man star of television’s THE WILD, WILD WEST, and he turned up. Conrad was not the first famous actor Spacey met. After a play starring Katherine Hepburn, he wangled his way backstage and presented her with a bouquet of flowers. In 1986 she returned the compliment by coming to see him on Broadway in his performance opposite Jack Lemmon in O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. For years they had a lop-sided friendship in which Spacey wrote her long rambling letters about his latest films, his Oscar, work he was trying to produce in New York and Miss Hepburn would write back: “Dear Kevin, Good for you. Kate.” He laughs when questioned about this unlikely correspondence; “I cherish every one of those letters,” is all he will say.

His interest in drama had turned him around and after a brief abortive foray into show business as a stand-up comedian, he enrolled at Manhattan’s Julliard drama school, leaving after two years to begin making his way in regional theater. He turned his back on offers for films and television pilots to build a theatrical career and it is clear he still takes his stage work very seriously indeed and is probably one of the best stage and screen actors of the day.

While positively loquacious on his career, he is resolutely ambiguous about his love life. Relationships are the one subject guaranteed to bring shutters down although Hollywood observers are desperate to know what is happening behind his closed doors. When asked to define beauty he talks about watching his two dogs mock fighting in his back yard, “I just look at that and it’s beautiful. Beauty is in moments that are unexpected.” But this time he does open up a little and refutes those gay rumors that have persistently dogged him. His alleged homosexuality is one of those international indestructible rumors but became public a year ago when Tom Junod of ESQUIRE magazine outed him. “My personal life started being speculated on because I wouldn’t answer one single question one time. A journalist asked me: ‘Are you gay or not?’ I told him: ‘I’m offended by your question and it shouldn’t be a question that is asked as a litmus test for people, it ain’t none of your business and it shouldn’t matter.’ But if I’d known that this guy was going to write a nine-page article about this issue, I would have said ‘No!’ Later I thought I can’t answer that question now because it would look like I’m defending myself. So I decided it didn’t matter – it doesn’t bother my family or me. They can write what they like.”

He looks slightly nervous and uneasy when the conversation turns to this sensitive subject and when asked if he would like to be a father one day, he distracts himself playing with the ice in his glass of Coke. “I would like to have children and a couple of years ago my girlfriend said she was interested in having them but I wasn’t ready. Maybe I will one day and I think my life is heading that way. I look forward to it.”

So what next? He has directed his first film, ALBINO ALLIGATOR and has two films coming out, HURLYBURLY  with Sean Penn and ORDINARY DECENT CRIMINAL. He confesses that recent roles have given him the chance to explore new territory. “I don’t want audiences to become bored by continuing to do the same stuff. It’s human nature to like people the way you discover them. But I don’t want to be playing the bad guy for the next 12 years. I am now beginning to try and make a turn toward playing characters who are much more vulnerable and closer to who I am. Not so black and white, characters on shifting ground.”

Despite the fame and critical acclaim that have accompanied his transfer from stage to screen, he says that theater is still his first love and always will be. “It is where I’ve been raised. It’s a part of my existence and it is as necessary to me as breathing. There is no art form that comes close to it.”

Which is why he prefers to keep the tittle-tattle about his private life just that. “The job of the actor is to convince people that you’re somebody else for a couple of hours and the more I’m out there yapping, the less my ability to do that becomes.” As Kate Hepburn would say: “Good for you.”

Hilton Guest Spring 2000

Thanks to Donna