From his expatriate base overlooking the Thames, Kevin Spacey discusses his role as Lex Luthor in the new Superman Returns, describes what got cut from American Beauty and explains how he keeps his ego in check.
London Calling by Craig Modderno
Part of the reason Kevin Spacey has such a commanding presence both on screen and on stage is the quality of his voice. Raised in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles (where he did plays with classmates Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham), Spacey, 46, has no regional accent, but he’s possessed of tone and timbre that are rich in complexity and given to seamlessly controlled nuance. All this comes through even over the phone, which is mostly how Spacey communicates with anyone in the United States these days, having moved to his favorite city, London, a few years ago. Speaking from the legendary Old Vic Theatre, where he has served, to both glorious and less appreciative review, as artistic director since 2004, he has no trouble pro an entire ocean and continent combined.
Though Spacey has invented uniquely riveting characters in films like The Usual Suspects, Glengarry Glen Ross, Seven, L.A. Confidential and American Beauty, and in plays like The Iceman Cometh, when he’s playing the star Kevin Spacey he famously conceals all but the intelligent, entertaining conversationalist. He is regularly described as “discreet” and “enigmatic” in the press (which is code for “will not discuss his private, social or romantic life”), and his peers offer public rather than intimate portraits of him.
Joe Mantegna, who costarred in Spacey’s film directorial debut, Albino Alligator, compliments Spacey’s behind-the-camera talent – “Kevin knows the psyche of an actor, knows how to be an emotional leader on the set and is open to your ideas so you feel you’re part of a winning team instead of just giving support to a star” – and praises his on-set interpersonal skills: ‘When the hours get long on the set, Kevin makes everyone laugh with his masterful impersonations of Johnny Carson, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and many more.” Bryan Singer, who directed Spacey to his first Oscar for The Usual Suspects and helms this summer’s Superman Returns, in which Spacey plays villain Lex Luthor, talks about his close friend’s professionalism: “Everything Kevin brought to the role was his own making. I know Kevin so well that he and I have a short-hand way of communicating, What makes him special in this part is that he brings the same high level of energy to every take and tries to make everyone around him look good – an attitude surprisingly few movie stars take. Plus, having directed Beyond the Sea, Kevin knows how to make a director look good.”
Since winning the Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty in 2000, he has not found a screen role in which his mega-talent has fully resonated with critics and audiences the way so many of his performances up to that point did. Through his production company Trigger Street Productions, Spacey continues to be a force for independent films like The United States of Leland, in which he had a supporting role opposite Ryan Gosling. And in London, where the snobby British love/hate dialectic with movie stars outstrips America’s merely schizophrenic relationship with them, he soldiers on at the Old Vic. Having most recently hit big screens in Beyond the Sea, the biopic of Bobby Darin that he wrote, directed, produced and starred in, Spacey is looking for his first big hit in a while with Superman Returns. And that serves to remind us that Spacey remains one of the few actors who can, in the style of Laurence Olivier, find it fun and satisfying to play, by turns, Shakespeare’s wicked Richard lion the London stage and the bald baddie Lex Luthor on summer screens.
CRAIG MODDERNO: How will Superman Returns be different from the previous Superman films?
KEVIN SPACEY: It actually begins five years after Superman II ends. We’ve got some surprise cameos in our film, and through the magic of moviemaking Marlon Brando returns from the grave to reprise his role as Superman’s father.
Q: Did you study Gene Hackman’s performances as Lex Luthor in the Superman films as part of your research?
A: No sir, I did not. I’ve seen them and they’re very enjoyable, but all the Lex Luthor and Superman performances on the TV series and in the films are different. An actor would be crazy to try to repeat someone else’s performance in a movie like this that will be entertaining audiences forever.
Q: Your L.A. Confidential director, Curtis Hanson, said that film was about image and reality. How does the public and the film industry’s image of you differ from your reality?
A: [Laughs heartily] I haven’t a clue. That’s asking me to view myself from someone else’s perspective, which is fairly hard to do. I don’t think I could come up with an answer that would be vaguely revealing. I’ve never been someone who lets cam- eras into my personal life. [Laughs again] Hey, I’m just glad I have a career.
Q: Do you consider yourself an actor or a movie star or both?
A: I’m a character actor, which really knocks me down even a better peg.
Q: Chris Cooper once told me that after the two of you first saw American Beauty you both seemed to think that what you saw was quite different from the film you thought you were making. What were your feelings seeing the movie for the first time?
A: [Long pause] Yeah, we did see it at the same screening, and I remember I was in a place where it was very difficult to talk about it to anybody. The film was just so different than what we expected it to be. There was a whole other storyline and a couple of sequences that ended up getting cut out. For example, I used to fly in all of Lester’s dreams. I spent days and days hanging on wires in front of a green screen. And there was a trial sequence that didn’t make it in. I think what Chris was referring to was that there had been a brilliant table reading of the script that included dramatic courtroom scenes that crystallized the relationship between my character, his character and Wes Bentley’s character. Sam Mendes skillfully edit- ed all that for a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Q: Your mentor, the late, great Jack Lemmon, is one of the few actors besides you to win Academy Awards for both leading and supporting roles. What was special about him?
A: He was always someone I could pick up the phone and call for advice. He was a father figure to me, always open, and gave me great advice. When we were doing a play together on the road, Jack would go golfing in the afternoon with his expensive embroidered golf bag and clubs. One day I was walking my 97-pound dog named Slaight and I stopped to talk to him. A few moments later we noticed Slaight had taken a piss on his golf bag. Jack didn’t say anything – he just looked at me and growled. Then he turned this moment of humiliation for me into a running gag he’d tell everyone. Months later, when we were doing Long Day’s Journey Into Night together, Jack had come offstage for a quick costume change, and as he goes into his dressing room, there I am sitting in his chair with my dog on a leash holding a large pooper scooper! I think he laughed for the next 15 minutes onstage.
Q: Besides Lemmon, which stars were nice to you when you were just starting out?
A: William Hurt, who I understudied on Broadway in the play Hurlyburly, Candice Bergen, Jack Nicholson. [Director] Mike Nichols, who put me in my first two films, let me watch Nicholson, who I didn’t have any scenes with in Heartburn, and I learned a lot just from observing him close up.
Q: What film influenced you most that might surprise your fans?
A: The Lady Eve, probably. Peter Brook’s King Lear. As I was growing up I studied the films of Spencer Tracy, James Stewart and Henry Fonda. I remember seeing Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs when I was 8 and it scared the s**t out of me. I learned at an early age the power of films to frighten people and not just uplift them.
Q: What are some things that young actors today need to work on?
A: Sometimes when somebody believes in themselves then gets hot in the busi- ness, they lose perspective. At 28, with careers that should be skyrocketing, they’re instead on a rapid descent. Nicholson was 32 when he did Easy Rider. Hoffman was 30 when he did The Graduate. It’s different for women, unfortu- nately, because they are not given that many opportunities past a certain age. But the movie business is a very youth-oriented industry that eats its young. More young people should study, learn their craft and realize what their artistic ambitions are. What kind of career do they actually want? If they just want to go for a short little blaze, then I say do it and have an awesome time. When you talk about having a career like a certain actor that you admire, though, you have to walk the walk. The world now is so involved in image that you don’t see that happening, At points when my career was at a peak and people were telling me how wonderful it was, I knew that none of that was true. You have to find that delicate balance of success between being depressive and being an arrogant s**t. That’s the key to longevity, which to me is the only standard in which to measure a career.
Q: Why aren’t there any romantic roles in your film resume?
A: I’m not the guy they call.
Q: Why not? A: It probably has to do with the way I’m perceived. [Laughs] Q: What kind of script do you wish you’d get more of?
A: Thrillers, detective movies. I really enjoyed making The Negotiator [the 1998 thriller costarring Samuel L. Jackson]. It was fun, different. The action roles I get offered seem like remakes of movies Bruce Willis has already made. When Jack Lemmon got the American Film Institute Life Achievement award he said, “You’ve shown clips tonight of 32 of my pictures. If you had shown the other 32, I proba- bly wouldn’t have made it here!” I’ve never done a horror film, which I wouldn’t mind doing. I’m up for any genre picture. I just don’t like to read any script where by page 10 I say to myself, I saw this on cable last week. I often get scripts that are the fifth version of Seven. Excuse me, but I did Seven already. Why would I do a rip-off of that? The worst things to read are scripts that are over-written. Give me a page- turning script, not one with stilted dialogue that explains everything to me before I turn the page.
Q: Is there anything you do that keeps your ego in check?
A: When I was at Juilliard in New York, I was walking home with a few friends one day, and I saw some graffiti on a wall in the financial district. I made my friends take a picture of me pointing to it, and I keep the picture on my desk.
Q: OK. What did the graffiti say?
A: “Please kill me before I become famous!” [Laughs a villain’s laugh] Everyone can write their own coda to those words of wisdom.
JULY/AUGUST 2006 – HOLLYWOOD LIFE
Article contains pictures from American Beauty, Superman Returns and The Philadelphia Story.