Spacey Doesn’t Want to Hear OSCAR Buzz (12/28)

Bruce Westbrook c. 2001 Houston Chronicle

For a man who respects Academy Awards – and has two of his own – Kevin Spacey is surprisingly reluctant to discuss them at this time of the year.

“That’s not why I do what I do,” he insists.

Yet he knows that studios gear their year-end releases to award campaigns, stamping literary and cinematic pedigrees on what can only be called Oscar bait.

Though Spacey says he doesn’t make movies with Oscars in mind, “The Shipping News” is awash in Oscar potential.

First, it’s based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx. Her dramatic, humor-laced tale concerns a sad, lonely man (Spacey) returning to his ancestral home in Newfoundland and finding new meaning in his life, past and present.

Oscar voters are suckers for such serious soul-searching.

Second, it’s directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the gifted Swede whose past two films – “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules” – attracted 14 Oscar nominations.

Oscar voters love to confirm their own shrewd choices.

Third, it’s from Miramax, the studio that’s perfected the art of award campaigns in winning big in the past decade with “The English Patient,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Shakespeare in Love” and Hallstrom’s aforementioned pair.

Oscar voters traditionally agree with Miramax’s pick – or at least don’t mind rubber-stamping it.

Fourth, the cast is known for Oscar-worthy work.

Spacey won his statuettes as best supporting actor for “The Usual Suspects” and best actor for “American Beauty.” Judi Dench won as best supporting actress for “Shakespeare in Love,” and Julianne Moore has been nominated twice.

But Spacey doesn’t want to hear all this Oscar buzz.

“I don’t know what else Miramax has,” he says, calling from his home in New York. “I just know they believe in it (“The Shipping News”), just as we believe in the story.

“I hope we’ve done justice to the book. I think the film honors the book but manages to truncate it in ways that are quite graceful.”

Spacey is well aware that if a film is released at Christmas, “somebody must be trying to get a nomination. But it doesn’t matter to me when they get released.”

Yet it mattered at one time.

Before he hit big, Spacey appeared in “The Ref,” a movie set during the Christmas season that was, awkwardly, issued in the spring of 1994.

He and Judy Davis played a warring couple who continued their fierce feuding even when taken captive by a jewel thief (Denis Leary) just as annoying family members arrived for Christmas dinner.

“I’ve always felt, `Gosh, if they hadn’t opened it in April, we might have made a movie you’d have heard about,’ ” Spacey says. “I just love that movie. It’s an anti-Christmas movie, but it was a great experience.”

Since then he’s become known for darker roles, from the heinous killer of “Se7en” to shady characters in “The Usual Suspects” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” In such parts, Spacey has been accused of coming off smug and superior on screen. That image is skewered by “The Shipping News.”

His character, Quoyle, is tentative and shy, a widowed father exploring his family’s grim past while grappling with inner demons.

“I’d been attracted to this role for a very long time, so this is not my attempt to answer such criticism,” Spacey says. “I’d wanted to do this very badly six years ago, before I played any of those characters.”

The rights were owned first by Sony, with John Travolta set to star and Hallstrom, possibly, to direct. When that fell through, Miramax picked it up. Offered the part, Spacey agreed to sign only if Hallstrom would direct.

“The next thing I knew, I was on the phone with Lasse,” he says.

They shot for nine weeks in Newfoundland, where most of the story is set, and for several weeks in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“It was incredibly miserable weather,” Spacey says of Newfoundland. “The locals joke that they have four seasons – fall, winter, misery and summer – and we were there pretty much in misery.

“It made it difficult, since our schedule was completely weather-contingent. But I don’t want to make too much of the conditions, because ultimately the location becomes a really important character in the film.”

Besides, there were “unbelievably beautiful days and nights, and we were treated by the people there with enormous generosity.”

Spacey found his own place – as an actor – while he was quite young.

He was 14 when he met Jack Lemmon. “I sought his advice, and he was incredibly kind to me,” Spacey says. “Twelve years later I found myself in a play with him on Broadway (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), and we ended up doing three films, ending with `Glengarry Glen Ross.’ ”

Spacey says he’ll be “forever influenced by the kindness, compassion, professionalism and friendship” of Lemmon, who died in June.

After winning his second Oscar, Spacey learned he’d joined “a very small group of actors, including Jack, who have won twice.

“Jack used to kid me: `I won my first one in ’56 (for “Mr. Roberts”), then in ’74 (for “Save the Tiger”), and you did it in four years, you S.O.B.’ ”

Spacey so respects Oscars that he recently bought a statuette for $150,000, then donated it back to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which bestows the honors. The award had gone to the late composer George Stahl for best musical score for 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh.”

Since scoring his first big success with 1995’s “The Usual Suspects”, after years of hard work in theater, the Juilliard-trained Spacey has worked almost solely in film. He last trod the boards in a New York production of “The Iceman Cometh” three years ago. He won’t return to the stage until after he makes several more movies.

Spacey recently wrapped “The Life of David Gale,” directed by Alan Parker (“Mississippi Burning”). Its shoot was in Austin, where Spacey spent six weeks in the fall.

He plays a college professor who opposes capital punishment and is unjustly convicted of a crime and put on death row. Kate Winslet plays a reporter interviewing him. The tale is told in flashbacks.

“I’m not sure the film will take a position (on capital punishment) one way or the other,” Spacey says. “But I know it’ll take the issue and turn it on its head. Any time you hand Alan Parker a political center for a film, he’s pretty mesmerizing.”

This was Spacey’s first filming experience in Texas, and he “really soaked up the environment.” The New Jersey native says he loved Austin’s music scene, food and filmmaking community.

While visiting Austin’s music clubs, Spacey just listened – unlike actor Russell Crowe, who’s performed many times there with his rock band. But singing is one of Spacey’s passions, and he recently performed “Mind Games” in New York for a John Lennon tribute benefiting victims of terrorism.

“It was incredibly nerve-racking,” he says. “I was going to sing on national TV and at Radio City Music Hall, which holds about 6,000 people, and I was singing a song I’d learned three days before.”

While Spacey’s singing is a surprise for some, “it’s not for my family or friends. They’ve heard me sing around the house for a long time.”

He’ll be at home more now. Spacey is taking a break from acting to produce for the stage and screen via Trigger Street, his film and theater company.

“I’ll spend the next five months focusing almost exclusively on that work,” he says of the projects, which will nurture young talent.

Spacey takes pride in being a good businessman in an industry in which, without such skills, “it’s very easy to get locked into having to do movies you don’t believe in.”

But don’t ask him to make a movie with an Oscar in mind.

“Sometimes projects are bought because they’re impressive packages,” Spacey says. “This (“The Shipping News”) certainly had been an impressive book and had won a Pulitzer.

“But that’s not why I do a film. I just want to make good movies.”