No More Mr. Bad Guy He’s made sinister his signature – and won a slew of awards in the process, but at 40, Kevin Spacey is sick of sickos and ready to take a turn for the nicer – by Nancy Griffin
Sitting in a seaside restaurant a short stroll from the Santa Monica pier, Kevin Spacey is serving up shards of memory from his Los Angeles boyhood. “We lived on 4th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard,” the actor recalls. “And I could see the pier from our second-floor window. So every time I see it now, I immediately go back to these memories and the amusement rides.” He starts to laugh. “There are pictures of me as a kid taken on the pier, where I swear I’m doing my earliest Johnny Carson impression. I’m about this tall -” he holds his hand a few feet from the ground – ” – and I’m standing in a suit, and I’m literally like this.” He tucks his hand inside his lapel and turns his head to the side in a dead-on Johnny imitation.
On this breezy summer day, with a vodka tonic and a banana split in front of him, Spacey isn’t wearing a suit but looks debonair nonetheless in a soft brown herringbone shirt and black slacks. His keen brown eyes convey none of the men- ace he’s famous for onscreen. In three days he will turn 40 years old, and while this milestone may cause dyspepsia in many, Spacey considers it serendipitous. “I’m happy,” he says as he empties a pitcher of chocolate sauce onto his dessert, piled high with berries and ice cream.
After a triumphant decade in the cinema and theater, it’s no wonder. Only six days ago, in a heralded production of The Iceman Cometh, he gave his final four-hour portrayal of Eugene O’Neill’s sinister evangelist Hickey. The play was a sellout in London before traveling to Broadway, and the New York Times judged Spacey’s turn “the finest, most fiendishly mesmerizing performance of the Broadway season to date.”
Fiendishly mesmerizing is, of course, Spacey’s stock in trade. His assortment of darkly seductive screen characters makes up a bone-chilling clan: the serial killer who put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box in Seven; the limping loser who turns out to be a criminal mastermind in The Usual Suspects– which won him a 1995 Best Supporting Actor Oscar; the oleaginous murder suspect in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; the hilariously abusive (“You’re happy; I hate that”) Hollywood exec in Swimming with Sharks; the pitiless, bigoted district attorney in A Time to Kill.
But now, in a discreet bow to the millennium, Spacey is walking away from his charismatic villains. He is over playing dark. “There are certain things I can do with my eyes closed,” he says. “I don’t mind darkness within a story, but I’m not in- terested in becoming that type for the rest of my life.”
American Beauty, his latest movie, signals the departure. Spacey plays Lester Burnham, an ordinary suburban schmo who decides to radically change his life when he realizes that his career is falling apart and his wife (Annette Bening) and daughter (Thora Birch) both loathe him. It’s a startling tragi-comedy that includes several moments of bad behavior on Lester’s part – including the attempted seduction of his daughter’s best friend. But Spacey brings vulnerability and pathos, along with deft comic timing, to a character who might otherwise be repulsive. “Kevin has spent so many years doing Machiavellian schemers, chaps who are 10 steps ahead of everyone else,” says Sam Mendes, who directed Nicole Kidman in Broadway’s The Blue Room and makes his movie debut with American Beauty. “And here he plays a man who is blind and lost.”
“I’ve been on my own journey as a human being and as an actor over the last several years,’ says Spacey, turning thoughtful. “I’ve wanted to step toward doing things that have eluded me, that ask for a different side of me, that are much closer to me.” When he screened American Beauty for friends, he was pleased by their responses. “They were saying, ‘This is so great, because it’s the first time we’ve really seen you on-screen.”‘ Asked to describe which parts of Lester’s personal- ity overlapped with his own, Spacey turns characteristically vague. “I identified with his desire to no longer remain standing in the place he was standing,” he says, “and having absolutely no idea how to move.”
In career terms, Spacey has not been stuck in a groove, however successful, for lack of talent. Ionically, his surfeit of ability is too complicated for a Hollywood that offers few leading-man roles that are layered and complex, that stretch an actor to his limits. In other words, if you’re as good as Kevin Spacey, it could limit your options. “Kevin is one of the few contemporary everyman figures,” says Mendes, who sees a “90’s version of Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart in Spacey. But male movie stars are generally required to project unambiguously heroic qualities that the audience finds reassuring, the sort of job that Tom Cruise gets done in spades. Spacey, a bona fide movie star, is too offbeat, too unsettling a presence to fit into the special- effects extravaganzas or cloying romantic comedies that the studios churn out. “His complete and utter lack of sentiment might actually count against him in the contemporary world,” says Mendes.
Curtis Hanson, who directed Spacey as the starstruck LAPD sergeant Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential, agrees. “What is special about Kevin is his combination of slyness, mischievousness and superior intelligence-a combination not a lot of actors have,” he says. “I want to see Kevin reveal those parts of himself, because that’s what he is. I don’t want to see him dumb down. Not that he couldn’t-but why would we want him to?”
“When you say to me ‘leading man,’ l think Henry Fonda,” says Spacey. “I think Spencer Tracy. You look at the trajectory of Tracy’s work, from The Power and the Glory straight through to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner -it’s an unbe- lievable canon. There have always been actors who don’t fit into the stereotypical leading-man mold. Hanks certainly didn’t when he started out; Hoffman and Malkovich didn’t; and they all broke through that barrier. There are a number of people who are recognized for their ability and achievement rather than their affectation.” His smile is bemused. “Which is always delightful.”
Spacey hopes to break through by creating his own opportunities. Along with his company, Trigger Street Productions, he is developing a slate of scripts to produce, star in and direct. The Big Kahuna, an oddball comedy for DreamWorks involving Danny DeVito and a trio of salesmen at an industrial lubricants convention, is already in the can. He has long been prowling for a sophisticated romantic comedy, and in the event that he comes across a great western, Spacey’s already got his weapon. “John Wayne gave it to Sammy David Jr., who gave it to a friend of mine who has vowed that when I do my first western, he will lend me John Wayne’s gun.”
Kevin Spacey found his calling early as evidenced by the shots of him doing Johnny on the pier. And the dark ness that informed later characters expressed itself even when the son of an aircraft technical-manual writer and a secretary was still a boy. When he was about 12, he remembers, he set fire to his older sister’s tree house, then sawed off a tree limb that went crashing through a skylight into the family living room. “That was one of several incidents that sent me to military school,” he says. “But it didn’t do any good.” After being booted out of Northridge Military Academy for throwing a tire at a fellow student, Spacey took the advice of a guidance counselor to channel his energy into acting. At Chatsworth High School, where his classmates included Val Kilmer, he did just that and played Captain von Trapp opposite Mare Winningham’s Maria in a production of The Sound of Music. (The two graduated as co-valedictorians.) More stage work followed at L.A. Valley College and at stand-up comedy clubs around town.
”When he wasn’t working–either on stage or at a local shoe store–Spacey took to roaming the nooks and crannies of Los Angeles after sundown, searching out its eccentricities. He steeped himself in classic films at the Nuart Theater – and groused that it should be called The Oldart after sitting through a jumpy print of Peter Brooks’s King Lear. He tended to travel in a pack and hung out in Westwood, frequenting the old Ships restaurant – which featured toasters on every table. “No matter how much you watched your toast, it would burn,” Spacey remembers. “It went from white to black, and then very often popped out of the toaster and flew across the room to somebody else’s table.”
Spacey also liked to infiltrate the backlots of Universal, Fox, Paramount and Warner Bros. studios. “I would put a hammer on the side of my belt and just walk in with a group of people and wave,” says Spacey. “I’d wander around and very often get asked to help someone do something.” He happily moved furniture across soundstages in return for the chance to watch television shows – a Kojak episode with Telly Savalas, for example – being filmed. “It was dangerous and fun,” he says. “It was like, ‘Someday I’m gonna . . . ”
And soon enough, he did. In 1979, Spacey moved to New York and enrolled in Juilliard on the recommendation of Kilmer, who was already a student there. Two years later, they both landed small roles in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Henry IV, produced by the Public Theater’s renowned Joseph Papp. “‘That was the greatest,” says Spacey. “We were getting paid 125 bucks a week.” Spacey played a messenger and delivered six lines to Mandy Patinkin in what he hoped was a credible Northumberland accent. “These letters cum frum your fath-ar,” quoth Spacey now. “He cannot cum my Lo-ard, he is grav-ous seck!”
But the acting stints were sparse, and Spacey would periodically leave town to do regional theater. When he returned, he’d beg friends to let him – and his large black Labrador, Slaight – sleep on their couches. Then, in 1984, Mike Nichols cast him as an understudy in the Broadway production of HurlyBurly, and the tides began to change.
Nichols went on to give Spacey his first film role, as Meryl Streep’s orange-haired stalker in Heartburn. Then came the lead as Mel Profitt, the incestuous drug lord who talked to his toes in the acclaimed CBS series Wiseguy. In 1986, back in theater, Spacey earned raves for his mastery of O’Neill’s gusty language in the Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night, costarring Jack Lemmon. By the time he won a 1991 Tony Award for his portrayal of Uncle Louie in Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers, Spacey had arrived.
Back on the Santa Monica pier,, the actor wants to ride the ferris wheel. Sunglasses on, hands in pockets and chin tipped to catch the breeze, he strides leisurely past tourists and schoolchildren who fail to recognize him. He strikes up a conversation with Bubble Man, a bearded hippie elder with a rig that spews out bubbles for kids. Bubble Man expounds on his handiwork, describing how his bubbles “hover over the ocean like psychedelic jellyfish.” When he apologizes, admitting to really obsessive behavior,” Spacey is reassuring. “A lot of people with obsessive behavior should be doing this rather than the other things they do,” he says.
Like Bubble Man, Spacey is totally engaged in and by his work. But like every other star, he has had to navigate the shoals of celebrity. Three years ago, an infamous Esquire cover story heavily insinuated that he is gay. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost a good deal of civility,” says Spacey, who has steadfastly refused to confirm or deny his sexual preference. “And I find it sad and cynical that I talk about a great number of things in my life that I care about – my family, etcetera – but somehow, by not talking about who I sleep with, that makes me this big, mysterious … You know, there was a time when I would have been called a gentleman.” But he brightens considering the upside. ‘I have a feeling that when [the Esquire editors] all lose their jobs, I’ll still be working,” he says with a fake-innocent smile.
As it happens, there are two warm bodies with which Spacey is intimately acquainted and that he is happy to discuss: Legacy and Mini, his dogs.
Who can say that Spacey’s rapturous relationship with them doesn’t tell as much about his big soft center as would any details of his romantic life? “I actually want to get a houseful of dogs,” he enthuses. “I want to walk into my apartment in New York someday and just be buried by dogs, have 14 dogs jump all over me.” He adopted Mini last year during Iceman‘s extended run in London – he hadn’t brought Legacy along because of England’s quarantine laws and was feeling canine deprived. “There were a lot of transatlantic phone conversations on speakerphone [with Legacy],” he says. A New York friend would hook up the call, and as Spacey crooned endearments, Legacy would alternately cock his head, jump around and lick the phone.
As Spacey approaches the Ferris wheel, his request for a doggie bag has nothing to do with his pooch and everything to do with that partially digested banana split. Bravely bagless, he climbs into the basket and waits impatiently, like a kid, for the ride to start. “Make it go around!” he cries. When he finally soars up over the pier, he gazes up the coastline and begins to talk about the meaning of home. For so many years, as a professional gypsy, he has turned backstages and movie sets around the world into his bivouac, supplying temporary families with practical jokes and mimicry to keep their spirits high. “But the difficult part about the transient nature of being an actor,” he says, “is that it’s hard on relationships, hard on marriages, hard if you have kids.”
Kids? Tentatively, he skates across the surface of this topic, mentioning that playing Uncle Kevin to his friends’ kids has only left him hankering for more. “Yes, it’s been on my mind,” he says. “I’ve gotten to a point in my life where it seems a place I’d like to go. I feel like I am a kid in so many ways, it seems like the next logical step.”
Right now, though, he’s enjoying the sense of suspension on the Ferris wheel, and in his life. His plans are few, except for a much needed vacation. He’s off to London to see Peter O’Toole return to the stage after a long hiatus. After that, “I have absolutely no idea where I’m going to go,” he says. “I decided to just leave it open and let the wind blow me around the world.” ~
Los Angeles October 1999 Article by Nancy Griffin Kevin Spacey photographed with friends at the Chateau Marmont by Norman Jean Roy, July 1999