Los Angeles Times Magazine

September 9, 2001
Men’s Fashion Issue
Dressing Kevin Spacey

What it means to be a man, and other vanities

Natural Selection

When It Comes to Career – and Style – Kevin Spacey Is an Expert Evolutionary
By Heather John > Photographed by Steve Shawtural Selection

Kevin Spacey knows a thing or two about surviving in Hollywood, and it takes more than a pretty face. The actor talks about changing himself physically, losing his hair and gaining perspective.

LATimesMag1“Nature cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they are useful to any being.” – Charles Darwin

Kevin Spacey is a modern-day poster boy for Darwinian theory. Perhaps it’s his face that allows him to adapt seamlessly from loathsome creeps (“The Usual Suspects,” “Swimming With Sharks,” “Seven”) to pitiable survivors of marital hell and child abuse (“American Beauty,” “Pay It Forward”). At first glance, he looks as anonymous as the mailman – the receding hairline, the creviced face, the watery brown eyes. But what lies beneath the “regular guy” persona is infinitely more complex. Kevin Spacey knows a thing or two about surviving in Hollywood – and it takes more than a pretty face.

He was forced to confront his limitations as he watched the dailies early in his career: “I didn’t particularly care for the way I looked, so I told myself, ‘You’d better get over that quick or you’re never going to go anywhere.’ Instead I ask, ‘Is the character coming through? Is this a believable human being?'”

In the middle of the summer, he’s carrying an extra 20 pounds for his role in “The Shipping News,” due out at Christmas. The director “wanted me to look like a loaf – a loaf of what he didn’t say,” he says with a laugh. “And now I have to take off the weight, but it’s interesting to have to change myself physically. For ‘American Beauty,’ I had to pump up in a way that I never had before in a movie, but it had to look reasonable. I didn’t want to have designer abs.”

Dressing the part – “taking the ego about how you look and chucking it out the window” – is Spacey’s calling card. He unabashedly rattles off a list of films in which he’s worn hairpieces: “American Beauty,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “L.A. Confidential” (in which he nicknamed his piece “Monty” after Montgomery Clift). He recounts a recent tabloid article that accused him of wearing a hairpiece off-screen that was “tired and needing to be replaced.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Spacey says with an irreverent grin. “But the truth is that I’ve never worn a piece in my personal life. I sort of come from the Sean Connery school of thought. If [wearing a hairpiece] is right for the part, that’s great. But in life I don’t give two hoots if my hair is going.”

He has no patience for filmgoers and critics who complain about the style of a screen character. He cites the attacks he received for the platinum outgrow (another wig) he sported as the slick Hollywood producer Mickey in “Hurlyburly.”

“I really liked the look of that completely insincere guy who would actually dye his hair that color. It was right for Mickey, but it always cracks me up when they start attacking your choices. They attacked Helen Hunt for some of the choices that were made in ‘Pay It Forward.’ She looked like [ice skater] Tonya Harding; it was the look she went for, and it wasn’t meant to be the most flattering. It was meant to be what that kind of woman would do, and I thought it was incredibly courageous and brave. If you’re an actor, you want to disappear in a role.”

LATimesMag3Spacey’s next film, “K-PAX” (to be released in October), in which he plays a character in a mental institution, will certainly catapult the fashion police into full throttle. The original costuming called for a pristine look, with an angelic blond wig and blue contact lenses. But two days before shooting, co-star Jeff Bridges commented how he’d liked that Spacey had been pulling at his hair in rehearsal and wondered if that effect might be lost once he donned a wig. Spacey immediately called the costume designer to overhaul his character. “I’ve been wrong about how I should look in this movie,” he told her. “No contacts, no wigs. Instead of looking like I arrived on a beam of light, I should look like I crawled out from under a train.”

IF THE LAWS OF VARIATION HAVE CRAFTED Spacey’s canon as an actor, the same is arguably apropos off-screen with his personal style choices. Over the past decade we’ve seen the actor confidently morph from trendy hipster (porkpie hats, tinted lenses) to a more understated elegance, heavy on Armani and Prada, with some Abercrombie & Fitch thrown in for good measure, recalling the quiet assurance of Cary Grant. (Think of “To Catch a Thief.”)

“Cary Grant – great style, great suits. Jimmy Stewart…I sometimes wish I were lanky just because of the way things fall and drape on men, particularly in those days.” Then again, “Nobody, I mean nobody, had more style than Fred Astaire, even when he started doing things like using a tie for a belt, things that he could get away with that no one else possibly could.”

Spacey’s first lessons in style came from his father. “He fancied himself an aristocrat, and so dress was very important, and penmanship was very important, and your clothes were clean and your nails…” Spacey trails off, glancing at his own nails and laughing. “I’m just thinking back at all the things he used to tell us. In terms of my own style, I like to be comfortable.”

LATimesMag9As with his acting laurels, he’s quick to share credit if clothing compliments come his way. A former assistant of his and his girlfriend “have a great sense of style and really helped me while I was trying to straighten some of this stuff out, saying, ‘No, no, that’s not a good tie,’ or “take that off, are you crazy?’ Like anything in your life, you evolve as you go along. You start to learn about yourself. The same way you learn about yourself in film, you learn about yourself in fashion – how you dress and what you feel comfortable in and what’s appropriate to wear at a particular event. Sometimes I like to take chances with that.”

A few examples leap to mind, such as Academy Award appearances in a black-on-black velvet knee-length tuxedo jacket (1997) and the white tuxedo jacket he wore the previous year when he won best supporting actor for his role in “The Usual Suspects”–both of which landed heavy air-time with fashion critics. “I wanted very much to wear white. I don’t believe it was a faux pas. It’s not my fault that [the Academy Awards airs] around the world at 3 o’clock in the morning somewhere else,” he says with mock bemusement. “In Los Angeles it was early evening, and it was appropriate.”

And it’s history. That was Kevin Spacey of four and five years ago. The Kevin Spacey of the future may look like Bobby Darin. The actor has set his sights on adapting the singer’s story for film.

“Bobby Darin is one of my idols. I mean, he was the coolest cat in the room. It’s just a role that I feel I was born to play…a chance to let the nightclub performer in me emerge.”

He turns up the stereo and croons a few bars of Darin’s “More” in perfect pitch, and one wonders what other tricks lurk up his sleeve. He confesses that his real talent is an uncanny aptitude for natural selection–in this case shopping. “I recently went shopping with [co-star] Judi Dench, a little vacation from ‘The Shipping News.’ And we both realized that we can do something that most people can’t. We can walk onto a floor; at Barneys or at any store, and know immediately whether there’s anything on that floor that will work.”

That’s right, Kevin Spacey does his own shopping–sometimes, at least. He says he also cleans his own house, does his own laundry and picks up after his dogs, Mini and Legacy, on their walks around his West Village neighborhood in New York. “I don’t want to live in a world where someone buys my clothes and lays them out and tells me what to wear. I do most things myself. I take my dry cleaning to the dry cleaners, and I enjoy doing it. I think that part of it is just the way I am, and another part of it is very calculated in the sense that I don’t want to lose contact with the very thing that I should be in touch with all the time, which is life.”

Heather John is a senior style editor at the magazine. Photos by Steve Shaw.