Watch This Spacey

He’s got two Oscars and Hollywood eating out of his hand, but he still guards his privacy with the ferocity of a Rottweiler. Although his sexuality is speculated about endlessly, Jeff Dawson discovers that Kevin Spacey’s got more important things on his mind. Photographs by James Houston.

UKMARIECLAIREKS4Other than turn up at his hotel, the specifics of my rendezvous with Kevin Spacey are vague. With time drifting past the appointed hour and still no sign of him, I ask the receptionist if she might call his room. A wry grin. Celebrities never check in under their own names. I venture Spacey might be registered under his birth moniker, Kevin Fowler; perhaps even Lester Burnham, the forlorn hero of American Beauty. No such luck. Then, as if by magic, just like the shopkeeper in Mr. Benn, Kevin Spacey appears. He apologizes for being tardy, proffers his hand, and turns on his heel.

I follow as he breezes towards the hotel’s restaurant. Actually, not breezes, but glides, as if transported on an airport walkway. He slinks into a white leather booth and butters up the waitress: ‘Good afternoon. How are you?’ He sports an anonymous black leather jacket and grey shirt. ‘Are you still doing breakfast?’ he asks. Technically, no, it’s lunchtime. He looks a bit rough but the brown eyes still twinkle. Scrambled eggs coming up.

Nowadays, Kevin Spacey is showbiz royalty. And an Anglophile to boot. Last autumn, when he turned up at the Labour Party conference with Bill Clinton, Blackpool was deafened by the sound of swooning socialists. Spacey is a regular on the London scene; keeps a Mini Cooper garaged here. He likes it so much that when he picked up a stray Jack Russell from Battersea Dogs Home, he called it Mini, too. Next time he’s over (which will be soon, fundraising for London’s Old Vic theatre), the change in Britain’s quarantine law means Mini can return. ‘I’ve been coming since I was seven years old, with my family,’ Kevin stresses. ‘My love of this country is based on my earliest memories of going to the theatre. I enjoy it. I really do.’

When you get name-checked in a Robbie Williams song, I suggest, we Brits have already embraced you as one of our own. (Kevin Spacey would call on the phone, but I’d be too busy,’ goes a line from I Will Talk, Hollywood Will Listen, as if the ability to decline Kev’s tinkle is the ultimate measure of success.) Spacey laughs. Recently in London, at the launch party for his new website, he actually did invite Robbie, and Robbie really didn’t get back to him. ‘Mr. Williams,’ Spacey chuckles, ‘he’s a man of his word.’

Spacey remains an enigma. Difficult to pin an age on (he’s 43), his private life is guarded with Fort Knox diligence. Hard to believe that, five years ago, he was just that bloke who’d mooch into a film – Swimming with Sharks, Seven, The Usual Suspects – and steal the show. It was not until 1997’s L.A. Confidential that he got to turn on the charm (as a Dean Martin-ish detective); not until American Beauty (1999) that he blossomed as a leading man, bagging a Best Actor Oscar. The world was Spacey’s oyster. And those his more mellow follow-ups have been disappointing… well, screw you, pal. “’How dare you! Why don’t you do what we like you doing?’” Spacey mocks ‘Well, tough s***, I’m not going to live my life for that.’

His new film, The Life of David Gale, has Spacey back at his ambiguous best. An intelligent thriller, the film has so many twists that to divulge too much would spoil the experience. Spacey plays Gale, a man on death row, four days short of his execution for a murder. The irony is that Gale, once the star professor of philosophy at a Texas university, was a leading campaigner against capital punishment. With a journalist ( Kate Winslet) summoned to take his final testimony, Gale relates his story. Did he do it? Was he framed? That damned clock is ticking.

The use of the death penalty is a hot topic in Spacey‘s homeland. Only recently, the governor of Illinois commuted the death sentences of all 167 inmates on death row due to the ‘demon of terror’ that haunts the legal system. ‘On the one hand, I understand that there’s not any clear evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent; that it’s expensive; that even when families [of victims] experience an execution, they didn’t really feel satisfaction or justice’ says Spacey. ‘But, on the other side of it, I’ve never had my brother killed.’

UKMARIECLAIREKS3Spacey treads warily. He doesn’t like talking politics: ‘I’m an actor. Who gives a rat’s ass what I think?’ Which is a refreshing viewpoint, though his association with political figures (he began ‘stuffing envelopes for [former President] Jimmy Carter’) makes this reticence confusing. He rails against that fact that, at Blackpool, no one mentioned that he and Bill Clinton were fresh from a tour of Africa, raising awareness of Aids. He accompanied Clinton to [to the conference], he insists, merely as a mate (he slips into an impression): You wanna come down’a Blackpool? Ah’m gawn’a give a speech.

‘I never imagined that people would be wasting print trying to figure out who I’m trying to influence,’ he grunts. ‘It was an absolute bollocks.’ (Spacey’s even adopted our vernacular, though he uses the word slightly incorrectly, and pronounces it ‘bah-locks’.) He has, he stresses, encountered Tony Blair only twice and has not, contrary to reports, befriended Peter Mandelson. I put it to him that you can hardly expect an ex-president and a major film star to turn up in an English seaside town and not have it make the papers. But it’s still, he reiterates, ‘just complete, ridiculous bah-locks’.

His camaraderie with Clinton is genuine. Spacey has even squired Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea (currently studying at Oxford), to showbiz bashes, as he has great chum Judi Dench, whom he met on the set of The Shipping News. They spent weeks freezing in Newfoundland, idling away their evenings in the local bar and indulging Spacey’s great passion, table tennis. Next time he visited Dench, he had a surprise. ‘I arrived to dinner at Judi’s with a truck and a ping-pong table,’ he chuckles. ‘Some people bring flowers and wine.’

The lack of an obvious girlfriend, though, has brought speculation as to Spacey’s sexual orientation, based on such ‘damning’ evidence as how when he won his first Oscar (Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects), he took his mum as his date ( as did Matt Damon and Ben Affleck). It is the issue that dare not speak its name, hanging over every interview like a black cloud, ratcheting up Spacey’s guardedness one more notch the next time he breaks bread with the press. ‘I recognize that there is a certain curiosity in journalism,’ says Spacey, tetchily, ‘but what it becomes is that I’m this big standard-bearer for privacy.’ When an American magazine ran a spiteful piece claming that Spacey ‘had a secret’ he dismissed is as ‘dishonest and malicious’. Spacey has since either quipped that being perceived as gay helps him score with the chicks or declared that knowing too much about the private life of an actor makes them unbelievable on the screen. Frankly, I don’t give a monkey’s, but I’ve always thought this a bit of a bum answer.

A deep funk descends. ‘So many people pimp out their lives. I don’t pimp out my life,’ he growls. ‘My life is not for entertainment. There’s an expectation: “What’s wrong with you? Everybody else does it.” That’s fine. I don’t. I choose not to.’ A much better response.

Spacey was a late bloomer. Though he enjoyed a successful theatrical career, he didn’t hit his movie stride until his thirties. He cites other who didn’t get their breaks till later – Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson – and imparts this information with the confidence of one qualified to be bracketed with such company. Part of it, he says, is because Hollywood ‘couldn’t figure me out.’

And indeed, so disgruntled was he with being pegged as a psychopath that, in 1998, he UKMARIECLAIREKS2dropped out for a bit, appearing in The Iceman Cometh at North London’s Almeida Theatre for £225 a week. It was while moving in such circles that he met theatrical wunderkind Sam Mendes, who was shaping up to direct his first film. ‘After American Beauty, almost everything I ever do will disappointment just a little bit,’ Spacey sighs.

A myth has built around his stage name: that ‘Spacey’ is a truncated tribute to his hero, Spencer Tracy. He smiles: ‘It’s my middle name [actually his great-grandfather’s surname]. I started using Spacey when I was in high school. It’s Welsh, actually, but spelt without the “e”.’ The Limey credentials grow.

Little Kevin Folwer grew up in southern California. But what with tales of a tearaway youth being dispatched to a military school where he got thrown out for whacking a kid in the head with a tyre, the childhood has been spiced up too. He acknowledges there was the odd incident – ‘Like most kids, I went through a period of undiscipline.’ – but stresses family life was loving.

By high school, acting was all that mattered. His talent soon manifested itself in a gift for impressions: during our conversation, he does Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino and Clinton. ‘I always hope that the people you’re doing realize it’s a compliment,’ he says. ‘Clinton loves my impression of him.’

The Lemmon turn is done with affection: it was soon after Spacey opted for a theatrical career in New York that he came under the wings of the late, great thesp. It was he who told Spacey that, after you’ve achieved success, your duty is to ‘send the elevator back down‘. To which end, Spacey’s new website, TriggerStreet.com , encourages aspiring filmmakers to submit screenplays in the hope that something can get developed. ‘I’ve done incredibly well, and I’ve done incredibly well because the material I found early in my career was from first-time writers, first-time directors, first-time playwrights. If it weren’t for that talent, I wouldn’t have a career,’ he asserts. ‘If one person gets a break [the website accrued 50,000 registrations in it’s first month], then it’s been successful.’ And with that Spacey’s off to do what he likes best – running in Hyde Park, walking the streets, popping into theatres unexpectedly. Doesn’t he get recognized? He laughs. Not really. ‘But one of Clinton’s favourite parts of our trip was me being mistaken for Phil Collins.’ Best keep that one quiet…

Watch This Spacey
by Jeff Dawson
Marie Claire (UK) April 2003

Thank you to Candis and her friend for the article and scans.