Maxim Fashion, Fall/Winter 2001/02

Kevin Spacey Keeps His Cool And Rewrites The Rules

HIDE AND SEEK WITH KEVIN SPACEY From The Usual Suspects to American Beauty, Kevin Spacey has achieved the rare feat of balancing box office success with sharp, cool credibility. Best of all, he got there in style. We catch up with the master craftsman of American film for a game of twenty questions

Text MIKE WELCH

MaximFashionCoverKEVIN SPACEY ISN’T ready. I arrive at his hotel behind schedule and find him dressed casually, wearing some odd-looking mustard yellow leather sneakers — but he’s not ready. He’s about to embark on a trip to Philadelphia, where he and 10 other celebrities are reading the Declaration of Independence for a Fourth of July celebration, and he’s messing around with some last-minute packing, totally unaware of the schedule. It’s not until we’re halfway to the airport that he notices we’re late and coolly remarks, “Oh s***, look at the time.” We arrive at the airport a half hour late, keeping five other celebrities — Michael Douglas, Kathy Bates, Benicio Del Toro, ER’s Ming-Na and Winona Ryder —and their entourages waiting.  Nobody says anything about Spacey’s tardiness as they board. Spacey settles into his seat across from Ming-Na. She and a friend look up and smile politely, then continue reading their magazines. Spacey points out that there are three other Oscar winners on board.

It’s not long before Spacey is snooping through the luggage compartment, double-checking to make sure that everything has been put on the plane. He’s a big double-checker. He yells to me from the back of the plane. “They left our suit bags in the back of the car. I don’t have anything to wear to tomorrow night’s event.” Not good — and a bizarre repeat of the incident at last year’s Oscars, in which Spacey famously enlisted the help of Dame Judi Dench to retrieve a forgotten tux. Today, everybody on the plane acts concerned, with the exception of Del Toro, who laughs at the misfortune and lights a cigarette. He offers to take Spacey shopping. Spacey doesn’t hear this. He’s already on the phone with his assistants in Los Angeles, trying to get the Armani suits to his hotel in Philly, no easy feat on the day before the Fourth of July.

The stewardess offers to help with the luggage, but Spacey tells her to do nothing — he’s handling it. Spacey has promised he’d answer some questions in Philadelphia later in the evening, around midnight. After about one in the morning, I find him at the hotel bar with Ed Norton and Mel Gibson. Spacey raises his arms in triumph. “The suits have arrived!” He says this as if he thought they might not. He should be used to it by now, but he still acts surprised each time something great happens. Of course the suits showed up. Spacey works hard at getting what he wants, whatever it is. Right now he wants a little more time at the bar, which is understandable.

Spacey has been going nonstop for years now. Although it feels as if he’s been part of the Hollywood landscape for at least a decade, he points out that he’s really only six or seven years into his film career, and he has wasted little of that time coasting. It’s an interesting time: Now a bona fide Hollywood star, Spacey chooses his projects carefully and has ensured — from The Usual Suspects and Seven to Hurlyburly and American Beauty — that he hasn’t repeated himself or boxed himself in. He’s also one of the few actors with the clout of big commercial success who has maintained an element of art-house cool.

By the time I catch up with him, he has just returned from Nova Scotia, where he was filming Lasse Hallstrom’s The Shipping News, due to open this Christmas. Before that it was a movie shot in L.A. called K-Pax, directed by lain Softley, which is out in October. In K-Pax, Spacey plays a psychiatric patient who claims to be from another planet. His psychiatrist, played by Jeff Bridges, sets out to expose his delusion but begins to doubt his own explanation. It’s a classic Spacey role — ambiguous, demanding, unsettling.

In Philadelphia, it’s after three when we begin playing 20 questions.

Tell me about The Shipping News. How was it working with Lasse Hallstrom?

Lasse Hallstrom has been masquerading as a Swede for years, but let me tell you, you cannot get away with wearing leather pants as long as he’s been wearing them and not be outed as a German eventually. He is a German and, in fact, his real name is Lars. Lars, which I found out one time because I had to get his passport information.

MaximFashion1I see. Well, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the hard stuff. Who is the coolest person you ever met?

Peter O’Toole. I met him when he came backstage during The Iceman Cometh. He surprised me and grabbed my head like it was a little football, with both of his hands around the back of it, and then began to say the most wonderful series of adjectives that I’ve heard — funny, brilliant, hilarious, quick, fast, clever. But as he was doing that, he was banging the back of my head with his hand, and I literally thought I was going to be knocked out because it was so hard. But I didn’t care at this point. Peter O’Toole was bashing my head in with compliments, and it was fine by me. I thought, That’s a way to die.

What have you given up on?

Giving a s*** about what anybody thinks outside of my friends and my family and my colleagues.

What would you never give up on?

People.

 What don’t you get enough of?

A new experience. I don’t think I get enough new experiences. A few days ago I left Newfoundland and I traveled down to Boston. My friend and I took this drive, and we ended up in this small town and met these local kids who took us out to the bar, and we just sat around in an environment in which we didn’t know anybody and nobody knew us. Even if one person recognized me, it was no big deal. It was just an opportunity to go somewhere, experience somebody else’s life, and be in a place that was beautiful and quiet. I can never get enough of that kind of experience, and I don’t have enough of them because I’ve been working so much. I think I’m moving in the next three years toward more of that kind of time — less movies, more life.

When was the last time you thought you were going to die?

The last time I did cocaine, which was a very long time ago, 1986. Never touched it since.

Did you have to go to the hospital or anything?

No, just had one of those moments where you think, Oh, this was such a bad idea. I mean, my heart actually kind of did a little flutter and it absolutely terrified me. Of course, a couple of friends dying is the only lesson you need about drugs. And I feel lucky because I’m the kind of personality that if I had gone down that road, down the road of drinking, I’d be sitting on a barstool right now saying, “It should’ve been me, it should’ve been me.” But I stopped. I literally recognized that if I continued to experiment in that fashion I’d be done. I still have people walk up to me and — this is disgusting to me when this happens — I’m at a bar ordering a drink and some lowlife sleazy little freak walks up and says, “Do you want some coke?” And I say, “Oh, no, I’m actually ordering one,” or “No, I’m having a beer.” And they go, “No, no. I don’t mean that kind. I mean…” and they sort of do this little sniff and I look at them like, Are you on f***ing crack? I don’t even know you. I’ve never met you in my life —get the f*** out of my face, you pig. That, to me, is the lowest sleazeball thing in the world because they think, Oh, he’s in movies; he’s going to want this. It’s gross. I’ve had that happen a couple of times at parties and you just want to take the guy out and deck him.

What do you get too much of?

Massages.

What pants are the worst for unwelcome erections?

Hemp.

What’s the smell that reminds you of your childhood?

There is a tree when I’m driving along the Pacific Coast Highway that takes me back to about the sixth grade, maybe even the fourth grade. I remember when I first had this experience after having moved away from Los Angeles and then I came back. I drove along the Pacific Coast Highway one day and this smell suddenly just went right up into my nostrils and I immediately launched myself, in an instant, back to when we lived in a not particularly impressive house in Malibu. It was on Fox Hill, which is still there, and there’s an elementary school that I went to that’s right there, too. I don’t know what kind of tree it is, but you know it when you smell it. It is absolutely unlike any other smell.

MaximFashion3Would you plant one in your yard?

No, it’s just something I enjoy running across. I don’t think it’s something that I would want to be reminded of every single day, because it’s not like it’s a comforting smell. If you run across the perfume that your mother used, that’s a comforting smell. I remember putting my head in my mother’s lap when I was young and she used to scratch my head — and I can literally go right back if I smell that particular perfume. It’s very comforting, because there was something incredibly secure about my mother scratching my head, making me feel connected to her. But the tree smell, the smell of that particular time in my life is not comforting. It’s a memory smell and it reminds me of a time rather than a feeling.

What was the time that you can remember when you were positive that both your mom and your dad were very proud of you?

My piano recital when I was 13. I got through all the notes. I didn’t stop and start over. They were very proud of me. And I think that even though I was kicked out of military school, I think my father was always very secretly proud, even though he was terribly embarrassed by the fact that I was thrown out of military school the same week I was awarded the leadership medal. It was a very confusing moment.

What’s one thing your dad often said?

You owe me five dollars.

What’s one thing your mom often says?

Would you please pay your father?

Did you tell your father you loved him enough?

No. I didn’t love him enough. I didn’t love him enough and I didn’t forgive him enough for a long time. The last series of conversations that we had [was] when he was in the intensive care unit and they had cut his throat for a tracheotomy, so he couldn’t speak. He had to listen. There were a lot of things that I said [over] the course of that couple of weeks that I don’t think I could’ve ever said in any other circumstance. But by the end, we’d said a lot of things to each other. I think by the end there was an understanding and a reconciliation that we’d never experienced before.

What’s the strongest memory you have of the day your father died?

Well, there was a sense of relief, because he had suffered and had been sickly for so long — almost 10 years. Finally he was at peace. This sounds like a horrible story, but it was incredibly funny if you were there. My mother wasn’t entirely sure that she wanted to see my father in the coffin. You know how you can put anything in the coffin that you want to? We put in a Smithsonian replica of the VW Bug that my father had loved his whole life. And I put the five dollars in the casket that my father claimed I always owed him. And my MaximFashion2mother said to me, outside of the funeral home, “I don’t know if I want to see him.” And I said, “Well, let me go in. Let me see him first.” So I went in and I spent about ten minutes with him and then I came out and she was in the hallway. I looked at my mother and I said, “I think you should see him.” And she said. “You do?” I said, “Yes, I think you should.” She said, “Does he look OK?” I said, “Mom, he looks wonderful, you know, for a dead guy!” We both started giggling in the hallway of this funeral home, and Mother turned to me and said, “These people are going to think that we killed him for insurance money because we were laughing at his funeral.” My mother and I have a very malicious sense of humor. It’s very wry and dry. And here was an amazing moment: Day of his funeral, we came back to the house and Mother said, “His pocket watch.” My father wore a pocket watch every day of his life and he wound it every day, a pocket watch he bought during World War II, in Scotland. She ran upstairs to his jewelry box. She came downstairs and clicked open the case. And she said, “Oh my God.” I said, “What?” We both looked at the time on the watch and it had stopped at exactly the time of my father’s death. Exactly. And my mother looked at me and said, “Well, when your time is up, your time is up!”

Is there such a thing as a perfect life? And how close are you to having one?

You know, I think it’s quite possible to achieve and experience everything in life that you ever dreamed of achieving and experiencing. It just won’t happen in the way you thought it would. Very often this is true for people who are in the acting profession. When they’re in their twenties or thirties and they haven’t really gotten their break yet, and they’re struggling and having a tough time, they begin to question whether they were born at the right time or whether they have any talent or not. Then something happens and they get a break, and suddenly they start working and growing and finally realize that all the struggle and hardship was leading to this moment. Sometimes you have to realize that you are exactly where you’re meant to be. If you can just get out of your own way, you will go where you’re meant to go. And in my life I’m very, very grateful that I finally learned how to get out of my own way.

Maxim Fashion, Fall/Winter 2001/02
Very special thanks to Maddie for supplying the text.