Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Spacey plays it ‘squashed down’ in ‘Shipping News’
By TERRY LAWSON Knight Ridder Newspapers
Last Updated: Dec. 28, 2001
The primary character – to call him a protagonist is missing the point – in E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Shipping News” is Quoyle, a dumpy, passive loser who is extremely overweight and has, says the book, the general appearance of “a walrus.” Kevin Spacey may not be George Clooney, but he is decidedly not walrus-like. So when Spacey signed on to play Quoyle in director Lasse Hallstrom’s gentle and understated adaptation of “The Shipping News,” which opened Christmas Day, the first question the notoriously specific actor wanted to answer was how to make himself look like Quoyle. “Lasse and I had serious, torturous meetings about whether or not to use prosthetics, or padding,” says Spacey, who ended up putting on 20 pounds for the picture. “We went round and round, because so many times, when actors transform themselves with makeup or whatever, you spend the movie focused on that instead of the story or the character. “So finally we decided to go with feeling. In Dickens, when he describes someone as having the “face of a washboard,” you couldn’t find an actor who has that. He has to suggest that. So what we attempted to do was suggest the feeling of heaviness, of someone who is always uncomfortable in his own skin. He’s been squashed down, Quoyle. I play him squashed.”
“The Shipping News,” which won the Pulitzer in 1994, is a book of discovery, as Quoyle, a man whose mundane life simply happens to him, moves to Newfoundland with his daughter and an aunt he never knew after his unfaithful wife, Petal, is killed. There he stumbles into a job with a local newspaper writing the shipping news, the weekly account of maritime activity, and makes the acquaintance of a widow with a brain-damaged son. Anyone who reads it instinctively wants to share it with the world, but since its publication it has foiled all attempts to make it into a film. At first, John Travolta was slated to star, with Fred Schepsi directing, and then Billy Bob Thornton was going to direct, with himself starring, but he never came up with a script that satisfied him. “It was a hard nut to crack,” says Thornton, “so I hope Lasse and Kevin have figured it out. I wanted to make it because I wanted to see that story on screen, and I still do.” Spacey, having seen the finished film only a couple of days before this interview, says he believes Hallstrom solved the problems but adds that his own views of the film and his performance are “still percolating.”
Of his own performance – which won him a Golden Globe nomination for best actor in a drama – Spacey is more circumspect. “In most of the films I’ve made, like most of the films that get made, the character takes a demonstrative journey. Like Les, in ‘American Beauty,’ he travels miles from who he is at the beginning of the film to who he is at the end. Quoyle, who may be more unlike me than anyone I’ve ever played, moves about an inch. Whether audiences will appreciate his accomplishment, I don’t know, but I think Lasse got the performance out of me he wanted. Every time I would edge out of the box, just the tiniest bit, Lasse would go, ‘Oh, no, Kevin, give me less, I want less.’ “I was talking to my friends after the screening, and one of them said he kept waiting for Quoyle to make his transformation and say something sardonic, but of course, he never does. There’s not a sardonic or ironic or even cynical bone in his big lumpen body.” Spacey’s co-stars in the movie are less restrained in their assessment of his work in the role. “There are so few actors in the world who are able to just be,” says Judi Dench, who plays Agnis, the crusty aunt who takes Quoyle back to Newfoundland to scatter the ashes of his father, her brother, and to live in the dilapidated family home. “Kevin has to hold this movie together while doing very, very little. It’s one of the hardest things an actor can do.” “It was very hard to be mean to Kevin,” says Cate Blanchett, who plays his wreck of a wife, Petal, who steals his heart, his money, their daughter – and, after her death, his dreams. “But that was why I wanted to be in the movie, to play someone so resolutely unlovable. And Kevin makes you understand why he would love me anyway.”
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Dec. 28, 2001.