THE THINKING PERSON’S SEX SYMBOL
BY MICHAEL FLEMING
EVERYONE KNOWS KEVIN SPACEY IS A SMART ACTOR-YOU CAN TELL FROM HIS CHOICES. BUT FEW KNOW WHAT HE’S LIKE IN REAL LIFE. HERE HE GIVES US A CRASH COURSE IN ALL THINGS KEVIN-FROM THE ACTORS WHO’VE INSPIRED HIM AND THE HOLLYWOOD FRIENDS HE KEEPS TO THE TYPES OF BARS HE ENJOYS AND THE TRAVELING HE’S DONE WITH BILL CLINTON.
Kevin Spacey is one of Hollywood’s more mysterious personalities. Many have seen his movies, but few know what the man behind those characters is all about. Is he the affable Everyman from The Shipping News? The pissed-off Everyman from American Beauty? Or the jaded wise guy from LA. Confidential?
Spacey’s curious identity may be why director Alan Parker wanted him to play the title character in The Life of David Gale. Gale is an academic and anti-capital punishment advocate. His reputation is ruined when he’s accused of rape by a former student. He then finds himself on death row for the sexual assault and barbaric murder of an anti-death penalty protest pal (played by Laura Linney). Days before his execution, Gale engages an aggressive magazine journalist (played by Kate Winslet) for three interviews in which she tries to uncover whether he deserves his lethal injection or is about to become an innocent victim of the system he fought against.
Here are the things we do know about Kevin Spacey. He was born on July 26, 1959, in South Orange, New Jersey, to Thomas and Kathleen Fowler. His father’s job transplanted the family to Southern California. He attended Northridge Military Academy for a few months but was kicked out for throwing a tire at a classmate. At Chatsworth High School in the San Fernando Valley he caught the acting bug, which brought him to New York City, where he attended Juilliard. He left early to join the New York Shakespeare Festival and then started work on Broadway. His first film appearance was opposite Meryl Streep in Heartburn. Two Oscars sit on his mantle-a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Usual Suspects and a Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty. Offscreen, Spacey has shown an entrepreneurial spirit by producing films under his Trigger Street banner and by creating triggerstreet.com, which aims to help new talent. He has a Labrador named Legacy. And he will next play nightclub singer Bobby Darin in a big bioflick.
MICHAEL FLEMING: You’ve been clever about retaining your privacy, but there must be some things you can tell the public. Like, where do you go to forget about the industry?
KEVIN SPACEY: There are several places. But I’ll be d***ed if I tell you where they are because they would no longer be those places. What was more important than getting away from something was to move toward something that I had gotten away from, which was my family and my friends. I needed to spend time with my niece, my sister and my mother. That, to me, is more important than going to some island and getting a tan.
Q: Who are your close friends in the industry?
A: Edward Norton and I have known each other awhile. I just think he’s the real deal, supremely talented and smart. He’s got a great sense of humor. We clicked a long time ago. It has been great watching his career. We are always on the lookout to do something together. I surround myself with a lot of friends, but most of my closest friends aren’t in the business. I’ve known them for over 20 years, and a lot of them are from New York.
Q: What is your example of a great night out?
A: I had one recently in New York. I walked from my apartment with a couple of friends to Joe’s Pizza, which is by far the best pizza in town. We took a short taxi ride to see the last performance that Edward Norton and Catherine Keener gave of Burn This at the Union Square Theatre. I got the chance to engage in conversation with the playwright, Lanford Wilson, and afterwards we all went to this bar filled with NYU students, most of them studying acting. I like dive bars better than posh bars, the kinds that have sawdust on the floor and a dartboard. Then I ended up at somebody’s apartment, hanging out on the roof, listening to great music with a cool group of people. At 1:30 in the morning, I walked through Washington Square Park, on my way home. Quiet, peaceful, just remarkable. A perfect night.
Q: What do you love about New York City?
A: The memory of all the experiences I’ve had there. I’ve lived uptown, on the East and West sides, I’ve lived in the Village. All over the city. So I can find myself anywhere and say to friends, “Hey, I used to live in that apartment. You see that railing? I used to hang out there and drink wine.”
Q: It sounds as if fame doesn’t limit your life.
A: I have no aversion to being recognized, only when it is at an inappropriate time. If I am sitting with my family, having dinner, that is an intimate experience. If it’s a child, I never say no, even though nine out of 10 times, the parents sent the kid over because the kid couldn’t have seen any movie I was in.
Q: What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
A: That would be a surprise birthday party thrown for me three years ago by my best friend Dana Brunetti. He was my former assistant who now runs Trigger Street. He threw me a birthday party in England that was on the scale of ridiculous. It began with me walking out of the dressing room of the Old Vic after a performance of The Iceman Cometh. While I’m signing autographs I look to the right, and there’s this stretch MINI Cooper waiting for me. There are only two in the world, and this was driven down from Scotland just to escort me to a helicopter. It flew me to the country, where we circled this ridiculously palatial estate. As we got closer, I could see many people standing on the lawn, holding up letters that spelled “Happy birthday.” When they flipped them, they said, “You wanking prat.” In America, that would be comparable to “Son of a b****.” It was one of the greatest parties I have ever been to.
Q: Jack Lemmon was a good friend of yours. What was the most important thing you learned from him?
A It is still hard not to pick up the phone and call Jack. I did it all the time. I’d say, “I have a situation here,” and present scenarios to him that he’d solve all the time. He was not only a mentor to me as an actor, he was also a very good and practical businessman. People don’t realize he ran Jalem Productions, produced Coo/ Hand Luke and other films. The China Syndrome would never have gotten made without him. I miss his company, his ability to cut through the b******t and remind you to keep your eye on the ball. But I mostly miss his jokes; his mind was like Bob Hope’s file cabinet. He’d say, “I’ve got a good one for you, two guys walk into a bar…” He’d kill you. They were always funny. It was remarkable how many jokes he could remember. I felt like a dope. He was one of the great men.
Q: You recently went to Africa with Bill Clinton. What was that like?
A: He invited me. It was an opportunity to go to Africa, which I’d always been fascinated by. He’s the first president to go there while he was in office. He went to raise money and awareness for a number of issues: AIDS, debt, economic relief. We went to seven different countries in 10 days – Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, and then to the town of Johannesburg for an event with Mandela. It was just a remarkable experience.
Q: That trip was part of a whole year that you took off from the business. Why so long?
A: At the end of shooting The Life of David Gale, I’d become somewhat ubiquitous. And if I was sick of me, I could only imagine how the rest of the country was feeling. I had been going for five years. I needed a break.
Q: That film is tough material. Is that why you decided to do it?
A: What was good about the role for me is the audience gets to ask, am I a good guy or am I a bad guy? He’s made right choices and wrong choices. You see a scene where he’s accused of rape and you know he didn’t do that, but you don’t see the other crime he’s convicted of. So the entire length of the film, right up until the end, you don’t know whether he’s guilty. Those people who enjoy what I do will come away with a certain satisfaction about not being able to figure my character out.
Q: You seem to lean toward playing these types.
A: I think audiences love that kind of dilemma. We can name top actors who tend to play heroes. The only complexity is, will they get out of a situation they’re in? I cotton to the idea that people are much closer to being flawed; they have problems and don’t always make the right choices.
Q: In David Gale you get to work with two great actresses. Evaluate them.
A: Kate Winslet’s job was hard because her character has to imagine all that mine tells her. She wasn’t there for any of that flashback shooting. She does a remarkable job. And Laura Linney – I’m telling you, she keeps getting discovered every couple of years, and she’s about to get discovered again.
Q: So you weren’t looking to star in a polemic on capital punishment?
A: No. It’s not that the issue doesn’t resonate, but you don’t walk out of the movie feeling you’ve been sold a bill of goods or a diatribe pro or con on the issue.
Q: Do you stand on one side or the other on the issue?
A: I’ve come away realizing that the issue will always be volatile; there will always be a lot of debate. It clearly doesn’t work as a deterrent. At the $2 million it costs to put someone to death in the state of Texas, it is a very expensive way to prosecute. But I’ve never had my sister murdered. I don’t know what it feels like to have your brother shot. I have no notion of what it would mean as a family member to want to see justice in that way.
Q: Ever consider writing an autobiography?
A: I write a lot about my experiences and the people I meet. I’ve got a lot of material. But a book about me? It seems sort of odd.
Q: If you could meet any hero, living or dead, who would it be?
A: Spencer Tracy. Because I believe he was a man of enormous character, a man who, as complicated as he was as a person, was as simple as they come as an actor. He made this profession look better than it has ever looked.
Q: Do you buy DVDs?
A: Movies are an obsession of mine. I’m a huge gigantic pig when I shop at Virgin Megastore. I always leave with two bags. I could rely on the Oscar screeners, but the funny thing is, I don’t know what happens to them. I’m certain that agents and lawyers are stocking up on Academy tapes at my expense. Somehow, they just don’t make it to my door.
Q: How much would you spend on a great suit?
A: There’s this funny dilemma that happens, and it always feels weird. You work your whole life to be able to afford things like nice suits. When you become well-known, people want to give you clothes. I’m enormously indebted to Mr. Armani and Prada. They’ve dressed me for the last five years. I’ve been loyal to those two designers, who’ve been ridiculously generous. But there’s a practicality involved. If you do two weeks of press, that’s five different TV shows. You don’t want to wear the same suit for each one. But it’s not this yearlong thing, where you say, “Gimme another suit, I’ve got to go to dinner.” You try not to take advantage.
Q: Do you cook?
A: I’m a bachelor cook. I can scrounge up some eggs, make some pasta, but I’m not a cook in any sense beyond that. I have a fascination for cooking; I like to invite people over who do cook. My brother-in-law is a fantastic cook, my nephew is a great cook. There’s nothing better than going to the store, getting the food and having a movie night and a barbecue. I supply the food, get the booze and watch it happen – I’m like the director of the barbecue. But I’m not as bad as my sister, whose inability to cook is a running joke in the family.
Q: Do you collect anything?
A: Movie posters. I’ve got great stuff. An extraordinary poster of John Wayne hangs in my office. It’s in Italian and says, Il Grande Speroni, which they tell me means The Big Spur. I love movie poster art from other countries. You see such a remarkable difference in the way that American movie companies perceive the movie, as opposed to an Argentinian, Russian or Italian company.
Q: You’re not interested in the collectible American one-sheet for Gone With the Wind?
A: I’d rather find a Spanish Humphrey Bogart poster from Warner Bros. in 1942. It isn’t from a movie, but part of a series of star portraits taken when the studios wanted to shine a light on their stable of contract stars. I’ve got a Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper.
Q: Which of your own films had the best poster?
A: American Beauty was one of the smartest posters, the simplicity and what it evoked.
Q: How many songs can you sing from beginning to end?
A: At least 47, by Bobby Darin.
Q: You’ll soon be playing Darin in a film about his life. What is it about him that appeals to you?
A: He felt he didn’t have that much time – when he was a kid he overheard a doctor telling his family that he wouldn’t live to see the age of 15 because he had nearly died from rheumatic fever. I understand the idea of a person wanting to pack a lot into his life. I understand his extraordinary journey, his desire to keep reinventing himself. Bobby Darin moved in more genres of music and entertainment than most people do in their lifetime. His personal life was fraught with drama. He found out at the age of 32 that his mother was not his mother, but his grandmother. His sister was in fact his mother.
Q: Is it true you’ve been singing in public?
A: I’ve been working very diligently and quietly for the last year and a half on this musical journey. I’ve had guidance from Roger Kellaway, who at one time was Bobby Darin’s accompanist and arranger. Phil Ramone, one of the great record producers, has also put me through the paces. I’ve sung publicly, in strategic moments, but haven’t tried to sing like Bobby Darin. Standing in front of a 21-piece orchestra, in front of an audience, and singing these songs is kind of like strapping yourself to a locomotive.
Q: K-Pax was going to star Will Smith. John Travolta and Billy Bob Thornton each were going to star in The Shipping News. George Clooney was once supposed to play David Gale. Johnny Depp’s name was brought up to play Bobby Darin. Are you ever bothered if another actor’s fingerprints are on a role you play?
A: It doesn’t matter to me at all. Nobody owns a part, which is why so many actors have played Hamlet and Richard III. The weird thing in film is, some people have the view that if somebody’s hands were all over something, it can’t be yours. If it wasn’t for actors turning down parts, other careers wouldn’t have happened. In 1941, George Raft was pissed that they hired this young writer on the Universal lot to direct The Maltese Falcon. He walks, much to the delight of John Huston, who hires Humphrey Bogart and makes a classic. So it doesn’t matter to me. You make it your own.
Q: Your weight goes up and down for roles – you were in great shape for American Beauty, but you carried extra weight as an academic in David Gale. Do you loathe the pumping-iron part of the job?
A: I don’t loathe pumping iron, I just think it can be boring, at the pace I can do it to get in that kind of shape. There are more interesting ways to get in shape, like surfing or boxing.
Q: What books have you read lately?
A: Good to Great, a business book by Jim Collins. Remarkable book about companies that far exceeded what anybody could have imagined them doing. This guy tracked the CEOs of those companies, looked at the ones that had ego-driven, publicity-seeking, self-serving CEOs, who led them in an upward spiral that changed the moment they left. There were other CEOs who were about teamwork, having the right people. The companies spiraled upward. I’m trying to learn how to build a company right, getting the best people on the bus.
Q: What motivated you to start Trigger Street Productions?
A: I’m inspired by watching someone get a chance – that literally fills me with so much emotion. Because I was that person. I know what it’s like to have somebody put you under their wing. If it hadn’t been for a lot of people who believed in me, way before I showed any promise, I wouldn’t have the career that I have. I don’t understand the notion of making a lot of money, buying a lot of houses, buying a lot of airplanes and never giving back a thing.
Q: You’ve also started a website, triggerstreet.com.
A: It’s dedicated to the nurturing and development of new directors and screenwriters. Some of the best stuff comes from unknowns. Like Roger Dodger, which was made because its writer Dylan Kidd walked up to Campbell Scott in a coffee shop and said, “Would you read my script?” A whole pipeline of talent and material gets blocked because people don’t have access to agents or a place to expose their work. Not a single major agency in Hollywood has a new talent division. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not only a lost opportunity, it’s a shame.
Q: What’s one of your greatest priorities right now?
A: To send the elevator back down, which is what you ought to do if you’re lucky enough to be fortunate in your business.
Movieline, February 2003