New York Daily News Online

Heavy Spacey For ‘Shipping News,’ actor gained 20 pounds, lost wisecracks
By NANCY MILLS
Special to The News

HOLLYWOOD – December 18, 2001

Kevin Spacey is acting against type. “People presume I have confidence,” says the man who has made a career out of playing characters who have all the answers. “It’s funny to me when someone says, ‘You always look so cool’ or ‘You know what you’re doing.’ “Half the time I’m standing out there thinking, ‘Am I going to forget my lines? Did I memorize this thing right? It’s going well, isn’t it?'” Spacey as Mr. Humble may be a surprise, but it fits right in with his latest performance in “The Shipping News,” opening Christmas Day.

This coming-of-age story, set in Newfoundland, required him to leave his smirks and wisecracks, as well as his vanity, in his West Village home. “Quoyle is the opposite of characters I play,” says Spacey, 42, who won Oscars for colorful performances in “American Beauty” and “The Usual Suspects.” “He’s not expressive. He’s not demonstrative.” Nor is he particularly attractive. “I don’t think I’ve ever looked worse in a movie,” he says. “In the book, Annie Proulx describes Quoyle as a walrus, with hairy hands and a big chin. “I gained about 20 pounds because I wanted the audience to feel his heaviness. But he’s heavy in himself beyond the weight. He’s awkward and bumbling. He’s not just not a water person. He’s not particularly adept on land. He doesn’t even start to begin to get a hint of confidence until very late in the film, when someone finally pays him a compliment.”

An Internal Journey

Spacey calls Quoyle a reactive character. “Life keeps falling in front of him, and he has to respond to it,” he says. “It’s a great discipline after years of playing characters that are [he snaps his fingers rhythmically] so fast and almost like forces of nature. “I was quite moved by his journey because it’s such a quiet and internal one. At its heart it’s a story about a man who finally learns about not just the connections and the truths of his family but lets go of the past and starts embracing the future as a father and as a man. To me, that’s incredibly important and poignant.” Spacey talks about “The Shipping News” in slow, measured tones.

What happened to the hellion who torched his sister’s treehouse while growing up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley? “Maybe I’ve made a little too much of that,” Spacey says. “There was about a year and a half when I was a little bit of a troublemaker. My father sent me off to military school, which I got thrown out of because I didn’t like it. But right after that, I found theater. When I was in my teens I was focusing on directing plays and getting up onstage. “I didn’t understand what my friends were going through. I wasn’t smoking pot or drinking. I didn’t go through those years till I got to New York.”

Spacey’s father, Thomas, who died in 1993, was a technical writer who moved his family from New Jersey to California when Kevin was 4. From him, Spacey developed an appreciation of words. “We had reading night,” he remembers. “We used to read from great novels, so I was introduced at a very young age to Faulkner and Hemingway. It’s held me in very good stead for being able to judge material.” From his mother, Kathleen, a secretary, he got his sense of humor. “She kills me, she’s so funny,” he says. “I suspect that without the support I got from my parents, I wouldn’t have amounted to much.”

Spacey went to high school with Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer. “After graduation I was floundering in L.A., doing standup comedy and working in a shoe store,” Spacey recalls. “Val was at Juilliard, and he kept writing me letters encouraging me to audition.” Spacey spent two years at Juilliard and then moved on to Broadway. “I was terrible in my first play,” he says. “After that experience I had to face that I wasn’t good enough to play with the big boys. I had to go away and learn, so I worked in regional theater for three years.”

When he returned to Broadway in 1984, his first job was in “Hurlyburly,” directed by Mike Nichols. He gradually moved into TV and films, but again quickly realized he didn’t know enough. “After ‘Henry and June’ [1990], I decided to make three TV movies that year to learn about myself on film,” he says. Since “The Usual Suspects” in 1995, he has barely put a foot wrong. “I’m pretty observant about where I am and where I think I’m lacking and what I’m going to do in order to learn,” Spacey says. “It’s so important to be able to look at yourself and go, ‘Well, this was okay and that wasn’t.’ “I’m not even remotely satisfied with where I am. I want to direct again.” (His 1996 effort, “Albino Alligator,” got mixed reviews.) “I want to go back onstage and tackle some Shakespeare, some classics, some new plays. And I want to continue to bring opportunities to younger and not-so-young talents who haven’t gotten a fair shake.” Trigger Street, Spacey’s production company, will start shooting “The United States of Leland” next month. He will not appear in it, but he has just completed an Alan Parker film, “The Life of David Gale,” which deals with capital punishment. And he says to expect an announcement soon about his next movie — possibly, he’ll play Bobby Darin.

Giving Something Back

“Money is useful,” Spacey says, “but I’m not interested in buying lots of jets and other houses. I’m fortunate that I didn’t fall into that particular well. I always wonder, what do all those people do with all that money? You don’t need that much to live. “If there’s one great lesson that Jack Lemmon [his stage and TV co-star in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”] left me, it would be, ‘If you’re fortunate enough to break through a certain ceiling in whatever business you’re in, it’s your obligation to send the elevator back down.'”