‘Anybody worth their salt feels like a fake most of the time’

From the scheming psychos of Seven and The Usual Suspects to the confused anti-heroes of American Beauty and The Shipping News, Kevin Spacey has made a career out of wrong-footing audiences. But, as Mariella Frostrup discovers, he’s as hard to pin down in real life:

Sunday March 2, 2003

OMKS1There’s an apparition in front of me on the Old Vic stage. Resplendent in fluorescent pink feathercut hairdo, a sequinned coat in a riot of lurid shades and shoulder pads that would make an American footballer look puny. A fetching ensemble topped and tailed by platform boots and a glittering cat’s-eye mask. This mesmerising creature with his disco dad dance moves is outcamping Elton John – no mean feat with the Rocket Man himself up on stage looking like a human mirror ball. Reg pounds away on the piano keys, shaking his moptop toupee; an accessory more reminiscent of the household implement it’s named after than the Fab Four hairstyle. So who is the other Elton? This mystery man belting out this high-octane version of ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ four feet away? It’s taking the open-mouthed audience of big spenders at this benefit show whole minutes to figure it out. To hoots of amazement, he finally strips off his disguise and reveals himself. Double Oscar winner, film star, thespian, movie mogul, international man of mystery and the Old Vic’s surprise new artistic director, 43-year-old Kevin Spacey.

It’s approximately the seventh Kevin Spacey I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. There are three Spaceys this evening alone. Spacey No 1 opens the show. He rises through a cluster of costume-clad drama students on a mechanically operated platform. Topman meets Henry V, he urges us to ‘go forth for Harry, England and the Old Vic’. Shortly afterwards, No 2 shimmies back on to the stage. Within seconds the sedate audience is toe tapping to his enthusiastic rendition of another Elton classic, ‘Harmony in Me’. He prowls up and down the stage. There’s a whiff of rampant, sexy, danger. Curiously, I’m also reminded of the company accountant, silent throughout the office party, until the karaoke machine is switched on when he reveals himself as a pitch-perfect David Bowie.

Kevin Spacey is in town to perform at this Old Vic benefit show, announce his surprise appointment as artistic director and promote his latest movie, The Life of David Gale. The film, directed by Alan Parker, tells the story of a campaigning opponent of the death penalty, the eponymous David Gale (Spacey), who winds up on death row. On the eve of his execution, Gale requests an interview with an award-winning journalist (Bitsey Bloom), played by Kate Winslet. Over the course of their three-day conversation, Bloom is forced to reconsider her opinions on the man she is interviewing and the fate that awaits him.

The film relies heavily on Spacey’s talent for confusing his audience. As usual, the actor rises to the occasion. Is he a cold-blooded rapist and murderer, or has he been framed by his political opponents? Despite the overt signposting in the script, it’s to Spacey’s credit that he manages to sustain the mystery. ‘The thing about storytelling,’ he tells me, ‘is that you’ll often have these wonderful contrasts between what the story’s telling you, what a character is telling you and the hope that at the end of the day the audience is going to be faced with trying to figure it out for themselves.’

Spacey is the last person to turn to for answers. I presume this committed Democrat’s performance in the film is a clue to his stance on the death penalty. I’ve reckoned without the actor’s other impressive talent – for sitting on the fence. The conversation goes something like this:

Me: ‘I imagine you’re an opponent of the death penalty?’

Him: ‘No.’

Me: ‘So you think it’s a good thing?’

Him: ‘No. I have yet to declare a position on the death penalty.’

Since his latest film focuses on it, I suggest now might be a good time. It’s the beginning of a lengthy monologue, in which Spacey quotes the case of Clarence Darrow, a famous US attorney in the 20s who fought the death penalty as often as he sought it. Having enlightened me on Darrow’s professional non-partisan position, he continues with his own personal debate: ‘I’ve read all the statistics. Is it really a deterrent? The amount of money it costs to put one person to death… Not that there should be a price on justice but, oh boy, you just stop and think there’s a lot that we could use that money for in the world. But the truth is, I’ve never had my sister murdered. I have absolutely no idea what that would feel like.’

How can a man who has just appeared in a film that exposes some of the flaws of the death penalty be so reluctant to take a stand? Discussing this with a contemporary of Spacey’s, I find I’m not alone in my confusion. ‘Kevin likes to present himself as this political being, but if you look at what he says, he never actually sticks his neck out on anything.’

I press on, but to little avail. ‘Here’s why I feel strongly that I don’t want to take a position on it,’ says Spacey. ‘They put people on television, whether it’s abortion or gay rights or the death penalty and the second someone declares their position, people stop listening.’

I agree that celebrities banging on about their causes or adopting issues for their own ends is a tedious phenomenon, but it’s hardly the case here. I’m intrigued to know what has inspired this terror of putting himself out on a limb.

The Fowlers – Spacey’s family name until he adopted his beloved paternal grandfather’s while studying drama at Juilliard – were a family in constant motion. They moved from the East Coast to California in 1963 when Kevin was four, and they didn’t stop from then on. The Fowler kids were uprooted time and again as their father, Thomas, who made his living writing technical brochures, followed the work. ‘I was constantly being thrown into a new school, thrown into a new church and the new kid on the block. Always, always, always. Starting over again. I’ll never forget this.

‘I remember lying in the bottom of an empty pool with my best friend at the time. I was lying on my back and my friend was lying on his back and we were looking up at the sky, the night before the moving vans were coming. And I remember I was so upset that I was moving. And I must have been nine years old. And I remember crying, lying on my back and there were tears streaming down my face. I remember for several days, I hated my father so much. I hated him for making us move. I hated him for making me go through this fucking ritual of having to start all over again and be the new kid and find a way in and get beaten up.’

It’s ironic that Spacey should subsequently have chosen a profession that would put him in that position time and time again. He’s often quoted as saying that when he discovered acting, he finally learnt how to be himself. I suspect the reverse is true, that in acting he found a way of never having to be himself.

Leading a secret inner life, it transpires, is something he learnt from his father. ‘My dad had this thing where he went into his office, shut the door and he’d be gone for days. My mum would put food down for him, he’d pick it up, take it in and continue writing.’ Spacey’s mother, Kathleen, who was his date for both trips to the Oscars, did more than the catering. ‘My mum was really the breadwinner in our house. She worked her ass off for many years as a private secretary.’ Meanwhile, between irregular bouts of employment, her husband was busy furtively pursuing his secret passion. After Thomas died in 1993, Kevin finally got to enter his father’s inner sanctum. It had been a no-go area as a child: ‘You weren’t allowed in Dad’s study. It was his study, his space.’

On entering, he was met with a surprise. ‘The bookcases in his office were lined, lined, lined with notebooks that he had written. Stories. And then on one bookshelf was his novel that he’d been writing since 1963.’ Fans of Seven will delight at the parallel with the killer’s notebook-lined inner sanctum. I can’t help feeling it eerily echoes the life of his son. Kevin makes the connection for me. ‘It was like discovering somebody who obviously had this whole other life. It was so weird to suddenly be awakened to this passion that he had.’

Spacey seems to have spent his childhood battling demons – burning down his sister’s treehouse, fighting other boys. His father, who served in Britain in 1942-43 as a medic in the army, mistakenly hoped discipline would sort him out, so sent his son to a military academy. Kevin was soon expelled for fighting his classmates instead of the enemy. ‘I have this memory of my father watching me get beat up. He came to pick me up from school and I got into a fight outside of the school ground. I have never remarked on this, and I got into a fight with this big guy who had been fucking harassing me all the time in school. I was beating this guy and he was beating me, I don’t know whether it was a tie or I got fucking pummelled, but then I saw my dad was sitting in the car across the street just watching and letting me fend for myself. And I remember getting in the car, bloody and beaten and my dad said something to me like, “You know, you did good. You stood up for yourself.” And then he drove me home.’

Spacey generously credits his upbringing with preparing him for the life he leads today. ‘It was what it is like being an actor. You’re uprooted constantly, put in new situations, plucked out of one thing and thrown into another. Every three months you have a new family. In a weird way, I’m grateful for what happened to me as a child. It allowed me to make those emotional adjustments and realise that life was just going to be this continual kind of re-inventing and shifting.’

While acting provided an alternative means of expression, fame, when it arrived, was harder to cope with. ‘There are no classes you can go to in order to prepare for what it’s like to become known to the public. Nobody can possibly prepare you for all that other stuff. So you really do learn as you go.’

Since he first limped his way into the greater public imagination in The Usual Suspects, Spacey’s career has been defined by his gift for slithering in and out of the audience’s grasp on his character. From the psychos of The Usual Suspects and Seven, to his Oscar-winning performance in American Beauty and his portrait of broken-hearted RG Quoyle in The Shipping News, Spacey has displayed a rare gift for inhabiting difficult parts. He proves as hard to get a grip on in real life.

Let me introduce you to a few of the other Kevin Spaceys I’ve met. Our first encounter was a couple of years ago, when we shared neighbouring tables at the Ivy. He was dining with Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant and Janet Street-Porter and later joined a group of us at the Groucho Club. He seemed in his element, telling wicked stories and playing at being just another drunk at the bar, refreshingly self-effacing and without pretension. Our next encounter at a film premiere was less convivial. He nods in my direction, accepts my compliments on his performance and moves swiftly on. Last Christmas, at Old Vic chief executive Sally Greene’s legendary Christmas party, he’s my new best friend again. He flirts theatrically, jokes with my fiancée and introduces us to his companion.

A month later, while his publicist is trying to set up this interview, I see him in the Electric Club on Portobello Road. I approach him with trepidation, to say that we’re having trouble arranging a suitable date. He couldn’t be nicer, telling me he had just found out that morning that I was doing the interview and, ‘It’s the best news I’ve ever had.’ I enjoy the compliment, but hope for his sake he’s lying. We agree to take the arrangements out of the hands of third parties and, true to his word, he calls two days later and offers himself up at any point between rehearsals for the upcoming Old Vic benefit. We settle on dinner.

So here we are, on a miserable Monday night, in a family establishment on Charlotte Street. Pale and ruddy as any London commuter, he slips into the restaurant without an eyelid being raised. His baseball cap, incongruous with the suit, is pulled low over his face. Some stars wear their caps as a fashion statement. Spacey’s, you feel, is an essential part of the disguise.

He’s neatly turned out in navy jacket and tie and reminds me of my favourite English teacher. He helps himself to a glass of the red wine already on the table and settles on a starter of foie gras. ‘Would you prefer it if I ordered liver?’ he asks, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Raw! Would it help you with the article?’

Kevin Spacey is an engaging if disappointingly normal date. I keep glancing across the table, hoping for a hint of his malevolent self, a whiff of danger or a snatch of stardom in motion. Instead he chats away quite happily and treats me like an old friend. Only a reluctant pass – ‘If you weren’t engaged, I’d be inviting you back to the hotel for a drink’ – which was more an act of charity than a proposition, takes me by surprise.

Spacey has made a career out of confounding audiences. An hour into dinner and I start to think that maybe he has been typecast. His friendship with Clinton doesn’t mean he shares his politics. ‘Not all of his policies. As a human being and as a friend I support him,’ he says.

The impending prospect of war?

‘I don’t feel like going to war. I would hope that George Bush doesn’t feel like going to war. I would hope that we can, as we have through the entire history of the United States, find a diplomatic solution for events such as the one that has been discussed.’

The Native Americans? Hiroshima? Vietnam?

He’s looking at me, but his answer is obviously directed at a much wider audience. He’s dodging headlines in the paper, trying not to ruffle feathers. Every sinew appears tuned to deflect conflict.

Trapped in the media’s perpetual spotlight is an uncomfortable place to find yourself. According to Spacey: ‘Anybody worth their salt, no matter what kind of outward success they have, still feels like a fake, most of the time. The reason I say this is because it’s important to stop, in the midst of all this and say, who am I? What’s real? What’s not? And that’s what I’ve spent this past year and some months happily reconciling.’ Trying to discover what conclusions he has come to is predictably frustrating. I certainly don’t get a straight answer.

‘The past five years has been the most challenging period for me. I got strapped to a locomotive and didn’t stop. I was trying to achieve a lot, I was trying to negotiate a lot and I sort of lost contact with people who are very important to me. My family. My best friends I’ve had for 20 years, 25 years. So I took this past year off because I recognised I needed to get back in touch with myself, without all the hoopla and parade and attention.’

Some actors might tell you this and you’d skip to the next question. With Spacey, I believe every word. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he really is a one-man band. His film company, Trigger Street Productions, employs upwards of 10 full-time staff, but Spacey himself travels light. No assistants, no security, no friends.

‘I don’t travel with an entourage. I don’t have a complicated group of people around me who are just there to cater for me. I think it’s so important not to let hubris raise its head.’

The one thing that Spacey is openly animated about is his upcoming move to London to take over as artistic director of the Old Vic – a theatre his Anglophile parents took him to as a child on their regular visits to the UK: ‘It’s an extraordinarily interesting time in British theatre. We have new artistic directors that are taking their places at the National, the Donmar, the RSC, and the Almeida. Including the extraordinary work that Mark Rylance has continued to do at the Globe. So it’s a particularly good moment for the Old Vic to step forward and take its place alongside all these exciting changes that are happening.’

His commitment to his theatre work is absolute and he has little time for those who moan about Hollywood stars swamping the West End stage. ‘The people who write those articles have short memories. Katharine Hepburn came here in the 30s and performed. Henry Fonda was here. Dustin Hoffman was here. Faye Dunaway was here. John Malkovich. Jack Lemmon. Jimmy Stewart. Actors who are in movies have been coming to London and doing plays from the beginning of time.’

Not that he intends to let his ambitions for the Old Vic affect his movie career. ‘I will continue to be a film actor, I will continue to have a production company. But for six to eight months a year, that [the Old Vic] is what I’ll be doing.’ Filmwise, his next project sounded incongruous, even for a shape-shifter like Kevin. At least until I saw him strut his stuff on stage. ‘In the past few years, my interest in music, my love of singing, have been moving me toward making the Bobby Darin story. He was one of the greatest American singers – “Splish Splash”, “Dream Lover”, and many others. It’s a remarkable story about his life and what he packed into 37 years.’

I’m reminded of something he said earlier about his own life: ‘I don’t spend a lot of time looking back, but when I did recently, I was like, phew. Put your fucking feet up, boy! Jesus Christ, just hang out for a little bit.’ I can’t help wondering if in some way that is what his upcoming tenure at the Old Vic and his move to London mean to him.

‘It’s certainly a more permanent situation and as I’ve been feeling in my life that I want more permanence, maybe I’m trying to finally have a place I call my home.’

We leave the restaurant and in the absence of a cab he offers me a lift. His getaway car has been purring away for three hours. After dropping him off at his hotel, the driver and I continue to Notting Hill. I ask his opinion on the man he’s been driving for the past few days. ‘He’s by far the nicest celebrity I’ve ever driven,’ he tells me.

I ask for an example.

‘Well, when I picked him up from the airport the other day, the traffic was murder because of the snow. I told him it might take up to three hours to get to the hotel. “No problem”, he says. Takes off his baseball cap, lays down and goes to sleep.’

Oh God, I think, not another Kevin Spacey. Chilled-out nice guy, perfectionist, ambitious brute, serious thespian, Hollywood superstar, friendly, frosty, charming, generous.

I’m left feeling certain of only one thing: Kevin Spacey is a fascinating bunch of guys – the ones I’ve met, at any rate. But I suspect that, like his father’s secret novel, the real Kevin is hidden somewhere safe.

The Life of David Gale is released on 14 March.
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Thank you to Candis for the scans.