The Nice Man Cometh

Kevin Spacey chills on Broadway
by Sophie de Rakoff
PAPERcoverIt’s a cold, gray afternoon in Los Angeles, but Kevin Spacey is happy, relaxed and chatty, enjoying his glass of white wine in the middle of a halcyon day filled with business meetings and gym appointments. In just a few weeks, he will return to the Broadway stage to star in Eugene O’Neill’s classic The Iceman Cometh. Spacey’s eyes light up as he talks about how he felt last year on the flight to England to start rehearsals for what turned into an eight-month run of Iceman on the London stage.

“It was the right time to go and have that experience, but I didn’t think I was ready for it. I was reading the play on the way over and I just put my head in my hands: ‘Oh my God, I am so f***ed. I am in so much trouble,'” he recalls with a laugh. But he certainly had the experience, for before there was Hollywood, there was New York, where Spacey — in his typically low-key, “under the radar” style — had initially cut his teeth, with Jack Lemmon and Peter Gallagher in A Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1986, years after graduating from Juilliard’s drama department and working as a gopher for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Now Spacey is returning to Broadway with what he says is “essentially the same production” of “a massive, beautiful play about love and friendship and how incomprehensible those things are.”

Recast with 14 American actors, including Robert Sean Leonard, Spacey also takes on the role of producer. It is strange to hear Kevin Spacey, a man who exudes confidence onscreen and off, admit to fear. But Spacey is an unusual man: an accomplished actor who seems to appeal as much to men as to women; an intense individual who is constantly laughing (“I try to throw in my barrels of humor where I can”); a film director whose feature debut, Albino Alligator, was a deliberately impersonal story (“Personal’s not what I wanted to start with; that’s for me to do now”); and, legend has it, the only director in history to get Faye Dunaway out of hair and makeup in under two hours.

This restaurant is Spacey’s choice. It’s more charming than fabulous: an old house converted into an eatery, which Spacey apparently used to frequent in the early years after visiting the theater around the corner. He is slighter in person, his eyes a dark, impenetrable brown, his hair cut characteristically short. He’s wearing a Fuct T-shirt under his classic leather jacket. He also chews gum, which he wraps in a NutraSweet packet and drops in the ashtray when the wine arrives. Small details, but when an Oscar-winning actor sits across a table from you, it is the small things that make him real.

When a waiter brings the bread basket, Spacey thanks him but ignores it, saying he is on a strict diet because he’s in the middle of shooting American Beauty, in which he co-stars with Annette Bening as a man who realizes he is trapped in a terrible marriage and decides to change his life, undergoing an intense physical change.

No more Mr. ice guy

After finishing Iceman in London, and before returning to the States for the holidays, Spacey wrapped Ordinary Decent Criminal in Dublin. It’s the story of a sexy Irish gangster who pulls off a successful art heist. The movie co-stars his old friend Linda Fiorentino as his wife. “I asked for her to be in the movie,” Spacey says. “The character needed to be someone who was hot but fiercely intelligent — and she surely is that. And I thought we’d make a good couple.” His charismatic character is a departure for Spacey, who made his name playing smooth-talking, soulless monsters in Seven, Hurlyburly and L.A. Confidential. He’s obviously happy with this new direction and has reached a goal he set out to achieve. “When I finally saw Seven and realized how brilliantly my character had been set up, I said to David [Fincher, the director], ‘You have f***ed me for life. Everybody is going to think I’m this horrible creep forever!’ There was a degree of coldness and detachment in that character and others that made them all the more scary, and I think I’m through playing characters that are affectless. I really like playing characters that are affected — I’m really so much closer to that. It’s been fun on this dark and interesting journey, but I think I’m onto a whole new thing, and it’s right for just now.”

Even dressed in a gray knit cap and sweatpants, the man who scared millions as John Doe in Seven and fooled a million more as Keyser Sozay (Soze) in The Usual Suspects is immediately identifiable. Half an hour earlier, when Spacey entered the small restaurant, several forkfuls of egg faltered momentarily in midair as Variety-reading brunchers fell prey to the wave of adrenaline that ripples through a room when a popular star walks in.

Since becoming a household name, Spacey has tried to “duck and weave a little bit as a person, because then the characters come out, and that’s what people remember.” The intelligent, articulate actor is determined to keep it that way. “I grew up loving movies and being taken away by somehow knowing nothing about the actors except that I admired them and I was able to escape with them. I think it’s harder and harder [to do that]. We live in a world of so much exposure, particularly this world I exist in as an actor, that you see the celebrity and not the character. I think I’ve tried with an enormous degree of success to keep a very low profile and live my life how I want to and not to be disturbed.”

This leaves many sides of Kevin Spacey, the man, to be discovered. Born in New Jersey and raised in California, he now considers himself a New Yorker and has owned a house in Greenwich Village for years. “It’s all about the Village,” he claims, so he merely rents in L.A. When Spacey was a child, his father was often out of work, “and by the time I was 14, I’d probably moved 12 times. I got used to making wherever-it-was my home. My father was unemployed a lot and job-shopped a lot, so depending on how he was doing and whether he’d gotten fired or hired, it wasn’t always a happy move,” he recalls. “I was very resilient about it. It was hard, though. I remember being in love with this girl and we were leaving the neighborhood, so I knew I wouldn’t see her again, and I was mad at my dad — boy, was I mad at my dad.”

Kevin’s biggest quirk

He still retains at least one eccentricity from his nomadic childhood. Laughing, he explains, “I’ll tell you something I think only my friends know about me: I move furniture around. This is how bad it is: My friends’ll come around for dinner and then they’ll come back again a few weeks later to play with the dogs or bring their kids to hang out, and the furniture will probably have changed four or five times since then. They’ll go, ‘Hey, Kevin, wasn’t the couch over there before? ”Yeah.” So why did you move it?’ And I can’t tell them why. ‘I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t like it over there anymore.’ I can’t stop moving furniture, and I do it alone at 3 in the morning. Do you know how I do it? I take a towel, because big, heavy pieces of furniture are hard to move without scratching the floor. I’ll put the towel under a corner, tip and then drag the whole thing. I have a whole process.”

There is one physical attribute that all Kevin Spacey’s characters share: a small smile — sometimes sardonic, sometimes ambiguous, but always Spacey’s own. “I find human nature and telling stories so incredible, it just makes me smile,” he admits. All kinds of things amuse Spacey and deserve anecdotes that he seems to relish telling. As the restaurant gradually empties, Spacey begins to touch on subjects that bring out the best in him. His dogs, Mini and Legacy: “I brought Mini back from England and I videotaped her whole introduction to Legacy. I had to film the whole thing, it was too beautiful.”

His three-week trip through Europe: “I started in Amsterdam and then went around Europe to recover. If I’d done Amsterdam last, I would have been in trouble. That’s some town.” How he used to ignore his body when it would tell him to slow down, miming a swig from a glass — “Yeah, I’ll be right there, I’ll be right back.” And the onslaught of practical jokes and pranks that the London theater company played on each other “in an ongoing commitment and challenge to crack somebody else up. There were many mooning asses in the wings….”

Finally, as dusk begins to settle and the wine is all gone, the restaurant comes to life again for the pre-theater early-bird special. The waiters bustle around, refilling salt shakers and folding napkins as Spacey, cap pulled low on his head, glides down the stairs and out into the California cold. A huge stretch limo waits at the curb. Spacey walks past it to a white four-wheel-drive in the parking lot beyond. Alarm off, door open, door closed, Kevin Spacey pulls out into the Hollywood traffic and heads off to the gym. Just a regular guy. Almost.

Paper, March 1999
Pages 74-78, 2 more pictures on the contents pages.
Photographs by Robert Fleischaver/LaMoine, Styled by Timothy Reukauf/Marek and Associates, Grooming by Gunn Espegard/Celestine L.A., Special effects makeup by Tania McComas, Props and sets by David Ross, Photographed at Smashbox Studios