Ask most actors why they went into show business and you’ll hear tales of lonely small-town childhoods, pushy stage mothers, or epiphanies during seventh-grade field trips to A Chorus Line. Ask Kevin Spacey the same question and you might hear about the time he got kicked out of military school for hitting a classmate with a tire.
”I never actually picked a fight,” Spacey says; the other guy, he maintains, hit him first. But Spacey was rambunctious enough to prompt a guidance counselor at his new public school to suggest that he channel his “excessive energy” toward drama classes instead of playground skirmishes. The adv ice proved fruitful. “It was much easier,” Spacey says, “doing pantomimes.”
Since then, Spacey has slowly but steadily been building a distinguished career in the theater; last year, at age 31, he won a Tony award for his portrayal of Louie, the big-hearted gangster in Lost in Yonkers. He’s also received critical kudos for several memorable TV roles, most notably the toe-wiggling villain Mel Profitt on Wiseguy. Along the way, Spacey has turned up in such films as Working Girl and Glengarry Glen Ross, but his performances have been small, subtle blips on the Hollywood radar screen.
It’s no surprise, then, to see Spacey so excited about his big fall project, Alan Pakula’s Consenting Adults. “I really look at it as my first movie,” he says. “I’ve played supporting roles in films for a while, in the hope that I would learn something. And I certainly have. But it’s a frustrating experi- ence, because the relationship that you’re searching for with a director doesn’t really occur. Directors feel that if they’ve hired a competent actor in that small role, then they can concentrate on the three or four actors who move the plot along. ”
In Consenting Adults, Spacey has the chance to move the plot along at breakneck speed. He and Rebecca Miller play the glamorous new neighbors of bored, bour- geois Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio; when Miller is murdered, Spacey and Kline face off in a grueling battle of wits. During the shoot, Spacey threw himself into the role with a degree of abandon that still has Pakula marveling. “He did everything from losing weight to bleaching his hair to going into physical training, ” the director says. (Spacey shed close to 30 pounds for the role and, while he was at it, learned how to box, ride a motorcycle, and sail a 65-foot yacht.) “The only thing he didn’t have to learn,” Pakula says, “was how to act. He already knew how.”
That talent alone, however, was not initially enough to recommend Spacey to the studio brass at Disney, who were looking for an actor with a more recognizable name. “I suppose they thought I would have been nice as the driver or the boat captain,” Spacey says, “but not in this leading role opposite Kevin Kline. So Alan, bless him, fought for me in a way that you always dream someone will–especially in Hollywood, where chances are often tough for actors who don’t look a certain way. Of course, I am sitting here blond and tan. What do I have to talk about now?”
Golden locks and slim new figure aside, however, Spacey knows that it might be a while before he has his pick of movie roles. He’s still a little miffed about being denied the chance to reprise Louie in the upcoming film version of Lost in Yonkers (the role went instead to Richard Dreyfuss). But he seems sincere when he extols the virtues of anonymity; he’s glad that people leave him alone when he walks his dog around his Greenwich Village neighborhood. “Nobody really knows who I am, ” he says, “which is great. Because the longer an actor remains in the shadows, the longer I can hide, the more my characters will get noticed.”
Christopher Bagley for Premiere
October 1992, pages 44 and 47.