Regis London Film Festival
RLFF.COM writer Laura Bushell went along to the Dorchester Hotel to meet up with actor Kevin Spacey and director Iain Softley to talk about K-PAX, which makes it’s UK premier at the Regus London Film Festival as the closing night Gala film.
RLFF – Kevin Spacey, perhaps I can ask you first; the project’s been around for a while. Were you offered the part of Prot straight away or did you have a chance to read it and wonder whether the shrink might have been interesting?
Kevin Spacey – No. In actuality, when I read the screenplay, and I remember the week I read it because about four days later I read American Beauty on the same bed, so I have a very clear memory of that week. And I read it and I remember getting on the phone instantly and calling my representative. Because I have a very particular way of reading material, which is I don’t like to know the part, I like to just read the story from almost a sense of innocence because when you’re fortunate enough as an actor to start doing well you start getting offered, you know, they want you to play the role of Pete or the role of George and you look at the script and you start to read it. Then the part of Pete finally shows up and you say ‘ahh, that’s good, that’s a good role’ and suddenly you start getting your hands around it and almost figuring out whether it’s right for you an whether that role is good. I think it suddenly makes a part stand out from reading the story and whether the story is something you respond to. So a long time ago, and it drives my representative crazy – they always send me these letters saying ‘you’ve been offered the role of you know and here’s the money and here’s who’s directing’ and I don’t want any of that. I just want to read the story and therefore if I respond to the story then I’ll want to find all that stuff out or it’ll become obvious to me as I’m reading it what role it is. Although quite often, more often than I care to admit, it comes down to me calling and saying ‘uhh!’ and this is what happened. I called and said ‘uhh, this story, it’s just this wonderful science fiction fable almost and the role of Prot is so great.’ She said ‘that’s not the part they want you to play.’ And I said ‘that’s not the part?! Well, what’s the part?!’ She said ‘well they want you to look at the psychiatrist and I said ‘well, that’s a good part but it’s not the part I like’ I said ‘well, who’s playing Prot?’ and at that time it was Will Smith. So I hung up the phone and I didn’t do the film. I guess that, low and behold, some things are worth waiting for because, you know, three years later for whatever reasons they didn’t make the film in that incarnation and they came back around and asked if I might be interested in playing Prot and I said ‘yes.’ And they went out and got Jeff Bridges who’s a much better psychiatrist than I would have been.
RLFF – He’s done Starman.
Kevin Spacey – And he’s done Starman.
RLFF – Iain, let’s bring you in. The project had been around for six years, at what stage did you get involved then?
Iain Softley – The same week that Kevin did. It was about a year after Wings of a Dove and I was developing some of my projects in the UK and at the same time I was reading and getting other people to read a lot of projects from America. This really was the best script that I’d come across in certainly two or three years. I actually went up and met Will Smith on a couple occasions, as I understand a lot more esteemed directors than me did. For some reason the film didn’t happen. I think there just wasn’t the right alchemy or the right angels smiling on the project at that stage. So very reluctantly I set the script aside and started on other projects and got attached to another film; a film with Nicole Kidman at Paramount. I was phoned I think it was in summer 2000 saying ‘are you still interested in /K-PAX?/’ I said ‘well, I’ve been interested…’ I would fondly look at the script on the shelf and think ‘what a shame that film didn’t happen, what a shame we never made K-PAX.’ Before I had the understanding that it was Will Smith, so when Lawrence Gordon the producer said it will be Kevin playing Prot it was like ‘my God, nobody else can play Prot.’ So it took me about one and a half seconds to say that I wanted to do it, and with a bit of fancy footwork and hopefully not too many ruffled feathers I met Kevin and very soon we were up and running.
RLFF – Kevin; given the physical incarnation of Prot – the strange, shuffling gait, and the arms don’t move very much – I wondered how you’d arrived at your decisions as to how you would move?
Kevin Spacey – A lot of that actually just occurred through the course of rehearsal. One of the things that Iain and I talked about quite a lot about, both in terms of the look of the character and behaviour, was that if you’re not on the inside of the movie where Prot is the central character, if you were just walking by the ward one day and you sort of poked your head in and looked at all the patients in the room, that Prot didn’t stand out. That Prot should look like he belonged in that room. And one of the things that we did was that we went around to a lot of mental facilities both in California and New York, and I think the first question I would ask the staff was ‘so, do you have any patients here who think they’re from another planet?’ And they would go ‘oh yeah, there’s like eleven.’ And you go ‘really? That many?’ And they go ‘oh yeah, it’s very, very common.’ So I asked to meet one or two and I met one of two and they’re quite endearing. They clearly didn’t have all of the factual evidence that Prot used to have about his planet but they were very endearing. Some of them had tin foil wrapped around their buttons and tin foil on their ears because, you know, you get better reception that way. And there is a, I don’t know if anyone has ever been to a mental facility or even if you watch autistic children or anyone who’s challenged on some mental way, there’s something that happens to them physically. I wanted a slightly strange quality to the way in which Prot moved and I remember when I was pretty early into rehearsal I started poking my head into rooms because I started thinking about the eyes and how light and how it was that Prot saw the world and how it was he saw human beings. The idea of somebody who could actually see ultra-violet light – what is it they’re actually seeing and how does that make them see you versus how you see me? And because I was wearing Bono’s glasses through most of the film, and he wants them back by the way. Iain started asking me early on ‘what are you doing?!’ And he seemed to, everything lead with his head so I began to poke myself into rooms where almost Prot’s eyes were the first thing to enter a room and then the rest of him would follow. I remember when I started Shipping News within about four days I said to Lasse Hallstrom ‘if I start poking my head around corners will you just remind me what character I’m playing?!’
RLFF – The character is hypnotised and regressed back to his former self. Did you go and witness hypnotism or have you been hypnotised yourself or studied what actually happened?
Kevin Spacey – We did study it. There actually was – (to Iain Softley) what was that documentary?
Iain Softley – It was a Wiseman…
Kevin Spacey – It was a John Huston documentary. John Huston made a documentary, it’s incredible to look at, in which he filmed soldier who had been traumatised in the war, who had witnessed their best friends being killed and shot and fired at. This had caused some thing where a person couldn’t speak, or where one man couldn’t say the s sound anymore because what they finally got to in his session was that the S sound – sssss – was the sound of bullets going by his head and it’s traumatised him so much that he could no longer say that. And through hypnotism they helped him, they managed to heal him. So there were these incredible films of actually watching people go back and regressing and going into subconscious. What was most fascinating and problematic and difficult for us was, you talk to almost any of the people we had helping us in a film, is that normally you put a person into regression they go back to the core person. But in Prot’s case he always remained Prot. He remained Prot with the behaviour of the person he’s with, so it was actually quite a…
RLFF – It was also very interesting in terms of interpreting the story of the film in that sense
Kevin Spacey – Yes, because you think if we want to throw out to the audience watching the movie ‘here’s the answer to the mystery; he’s really this, or he’s really that’ what was so confounding and risky for us from a performance aspect was that he never ceases being Prot. We think that if he’s really Robert Porter or if he’s really a person going through this traumatic experience that you would get to the person and go ‘ah ha! See?’ But it doesn’t quite work that way, it’s far more complex than that. So you always are remaining Prot but in a way one of the hardest things for me to get my head around when we were starting that was trusting that it was actually OK for me to regress vocally, which actually does happen. And also to open my eyes, because that was they aspect that, maybe we all think this way, but I always think that when someone’s under hypnosis their eyes are closed. But actually what one of the doctors told us is that no, you can actually say to a patient ‘if you want to open your eyes and walk around you can’ and that often happens. That’s a completely bizarre concept to me, but clearly for us dramatically it was easier for him to be able to get up out of the chair and to move around the room and sort of try to give an idea of movement and sense and place throughout. It gave Iain and John Matthieson an opportunity to create different spaces in the room and different light, like when it was raining that day, and sort of all those images that I think really help – you know, let’s face it; this is a movie in which two guys are sitting around talking and chasing nothing but an idea. How long has it been since we had a movie with male actors doing that? So that whole hypnosis section first of all was the longest section of the movie and I was quite worried and curious about can we sustain it? And will an audience be able to go with those scenes, particularly if we regress it vocally? I didn’t myself go into hypnosis but I have watched it. Even when you go into those kind of show where someone says ‘every time I stamp my foot, raise your right hand, you know. People think it’s all bullshit and then (stamps floor and raises right hand) that happens and they go ‘what are we doing?’ It’s incredible what the subconscious can do with just a suggestion.
RLFF – There’s an interesting line saying that ‘an eye for an eye’ is the same as stupidity really. Given the subsequent events since you made the film in New York, taking the war on Afghanistan, the film has a powerful message in that respect.
Kevin Spacey – Well, you know what’s interesting about ‘an eye for an eye?’ It’s that ‘an eye for an eye’ – I know this too because I just finished a film on the capital punishment issue in Austin, Texas which I just wrapped last week –‘an eye for an eye’ actually was never intended to be about taking someone’s life. ‘An eye for an eye’ was actually an intention in ancient time to try to stop the killing of another person, to actually say ‘instead of killing them, take their eye. If he takes your hand, take his hand. If someone does something to you..’ It was actually originally intended to be about compassion but it’s been picked up by the people who are pro capital punishment as ‘let’s kill ‘em!,’ you know, ‘ burn ‘em all and let God figure it out.’ So I actually find it fascinating that ‘an eye for an eye’ is actually used as a metaphor for killing because it was originally not meant to be used for that. You know, we couldn’t have known a year ago when we shot this movie that that particular dialogue would have a resonance.
I always though it would be controversial just in terms of the capital punishment issue that, when we were filming, was very much in evidence because of Timothy McVeigh and also George Bush’s record in Texas. So it was always something that was interesting because it actually asked the audience to examine what they think and also do they agree with Prot or do they not agree with Prot? It also moves out beyond that to is K-PAX an ideal world or is it actually not an ideal world? Do we like the way the world is being described to us by Prot? Is it, I think the initial feeling is well this is a perfect place and we’d be better off there. But then there are repeated things that challenge our views on our world – there are no families. So I think that’s one of the things that’s really provocative about the film in a unforced way, that there are ideas that are out there and we are then invited to piece together what is our ideal world and when we live here do we live in the right way? I think that the film isn’t didactic and we’re not necessarily supposed to take unquestionably everything that it tells us as being the right view or even the view of the film.
RLFF – This takes us from the sublime to the ridiculous really; Kevin, I couldn’t help thinking in the scene where you ate the banana you went way beyond the call of duty really
Kevin Spacey – You’re right!
RLFF – How does it compare with other instances in your career where you’ve taken things a little bit further than might have been… that are foolhardy?
Kevin Spacey – Well I didn’t plan to take it that far, what happened was the prop department quite generously had made fake bananas. But they looked really dumb, I arrived on the set and they looked like gigantic felt markers.
Iain Softley – We kept sending them back
Kevin Spacey – We kept sending them back and saying ‘can you fix this?’ and then they brought them back and I said ‘look, to the human eye this looks ridiculous and on film it’s going to look even more ridiculous.’ I thank them for making the attempts. So we just sent them off to Whole Foods and got some organic bananas and cleaned them as best we could and then I decided there was only one way to do it. What I find particularly hilarious is that Iain then not only shoot it one hundred and fifty ways possible – monkey cam, you know, every possible angle – but then he actually shows the audience me eating the entire banana. There’s like on cut-away to Jeff looking absolutely gob-smacked and the look on his face is actually the look on his face that day, he’s not doing much acting; he was going ‘oh my God!’ But the audience watch me eat the entire banana. It cracks me up every time I see it, mostly because I think about how many times I did it.
RLFF – What was it like?
Kevin Spacey – Well, it’s a very clean high, I can tell you that!
RLFF – Kevin; does an Oscar win mean fewer parts that explore the dark side, because you’re obviously still getting great parts now but I’m thinking of Prot and The Shipping News; these are benevolent parts compared to some of the murkier characters with whom you made your name, like The Usual Suspects?
Kevin Spacey – Yeah, but I just got bored with doing it. I mean look, let’s face the fact; some people like you the way they discovered you and that’s’ all they want you to do. They don’t ever want you to change, they just want you to show up and cut someone’s head off. And that is, for me, you have to look at it from my point of view that is I’m not try to play benevolent characters. I actually don’t think they’re are benevolent characters, they are flawed characters, but because they’re characters that aren’t doing something diabolical you may see them as benevolent. Or ‘whey aren’t you doing those parts you used to do?’ or yeah; I’m on a different journey, it’s an absolutely intentional journey. I’m absolutely not trying to do what I did five years ago. Does that mean I’ll never do it again? No, if somebody writes a script that’s as good as the ones I did five years ago then I’ll do it, but most of the ones I read where there’s character’s that are of that darker side they just pale in comparison to The Usual Suspects or those kind of roles. I figure why bother to go out and do some cheap version of something that a) I’ve done before and had an enormous amount of personal success in doing and at the same time I’m trying to do something else? For me, The Shipping News was a fantastic challenge because Quoyle is a character that doesn’t have an ironic or cynical bone in his body. On the one hand I got attacked for K-PAX in the United Sates because it’s like ‘oooh, here he is again playing the most intelligent character in the movie.’ Well, for one, thank God there is an intelligent character in the movie and what I liked most about doing Shipping News was that will be an anecdote for those who’ve made that particular complaint. I’m just drawn towards characters who have some particular complexity and that are flawed, because I think that flawed characters are more like we are. Very often I go to movies where movie actors are playing perfect versions of themselves and I find it just, for me I don’t think I could get out of bed in the morning and have that kind of a steady diet.
RLFF – Kevin; Prot seems to have this tremendous contentment describing the style of life on K-PAX. If you personally had to choose between life on K-PAX and life on Earth would you be torn at all?
Kevin Spacey – Well I certainly think that we could use a little of K-PAX on Earth. What I liked so much about the way that Prot views the world and views people is that he just accepts them as they are. He doesn’t categorise them as doctor, patient, malady, and affliction. He just takes them as they are, he accepts them as they are and they fascinate him. He asks very logical questions and probes them, sometimes very simple probing. One of the things I liked with the dialogue was that every now and then he would just say something that was so right, so simple and somehow we manage to complicate things a lot more than they need to be complicated. I certainly like a lot of things about… there was a lot more in the book too about K-PAX than there ends up being in the movie, a lot of the factual information, so I had a lot more in my own head in terms of developing a character than you necessarily got on screen. But I think you got a feeling, which was most important about it. But I dolt know if K-PAX really exists, I’d like to believe that it does. I’m not sure, like any religion; ‘oh, your religion’s better than my religion.’ We take the best of, sometimes, and that’s all that we can hope for.
RLFF – Does it take a conscious effort to keep in touch with a normal life?
Kevin Spacey – Umm, I don’t know. You know, there’s some people who you meet – you know this too – there’s places where you meet people who seem who live in a bubble. Maybe that’s because they found success at such a young age that they live in a bubble, it must be hard about the Royal family, how hard it must be for someone who’s grown up in a particular kind of structure. But I didn’t grow up that way. The only thing that I try to keep at bay is kind of all the trappings and all that stuff that’s kind of out there. And all of those people that come in with the kind of impression that – I get this a lot now – ‘how’s Hollywood going to respond to the blah blah blah’ or ‘how do you all you people out there…’ and it’s like ‘I’m sorry, I’m from New Jersey, I live in New York, and I don’t represent Hollywood. I represent myself… barely.’ The fact of the matter is that we are responsible for ourselves and there are times when I think that I spend a lot of the time trying to puncture bubbles. I think that in the working environment, if I’m working with actors where I think ‘who do you think you are? What fucking high horse are you on? Everyone involved in the making of this movie is as valuable and important as anything you think you’re doing.’ There is a leadership quality to being the centre of a film or the centre of a play. Everyone is looking to you as an actor, everyone’s looking to a director as the person who’s trying to put that project together. And what you want to try to do is make the environment the most open, the most open that you possibly can so that people can do the best work that they possibly can produce. So that maybe, just maybe in the miracle of filmmaking you hand the director enough evidence to be able to go out and make a beautiful painting. That’s what you hope for. So I find I don’t have much tolerance for attitude, particularly from actors who I think… we are spending our lives trying to show people themselves, so if you live in this bubble in this little world it’s like; the higher the fences are, the higher the buildings are, the more removed you are from exactly what you want to be in touch with everyday. So, is it a struggle? Maybe it’s a struggle for a lot of people. Is it a struggle for me? Sometime in the hurly-burly of all of the stuff that surrounds the work, which is what I really try to focus on more than anything else, sometimes it’s a struggle to just keep yourself on that. So as long as I feel I can keep myself on that, I’m OK.
RLFF – What were you drawn to in the script? Was it the characters – that ambiguity, or the themes that were explored?
Iain Softley – Well I think that it was both of those things, but in particular was that the film kept me guessing, when I read the script, as to how it would turn out. And, rather like Casablanca, the first time I saw Casablanca I thought there seem to be two possible scenarios and they can’t be a satisfactory one, it’s either going to be a or b. In some way there’s a combination and I think that it’s very accurate, and few scripts are accurate, about the ambivalence of life and how we’re not sure and how, perhaps, there are different versions of the truth. How reality is dependent upon the perspective that you see it from. All of those things thematically were a lot of interest to me, but particularly because the character Prot that embodied those different views. It was so wonderful to have a narrative that worked as a film mystery, if you like, at the same time it delivered without selling out any of the scenes that it promised to deliver
Kevin Spacey – I think it’s a film about believing in something and about wonder, and about our capacity to get beyond what seems logical and what can happen, and to open ourselves up. In particular I thought it was fascinating that the very people who you think should have the most open minds in the world – doctors and psychiatrists – are actually the ones who are most closed. And whether or not Prot is from our planet or he’s a man who’s had a traumatic experience, or whether somewhere in between lies that truth, it is to me about a stranger who comes into people’s lives and it affects them. We’ve all had that experience where somebody who’s maybe not meant to be in your life forever but they’re like an angel, they come and have this profound effect on your world and on your life, they make you view something different to the way you viewed it before. And then they’re gone and it’s like ‘what was that?’ I just though it was an extraordinary character and I wanted to believe in it.
RLFF – Finally; can I ask you are you coming back to do any on-stage work in London?
Kevin Spacey – Yeah, I have a couple of films that I’m going to act in and then one I’m going to direct. Then I’m going to get my ass back on stage and I’m considering now what plays I’d like to do, I’m thinking it might be more than one. In two years from now I will be in a place where I can really dedicate myself to doing a lot more theatre.