Scotland on Sunday – Spectrum February 17, 2002

Unusual suspect
By Vicky Allan

ScotlandOnSundayFeb2002For the last 20 minutes I haven’t been able to think about anything other than Kevin Spacey’s body language. The way he stands, the way he presents himself, the way he is when he’s not being Lester Burnham, John Doe, Verbal Kint, that “loaf of a man” Quoyle or an alien named Prot.

The 42-year-old actor sits squarely in his chair, head a little bowed, fingers inter-linked, bent forward and closed in on himself. His dress is plain: anonymous, casual shirt, dark trousers. “It’s all so junket-time,” he says coolly as he shakes my hand. His eyes crawl up the ornate, striped wallpaper. They slither over the surface of the table, as if searching for some sort of message scored in the grain. They glance down at his fingers. They travel the room. They flicker briefly across my face. They’re everywhere. But at no point do they ever make contact.

“I can’t help noticing your body language,” I blurt. “It seems very humble. What’s that about?”

There’s an ominous pause. “I don’t know. What would be the alternative?”

“Well, you could have come in all swagger and big eye contact, all Jack Vincennes, but you didn’t. You seem very humble. Is this what Kevin Spacey’s like all the time?”

Another pause. “I don’t put on my interview face, if that’s what you’re asking. I am as much myself on any given day as I can possibly be. I have good days. I have bad days. I have people who piss me off. I have people who make me happy. I am not an image. I am a human being, with as many flaws, foibles, good sides, bad sides, as any other human being, and this idea that somehow I’m a person who shouldn’t be perceived as a human being because I’m an actor…”

It is a curiously defensive response. Far from trying to imply that he was being fake, I was really just asking whether this was the Kevin Spacey you might meet any day, as a stranger. But he has taken it that way, and from now on it feels as if I’m trying to patch up the damage, retrieve the bullet that has been shot through the slight rapport we had built up. The Spacey I now get is a slightly different creature: snappier, pricklier, less shyly amicable, a little on the attack.

“You journalists walk in with this preconceived notion,” he says, “based on either things you’ve read or things you’ve heard. I mean there’s this fantastic impression that I hate doing interviews, that I have a bad relationship with the press. I’ve never made a single statement that in any way, shape or form has suggested that. But because I won’t participate in certain aspects of what I would call a probing interest in the personal lives of people who are in the position I find myself in, therefore I am tortured. I’m not in any way, shape nor form. I enjoy talking about the work that I’m going to do. I often say to my publicist, boy that person had an agenda. Boy, they were given some f***ing directive. The fact of the matter is they would get more out of me if they would just have an open and honest conversation.”

Boy, oh boy. It would hardly be surprising if Spacey was a little paranoid about the press. Over the years a picture has been painted of him as secretive, elusive, difficult, sexually ambiguous and deeply private. Of his personal life, all that is really known is that he lives in New York with his dogs, and has had a mysterious ‘long-term girlfriend’. Famously, an Esquire interview implied he was gay. Equally famously, he denied the fact in Playboy magazine, saying: “It’s not true. It’s a lie… It wasn’t that I cared if they inferred I was gay, because I believe people in this country are more advanced than certain members of the media who try to use their medium as a weapon. But I felt betrayed.” The rumours are all out there, trawl the web and you’ll find them. Spacey takes his mother to the Oscars. Spacey spotted with a man (in grainy, indistinguishable pictures). Actually I’m not interested in the gay question. I doubt anybody’s really interested in it, except to wonder why in these times, film stars might still want to keep their sexual habits in the closet. So I don’t have a directive, or an agenda. Rather, I’m more curious about the drives and ambitions of the man with the blank, nondescript face, this smooth chameleon, who can shift from playing a dull-witted fool (Quoyle in The Shipping News) to a smart-talking alien from planet K-Pax (Prot in K-Pax).

On film and in person, there is that mercurial intangibility. He is all surface. He has a flair for playing people whose invented selves are so slick and complete you never get more than a glimpse of what’s underneath. In The Usual Suspects, he is a faker, a con-man, a fictional self on top of a fictional self. Prot is an alien or perhaps a madman, but you never quite work out which, because it is impossible to get behind his incredible stories. Meanwhile, all we really know about Spacey is his work, his parts. Right now, he’s talking about onions. “I’m always looking for what’s underneath, you know, it’s like an onion. It’s like you just want to keep peeling the onion away.” Spacey is himself a little of an onion. His thick skin, so impenetrable, you sometimes wonder if there is a core to get to, if there is a mushy bit of Quoyle inside. The work is what he likes to talk about – the importance of story-telling, the visits he made to a mental institution as research for the part of Prot, the “work of an actor and by that I mean the life”. Stray onto any personal subject and he is infuriatingly non-specific. However, in a roundabout way, he does answer my initial question, about his ‘humble’ body language. “I was very shy as a child,” he says. “Up until about the time I was 14, I was very much living in my own world and feeling like I was in my own world. I was sort of, you know, terrified and not very sociable. I think it was acting that gave me confidence, made me feel like I had a place in the world. Up until then it had been very hard on some levels because my family moved around a lot. I was always the new kid on the block. I was constantly put in new situations.”

You wonder who Kevin Spacey would be without the theatre, without the acting that saved him from his own self-destructiveness. Born in East Orange, New Jersey, his father was a technical writer for aerospace companies. Kevin was the youngest of three children, “a little terror”, shipped off to military academy after burning down his sister’s treehouse and later expelled for throwing a tyre at a classmate during a boxing match. A guidance counsellor suggested he channel his violent energies into drama. He did one class and was hooked for life: he had found his place in the world, his home. “You know on the one hand all that moving around,” he says, “prepares you for the life of an actor because you’re always with new people, and oh, there’s 16 new people in this town and the new cast of a play. But when you’re young, when you’re nine years old and 10 years old and five years old and suddenly being uprooted and going to a new place, there’s no sense of home in the same way… When some people think of home they think of a place, where they grew up and had all their Thanksgiving dinners and all their Christmas dinners and all their family gatherings and I don’t have that.”

“I have it now,” he adds. “I’ve made my family now. I have my family, but I also have a family of friends and places that I live and have lived in for a long time. I mean I’ve been living in New York since I was about 19 years old, so I have a very great sense of place now.”

New York is part of who he is: Broadway rather than Hollywood, New York and New Jersey, not LA. He is an East Coast man. Though he was away from home on September 11, the events clearly shook his world. “I feel,” he says, “that I’ve tried to do things that are important to me in my life right up to September 11, but after that, I can just say that I don’t want to do anything trivial for the rest of this life.” His eyes are closed in on the table, his voice strained and quiet, as if the words are sticking in his throat, and I wonder if he is self-conscious because he has said it before, or worried that he might be parodying himself. What counts as trivial – acting?

“Not yet. I think actually in the last two-and-a-half months we have witnessed the purest form of expression, people needing to come together to tell stories. People needing to tell them, people needing to share. We have all had a collective experience that has profoundly changed our world and I think that’s just been extraordinary to witness, stories that just break your heart in seconds. To me that’s what theatre is, and as long as there are people who have stories to tell and as long as there are people who are willing to listen there will always be theatre. That’s what theatre was. It was coming round a campfire to tell stories to each other.”

I am a man of integrity, Spacey seems constantly to be reminding me. I have values. I am not just in this for the fame. He cares about the impact of what he does. He took The Iceman Cometh to Broadway only on the condition that 150 tickets were held back every night and sold for students at 20.

When he looks at scripts, he reads them blind, without knowing which character he is being offered, or what money, judging purely on the merit of the story.

His hero is Jack Lemmon, whom he first met at a seminar when he was 13 years old. Thirteen years later he played his son on stage in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “I think if there is any person in my life who has taught me probably more about what to do with fame, it’s Jack Lemmon. I think what I learned from Jack was it doesn’t matter how many accolades you receive. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the top of your profession for 40 years and are respected and admired. What matters is – if you’re lucky enough to be successful at what you want to do, then it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down. He never told me that. Jack was never somebody who took you aside. Every now and then if you did something that he thought was off-base, he sort of, you know, would be kind and gentle and fatherly about it. But really it was by example, it was by being able to view somebody who was at the top of their profession and who never ever changed the way in which they were as a person and what was important to them and how they treated others.”

Everything about Spacey suggests intelligence. In person, his seriousness never slips – even his jokes are sly, ironic quips. “Clever guy,” said one of the PRs before I went in, “and he’s got a sense of humour.” Actually, I see little of the humour. I wonder if I’m not encouraging it, or if, perhaps, he doesn’t flirt with women. You suspect he is not a man for inane chit-chat. He would prefer to be telling you about his research for K-Pax, his visits to mental institutions, the many patients who thought they were from another planet (“quite endearing, some of them had tin foil wrapped around their buttons, then tin foil on their ears, because, um, you know, you get a better reception that way”), or a John Huston documentary about the therapeutic use of hypnotism during the Second World War, or the wisdom of Prot. “You know the most interesting thing about an eye for an eye?” he says, drumming his fingers over the table. “I know this because I just finished a film on the capital punishment issue in Austin, Texas. An eye for an eye was never intended to be about taking someone’s life. An eye for an eye was actually an intention in ancient times to stop the killing of another person, to actually say instead of killing them, take their eye. If that guy takes your hand, take his hand. It was 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, burn ‘em all and let God figure it out!’”

As Prot he runs intellectual rings around his psychiatrist. It’s typical of his roles. “I doubt you’ve ever drawn a stupid breath,” the police captain tells Jack Vincennes in LA Confidential. In Looking for Richard, Al Pacino turns to him and says: “You are a very smart man”. Now all that has changed. In The Shipping News he has found his Forrest Gump, his “stumblebum”, the long-suffering idiot, Quoyle. After he is abandoned by his wife, Quoyle returns with his daughter to his ancestoral home in Newfoundland to live with his aunt (Judi Dench) and work on the local paper. “I wanted to play him, because I suspect there are more Quoyles out there than there are snappy, fast-talking, glib characters.”

“In terms of what I’m trying to do, I did have a great run of playing very dark, very complex, very driven kinds of characters. At a certain point, if I kept doing that, they would be writing: ‘Oh, why is he always doing the same thing?’ So what I am trying to do is to slowly shift myself to new, different territory. I don’t imagine they are going to be able to accuse me of playing a quick-witted character in The Shipping News.”

ScotlandOnSundayFeb172002This shift is clearly the result of a personal drive. Spacey likes to travel somewhere new in each project he takes on. “I hope that didn’t sound like this pretentious thing,” he says. With Quoyle he found a character to break his mould. He lumbers through the film, his shoulders bunched up around his neck, eyes vacant, the once-hollowed cheeks now inert and sagging. This clumsy ‘method’ ugliness convinces yet never quite charms, never quite seduces in the way his slick criminals and con-men have. “Let’s face the facts,” he says. “Some people like you the way they discovered you. They don’t want you to change. They just want you to show up and cut someone’s head off.”

It’s difficult not to want that. Quoyle and Prot might stand more chance of clinching Oscars, but the reason Spacey is something of an icon is because of that trademark sharp, cynical, repressed deviance.

“I think,” he clears his throat, “that sometimes when I’m being open and vulnerable and honest, I sometimes get attacked for those qualities – being suspect as opposed to being honest and being real and being open. But in fact I am being as open as is possible. I mean I feel as if I expose myself every time I stand in front of a camera.”

At the end of our interview, he shakes my hand. “Nice to meet you,” he says dryly. He’s got a press conference to go to. He says I can sit in on it, and I do. Stepping up onto the platform to take his place behind the microphone, it is like someone flicked the ‘on’ switch. This is Spacey’s stage, his theatre. “Good morning everyone,” he announces in a slick, drawl straight out of American Beauty. “I understand you’ve just come from K-Pax. So we feel either we’re the fresh victims or you are.” The crowd laughs. He’s coming on all flashing teeth, swagger, all Jack Vincennes and all big eye-contact with every person in the room.

The Shipping News is released on March 8, K-Pax is released on April 12

Thanks to Karen for the pictures.