PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL The secret life of Kevin Spacey
From The Usual Suspects to American Beauty, Kevin Spacey’s most memorable roles have been as liars, cheats, and bullies. Each of them reflect parts of his character. But he won’t say which and prefers to talk about his work. So is keeping his private life a mystery his best performance yet?
American Everyman by Garth Pearce
You can’t help the feeling that Kevin Spacey, Hollywood’s Mr. Cool, reserves his best acting for when he is not in front of the camera. Spacey, 41, has reached the heady stage of winning two Oscars – best actor for American Beauty and best supporting actor for The Usual Suspects – while hardly letting a chink of light in to his own life. He brought his mother to one Oscar ceremony, once declared that he had been with the same woman for nine years, refused to answer questions on whether he was gay and flatly avoids being drawn in to conversation about personal details.
The fact that he has got away with it is reassuring to every actor who would love to be in the same position. Here is a man who is not particularly good looking, is thin on charm, without an action film or hot romance to his name, established as one of the world’s biggest stars at just the wrong side of 40. We can only guess at his private moods during the long struggle from a walk-on part as a messenger with six lines in Joseph Papp’s production of Henry IV, Part I in New York’s Central Park, exactly 20 years ago. But he seems to have risen without trace; the star who casts no shadow.
He does not see it that way. “I open myself up freely in every movie that I do,” he insists. “So when people say I am closed off, they are not seeing me as I am. There are parts of me that are in every film that I’ve done. That, to me, is what my job is. What am I supposed to do? Tell everyone my deepest and darkest secrets, because people want to know? Go on the Oprah Winfrey Show and cry?”
Hence there has been a lot of talk about who the real Kevin Spacey is, and a lot of gossip about his sexuality in particular. It was an issue he managed to dodge until 1997, when Esquire magazine claimed he was a homosexual. An interview in Playboy followed in which he spelled out that he was not. “Eventually,” he has said, “I decided that if people were going to talk about this subject ad nauseam then I should at least tell them what I’m not. I haven’t told anybody what I am.” In an interview with Vanity Fair, when asked three questions about his sexuality, he refused to answer yes or no.
He delivers yet another immaculate performance in his new film Pay It Forward, playing social studies teacher Eugene Simonet, who enjoys an ordered life. Every shirt, every pencil and every emotion is in its proper place. His life is turned around when he sets his class a project to do something which will improve the world. One of the pupils, Trevor (Haley Joel Osment), takes it very seriously, working out a system of good deeds for three separate people. He asks that they “pay it forward,” with each doing three more land acts and so on. The system multiplies swiftly.
Spacey’s uptight teacher, who has been badly burned as a child by a bullying father and has buried his physical and mental scars deep beneath the surface, is then introduced to Trevor’s mother, a waitress in a strip club. Their ensuing love affair, with him having to be persuaded to have his first sexual relationship – and her having sex for the first time, sober – is at the heart of the film. “I like emotionally fragile characters and this one is no different,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, they are more interesting. I read scripts where it’s the perfect guy or the perfect cop or the perfect lawyer. There may be a few fake problems here and there, but there is nothing really going on. I think, as an actor, they are not good to play. The first thing I want to ask is: “How am I going to do that?” I want an audience to experience what I feel when I read a script. If I am touched by it and think: ‘God – what an incredible story,’ there is a good chance I will do it.”
Spacey’s words are delivered quietly and with little apparent emotion. He is a still man, with brown eyes which fix steadily as he speaks. We meet in a hotel suite in New York, where he has been holding court for a series of American television interviews on the film. The rules are strict to each TV network: talk about the film and not about him. Whether he is punch-drunk from the round of interviews or simply tiring of keeping up his guard, it is hard to say, but he does soften when we talk.
He admires teachers and recalls his own awkward childhood. Spacey, who adopted his mother’s maiden name rather than his own surname of Fowler, often got in to trouble for fighting at school. He was born in New Jersey, but was upset during childhood on moving with his parents nearly 3,000 miles to Los Angeles. “When I was about nine or 10 I went through a time of real rebellion within my family,” he recalls. “I was mad, had no focus and was interested in nothing at all. I started to play with matches, caused trouble and did stupid things that kids should not do. ”
As a result, my parents decided to send me to military school. I stayed there for a year or so and then got thrown out, because I got in to a fight. It was not a fair fight and I did what was right, but they had rules that if you were involved in trouble of any kind you had to go. It was fortuitous. I went back to public (state) school and some teachers turned me on to theatre and acting. That was the key moment in my life.”
He recalls one teacher, in particular, Robert Carrelli. “He taught me around the age of 16,” he says. “He was a person who gave me a sense of confidence, took an interest and gave me hope. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck when I most needed it and led me down a different road. I was like many kids in that if my parents made a suggestion, I would turn against it because it was them making it. But with Mr. Carrelli it was different.
“I think great teaching is an incredible art. It is not easy, they don’t get properly paid and the education system is in disarray. I know it’s very similar in Britain. They do not get enough respect for what they do. But where would we be without them? The trouble is, the good ones are in short supply. A really good teacher emerges and you think: ‘Where have you been through all my other years at school? Anyway, that’s why I wanted to do Pay It Forward.”
He was in make-up for five hours each mornng – often getting out of bed at 3arn – to perfect the bums that his character suffers. “The hardest thing of all was finding the right look,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of movies with prosthetics and I can see that they are totally false. I wanted it to look so real that you could not tell where my face ended and where the make-up began. The first four screen tests we did with the stuff were just terrible. It was a matter of trying and trying and trying again to get things right.”
His words on trying seem to sum up Spacey’s career. His big breakthrough came on stage, playing Jamie Tyrone Jun, with Jack Lemmon, in Jonathan Miller’s production of the Eugene ONeill classic Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It was presented in London and New York. But Hollywood took a long hard look and decided to pass. No film studio could see any future in this rather plain dark-haired man, in his mid-twenties, who they had not a hope of turning in to a sex symbol.
Instead, he was hailed as a star on Broadway – no mean feat in itself – and established a reputation as a theatre actor throughout the late Eighties. He won a Tony Award for his performance as Uncle Louie in Neil Simon’s play Lost in Yonkers, in 1991. But on film, he could not seem to make any sort of breakthrough. There was one excellent example: The Ref in 1994, with the superb Australian actress Judy Davis. It picked up great reviews and his performance was sharp and funny. The public, however, did not seem to get it. Or him.
“It was never my aim to be a film star,” he insists. “That was not the motivation. The fun of a play has never left me, so I am certainly not going to let the fact that I’ve become a well- known actor – some people want to call me a celebrity – change that. I have always been a character actor, not a movie star. So long as I continue to focus on that, then the other stuff that happens won’t hurt me.
“It is all very well to be chilled out now, of course. According to actor Richard E Grant, it was anything but when they worked together 11 years ago in Henry & June. He records in his diary, With Nails that: “Spacey was on a rant because he didn’t get any dose-ups during his scene and has been in heated consultation with his agent and manager.
“He quotes him as saying: “Let’s face it, this is just another gig like any other and it’s the same old f****** routine and bull**** there always is.” Tired and cynical? Sounds like it. Grant confirms, in print: “Kevin is waiting to play leads in movies, having done them in theatre, including Broadway. His when-will-it-be-me kvetch receives scant support from me.”
But the ambition was obviously bursting out at every seam. When Grant is offered a role by director Robert Altman, he says: “I feel poised to give this good news to Kevin, knowing that he will dispatch himself like an Exocet missile in Mr. Altman’s direction within a sec.” Although these passages are not brought up at our meeting, Spacey has apparently referred to Grant, in print, as being “full of s***.”
There is also something of the showman about Spacey which he prefers to cover with plain man’s jargon. When in Los Angeles, he can be seen driving around in a Porsche Boxster. In Ireland, working on Ordinary Decent Criminal, he requested a Range Rover – rare for Dublin, incidentally – in lavender. He could be found regularly enjoying hospitality at The Kitchen, the smart dub owned by Bono of U2. And he has now taken up boxing, as a hobby, to keep in shape. He has even shared a recent Caribbean holiday with his co-star in Pay It Forward, fellow Oscar winner, Helen Hunt, whose marriage to actor Hank Azaria ended last summer.
Spacey insists: “I live a very quiet life. I am not a party man and like simple normality. If people followed me around with a camera, they would be very bored.” But that is Kevin Spacey for you: hard to judge when the acting stops, and real life takes over.
Pay It Forward is released on January 26
Article also included color pictures of Kevin with Bill Clinton, Dianne Dreyer at the Oscars, Mena Suvari in American Beauty, the line-up scene in The Usual Suspects, Samuel L. Jackson in The Negotiator and with Haley Joel Osment in Pay It Forward.
Scotland on Sunday, Spectrum Magazine, January 14, 2001, pages 16-19.