The spin on Kevin Spacey

by Jeff Weinstock
Photographs by Jeff Katz

SMOKE98cover“I was so on to that movie. He masterminded the whole thing. Kobayashi was just a name he made up. He made up the story from the bulletin board as he went along. Some of it was true, some wasn’t.” What bulletin board? There was a bulletin board?

We were arguing about The Usual Suspects. She got it; I didn’t. I’m the sort who needed Cliffs Notes for Happy Gilmore. So the most I can tell you about Suspects is as follows: Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze. If there is a Keyser Soze, I should say, it’s Kevin Spacey, who is also Verbal Kint, which I believe is like Soze’s pen name. Who is Keyser Soze? Don’t start on that. Next you’ll want to know who’s on first. Here’s the answer straight from Spacey: It depends on what lens you’re looking through. Not sure I get that either. “Let me tell you a funny story about that movie,” Spacey says. “At the end of the screening for the cast and crew, Gabriel Byrne got up and went over to the director, Bryan Singer, and took him outside, and they got into this huge, heated discussion because Gabriel was absolutely convinced that he was (to play) Keyser Soze. I remember this incredible argument going on, Gabriel was screaming, ‘I thought I was Keyser Soze! I was Keyser Soze!”‘

Which one was Gabriel Byrne, again?

Anyway, Spacey was Soze, the killer, and that’s that, and the rest of that movie sailed over my head like an overthrown Frisbee. Frankly, a more treacherous matter is, who is Kevin Spacey? Soze is a tap-in compared with unraveling Spacey, who is more concerned about clarifying who he is not. He’s not any of the assorted fruitcakes, swindlers, and nut jobs he’s played on screen.. He isn’t that wormy faker Verbal Kint. He isn’t that sadistic tumor Buddy Ackerman. He isn’t the brilliant psycho John Doe, who made Soze look like a hall monitor. And no matter how cravenly Esquire tried to pin it on him, he isn’t the patrician queer Jim Williams. From everything that’s been written about him, so clever is he at simulation, his most convincing turn yet is that he may not even be Kevin Spacey. Right now he’s Johnny Carson, one of the many spot-on impersonations Spacey does. To make ends meet in the beginning of his career, Spacey did stand-up comedy, and his keynote bit was his Johnny Carson. “I just found him hysterically funny and, for some reason, easy to do,” says Spacey. “There was something about his voice and about his particular manner. I don’t know why, but I was able to go into Johnny at any moment.” And instantly he’s Carson. It’s startling, even jarring, to see him vanish into Carson with nary a hiccup or a nose twinkle as a segue. He’s got Johnny nailed – the necktie tug, the clipped chuckle, the lip bite, the head-scratching. Hell, he even glances at Ed.

He does William Hurt, of all people; a portentous, sneering William Hurt that would burst you. “I was the understudy in (the play) Hurly-Burly for the role that I just played on film,” says Spacey, whose movie version of Hurly-Burly comes out this fall. “Bill Hurt terrified me, completely terrified me. He was the best actor around – everything I thought an actor should be. He would walk into a room, and I was freaked out by him. I used to sneak into the theater to rehearse because I was an understudy and they never let you rehearse on the stage. You’d have to sneak in. I was out there one day, and I looked up and Bill Hurt had walked onto the stage. He’d gotten there early. This is literally what he did to me. [Arms folded, he sizes me up.] ‘My, my, my, what have we here? A dedicated actor? What are you doing?”‘

Of course, this is the reason Spacey is a movie star, having fashioned a career out of these feats of camouflage, receding so exactly into character that he has stolen more movies than a video bootlegger.
Playing the role of Jack Vincennes, the twinkle-toed, ice-cold cool celebrity cop who swaggers smack into his own conscience, Spacey lifted L.A. Confidential right out from under the two leads, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. His death scene is a stunner. Shot through the heart by James Cromwell, he passes away right there in the chair, in observable stages, from shock, to recognition, to darkening, to lights-out. You cap register the very instant Spacey’s pupils freeze up, still as a stopped second hand. It’s the greatest movie expiration since Brando bought it in the garden, but without all the clutching and staggering. “There had been some discussion if I would just fall off the chair and end up on the floor,” says Spacey. “I just felt the simpler and quieter, the more terrifying it would be.”

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So persuasive is Spacey, he’s had to ward off suspicion about where he and his roles intersect. It’s a subject that curls his temper. He once shut down an interview with a reporter who hypothesized that Spacey comes too close to the bone to be acting. “I just looked at him and I said, ‘listen, you’ve known me for about two years, but I’ve been working for almost 20. Just because you’ve seen four movies I’ve done and you seem to see some pattern, don’t think there is one. I’m an actor. Don’t confuse actors with the parts they play. That’s where we’ve come in our society, because a lot of actors play themselves.’ “People think I do the movies I do because I’m really evil? People think I do the movies I do because I want to express how great it is to be manipulative? No, I do the movies I do in order to try to say, you see this? This is frightening. This is scary. We should not behave this way.”

If you need any indication that Spacey is not an extension of the characters he plays, it comes at breakfast. He asks for a croissant, and he does it the frilly French way. Cool guys don’t order croissants. They opt for toast. Jack Vincennes never ate a lousy kwoi-sant. With his croissant and his latte, Spacey seems like a guy who smokes a cigar because it matches his socks. But it turns out he’s authentic, having been a cigar hound since he was a teenager, when he and a friend would loot the friend’s father’s stash. “We used to sneak them and go out on this porch and have a view of the Valley and just smoke cigars out there,” says Spacey, born in New Jersey but raised in Los Angeles. “1 don’t smoke cigarettes anymore. I quit smoking a year and a half ago because I knew I would be doing a play, and they say it takes about a year to get your breath back. So I quit a year before last December. But I do enjoy a cigar. There’s nothing to me better than a dinner that leads to a great cigar. A conversation that leads to a great cigar or a great cigar after sex. It’s a terrific thing.”

London, 9:45 a.m. Administering to his bike lock, dressed in a knit cap and over- coat, Spacey could pass for a university student. He’s in town to play the part of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Having decided to advance his movie career, Spacey hasn’t been on stage in four years. He had been searching for the right play. Now that he’s found it, “he is “happier than I could imagine being at this moment.

“I have to say that there are times in your life where you feel there is nowhere you should be other than where you are right now,” he says, “and there is nowhere I would rather be than this experience right now. I’ve been trying to find a way to get to a place like this for the last couple years. It’s not that I don’t have a great experience doing the movies that I’ve been doing, but nothing compares to this, nothing. I feel like I’ve gone back to college. Every single day I wander the streets where I’m living here, reading my play, studying my lines, go to rehearsal every morning, spend most of the day there.

“There’s something to the routine of that. There’s something to the ritual of it, of going every day and trying to find what this writer’s saying, what it means to you, what do you hope an audience will feel, that you just don’t have in the motion picture experience. You work on a scene in a day, or two days. You usually haven’t had that much rehearsal. You shoot it four or five different ways. It goes away in a can. You never see it again. You have no influence over how they put it together, whether it’s going to work. But here you do. Here you get to have an emotional experience, and you do it every day and every night.”

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His sentences arc and dip like sand dunes. They’re great sentences, frankly. He talks a lot about discovery, the way stage work lights passages into himself, the way movie acting is more thought than felt, or felt on cue. Movie acting is more about execution than discovery. Discovery isn’t a collaboration. It isn’t arrived at, but arrives. The theater allows for this sort of instant transport.

“If you have an audience, if you take them with you and if they’re willing to go, then they have that experience, too. That’s why it’s a shared experience. The reason it’s different every night is because they’re breathing different. There’s an exchange between performer and audience that is unlike anything else. You don’t experience it in the movies. It’s something live. There’s nothing like it.”

It’s hard to translate what Kevin Spacey does. Even if he’s become the face of movie terror during the last five years, he’s not identified by it. Meaning, he’s not Christopher Walken or Joe Pesci. There is a detectable, hard-to-finger something, though. He relates how some reviews of L.A. Confidential said that as Vincennes, he had a bemused look. Yes, exactly! Bemused! He’s bemused, has a certain bemusement. No, that’s not quite it. He looks more shifty than bemused. So it’s a shifty bemusement, a sort of cocky detachment, which is close to a shifty bemusement but just a degree stronger. No, here it is: a lurking intelligence. Kevin Spacey has a lurking intelligence, a sneaking omniscience, that forewarns you, keeps you alert. Perhaps even in his efforts to avoid a persona, or a type, because he’s suckered us so successfully in the past, we do have expectations of Kevin Spacey: We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Travolta’s cool, Nicholson’s devilish, De Niro’s streetwise …but Spacey’s ambiguous. Or perhaps it’s just the way he holds his head. It’s as if the only way to say it is that he brings a lot of ambiguity to the ambiguous roles he plays -which is a high-falutin’ way of saying nothing at all. It’s like observing that Jim Carrey brings a lot of abandon to his roles. How could he not?

This might be the only area where one can get away with attempting a parallel between Spacey and his acting jobs, even if it’s accidental. He likewise comes across as vaguely elusive. He is honest but not frank, talky but not engaged, friendly but not welcoming. He’s a little “on.” You might say that of all his impersonations, the best and most practiced is the one he does of the actor Kevin Spacey.

“I have no interest in selling anybody who I am,” he says, “in convincing anyone that I’m something. Here we are, living in a society where everybody thinks they have a right to know everything about another person, where there’s this enormous sort of self-confessional mentality. I’m not even talking about people in the public eye. All you have to do is turn on ‘Jerry Springer’ and see just average people who, for whatever reason, are convinced that they should go on these television programs and be a form of entertainment. That’s all it is. It’s entertainment. So I say I don’t want to be entertainment. I don’t want to. I want to act. Everything else has nothing to do with me, and I’ll keep it there.

“1 knew nothing about Jimmy Stewart. I knew nothing about Henry Fonda. I knew nothing about Spencer Tracy. When I was growing up and watching those actors, I knew nothing about them. Didn’t have to, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t being influenced by their time, by publicity, by magazines. All of this stuff is dust. What we’re doing right now is dust.” Hey, easy – it’s a living.

“It’s hard to step outside what you do and talk about it, because very often you don’t know. What I do is so mysterious, it only becomes tangible when it all gets put together and I go and see it, and I see it very much the same way anyone does. I’m, like, wow, what’s that? How did that work?”

One article said Spacey is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a brown paper bag,” which is an observation wrapped in an overstatement inside a distortion. It’s confusing privacy with secrecy, though he has a right to both. Because of his diligence in cording off a certain portion of his life, we try out guesswork on Spacey worthy of Stonehenge. We read so much meaning into Spacey’s every trait that we end up telling more about ourselves than about him. I noticed that when he was seated, his head seemed much larger than when he stood. Rather than evidence of some dark inclination in his soul, it may just mean I’m terribly near-sighted. He was taller than I expected – something about presence and posture and bearing I noted. Or I am even shorter than I feared.

You can make the case that Spacey partially invites this artificial curiosity about him. He’s cagey in a way that teases you into speculating on something that isn’t worth speculation. The truth is, Spacey will talk about his personal life. He’ll talk about his father, who died a few years ago and left behind volumes of unrevealed novels and short stories (“It’s like if a family member dies, and you discover they had a collection of records you had no idea existed. It’s like, where did all this come from?”); he’ll talk about getting tossed from military school after chucking a tire at a classmate; he’ll talk about his dog. What he won’t talk about is his sex life. For that he is called mysterious. There was a time he would’ve been called tactful.

Esquire clotheslined him, stringing together gossip and Spacey’s role as gay aristocrat Jim Williams in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and concluding opportunely that Spacey was gay – maybe. Terrific, maybe. He may also be vegetarian, aracchnophobic, Shinto, asthmatic. Or he may not be any of those things. None are relevant; none are even interesting. None are enlightening. All that anyone can say with authority about Kevin Spacey is that he can act circles around most anyone with a SAG card. Hiding a big, bad secret? Kevin Spacey confides in us every time he walks on screen.

“If you sit in the balcony,” he goes on about the theater, “you get to decide who to watch, what to watch. There could be a huge argument going on the side of the stage which everyone is supposed to be looking at, but you for some reason could be looking on that side of the stage where there’s a little girl sitting in a corner looking at a doll, and that may say something to you that everybody else in the theater didn’t see. “I saw a play last night. It’s beautiful, a little Irish play that came here for five performances. This young kid in it, just a miraculous performance. I would love to go back and sit in a totally different place in the audience, ’cause I’ll have a different experience, seeing it from a different angle.”

He’s an actor’s actor, for sure. He says things like “the craft.” He refers to “the actor,” alludes to Olivier and Robards. He’s altogether, what, actorly. But he is an audience’s actor. He doesn’t choose roles to aggrandize himself. He doesn’t look for Oscar bait. He says he doesn’t even choose roles. He chooses scripts, the whole proposition. If it’s something he responds to and wants to turn an audience on to, he’ll take it. He looked two years for the right play for his stage return.

“If you choose a play for which is there an endless place which you can explore,” he says, “and you know it because it daunts you, it frightens you, it confounds you, you love it, you’re drawn to it, you have to grapple with it, and you’re working with a company of actors who are interested in that same discovery; not only are you getting out every night and having a chance to work on your game, but you’re also having an emotional and spiritual experience that is both terrifying and enriching. And as you make these discoveries about what something means, ultimately that’s what you’re trying to get to.”
Shortly, he will clamber out of the interview, shed this half-life, the camouflage and obligation, and try to get to the life outside, to the life inside.

SMOKE, Summer 1998
Pages 100 – 108. Eleven color photos. One cover, 3 full page-sized photos.
Groomer: Jane Cohen, Profile L.A./Stylist: Claire Todd, Public, London.