The Sunday New York Times

March 12, 2000

Spacey and Lemmon: A Couple of Winners Talk Awards and Acting

After Kevin Spacey received a best-actor nomination for his performance in “American Beauty,” he sat down to compare notes with the two-time Oscar winner and eight-time nominee Jack Lemmon (who brought along his dog Chloe). Mr.Spacey, who won an Oscar for his 1995 supporting role in “The Usual Suspects,” has worked several times with Mr. Lemmon, notably in the 1986 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and in the 1992 film “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Here are excerpts from their taped conversation.

JACK LEMMON. O.K. How long before everybody catches on and you’re through?

KEVIN SPACEY. By the law of averages, probably April 3.

LEMMON. April 3?

SPACEY. Yeah, just before tax day.

LEMMON. That’s pretty good.

SPACEY. It’s been a nice run.

LEMMON. Let me ask you a question, seriously, about going to the Oscars. How important is it to you, winning an Oscar, as they say? I hate the word winning.


LEMMON. I think you receive it, really.

SPACEY. You do receive it. I’ll never forget that night and I’ll never forget what it did for me personally, how much confidence it gave me, when I received the Academy Award for “Usual Suspects.” It was really the first year that I had done roles in films that people took notice of. And it did fill me with confidence about, “Wow, maybe I’m on the right track.” And I’m so honored to be included in what has been one of the most incredible years just for sheer originality in films.

What did it do for you? I mean, “Mr. Roberts” was your second or third film—-

LEMMON. —-Yeah, third, I think.

SPACEY. And so you won supporting actor for “Mr. Roberts” and that was . . .

LEMMON. ’54. And then “Save the Tiger” was ’72, I think. So it was a few years difference.

Winning, as they say, for “Mr. Roberts” did bring me more to the attention of the industry in general and the heads of studios and producers, casting people and so forth. And probably bumped my salary for outside films. I had a contract at Columbia, but I could do outside films.

And there’s no question that there is some ego involved; it’s a pat on the fanny from your fellow workers. And I think that that can be healthy and fun as long as you keep the whole thing in perspective.

For instance, who won two years ago, best actor?

SPACEY.. Best actor would have been Jack Nicholson.

LEMMON. That’s right. But usually . . .

SPACEY. I prepared for this test.

LEMMON. Usually, nobody is going to answer it.

SPACEY. Yeah, that’s true. Usually, people can’t even remember who was nominated last year.

LEMMON. Yeah, but every time they write about you or talk about you, someone will mention the fact — he won the Oscar. And that doesn’t hurt.

In your case, I think you have a massive ego — you do. You have a massive ego. But I think it is as healthy as you can get. You are constantly on the alert for your own betterment, but that’s what you’re supposed to be. Who else is going to do it? To a lesser degree, people who work for you. But basically, it’s up to you. SPACEY. I find the more successful you become on the outside, the more challenging it is to try to negotiate some choppy waters. I know you went through a period of really feeling like you weren’t at your best with other people. And I went through a period, just before we did “Long Day’s Journey,” that I refer to as my “attitudinal.” When we did “Long Day’s Journey” together, I was 25, 26. To work next to you every night, watch how you were, watch someone in a position of leadership, that for me was a great lesson. It really shifted my thinking about the responsibilities of responding to what happens to you.

LEMMON. Thank you.

SPACEY. You know when I first met you, my junior high school thespian class took a trip to the Mark Taper Forum on a Saturday morning to see you, Walter Matthau and Maureen Stapleton do “Juno and the Paycock.” And you did a seminar with us that morning. I never forgot that. It’s one of the reasons that, when I did “Iceman Cometh,” and almost every film I’ve done, I insist on student screenings and Q. and A.’s.

When I’m answering those questions and looking out at these faces, I’m seeing myself. I have the memory of how incredible it was to be that young, to have that kind of access and be able to have a dialogue with professionals you completely admired and were slightly intimidated by. It was Dec. 12, 1974: that’s how much that day stayed in my head.

LEMMON. I do the same thing. I always try to speak with students. And I find the questions, usually, are much more intelligent, more telling and more perceptive than many professional interviews.

SPACEY. Sure, that’s absolutely true.

LEMMON. I was starting to say before that a certain part can open all kinds of doors about what acting really can do. That’s what I felt we were doing with O’Neill and what I’ve been lucky enough to do with some films. You get a part that does not just entertain people, but enlightens them and makes them think — where they would not have thought that way had they not seen that performance or read that book or that poem, seen that painting, whatever. If you can make people think like that because of what you have done, that’s a gift. Man, that is a god-given gift that very few ever get even once. And actors can get it, and it’s one of the reasons I love it.

SPACEY. Me too.

LEMMON. Yeah, I know you do. I know you do.

SPACEY. I feel I’ve been so fortunate, because I have a couple of those touchstones — where you know that everything that happened afterward was influenced by that role and suddenly there was a benchmark that you simply couldn’t go below any more. And it’s hard, because not every relationship pushes you toward something you’ve never gone toward before. Jobs become almost like transitions, like bridges to something else. Often people will compliment something that you’ve done that you may not feel so hot about. And you want to be gracious, and you thank them, but inside you feel you failed. You weren’t able to get, somehow, that moment when you first read a script. And I want an audience to have that experience — that moment when you go, “This is so fantastic, this is a story that must be told.”

LEMMON. Yeah, I agree. Listen, let me completely change the subject. Are any of your dogs female?


LEMMON.. How many?

SPACEY. One. I have two male dogs, one female.

Look at this beautiful 5-year-old animal. And is that a ribbon on Chloe’s collar?

LEMMON. Yeah. She went to the groomer yesterday. They always slap a ribbon on her.

SPACEY. So beautiful. I just love having dogs. I love traveling with dogs.

LEMMON.. So do I.

SPACEY. If you’re in hotels — and God knows we are, a lot — it just makes it so great to walk in at the end of the day and get that unconditional love no matter how the day has gone.

LEMMON. Yeah, it’s true.

SPACEY. It’s the best thing in the world.

LEMMON. What other questions have you got?

SPACEY. You started out in comedies. Did you find that you had to fight for a dramatic part?

LEMMON. Yeah. When they did “Days of Wine and Roses” on television, I kept hearing that it was absolutely wonderful. Time went by, and I was having lunch with my agent. He said, “How would you like to do ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ with Lee Remick?” Now, I had not read it and I hadn’t seen it. And he said “Blake Edwards is directing it.” Blake was one of my closest friends.

Now, this was not a Columbia picture, but when he said Blake was directing, and Lee — I had seen some of her work and I admired her. And I knew that the property was terrific. I said yes. He said, “I’ll work on it.” And I went back to my little hole-in-the-wall office and the phone rang and he’d already called Marty Manulis, the producer, who said: “Terrific, that’s our package. Let’s go to the studios.” And I thought: “Now, get me a script, will you? So I know what I’m talking about here when I say I’m going to do this.”

The long and short of it is, weeks went by while they went to every single studio. In those days, there wasn’t financing available for an independent film as there is today. They all turned it down. Everybody said: “What is Blake Edwards, who writes and directs comedies — and Lemmon plays comedies — what are they trying? Come on. Any comedy they want — we’ll make you a deal. But forget this thing. Who cares about two young drunks that don’t ever sober up?” And everybody turned them down.

Then an interesting thing happened. Blake called me — or Marty Manulis, I’ve forgotten — and said: “Jack, it looks hopeless. If something else comes along, go ahead.” And I said, “O.K.” I felt a sense of relief, and I didn’t know why. What it really was, I realized later, was that I was afraid I couldn’t play that part well enough. So to this day, if I am afraid of a part after I’ve read a script, there’s a good shot I’m going to go for it, because it’ll make you do better work. It’s going to stretch you. [Mr. Lemmon was nominated for best actor in the 1962 movie “Days of Wine and Roses.”]

SPACEY. It’s interesting because I’ve had similar experiences. I got known for playing dark and manipulative and mysterious, rather elusive, characters in about four movies. If the movie has a big enough impact, it can wipe out 17 years of playing the opposite kind of role. And I found I had to go on a sort of Marshall Plan at the end of ’95 and in ’96. I said: “If I don’t want to just play these villainous parts, I’m going to have to take steps toward changing perception.” Because it’s human nature that people like you the way they discovered you.


SPACEY. And I figured it might take four or five years. It might never work, but I wanted to get to a place where eventually I could play a role like Lester in “American Beauty,” where a director would see that I could do something I have never done before. I will forever bless Sam Mendes, because he knew from the start that he wanted me to play this role.

LEMMON. It’s a beauty.

SPACEY. And it frightened me as well, because there was a great deal that I had never touched before. And it’s so much fun to be able to go to a place where other people don’t expect you to go or that you’re not even sure you can go.

LEMMON. I was fascinated watching you, because I didn’t know where you were going to go. I had no idea. I said: “How is this going to end up? What’s he going to do?”

SPACEY. That’s such a great thing, when you find something that keeps you interested as an actor. Because a lot of people I know kind of understand how movies are made. But the process for an actor of shooting a movie is so ridiculous. I’m starting a movie now. I’ve been shooting five days; we’ve been in rehearsal for a week and a half; we’re still working on things, just trying to make it right. And we shot the last scene in the film yesterday between myself and Helen Hunt. It’s literally like diving off the high board and you hope that there’s water in the pool.

LEMMON. That’s right, yeah.

SPACEY.. Remember in “Glengarry,” there were a lot of days where Jamie Foley would do a lot of takes? And as an actor you kind of go with it. But when you’re on Take 17 or Take 24 or Take 28, boy, that’s a hard thing to keep getting up.

LEMMON. It is murder. You know what I do? Because you’re shooting out of sequence all the time, as you were just saying, I work like mad on the scene before the scene I’m actually shooting, if we haven’t shot it already.

SPACEY. That’s right. And you hope, then, that there’s a talented editor who will cut out all of the bad stuff. You said once, I think it was when you won the American Film Institute award, you said, “They showed 44 film clips.” I don’t know how many films you’d done at that point — 70-something at least. And you said, “If they showed the other 44, there wouldn’t be anybody still sitting here.”

What tells you that you should do a given role?

LEMMON. What do you think about that, kid?

SPACEY. Well, it’s always different. You know, it’s a funny thing. I trust how I’m feeling at whatever point I’m at. It always amazes me when I hear about people who know what they’re going to do in two years: they’re doing this film and that film and then that thing and then that thing. I would feel like a factory, just churning out product.

LEMMON. Then the excitement of finding a play is gone. How do you know what’s going to be enticing to you two years from now? You don’t.

SPACEY. Because I figure what growth you go through in two years — you may be at a different place. And sometimes I surprise myself with the things that I want to work toward, whether they’re plays or whether they’re films. But I have no idea how I’m going to be feeling in December this year. And I love the idea that something comes to me at a moment when I’m ready for it.

You said a little earlier that if it scares you a little bit, that gives you even more reason, and I very much trust that feeling of being a little afraid, of feeling: “How am I going to achieve this? This is such a gargantuan role, such a big, important piece of work. How do I honor it?” I’ve allowed myself to trust that fear and actually ride that wave.

LEMMON.. Yeah, go with it.

SPACEY. And sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.

LEMMON. It’s still worth it, even when it doesn’t.

SPACEY. Yeah, because often that’s the thing that leads you to the next.

LEMMON. I also feel that when I have finished the script, if I think I know how to play the part, forget it. I’ve been there — either done it or done aspects of the character. And there is no excitement or challenge.

SPACEY. Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand why you say no to things that are well written and interesting and entertaining. I feel this way very much about theater. Often when I read a play, I’ll say to myself: “All right, I understand it and think that I could play this. But is there enough here that I’m not going to mind six weeks of rehearsal?”

If you’re going to end up running out of steam, how do you get up every night, eight or seven or six performances a week, and make sure that you’re there? That you’re alert, you’re alive, you’re on time, you’re ready to do it and it’s going to be a new challenge every night?

LEMMON. Boy, I’ve got a little trick for you, if you don’t know about it. It works for me anyway. Almost every theater has a loudspeaker in the dressing room, and it’s on very softly and you can hear the audience, but mainly you can hear the actors on the stage so you know what point the play’s at. What I do is at about five minutes to curtain time, I get on a chair, I get up to the loudspeaker and I turn it up a little. Now, there’s no actors yet, but there’s audience.

SPACEY. Oh, yes.

LEMMON. And that audience is first night, every night.

SPACEY. That’s right.

LEMMON. They’ve never seen it, for all intents and purposes. And about a minute or two later, I turn it up another notch. And then just before curtain time, I’ve got that thing up as loud as it will get. And I tell you, it’ll goose you up. It’ll really get the adrenaline going.

SPACEY. It’s funny, because when I did my first play on Broadway, I used to go out about 15 minutes before the play started and just lie on the floor of the stage; through the curtain I could hear the audience. And it used to give me that sense of butterflies, that sense of buzz. In film, I used to go to dailies all the time. I went to dailies right up until “Usual Suspects,” because I found going to dailies was a way of learning about myself on film, a way of watching whether what you intended to come across might have come across in that scene.

And then when I did “Usual Suspects,” Bryan Singer, the director, said, “I don’t want you to go to dailies, because you have to play so many different levels that I don’t want you to second-guess it.”

LEMMON. He was smart.

SPACEY. And it was really smart. And then I stopped going. Sometimes I’ll go in the first week just to see whether the look is right, the costumes are right, the attitude. And then I stop going and I find it’s liberating. I don’t feel the self-judgment that I go through. And also I think that it’s slightly dangerous because you fall in love with moments in dailies that they don’t end up using in the film.


SPACEY. And so I found that it’s much easier for me now, and actually kind of fun, because when I go and see a movie, like when I went and saw “American Beauty” for the first time. Sam showed me the movie, and I had no memory of what takes he’d used. So he put it together with an editor, they made this movie work and I kind of sit back and go, “Wow, I’m so amazed that that worked,” because I have no sense of how they put it together.

LEMMON. It’ll be interesting to see if in the future this happens with you, but I used to beat a part to death. I would go over it and over it in my mind, rehearsing myself and working on the script long before we were shooting. I would have dissected, dissected, peeled this layer, peeled that layer, until there were no layers left to peel, trying to get at the essence of the character. And it, hopefully, worked at times. Well, obviously, it worked often enough. But I find now that I work more and more on instinct.

SPACEY. Well, when we did “Long Day’s Journey,” I went out and bought every single book on Eugene O’Neill that you could buy. And I read everything. I wanted to devour everything. And then when I’d started “Iceman,” I thought, well, should I review some of that stuff? And then I thought, maybe this time I’ll just trust the craft. So I didn’t read anything. I just figured that whatever I had retained would percolate down in some way. And I found that to be true. So I think what you’re talking about is finally getting to that place as an actor where you begin to trust your experience. And sometimes you can read too many things. You can overintellectualize it to a point where you take the heart out of it.

Do you remember where you were when you got your first nomination?

LEMMON. I’ve forgotten. I think I was home. At that time, I had a little house on Cantor Avenue, out in Brentwood. And who called me? I think Leland Heyward, who was the producer.

SPACEY. Was it very different then? Because the Academy Awards have become such a cottage industry of hype and talk. The one thing about the Academy Awards that’s slightly unnatural is being suddenly put in a position of competition with your colleagues, which is why I think a lot of us emphasize that it’s not about who goes home with the damn thing.

But there you were. You’re a young actor, you’ve done three movies. Suddenly you find out you’re nominated for a supporting actor award. Has the sense of it changed dramatically?

LEMMON. Yes, to this extent. They were already complaining about overhyping and taking ads or this and that. They had yet to start sending all of the tapes to all of the members and DVD’s and so forth.

SPACEY. The albums, the paid vacations.

LEMMON. The albums, yeah, and scripts. I’ve got the scripts of every damn film that’s been written, practically, at home, as if I’m going to sit and read them all. But anyway, it just got worse, I think.

SPACEY. Someone gave me a list of all the actors who have been nominated in the best-actor category. It is incredibly humbling and fascinating and amazing to look at the number of actors I grew up admiring, loving, adoring, modeling my career after, hoping to be compared to.

When you were then nominated for best actor for “Save the Tiger,” was that a big difference to you?

LEMMON. It was gratifying, yeah. Because the picture was really — I hate to use the cliché, but it was really a labor of love. It was a little movie.

SPACEY. It was a movie you got paid scale for, right?

LEMMON. Yeah, I did it for scale. John Avildsen, who directed it, he did it for scale.

SPACEY. What would that movie have cost today?

LEMMON. Today, oh, lord, $30 million, $40 million.

SPACEY. So then, how much did it cost then?

LEMMON. One million. We went something like $170,000 over. Finally, after we’d been rejected all over the place, because they said, who’s going to care about a middle-aged businessman and his problems? What they forgot was that the kids looked at their old man up there on the screen, thank God.

SPACEY.. The example today is “American Beauty,” a film that was made for $15 million. We got paid very little to do it. But I think actors have a responsibility to get movies done. “China Syndrome” probably would never have gotten made if you hadn’t stuck by that movie for as long as it took them to raise the money. “Save the Tiger” is another great example. Not only did you win the best-actor Oscar, but you probably ended up making more money than if they’d paid you a big amount of money up front, because you had a piece of it.

It’s so fun to be able to do a big studio film, and you get paid very well for that. But at the same time to be able to go and do these independently minded films, these smaller films. I just did a film last year [“The Big Kahuna,” opening next month] with Danny DeVito that we shot in 16 days for a million-eight.

LEMMON. Good heavens.

SPACEY. And it was fantastic fun. It was based on a play. And we shot the whole thing sort of in one room and there’s a feeling, a sensibility, a spirit when it’s a labor of love and everyone is being treated equally, paid equally. This is the experience we had doing “Iceman.” Everyone made the same amount of money doing that play. And I absolutely believe it changes the nature of the way people come to work every day, when they feel their contribution—-

LEMMON. I’m sure of it.

SPACEY. —-is as valued as anyone else’s. And you have been a model for me in many ways, because knowing that history that you had with those films that would never have been done, and you taking those risks at a time in your career when you could have said, “No, I’m going to go do this other thing that’s going to pay me more money.”

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company