Spacey’s Odyssey

He’s had his fill of playing the sociopath, but Kevin Spacey is still acting up. Is he turning the tables on Tinseltown?

When Hollywood needs an arch villain, Kevin Spacey is one of the usual suspects. But being typecast isn’t his cup of tea, so now he’s playing an ordinary family man with a mid-life crisis. Interview by Lesley White. Portraits by Peter Marlow. 

SundayTimes1On a fine November afternoon I am abducted by a Hollywood star, bundled into the back of a silver Mercedes, hurtling down Park Lane to an unknown destination. The man in a dark reefer jacket laughs maniacally and thumps the side of his leather seat in triumph. Kevin Spacey has just escaped the confines of the premier-league interview, thrown off the shackles of deference and, boy, is he pleased. “You don’t mind being kidnapped, do you?” he grins softly, the actor whose repertoire of dark manipulators would make anyone think twice before accepting a lift. Mind? In life he giggles and beams like a big baby, eyes shining, the strange, smiling contours of his face etched into a figure of eight by those long creases and the scar on his right cheek. He is the opposite of sinister, he is funny and oddly enthralling.

The table in the private dining room in the swanky hotel had been arranged to burnished perfection, but the star was unimpressed. Way too fancy for a man mindful of his talent and careless with his status. “Why do they do that thing of, ‘Oh look, he’s coming, get ready everyone’?” He cowers in mock adulation, then sighs. “‘Why all the fuss? I don’t ask for that.”

Perhaps Spacey is not yet used to commanding more servitude and starchy dinners than he can stomach; perhaps it’s just that he still has enough energy to disrupt the expected niceties. Other stars might like Z- the idea of playing downhorne for an hour or two, but could De Niro or Beatty or Cruise skip off unchaperoned into a London afternoon for a bowl of leek soup in a King’s Road cafe? Could they be bothered, would they feel safe cut loose in normality, testing their existence outside the golden cage? Don’t get me wrong: Spacey is not a creature of false modesty. You can flatter his brilliance all night and you will blush before he does.

He admits freely that when casting Albino Alligator, which he directed, he made sure there was no role for him. ., couldn’t afford to be thinking, ‘Come on, I could do this with my eyes closed.'” But he suspects pampered celebrity, sees himself as a thinker, a reader, a worshipper of theatre’s sacred canon. Here is a vocational actor so besotted with the sacramental mysteries of storytelling – you are smiling here, but I assure you he is not – that there can be little space for much else in his life.

At times the high moral tone makes you wonder: the “function of an actor is to serve the writer,” he intones; the actor must ask not what the work does for him, but for his community; the only point of success is to nurture others. Can acting change the world? He has no doubt. “People need stories in order to see themselves. “These beliefs are delivered with such eyeballing intensity that you contain your smirk of disbelief, because in this case, just possibly, the guy really means it.

His love affair with acting, and the absence of a visible partner in the life of an attractive 40-year-old, has resulted in misunderstanding and Esquire magazine’s bet-hedging assertion two years ago that he must be gay. “It was a fiction,” he says. “An irritating one, but just a fiction none the less.’

You can see how easily the assumptions accrue: fastidious and dog-loving, no woman on his arm, takes his mother to the Oscars, gives great camp and bitches for Tinseltown, invests his screen psychopaths with a malign femininity, plays a Southern “faggot” in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, gets kissed passionately by the homophobe next door in his new film American Beauty. There has been Internet speculation about his long-term involvement with a possible wife called Diane Dryer, as well as the is-he-isn’t-he tattle, so I ask him again if he is gay. “The answer to that is no… but why should it matter? Until the media stop using sexuality as a weapon against public figures, they will always lag behind ordinary, regular folk.” He sighs: “I chose for a long time not to answer these questions because of the manner in which they were asked, and because I was never talking to someone I trusted, so why should I? Recently I chose to participate because it’s a little hard on the people I love.”

Here his delivery loses its spellbinding Mamet rhythms, becoming hesitant and unsure. He recently revealed to Playboy magazine that the homosexual tag had helped him with women who were queueing to convert him. My question gets rather a different answer. “I’ve been in a stable relationship for a very long time, but she does not want to be known. We never wanted to be perceived as a couple, or even worse, as some kind of showbiz couple. We made a decision long ago that our lives would be private, but it got to a point where all our friends and family knew… It’s not as if we’ll be inviting Hello! into our home, but at least I will now acknowledge that she exists.” Will they have children? He smiles: “Oh yeah, sure.” Quite how you acknowledge a partner you decline to name is one curious aspect of this revelation. But that, after all, is his affair.

Born 40 years ago in New Jersey, but raised in the splashy shadow of the Hollywood studios, Spacey has always craved privacy. Mostly he does not engage with the press, a position rationalised by his belief that the more we know about actors, the less able we are to believe their creations. “What do we know about Al Pacino or Edward Norton, who does fantastic work and yet you never see him on the cover of a magazine with his shirt off.” Does Spacey not see the contract between personal revelation and success? “I see it, but I never signed it.”

To publicise American Beauty he was, however, prevailed upon by Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks company to undertake a lengthy interstate tour. If most celebrities’ bait would be penthouse suites in luxury hotels, Spacey’s was the promise that in every big town there would be a student screening and seminar, so that after all the “boring bullsh–” of meeting the mayor he could get down to the real stuff, what the kids thought. The kids immediately got his character, Lester Burnham, a burnt-out adman who is roused from his bourgeois coma by an infatuation for his teenage daughter’s sex-kitten friend. “Young people hate their jobs and their lives too, they relate to his problem.”

Narrated from beyond the grave, the film’s journey is that of Lester’s painful self-uncovering. Spacey takes him from sluggish mid-lifer to born-again teenager and finally to a moment of serene and silent resolution, when he does no more than look tenderly at a family snapshot- “He finds that what he’s searching for is not outside, but much, much closer to himself.” How does he convey a man’s life in a glance, or, as the film’s British director Sam Mendes puts it, “carry the whole story in his eyes”? “It’s technique and sometimes it’s… magic. He realises the beauty of the lesson he’s learnt – that what he has is enough. Working with that silence was uplifting for me.”

Mendes’s debut film explores America’s neurotic complacency, peering at an affluent dysfunction where nobody is quite what they first appear to be. This is a world of gleaming gun cupboards and silicone breasts, where real beauty is eventually shown to reside in the artless freedom of a plastic bag blowing randomly in the wind. Pretentious? “We’ve all had those plastic bag moments,” says Spacey, “where we suddenly see beauty in a thing we have been told is not lovely.”

The complexities of the film suited him, a compulsive searcher after truth and depth who meets every director of potential projects “just praying they have read the script on more than a surface level.” The tendency of the hireling to become artistic arbiter is not a new quality, or one attached to recent respect, nor has it always endeared him to less serious artists. His great friend, the director John Swanbeck, whom Spacey met while understudying in Mike Nichols’s 1970s Broadway production of Hurlyburly, recalls the young actor being so confident that people were wary. “As an understudy he carried himself like the leading man… because he knew it was coming. Some people thought he didn’t have any right to be so sure, they have often underestimated him, and he has confounded them at every turn. We were both young and close enough to really call each other on our bullsh- -. That’s what he wants more than anything from those around him, honesty.”

Those close to Spacey are long-serving believers, like the manager who has guided him since 1981 “without a piece of paper between us”; or Swanbeck, who used to run through lines with the unknown understudy. “He was so good, I pushed him to go further and further. As the years went on, he would ask me to come and coach him on films. Id go to dailies and discuss the arc of his character. He is always wanting improvement and excellence.” With Mendes, who carried the all-important imprimatur of theatre direction, the affinity was instant. “He was so pleased not to be playing a Machiavellian manipulator who knows more than anyone else on screen,” laughs Mendes, “so grateful to be funny and vulnerable. How about the controversial scenes of Lester masturbating in the shower and in bed beside his sleeping wife? “Well, you don’t have to coax him out of the trailer – if it’s in the script, he does it.”

It seems unlikely that a big-time actor would find parallels with a suburbanite such as Lester Burnham, until you understand Spacey’s phobia about stagnation. “Lester is exactly where I was in life, in a place I no longer wished to be and not knowing how to move on. Over the past four years I have been trying to change. I was stuck, frustrated…” What he means is that, after 17 years as a theatre actor, fame came via a clutch of film performances – the creepy neighbour in Consenting Adults (1995), the serial slayer in Seven, released the same year, and possibly the evil Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, for which he won a 1996 Best Supporting Oscar – parts that were pushing him into a sociopathic stereotype.

“Those films left a crater so dark and deep that I realised it would take some work to get out. I started taking incremental steps towards films where the moral ground wasn’t black and white…”

The first step was Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film of James Ellroy’s Hollywood thriller LA Confidential, in which Spacey plays the dazzling, showbiz-fixated cop Jack Vincennes, a man who collides fatally with his own conscience. At their meeting at the Formosa Café (which appears in the movie’s famed Lana Turner scene) the actor asked Hanson who he would have cast if the story were set in 1952. “I was expecting William Holden, and he said Dean Martin, so I watched Rio Bravo and Some Came Running and saw what he meant – a guy with the vibrato and the surface and the ring-a-ding, but something underneath deeply unsatisfied, like a volcanic charge that had to break.”

Step two was Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a film he feels overly stressed the probable guilt of his character – a Savannah antiques dealer accused of murdering his gay lover – which Spacey tried to play as an open-ended question. Then came The Negotiator a character type and police thriller genre new to him.

This meticulous plotting and rationalising of his career path, I begin to say… “Oh, it’s not about career,” he counters, blinking slowly. “It’s about going to places I’ve never been before.” But still the psychopath scripts rolled in, so Spacey returned to theatre after five years’ absence to play the salesman Hickey in Eugene ONeill’s The Iceman Cometh, first for London’s Almeida and then on Broadway, where he co-produced. Spacey had known the director Howard Davies since his Broadway beginnings, when Davies and the writer Christopher Hampton chose him to replace Alan Rickman in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but were thwarted by producers opposed to the casting of a no-name. “I didn’t care that he was unknown, his audition was brilliant.” recalls Davies.

In protest his champions closed the show, and a bond of gratitude was forged. So when the Almeida offered him Iceman directed by Davies 17 years later, there was no refusing. “I went: ‘You f–ers!! You know I cannot say no!”‘ Spacey had recently been mesmerised by Ralph Fiennes’s Ivanov for the Almeida at the Old Vic. “I sat in this small theatre with this company of actors who were so good, and I knew it was what I wanted to do.” He was 10 years too young for the role, but Davies cast the other actors accordingly, in the hope that they would evoke more empathy as lovable miscreants than O’Neill’s deadbeat drunks. “Kevin agreed that Hickey had to be redeemable,” says Davies. “Not just some messianic guy who has killed his wife … and redeemable wasn’t something he’d been playing much as the smiling villain in all those films.”

He compares Spacey’s quicksilver stagecraft with the instinctive theatricality of Olivier, but was equally impressed by his joy at belonging. “He immediately became one of the group, there was no demarcation between the actors because of his fame :” Indeed, he sent them all tickets to the London premiere of American Beauty and spent most of the party afterwards ensconced with his Iceman friends, rather than gratifying the dignitaries.

When they tried to take the whole cast to New York he made vigorous personal representations to American Equity. In short, though he never quite says so, movie acting can never come near the camaraderie, consummate attention to language and meaning that the best stage work demands. “In all the time we worked together, including the transfer to New York, there was never one display of ego. Man! It made me realise how much I put up with in movies – and I don’t put up with much.” Then an unusual thing happens. Spacey puts down his glass of Coke, his eyes fill with tears and he jerks back his head. “I miss them all so much. That work will remain my benchmark. I want to make that environment happen in everything I do.” Spacey cuddles close to his emotions, is attuned to evoking them whenever a desire to demonstrate depth takes a hold. Though no pretence is intended, it can sometimes feel as though the two of you are sharing a scene rather than a plate of bread.

In the New York production he operated his Robin Hood principle, charging sky-high for seats, paying actors to scale, and offering front-row subsidised student Y seats; he also created Camp Broadway (if the name is a joke, circumstances dictate that I don’t suggest as much), running workshops and seminars, and reaching 12,500 students in 16 weeks. “Many of them had never been to the theatre… some will come back again.”

For a child of LA, Spacey – who lives in New York – is one of its least loyal subjects. His heroes are not Wyler, Huston and Tarantino, they are Chekhov, Fugard, Molière, O’Casey and O’Neill. Hollywood’s penchant for hierarchy and humiliation, the vile condescension of the players to the slaves, was perfectly exposed in George Huang’s Swimming With Sharks (1994), where Spacey plays the studio executive Buddy Ackerman, who sadistically torments his assistant. “Out there it’s kill your parents, f*** your friends and have a nice day,” sneers the manicured despot. Spacey laughs. “Before I go to work,” he says, “I make it very clear what kind of environment I want on the set. If the integrity is being punctured by individuals, no matter what their position, I call a meeting and tell them that if they persist in bullying the PA or the caterer, I will not be coming back to work.” Does it work? “Oh, you bet.”

On his own 1996 movie Albino Alligator, a directorial debut starring Matt Dillon and Faye Dunaway, his script supervisor took Spacey aside to tell him he was being an “a**hole”, impatiently demanding from the crew difficult shots that take time to prepare. A tense chamber piece about three inept gangsters who take hostages in a New Orleans bar, the film is theatre on celluloid, shot in sequence, rehearsed and acted like a play, its moral endgame always eclipsing the action. It is remarkable chiefly for the thoughtful contribution of Dunaway, an old-style movie diva unused to the low-budget ensemble, and Spacey’s proudest convert.

“At our first meeting she asked me, why her? I told her that nothing thrills me more than seeing an actor on stage [sic] doing something I didn’t think they were capable of. I said to her, ‘Faye, I want to take you to a place you have never been, but that will require your trust, and I don’t suspect you have trusted a director in a long time.'” The mythically impossible star shared hair a and make-up facilities with the mainly male cast, made up in the communal dressing room in under an hour and graciously accepted her director’s congratulations for having done so in record time. “I was told she would cost me hours of time, and she didn’t cost me 10 seconds. She was happy to be part of something rather than isolated in stardom.”

Theatre came early in Kevin Spacey’s life. On a trip to London aged 10 he saw a production of Sherlock Holmes where the revolving scenery crashed down on Dr. Watson’s head; the actor extracted himself, strolled up-stage, lit a cigarette and declared, “I knew I should never have moved to Kensington.” Spacey hoots. “I thought it was incredible, the funniest thing I’d ever seen. That’s what I wanted to do… And – oh, the circles of my life – I told that story in the dressing room at the Almeida, and Tim Pigott-Smith turned round and said, ‘Yes, Dr Watson was me.'”

But as the son of a frequently unemployed technical writer, Spacey was not a settled child; the family moved constantly and the new boy in class struggled to adapt. “Until I found theatre I was lost and unsure of myself.”

Outbursts of aggression and mischief caused his father to send him to Northridge Military Academy, where he was expelled for fighting, later joining Chatsworth High School. Under the tutelage of his drama teacher, who cast him as a lauded Von Trapp opposite his classmate, the future actress Mare Winningham as Maria, Spacey I found his path.

“That teacher, Robert Corelli, came two weeks ago when I received my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which made it a personal day as opposed to some cheesy Hollywood moment – he brought all those pictures of Mare and me in The Sound of Music.” His mother was also in attendance, the woman on his arm at the 1996 Academy Awards whom he thanked for her love, support and lifts to drama classes. “My father didn’t live long enough to see my film success – it wasn’t until he saw Lost in Yonkers on Broadway (for which his son won a Tony award) that he believed I’d make a living.”

For a kid with great gifts and everyman looks, it was never going to be instant stardom. Before Juilliard, the prestigious New York drama school, Spacey sold cable subscriptions door to door in Orange County and was fired from restaurants “for being the kind of waiter who I wouldn’t pick up the hot plates”. He completed only two years of his course at Juilliard, certain that he had I absorbed all he had come to learn. “They had a rule that if you didn’t go to class, you couldn’t go to rehearsal for whatever play you were in. I did just that, and they never kicked me out. They were making one rule for me and one for the other students. An animosity started to develop, and if I hadn’t gone, they would have kicked me out four days later. I wasn’t a very good team player.”

After Juilliard he evaded raging landlords, collected cans to buy dog food and finally worked as assistant to the theatre producer Joe Papp, who soon fired him so that he would start acting. His bitterest struggle in the early years was with his own expectations: “I thought I was right for all roles. If I heard someone else was up for any role, I was instantly furious. Now it’s a liberation not  to be dogged by that sense of ‘F***, why not me?'”

Finally he learnt to choose his fights; and playing Jack Lemmon’s son in the 1986 Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway was worth the effort. “When I began to think about what kind of career – no, what kind of a life – I wanted, I looked at Jack, who is so generous and fond and funny, and thought, that’s it. Other actors are too involved with things not to do with the work. Let the work lead, and everything else will follow. I watched friends become famous and saw how they did nothing to protect their privacy, how their lives were invaded.”

He looks back on the films that delivered him to the p dangerous precipice of fame with cautious affection. “Usual Suspects was his first experience of total trust in a director: Bryan Singer persuaded him not to watch the daily footage, and therefore avoid falling in love with takes that might be scrapped. “That way you can judge the work properly when you see it – now I never go.” And LA Confidential offered the opportunity for a textbook screen death: the registering of ironic surprise on Jack Vincennes’s face when plugged by his boss lingers into an extended moment of oblivion. Spacey is quite straightforward about technique: “After he shoots me, Jimmy Cromwell moves, so my eyes naturally follow. I got them to paint two black dots on the wall so I could focus on them.”

Right now Kevin Spacey is writing the screenplay for a “great and meaningful” story he has stumbled across and sorting through the “rubble” for what he will do next as an actor. Does he still have a beady eye on his own trajectory? “Oh sure, you get bigger and bigger and then you spontaneously combust. I will only do the big studio movies if I can live with myself in the morning. I cannot get out of bed if I don’t have a challenge unlike any other I’ve had. Every single day my life, I have to go, ‘Can I do this?”‘

His friend John Swanbeck has directed The Big Kahuna, produced by and starring Spacey, Danny DeVito and Spacey’s “discovery”, the young actor Peter Facinelli. “The reason I so wanted to do it,” says Swanbeck, “is that it is a story told almost entirely with faces and eyes, and Kevin’s eyes, seen close up on a 40ft screen, show you the whole human emotional landscape at once.” Based on the play Hospitality Suite by Roger Rueff, another of Spacey and Swanbeck’s protégés, Kahuna concerns three industrial-lubricant salesmen at a Wichita conference. The super-fit Spacey shot it immediately after starring in and producing Ordinary Decent Criminal in Ireland. His aim is to maintain a flow of faith-inspired work and stay close to those talents he feels he can develop.

Why is Spacey so different from the other movie meteors, at such pains to shed the alienating stardust? Fleetingly you wonder if his real-guy persona, the penetrating one-on-one gaze and the shaky reticence on private matters, is merely the off-screen exercise of an obsessive actor. But be generous: since he has not grown up with the distorting privileges of fame, the obscene rewards for a surfeit of charisma or good looks, why would he posture and preen? “He is not Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio,” says Sam Mendes. “How rare is it that someone gets there by sheer force of talent?”

Most likely is that Spacey challenges himself to find resonance in every human encounter, because it might just deepen the emotional understanding a great actor strives to master. “He’s looking for genuine connection with people, whoever they are, because that is what he uses in his work,” says Swanbeck. “He knows Hollywood can move people away from pure human connections, and he cannot afford to go that way.” Even more than sex, Spacey hates to talk about wealth, dismissing money as a mere tool for travel, buying books, making films that wouldn’t get made, looking after his mother. “There’s a speech from Long Day’s Journey which I heard Jason Robards deliver beautifully at the Players’ Club. The character is talking about all the money he’s made and then just says, ‘But what did I want to buy?’ I really don’t want to be asking myself that question when I’m 70.”

When our meagre restaurant bill arrives Spacey tries to wrest it from my hand. “You are the star, I buy your lunch… ” I protest. “Bullsh–!” he returns. “Who says who does what? Tell me, who made that rule?” Suddenly his will has prevailed, his cash is in the hand of the amazed waiter, and the look on his face is pure triumphant pleasure.

The Sunday Times Magazine, December 19, 1999. Pages 34-38.