NO MR. VICE GUY

With his everyman looks and air of malign femininity, Kevin Spacey is an unlikely sex symbol. But when Esquire magazine hinted he might be gay, he had women queuing up to try to convert him. Perhaps it’s because there’s something perversely attractive about the sinister characters he has always played. Not that he cares. He tells LESLEY WHITE he’s desperate to ditch the sociopath stereotype anyway.

On a fine November afternoon, I am abducted by a Hollywood star, bundled into the back of a silver Mercedes, hurtling down a busy street 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 formal interview, thrown off the shackles of deference and, boy, is he pleased.

“You don’t mind being kidnapped, do you?” says the grinning 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 kind 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 the idea of playing down-home for an hour or two, but could De Niro or Beatty or Cruise skip off un-chaperoned into the public domain for a bowl of leek soup in a busy café? 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, a chamber piece about three dysfunctional gangsters in which he made his directing debut in 1997, he made sure there was no role for him.

“I 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 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, nonetheless.”

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 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 [sic], as well as the is-he-isn’t-he tattle, so I ask him again if he is gay. “The answer is no…but why should it matter? Until the media stops 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 unhesitant and unsure. He recently revealed to Playboy magazine that the homosexual tag had helped him with women who were queuing to convert him. My question gets a rather 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 little 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 rationalized 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 promote American Beauty he was, however, prevailed upon by Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks company to undertake a lengthy 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 bullshit” 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 ad man 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.” Spacey says. “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,” Spacey says. “He realizes the beauty of the lesson he has learned – that what he has is enough. Working with that silence was uplifting for me.”

Mendes’ debut film explores America’s neurotic complacency, peering at an affluent dysfunctional family 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,” Spacey says, “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 of 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 Nichol’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.”

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 is always wanting 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,” Mendes says laughingly, “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 neighbor in Consenting Adults (1995), the serial slayer in Seven, released the same year, and the evil Keyser Sozé in The Usual Suspects, for which he won a 1996 Best Supporting Actor Oscar – parts that were pushing him into a socio-pathic stereotype.

“Those films left a crater so dark and deep that I realized it would take some work to get out,” Spacey says. “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 played 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 where 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 an an open-ended question. Then came The Negotiator, a character type and police thriller genre new to him.

This meticulous plotting and rationalizing 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 O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, first in London, then Broadway, where he co-produced.

In the New York production, he offered front-row subsidized student seats and ran workshops and seminars, reaching 12,5000 students in 16 weeks. “Many of them had never been to the theatre … some will come back again.”

Theatre came early in Kevin Spacey’s life. On a trip to London, aged 10, he saw a production of Sherlock Holmes in which the revolving scenery crashed down on Dr Watson’s head; the actor extracted himself, strolled upstage, 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 on Iceman Cometh and Tim Pigott-Smith turned around 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 a military academy, where he was expelled for fighting, later enrolling in high school. Under the tutelage of his drama teacher, who cast him as a lauded Von Trapp opposite his classmate, the future actor Mare Winningham as Maria, Spacey found his path.

“That teacher, Robert Corelli, came along when I received my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which made it a personal day as opposed to some cheesy Hollywood moment,” Spacey recalls. “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 ’96 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 he 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 attending the prestigious New York drama school Juilliard, Spacey sold cable subscriptions door to door and was fired from restaurants “for being the kind of waiter who wouldn’t pick up the hot plates”. He completed only two years of his course at Juilliard, certain that he had absorbed all he had come to learn.

After Juilliard, he evaded raging landlords, collected cans to buy dog food and finally worked as an assistant to theatre producer Joe Papp, who soon fired him so he would start acting. Spacey’s most bitter 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, ‘Why not me?”

Finally he learned 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 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.”

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 then you spontaneously combust. I will only do the big studio movies if I can live with myself in the morning. I can not get out of bed if I don’t have a challenge unlike any other I’ve had. Every single day of my life, I have to go, Can I do this?”

Why is Spacey so different from 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 sitorting (??) 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,” Sam Mendes says. “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 connections with people, whoever they are because that is what he uses in his work,” Swanbeck says. “He knows Hollywood can move people away from pure human connections and he can not afford to go that way.”

Even more than sex, Spacey hates to talk about wealth, dismissing money as a mere tool for traveling, 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 Player’s Club. The character is talking about all the money he has made and then 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 meager restaurant bill arrives, Spacey tries to wrest it from my hand. “You are the star, I buy your lunch,” I protest. “Bullshit,” 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.

Sydney Sunday Telegraph Magazine on January 30, 2000.

Thanks for typing this up way back when, Mel.