Look, dad, top of the world
Kevin Spacey was not an instant star, nor an obvious star, especially in his more sinister roles. He talks about acting, his contempt for his fellow actors less intensely committed than he is, and his troublesome relationship with his father – as William Leith teases out the private man from behind the enigmatic public face
Saturday February 16, 2002
When I ask Kevin Spacey, the master of dark, shifty, mysterious roles, to tell me about his life, he flutters his eyes and gives me a look. And what a look! Spacey has a presence which fills the room; tiny movements of his eyes or mouth can give you the willies. As his dark eyes slide sideways in their sockets, he says, “I wouldn’t even attempt it. There’s nothing worse than sitting around poncing on about your life. I’m living my life today, and I’m trying not to spend too much time looking backward on it and being sort of, ‘Well I did this and I did that.’ ”
He says the words “this” and “that” with such powerful disdain that he might be firing bullets. He is polite and friendly, but you sense a reservoir of waspishness which might, at any time, come into play. He says, “I truly don’t know where I’m going. I know that it’s quite important to me not to look back on my life… It’s quite important for me to be experiencing my life and having a fantastic time while it’s happening, and to be doing things that make me incredibly happy.” Presently, this tough, carefully constructed outer shell will crack open, and Spacey will look backwards; he’ll tell me about his unsettled childhood, his battle to overcome a crippling shyness and his intense, conflicted relationship with his father. Boy, will he tell me about his father. But for now I ask what makes him happy, “What makes any human being happy?” he says. “Thousands of things make me happy. Thousands of things. Watching my dogs playing on the grass makes me happy.”
Kevin Spacey has two dogs, a Labrador and a Jack Russell he rescued from Battersea Dogs’ Home, and which he named Mini, “after the Mini Cooper”. Other than that, his private life is a mystery. In 1997, the American magazine Esquire published an article which implied that he was gay. He later denied this, calling the article “dishonest and malicious”. Since then, he has said that he actively seeks to promote himself as a man of mystery because this allows him to do his job better – in other words, if we knew what he was really like, he might have more trouble persuading us that he was a murderer or an alien. When asked if it mattered for an actor to be labelled gay, he replied, “It would sure be great if it didn’t matter, but it does.” He also said, “I’m always going to have to deal with this subject. When I sit down with a journalist, he’s watching every move I make. They watch where my eyes go.”
This is true. I can’t help looking closely at Spacey’s eyes, and his mouth, and his hands, just as I have not failed to notice the camp touches he often gives his characters – the fluttering eyelashes, the snootily tilted head, the catty remarks delivered out of the side of the mouth. Spacey’s characters, mostly highly intelligent weirdos and losers, all come from left field, and he renders these people, these creeps and oddities, with more sensitivity and feeling than any actor I can think of. Could anybody else raise a glimmer of sympathy after cutting off Gwyneth Paltrow’s head and putting it in a box? There are other ways in which having a mysterious public image works in Spacey’s favour. Women have told me that they find his sexual ambiguity attractive, in a way they might not if they believed him to be either definitely gay or definitely straight.
Spacey has two films coming out shortly: K-PAX, in which he plays a shuffling, tramp-like man who might or might not be an alien; and The Shipping News, in which he plays a shuffling, tramp-like man who might or might not be a fool. In his acting repertoire, the losers currently appear to be gaining precedence over the creeps.
Spacey’s roundish, creased, ultra-expressive face is the face you remember from his films, but the body seems different. He strides into the room, shoulders back. He is tall – or 5ft 11in, anyway – and sturdy. He has bulk. It is almost a surprise to see that he is not limping, like Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, for which role he won an Oscar in 1995, or walking as if in leg-irons, like the maniac John Doe in Seven. Spacey fixes me with his gaze. His voice, which is that of a teacher, or a father telling you what’s what, rings authoritatively across the room. Noticing that I have a spare tape recorder in case one breaks down, he says, “It’s a pity that there aren’t two of me, in case I break down.”
What Spacey shares with almost every character he has played is a certain quality of obsession. He plays driven men; he is a driven man. Acting is his life. On set, he is the one who will stay behind afterwards, talking things over with the director. He is markedly happy talking about how he becomes other people, and markedly shifty when he talks about himself. He says, of acting, “The process of breaking it down can be cerebral. Because we’re like detectives. I’m like a detective. I have to figure out. I read the script and go, f***ing hell, this writer, how do you get to a place like that, what does that mean, and then it’s like you’re taking the pieces of a clock apart.”
During filming, Spacey is the one who gees the other actors up; he gets into their heads, guides their moods. “The environment of a set is so important to me,” he says. “I find that humour is the best way to break down barriers and reduce tension.” He is prefectorial. “When you’re the actor in the central role,” he says, “there is a leadership aspect to it, in which everyone is looking to you. Or the director. I don’t necessarily like it. Sometimes it’s fine. But it’s a responsibility. You are the centre of something.”
When you make a film, he says, you should ask yourself, “How has your behaviour every single day contributed to the whole?” Now he sounds more like the head boy. Talking about actors who are less committed than he is, he says, “They are deeply impatient, unruly, and unfocused. They are really focused on the wrong things, and I don’t have much pity for them, or tolerance for them.” It’s chilling the way he spits out the word, “pity”; he sounds like John Doe explaining why he had to cut off the nose of a vain girl.
“Actors,” says Spacey, “are always saying, ‘I wanna do movies, I wanna do movies, I wanna do movies’, and I go, ‘Why?’, and when I start to hear the answers being so nonspecific, and so not about the work, I know that they’re focused on what’s outside of movies, which is: you become famous, and you make a lot of money, and people know who you are.”
The more he thinks about this, the more intense he becomes. “There are some people, who go through their life, and everything they do is a stepping-stone to something else. Theatre is a stepping-stone to film. Not a viable, incredibly important, beautiful, tender thing that you should cherish.” He takes a breath. “If you have one eye on what you’re doing, and one eye on where it’s going to get you, you’re f***ed. Because it means you are not dedicating yourself to that . And that is what you should do. This is what you should love. This is what you should focus on. This. This. Only this.”
Kevin Spacey’s face is both nondescript and unforgettable. In films, it often seems to emanate a malign, scary energy. He is hungry for face-time, for the close-up. Perhaps he is addicted to it. “I actually feel liberated by it,” he tells me. “What I am trying to do when I step in front of the camera is have as much life going on inside of me as I possibly can. To have it constantly going, constantly.” In his memoir, With Nails, Richard E Grant recalled Spacey, his co-star in Henry And June, as “on a rant because he didn’t get any close-ups during his scene and has been in heated consultation with his agent and his manager”.
So why has Spacey now decided to play a string of losers? He made his name playing characters who were verbose and manipulative – Kevin Kline’s nasty neighbour in Consenting Adults; the mean, snippy executive in Glengarry Glen Ross; John Doe, Verbal Kint. But now he is going through what the New Yorker has referred to as his “whipped-dog mode” – a classic staging post for the Hollywood male. (Think of autistic Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, dribbling Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, stroke-damaged Robert de Niro in Flawless, or any of several recent Robin Williams films.) He played a saintly, disfigured teacher in last year’s Pay It Forward, and now Spacey has come up with two more wounded souls.
In K-PAX, his wounded soul spends time in a mental institution, having been arrested. He starts to say things about a planet, K-PAX, which astronomers take seriously. Maybe he’s not mad, maybe he is an alien! It’s a chance for Spacey to show how much he can do while trapped in a cage, an exercise in pure acting.
For Spacey, K-PAX was an intellectual trip and another opportunity to be mysterious. “I never want to let an audience know what I’m thinking, or the way in which I’m approaching something,” he says. “Because then you really let the cat out of the bag. And it’s so much more enjoyable and amusing for an audience to be sitting there trying to figure it out.”
In The Shipping News, Spacey plays a saddo called Quoyle who, as he puts it, “has no sense of himself. He’s just been squashed down, abused emotionally, possibly battered by his father.” A blue-collar loner, Quoyle falls in love with a woman, played by Cate Blanchett, who breaks his heart, and gets so badly abused that he ends up going to Newfoundland to dither around in the snow and ice. You want to hug him. The trouble is, nobody else does. “Quoyle takes a very small journey,” says Spacey. There is little character development. Still, what development there is swells the heart with art-house emotion. Spacey says that the directions given to him by the film’s Swedish director, Lasse Hallstrom, were, “Less, less.”
What did he do to inhabit this character? “I kind of thought about what it felt like when I was younger, when I was painfully shy. I thought about the feeling of… not feeling you belonged, that I didn’t have anything to offer.” When I ask him if he still feels like this, he says, “I feel those emotions constantly.” Really? This is interesting. He quickly adds, “Because I’m a human being.”
The way Spacey tells it, his life before he discovered acting was dismal. Born in New Jersey in 1959, he was moved to California at the age of three, and never stopped moving. His father, he says, was a “job-shopper” who wrote brochures for a living, and was often out of work. Kevin, who was born Kevin Fowler, was dragged from home to home, school to school. “I remember this moment,” he tells me, “when I was so angry with my father because we were moving the next day. We were moving to a new place, and it was far away. And I had these two best friends, and I was saying goodbye to them, and I knew I probably wouldn’t see them for quite a while. It was before I was 10. And I remember… I was so upset. And I remember just… fucking feeling tormented about it…”
Spacey pauses. He is full of held-in emotion. He says, “I remember being angry at my father that he couldn’t hang on to a job, that we constantly had to fucking move. He went from job to job to job. He had a tough string of unemployment for quite a while. I don’t think I could have done any better in his shoes, and that took me a while to figure out, but… I just have this really strong memory of this night when I was so mad, and I was feeling yet again I was going to have to go and find a whole new set of friends.”
There were times, he tells me, when he felt “angry and lost”. Describing himself as a boy, he says he was “really closed down, really shy. I think I felt shy because I didn’t have anything to offer. So I just kept my mouth shut. It took a lot for people to prod me out of that particular place. It’s not that I was depressed or moody, although I do think that’s how it appeared to people. I remember there was a group of friends who used to call me “Moody” when I was very young – about 10 or 11. But that wasn’t what it was. It’s just that I was staying in my place and waiting to feel like it was okay to reach out.”
Home life was strict and old-fashioned. His father would not allow a TV in the house. (He uses the phrase “my father” a lot. In contrast he says very little about his mother.) “My father,” he says, “didn’t like television. He didn’t want us to be influenced by television. [Spacey has a brother and a sister, both of them older.] My father believed in reading, and on Sunday we would read to each other. My father had this incredible collection of books. Of the classic novels. So we would read The Fountainhead, and Hemingway, and Faulkner. All of that my father introduced us to very early on. We got penmanship lessons. There was a real sense of wanting to take his kids and give them what he never had.”
Spacey tells me that although his father wrote manuals, he had higher aspirations. “If you built the F-16,” he says, “my father would have written the manual to tell you how to do that. So it was very boring, technical gobbledegook that he hated doing. My father was a writer. What he wanted most was to be a creative writer. And what I discovered after he died, in fact…” Spacey pauses, “was that he was.” A few years ago, after his father died in 1992, Spacey found some manuscripts in a drawer. “There was one thing that he’d written for almost 20 years that he nearly completed. A novel. Sort of like the Great American Novel. He’d never shown us. It was like reading someone’s diary after they’ve died.”
What was the book about? Spacey shakes his head. For a moment, he seems slightly choked. He writes himself, he tells me, but he won’t give specifics. “I write all the time,” he says. “I write all the time. Because I think I have to. I have to find out whether I can do it or not. It has to do with my father. More than anything else, it has to do with him.”
Spacey started calling himself Kevin Spacey, rather than Kevin Fowler, at high school. This seems odd, to say the least. He says he took the name from his grandfather, his mother’s father: “He was the sheriff of a town. One of those raconteur types.” When the teenage Spacey set fire to the garden shed, his father sent him to military academy to shape up. He didn’t; he was expelled soon afterwards for hurling a tyre at another boy’s head. And then, back at regular high school in Los Angeles, he took the chance to be in a play, and his life, as he sees it, changed totally.
“It wasn’t until I found theatre,” he says, “that I found a place where I suddenly felt, ‘Wow! I can be myself here.’ It was a different kind of environment; it was a different kind of feeling. At the time, my father had been trying to teach us all this stuff, and on a certain level it was like, ‘Yeah yeah yeah.’ And then, doing theatre, I started hearing about those same authors. I started being introduced to playwrights. Think about this. At the age of 14 or 15 years old, having moved around your whole life, everything was sort of like, suddenly discovering Tennessee Williams, or Eugene O’Neill, or William Shakespeare. Suddenly finding somebody who wrote about family, who wrote about things that I felt I understood. That was quite a startling and exciting moment. And then to be able to say to my dad, ‘I read this incredible play.’ And my dad knew all these playwrights.”
So acting solved Spacey’s problems. It was a way to be somebody else, a way to combat shyness, a way to communicate with his father. But it wasn’t an easy ride. He went to Juilliard in New York, but dropped out; he became a stand-up comedian, and gave it up. “Comedy,” he says, is “an incredibly dangerous, terrifying and potentially embarrassing experience. Standing up there and doing what you thought was your best material and… nothing.” Dying on stage, he says, can be a positive, character-building experience. “What you learn about how to survive in that particular jungle is unbelievable. Then there’s the other side of it, which is when it’s clicking, when it’s working, when you have a room full of a hundred people, laughing, and they’re laughing genuinely, and they’re having a great time. I understand why comedians like Steve Martin and Billy Crystal eventually got to a place where they couldn’t continue doing that any more. Steve Martin killed for years. But at a certain point… it was no longer satisfying for him.” Spacey is a gifted mimic – people say they fall about when he impersonates other actors – but this is something he prefers to do for a crowd, up on stage. And he won’t tell me any jokes – the jokes he knows, he says, are too filthy for a family newspaper.
Spacey became a cult favourite on the New York stage. He did Shakespeare in the Park, he was Jamie Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He won a Tony award for his performance as Louie in Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers. By now he was in his early 30s, and hardly a household name. “My father used to have all these conversations with me about being an actor,” he says, “and how difficult that was going to be. And he was most worried that I was going to go through a life that was similar to his, of being unemployed. For a long time he wasn’t sure that it was going to work out for me. What drove me was a determination to not have the frustration in life that my father experienced, and also to make him quite proud, to make him relax, and to make him realise that it was okay, that everything was going to be fine.”
Naturally, he wants to direct. “Ultimately,” he says, “it’s better to be the storyteller rather than just an element in the story.” (He has already directed one film, the low-budget Albino Alligator). When you act, he says, “you’re like a colour, and you bring that colour to the director. But it’s the director who’s going to make the painting. As an actor, you have very little say in the editing process”.
Still, he’s having a big say in the editing process of his own life story. At 42, he remains enigmatic. Is he really this simple soul who rolls around on the grass with his dogs? Possibly. In his professional life, he is experimenting with vulnerability; in person, he is doing the opposite. Pretty much the last thing he says to me is that he wants to be mysterious because, “it becomes harder and harder in the world that we live in to be able to slip into a character”. Spacey asks me, “What happens to you when you go to the cinema?” I am engrossed, I say. I am transported. “Then we have a different philosophy,” he says. “Very few movies take me away. Because I know too much.”
The Shipping News is released on March 1; K-PAX is released on April 12.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002