Kevin Spacey: Kevin confidential

He flirts with danger yet his private life is off-limits – even when it has made the news. Just what is Kevin Spacey trying to hide, asks David Benedict. And what’s really behind his all-out invasion of British theatre?

‘America isn’t ready for the real me.” That’s Jack Vincennes, the high-struttin’, media-savvy cop in the movie LA Confidential, and his line hits you with the zing of authenticity because it is delivered by one of Hollywood’s most inscrutable actors: Kevin Spacey. America may not be ready for him but Britain most certainly is. And we got it last week, at least in part, at the press launch of Spacey’s hotly-anticipated Old Vic theatre season.

Of the two people onstage making the announcement, it was producer David Liddiment who was the nervous one, hands shaking, standing tall, slightly stranded. But in the week in which he catapulted himself onto the news pages with his late-night, One Man And His Dog escapade, Spacey, in a pale open-necked shirt and light grey suit, looked startlingly relaxed. Clocking an auditorium packed with reporters and eyeballing the bank of photographers lined along the specially-built platform perched over the stalls, he silenced the room with his first announcement. “I want to put to rest a rumour that has been spreading about town these past few days that I think is entirely unfair. That is, that David Beckham offered to donate £100,000 to the Old Vic if I would take him off the front pages for a few days.” Big laugh… after which it became abundantly clear that his off-stage life was off-limits.

What emerged instead was an insight into his latest role, Spacey as actor-manager. “He’s not interested in just bringing Hollywood to London,” argues Rob Jones, the British designer who is working on Cloaca, the opening play of Spacey’s surprisingly ambitious season. “He’s very intuitive – and unusually visual. He appreciates good work and that’s what he wants to do. He’s a theatre animal.”

Indeed, contrary to expectations, Spacey is leaving star-gazing to the astronomers. Although he himself will appear in two UK premieres (including Philip Barry’s 1939 comedy The Philadelphia Story in which he will take the role played by Cary Grant in the celebrated movie version), the only major Hollywood player currently gracing the season is Ian McKellen who has spent the last few months rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of fulfilling a lifetime ambition to play Widow Twankey in Aladdin.

The audacity of the season – with its large financial risk of selling over 1,000 seats per night on relatively unfamiliar material – is testament to 44-year-old Spacey’s producing skills, which have never been in doubt. After all, he has spent the last year producing and directing (and starring in) a biopic of Bobby Darin, the Oscar-nominated Mensa-member and friend of Martin Luther King who also found time to record a string of popular hits including a snappily sung “Mack the Knife”, which sat at the top of the US charts for nine weeks in 1959.

Hang on a minute. Spacey sings? Oh yes. And he tap dances too. Just ask anyone who saw him at the 2003 Old Vic fundraising gala, the event which heralded his helming of the Kevin Spacey Company. There he was in pink wig, serious sequins and platform boots hurling himself through “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Harmony”, accompanied by his friend (and Old Vic chairman) Elton John. That gala, with a line-up running from Daniel Bedingfield to Courtney Love via Sting, Lulu and Elvis Costello was completely masterminded by Spacey, a man with an A-list address book for whom the phrase “hands-on” must have been invented. “Try, ‘control freak’,” observed one of the production team.

Ever since then, he’s been balancing the schmooze with the slog, rustling up cash and commitments by cramming London theatre visits – usually in the disguise of suit and baseball cap – between movie work. He has spiced up guest lists and has been popping into the Electric club in Portobello, gracing the Groucho in Soho and dining with Neil Tennant at The Ivy. The one award he will definitely not be winning is Shrinking Violet 2004.

Yet that Hollywood socialite image is blithely rejected by the Old Vic’s chief executive, Sally Greene, the woman who spent £3.5m in 1998 saving the historic theatre from a bid to turn it into a lap-dancing venue. She promptly persuaded Spacey to join director Stephen Daldry and Alex Bernstein (former chair of Granada) on the theatre’s board, a role he has undertaken with unusual vigilance.

“He’s scarily charismatic. And very inquisitive,” she says. “If he couldn’t come to a board meeting, he’d be examining the minutes. If I was trying to get away with something, he’d pick it up immediately. Most actors are only really interested in the relationships on stage: he’s interested in the audience – why aren’t there more of them or why aren’t they young enough?” She places him firmly in the tradition of actor-managers like Gielgud and Olivier.

Timing, as she freely admits, was on her side. When she took over, Spacey was already there repeating his incandescent performance in the Almeida Theatre transfer of Eugene O’Neill’s four-and-a-quarter-hour thriller The Iceman Cometh. It was directed by Howard Davies who, 11 years earlier, had found himself in a fix.

It’s 1987, we’re on Broadway, and Davies’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses – an 18th-century dance of seduction starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan – is so successful that he is hiring a new cast. Glenn Close and Kelly McGillis have already signed but no one wants to step into Rickman’s terrifyingly impressive shoes. Frazzled, Davies continues to audition for the smaller roles.

“One morning this geezer walks in, slightly overweight, a bit wild. He was reading for the junior part of Chevalier Danceny.” Only a few years out of the prestigious Juilliard drama school, the actor had not a single screen credit. His name? Kevin Spacey.

His childhood wasn’t exactly textbook happy. Having moved with his family to California from New Jersey at the age of three, his father (who upon his death was revealed as a closet storywriter and novelist) was constantly uprooting them all. Expelled from military academy for fighting, he was pointed towards drama, a discipline he leapt upon. That energy has never left him and when Davies witnessed it in the audition room, he was blown away. He and Christopher Hampton, who had adapted the original novel, called him back for another audition and decided that Spacey’s youth and power could put a new slant on what had been the Rickman role. “I told the producers and they said, ‘Who is he? He’s not a name, he’s an anonymous nobody.’ I said, “It’s him or nothing’.” They opted for the latter: they closed the show.

Spacey sent Davies an eight-page letter in small, neat handwriting thanking him for his remarkable faith in an actor so early in his career. A bond was formed, so when Davies came to direct The Iceman Cometh he knew exactly who he wanted for the pivotal role of Hickey.

By this stage, Spacey’s career has gone into orbit with The Usual Suspects but the deal was done in under a week. Yet on the first day of rehearsals Spacey confided that he didn’t know what he was doing giving up on a burgeoning screen career for four months and plunging himself into a famously difficult play with a bunch of very strong actors. “I feel very, very exposed,” he told Davies. “I think I’ve made a wrong decision.”

Small wonder. In The Iceman Cometh, inexorable tension mounts for an entire hour of stage time as 16 people talk about how great it’s going to be when Hickey hits the joint. Suddenly, he’s there and they go wild. And when Spacey literally swung in round a pillar, a rush of energy surged through the auditorium and the actor surfed it like a champion.

He made as big an impression off-stage within the 19-strong company. “At the Almeida,” remembers Davies, “everyone was piled into the same dressing room. For Broadway we took as many of the British company as we could.” A similar camaraderie was built during the American rehearsals but, backstage, Davies and Spacey discovered a succession of tiny separate dressing rooms. “I said I was worried that the all-important backstage community commitment would be lost. What a shame we couldn’t get the walls knocked down. The next thing I knew, Kevin made it happen. The management actually knocked the internal walls down. That’s unheard of: instead of retaining his star-status, he really stuck his neck out to preserve the communal health of the production. And, I suspect, he paid for it to be done.”

Which leaves Spacey’s commitment to theatre looking less like opportunism. Nevertheless, his timing wasn’t accidental. His screen career undeniably peaked with luckless Lester, the worm that turned in American Beauty (which won him his second Oscar after nabbing Best Supporting Actor as slouching, two-faced “Verbal” Kint in The Usual Suspects). But have you clocked his post-Oscar choices?

Ignoring K-PAX – so bad that Friends ran a joke about confronting Spacey and demanding money back – and the wretched The Life of David Gale, the prosecution cites the schmaltzfest Pay It Forward. It’s the oh-so-sincere story of a facially disfigured schoolteacher (Spacey) and his heartbreaking relationship with an 11-year-old boy and his single, struggling, white-trash mom… you can sniff the outcome. It’s not Spacey’s fault that the music relentlessly assaults your tear ducts but he did agree to star in a script which sets a horrifying new standard in full-frontal sentimentality.

And then there was The Shipping News. Once again, you can’t blame Spacey for director Lasse Hallström’s inability to find the tone for a film set in far-flung Newfoundland, lurching between Sleepless in Seattle, incest and an icy, existential retread of Swallows and Amazons. But he did take on the leading role, described by E Annie Proulx in her original bestseller as, “A great damp loaf of a body … no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the colour of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.” John Goodman could have done it with a few hours in make-up but Spacey just scarfed a couple of extra meals, borrowed some hair dye and adopted an annoyingly fey voice which made you wish he’d clear his throat. What, precisely, possessed him? Vanity? Maybe it was the line: “I stumbled into adulthood learning to separate my feelings from my life.”

Separation between his inner and outer life is the key to Spacey’s fearsomely policed public persona. His ceaseless dedication to non-disclosure had almost exploded in 1997 when he made Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a Gone With the Wind-on-mescaline story of sex and death amid the Savannah social set. His murderous, three-Fabergé-egg-owning character glided superciliously through the movie, a silky-toned, enigmatic, effortless party person who was also a quasi-closeted gay man.

The collision between his reticence and that role resulted in a now notorious article in Esquire magazine which leaped to the neither confirmed nor denied conclusion that the unmarried Spacey was himself gay. A seriously nettled Spacey retorted that, “It’s not that I want to create some bullshit mystique by maintaining a silence about my personal life, it is just that the less you know about me, the easier it is to convince you that I am a character on screen.” It’s a neat side-step, but if he’s heterosexual, this makes him the only mainstream American screen actor happy for you to assume that he might be gay.

It is no coincidence that the only openly gay actors in Hollywood – Alan Cumming, Rupert Everett and, of course, Ian McKellen – are all British. Despite having a gay bishop, two “out” US Ambassadors and an openly gay man in Congress, the movie business is still stuck in the Sixties, where film historian Vito Russo once declared Hollywood’s view of homosexuality to be “something you did in Europe or in the dark – preferably both.” In the era of Queer as Folk, Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, isn’t it time for a few people to fess up? Can every Hollywood actor really be heterosexual? Will every gay man or woman who comes clean prove utterly uncastable in straight romantic roles if they reveal themselves to be gay?

Spacey once told an interviewer, “There are parts of me in every film that I’ve done. That, to me, is what my job is.” Looking for the man in his movies is, of course, a dangerous game, particularly when all actors are permanently at the mercy of the writer’s words. But Spacey’s new Old Vic persona provides a few clues.

“He’s very warm and approachable… a great sense of humour,” observes David Grindley, the young director chosen to helm Spacey in National Anthems, the third play of the season. “And he has a real understanding about the need to balance the books. He wants to keep the place open but he wants to take risks.”

His personal pulling power won’t do him any harm at all, but not everyone is rushing to be his best friend. Richard E Grant skewered Spacey’s ego in his memoir With Nails. Complaining of his behaviour on set, he wrote, “His ‘when-will-it-be-me’ kvetch receives scant support from me.” Peter Mullan, one of Spacey’s fellow actors in Ordinary Decent Criminal, so hated working with him that he told an interviewer, “I should have stuck one on him. I regret now that I did not.”

No two ways about it, the Old Vic remains a risky venture, particularly without the anticipated star-wattage. Spacey, however, brims with confidence, his dark eyes gleaming out of his slightly rumpled face. There’s a fierce ambition which burns off him, and for the next four years, that ambition is focused on the building. That much was manifest in the months preceding the press launch. His campaign of secrecy about his season was taken to near military lengths. Instead of the chosen plays being referred to by name, all staff were instructed to call them productions one, two, three or four. When vague details of one of the shows appeared in a newspaper a month ago, an internal enquiry was launched, tracking the gaffe down to careless talk at a Hollywood post-Oscar party.

Which makes his handling of the 4.30am phone theft in a London park all the more bizarre. After keeping the lid on everything so tightly, he foolishly throws the season and his image into a particularly harsh spotlight by angrily overstating his case to the police, only to return just hours later with a downgraded version of the incident. Maybe he has something in common with fellow board member Stephen Daldry, whose serious talent is made all the more dazzling by industrial-strength levels of charm. He’s one of the industry’s great flirts and enjoys nothing better than winging it, flying by the seat of his pants. Is risk-taking the key to the Spacey enigma?

Howard Davies, never overly effusive, praises Spacey’s intense, laser-like intelligence and puts the final piece into the puzzle. “He’s fast, dangerous and mercurial – but without the self-indulgence that word invites.”

Danger. Spacey thrives on it. At the press launch, a satisfied grin played across his features. Expected to be explanatory, circumspect or even contrite, the man was buoyant, ebullient even. He was doing it his way and getting away with it. But then, he was in his element – acting. That’s what this man does. All the time. And the Old Vic has provided him both with a passion and a whole new role: Spacey the artistic director. Stood up there on the stage after a week of tabloid exposure, he was flirting with danger. He was alert but utterly and beguilingly at ease. And, let’s face it, for actors, it’s the ability to appear relaxed that sorts out the men from the boys.

April 25, 2004

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd