Kevin Spacey’s New Role, Overseas and Behind the Scenes By Mel Gussow

LONDON — Stretching back to Shakespearean times, England has a long tradition of actor managers leading theater companies, with Laurence Olivier being the most notable contemporary example. In an innovative move, an American actor, Kevin Spacey, has assumed the artistic direction of the Old Vic, one of London’s most historic cultural institutions.

For his first season, which will begin in September, he is expressing his loyalty to his theatrical roots while also demonstrating his respect for precedent by enlisting British theatrical royalty — Ian McKellen — to return to the Old Vic for the first time in 40 years.

Mr. Spacey and David Liddiment, his producing partner, elaborated on their plans and on the idea of an American actor heading a British company. As a member of the Old Vic board Mr. Spacey was on the search committee to choose a new director. After considering several other candidates, he volunteered his services, and last year he was named to the position. Because their office is temporarily in a dressing room at the Old Vic, the two met for an interview in the theater’s bar, where Mr. Spacey had a cheese and chutney sandwich and a Coca-Cola, a sign of his Anglo-American appetites.

The season will start with “Cloaca,” by a Dutch writer, Maria Goos, which Mr. Spacey will direct, followed by “Aladdin,” a Christmas pantomime (or panto) starring Mr. McKellen; the London premiere of “National Anthems,” a play by Dennis McIntyre that Mr. Spacey first performed at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven in 1988; and the first London revival of “The Philadelphia Story.”

Mr. Spacey, who is committed to acting in two plays every season at the Old Vic, will star as C. K. Dexter Haven in that production. That was the role played by Cary Grant in the movie version of the Philip Barry play.

As director of the Old Vic, Mr. Spacey said, he is “very cautious about making pronouncements.” He has a five-year contract but placed no time limit on his directorship.

The company is, he said, “somewhere between the West End and subsidy,” supported by private sources and receiving no money from the British Arts Council. The budget for the first season is £2 million (more than $3.5 million). “Our fiduciary responsibility is to fill seats every night,” Mr. Spacey said. And he may move plays to the West End and Broadway.

Mr. Liddiment, whose previous career was in television, said that Mr. Spacey was the company’s “strongest weapon: this will be very much an actors’ company led by an actor.” As Mr. Spacey said, “When I read a play, I read it from an actor’s perspective.” And he can readily draw on his personal contacts to attract other actors to work at his theater.

It is clear that the choice of plays reflects his own tastes, especially with “National Anthems.” In this play, in which a neighbor insinuates himself into the life of a married couple in a Detroit suburb, McIntyre assaulted traditional American values. As the uninvited guest in the Long Wharf production, Mr. Spacey exuded insidious charm, an early version of the kind of role that has become his signature on screen.

At one point the play was considered for Broadway (with another actor replacing Mr. Spacey, then lesser-known), but it never arrived there. With foresight, Mr. Spacey bought the rights, and now, 14 years after McIntyre’s death, he is giving it a major production. At the Old Vic, it will directed by David Grindley, fresh off his success with the West End revival of “Journey’s End.”

Just as McIntyre is unknown to the British, for Mr. Spacey the panto is an unfamiliar entertainment, but he quickly acceded to Mr. McKellen’s desire to do one. (Judi Dench is a possibility to join the cast.) “Cloaca” was Mr. Liddiment’s discovery. “It’s a calculated risk,” he said, “but it’s a crackling play.”

As for “The Philadelphia Story,” Mr. Spacey has had his eye on it for some time but would not name the cast, except for himself, awaiting the choice of the director. Tracy Lord could be played by a star like Gwyneth Paltrow or Laura Linney (Ms. Paltrow’s mother, Blythe Danner, did it in the Lincoln Center revival in 1980) or, Mr. Spacey said, by an unknown. Asked if, when playing the role, he planned to imitate Cary Grant, he answered, in a dead-on rendition of Grant’s voice: “Only if I want to be really cheap. One night maybe, a benefit performance.”

Shakespeare may arrive in the second season and perhaps Chekhov. Continuing his affinity for O’Neill, Mr. Spacey also has his sights on “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” As he said, “The deck is open.” He may even do a musical. In his forthcoming movie, “Beyond the Sea,” about the life of Bobby Darin, he is both the director and the star, singing his own songs. “I’ve had a lot of great experiences in my life,” he said, “but I don’t think anything is going to come close to the 12 days that we spent at Abbey Road Studios with a 48-piece orchestra laying down 30 tracks.”

Although Mr. Spacey, 44, was born in New Jersey (as Kevin Spacey Fowler), grew up in California and is a resident of New York City, he has lived in London for extended periods, spending nine months there when starring in “The Iceman Cometh.” He now has an apartment in the Lambeth section near the Old Vic.

Mr. Spacey first visited the Old Vic with his parents more than 35 years ago, when, under Olivier, it was the first home of the National Theater. From an early age Mr. Spacey was stagestruck, and often dreamed about building a theater. After studying for two years at Juilliard, he made his New York stage debut as a messenger in “Henry IV Part One” for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. When he could not find another acting job, he went to Papp, who hired him to work in the stockroom at the Public Theater.

When Mr. Spacey appeared in a play far off off Broadway, he received his first review, and Papp came to see him perform. “The next day he fired me. He said, `Be an actor,’ and he pushed me out the door.” Four months later Papp was in the opening-night audience of Mr. Spacey’s first Broadway play, “Ghosts,” with Liv Ullmann.

That led to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” with Jack Lemmon on Broadway, “National Anthems” and a movie career in which he won Oscars for “The Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty.” In 1995, he said, he asked himself what he wanted to be doing in the next 10 years: “movies, movies, movies and finding a play to squeeze in” or, as he decided, “the other way around.” While continuing to act in films, he turned his attention to theater, scoring a success in “The Iceman Cometh” in London (at the Almeida Theater and then at the Old Vic) and on Broadway.

In recent years there were reports that the Old Vic might be turned into a theme pub or a lap-dancing club. In 2000 the Old Vic Trust, led by Sally Greene, bought the building for £3.5 million. Mr. Spacey said that while looking for an artistic director he suddenly thought, “Why was I spending all this energy trying to find someone else when I felt in my heart that this was what I meant to do?”

May 25, 2004