Spacey: the face in the crowd

He’s a double Oscar-winner and one of the best-connected people in Britain. And though he hit the headlines last week, he can still dine unrecognised in the West End.
David Smith on the enigmatic Kevin Spacey

Sunday April 25, 2004

In the grand ballroom of the London Hilton, Joan Plowright and Nicholas Hytner, Joan Collins and Jamie Theakston, were among those being served dessert.

Then the band struck up and a velvet voice filled the room. People who turned to look at the suave crooner gliding between the tables singing the Gershwin classic ‘I’ve Got a Crush On You’ did a double take when they recognised Kevin Spacey, Hollywood star.

The unexpected guest serenaded his close friend Judi Dench, then presented her with a special award, noting: ‘Without question, she is the one we have all had a crush on for a very long time.’ It was a showstopping performance that electrified the Laurence Olivier Awards. But guests who tried to congratulate the debonair Spacey were disappointed. Minutes later he was gone.

‘It’s a good job the Oliviers weren’t televised this year,’ said one theatre industry leader. ‘If they were, there’s no way Kevin Spacey would have agreed to appear.’ The paradox was pure Spacey. One minute the effortlessly urbane performer, the audience eating from his hand. The next, shy and self-effacing, shrinking from the limelight into the shadows, as unknowable as his character in The Usual Suspects.

Two months on and again Spacey is the centre of attention, fulfilling a dream at the Old Vic in Waterloo as he launches a theatre company in which he will act and direct. Lined up in the stalls is his most exacting audience yet: arts journalists keen to know how the venture will be funded; showbusiness reporters wanting to know why days earlier he was walking his dog at 4.30am in a nearby park, and why he told police he was mugged only to claim later that he had merely tripped over his Jack Russell while trying to chase a young man who had conned him out of his mobile phone.

‘I would like to put to rest a rumour that has been spreading about town in these past few days that I think is entirely unfair,’ the 44-year-old says smoothly from the stage. ‘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. In fact, I’m going to text David myself if someone will let me borrow their mobile phone. I seem to have misplaced mine.’

During the press conference, guarded by unusually heavy security, two reporters are unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie, but Spacey coolly swats their questions aside. It is a virtuoso display by the American Beauty star, worthy of another Oscar or his friend Bill Clinton. As ever, this is not about the man, it is about the work. He will direct Cloaca by the unknown Dutch writer Maria Goos. He will cast Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey in Aladdin. He will act in National Anthems by Dennis McIntyre. And he will play CK Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story, possibly opposite one of Hollywood’s leading ladies. He is in charge of what was arguably Britain’s most glorious theatre, on a mission to restore the glory days.

The gauntlet has been thrown down, less than a Tube stop away, on the South Bank. The National Theatre is the playhouse of the moment, producing a conveyor belt of hits and capturing new audiences with its Travelex-sponsored £10 seasons. Nicholas Hytner, its artistic director, has an advantage Spacey does not. An intensely private gay man, Hytner is allowed to let his work do the talking. The new artistic director of the Old Vic, however, is in perpetual danger of becoming the story.

A number of sources have made allegations about Spacey’s late-night behaviour to The Observer which, if reprinted, would doubtless result in a swift libel suit from his Beverly Hills attorney, Doug Stone. One close to the Old Vic warned: ‘After the incident last week, he’s now perfect tabloid fodder. One of the redtops will probably tail him and wait for him to slip up. There is concern he does not understand the British press and how vicious it can be. It’s a ticking timebomb.’

But many have tried and failed to crack the enigma of Kevin Spacey, born Kevin Fowler in New Jersey. Longstanding friends and colleagues swear ignorance of his sexuality and insist romantic matters simply never crop up in conversation. Magazines have played a guessing game. Newspapers have sought to present him as a social gadfly, the Jay Gatsby of a metropolitan nexus floating between Richard Branson, Elton John, Peter Mandelson and many more. Yet while his party-going polish is never in question, this is also the double Oscar winner who revels in not being recognised, has a Scottish brother-in-law who used to play for Kilwinning Rangers Football Club, and submitted himself for an interview at Battersea Dogs Home so he could acquire a black mongrel puppy.

Such is the Spacey mythology, half of everything written about him is probably untrue. One report last week claimed Neil Tennant, a member of the Pet Shop Boys and so-called ‘gay mafia’, dined with him regularly at The Ivy. In fact the pair have never spoken. The same article described Sarah St George, the daughter of multi-millionaire industrialist Edward St George, as an art historian and ‘almost like Kevin’s sister’. Speaking from her father’s home in the Bahamas yesterday, St George said: ‘I’m not an art historian and I haven’t heard from Kevin for 25 years.’

She recalled: ‘I knew him for about three months when he stayed with me in New York. He was incredibly fun and a nice friend. He had a dog he doted on and I used to look after it a bit. It was a rather handsome mutt and quite big.

‘Kevin was always determined to become an actor. Every day he was going to auditions all the time, but it took him a long time to get going. He was a bit despondent. He wasn’t earning very much money and it was hard to make a living. He always had friends he stayed with. It was a close-knit community and everybody looked after everybody else.

‘He eventually set off from New York for the west coast. I never thought he would become such a famous actor and be as good as he is now. He was very low-key and modest. I didn’t know anything about his private life. He was a professional and a bit of a loner when I knew him.’

Another friend remembered once seeing Spacey on the streets of New York with his dog, unable to buy the dog a hamburger because ‘he didn’t have two cents to rub together’. But he worked his way up the ranks of American theatre and was first brought to Britain by the impresario Duncan Weldon in 1986 to play a supporting role to his idol and future mentor, Jack Lemmon, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Weldon said: ‘In Long Day’s Journey he was a totally unknown actor. I do recall he had a dog in France and it couldn’t come here because of quarantine. He was so devoted he used to go across to France every weekend, solely because of his dog.’

Weldon, who will co-produce The Philadelphia Story for the Old Vic, believes Spacey can make a success of the place. ‘He was always charismatic and interesting. He has good ideas and he has terrible ideas, like anyone at the top of their profession. He likes to take a lot on. Of all the American actors to possibly take on the Old Vic, he’s the one to do it. He was brought up in the theatre and has the right ingredients.’

He added: ‘He’s taken to London life and is an adaptable fellow. We go to dinner or shows, usually for a secondary reason because we’ve got something to talk about. It’s social and business at the same time.

‘I never discuss his private life with him. I suppose I’m part of it. I’m not a part of his sexual private life. I don’t know much about him on that front and I’ve never known him have a partner. I have seen him out with women, but I wouldn’t like to tell you he was out socially. He’s gone out with women like Judi Dench and Helen Hunt. I’ve never seen him out socially with a man. It never comes up in conversation. I wouldn’t want to make a bet on his sexuality. It’s his business.’

Spacey reputedly lives in a £1 million, three-bedroomed apartment on the top floor of a converted block on the South Bank. His haunts include the La Barca Italian restaurant in Waterloo, the Pizza Express jazz club and, for his birthday last year, The Quad restaurant and Century private members club in Soho.

John Schwab, an actor in the Reduced Shakespeare Company, recalled: ‘He came to see us and took the company out to dinner at Quad. He bought champagne for everyone and I think he stood the entire bill. He asked one of the waitresses there if she’d mind if they move upstairs. She asked him: “What do you guys do?” He was amused by that. I’m sure he enjoyed the anonymity.’

Spacey is also believed to have savoured the absence of prying cameras when, on occasion, he has visited his ‘secret’ family in Scotland. In 1972 his elder sister Julie Ann married Ian Keir, a former amateur footballer from Saltcoats in Ayrshire. The couple now reside in California, but Keir’s mother, Margaret, still lives in a council house in Ardrossan.

The Old Vic, where the walls are lined with monochrome images of Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in their pomp, has gone dark often in recent years and regards Spacey as its great hope. He said in an interview yesterday: ‘The building itself seemed to be speaking to me, saying, this is what you are meant to do.’ All who have worked with him testify that, far from being a Tinseltown star parachuted in as a quick fix, he is a professional to his boots and has charm in spades.

Brian Cox, who appeared with him in the 1994 film Iron Will, said: ‘He’s very smart, very bright, very nice, very funny. He’s got a great sense of humour. He’s very good at wheeling and dealing: he’s not just your average actor, he has the mind of a producer-director. He’s quite dynamic.’

Robert Jones, the producer of The Usual Suspects in 1995, recalled: ‘He was incredibly professional and focused but also very funny and a fantastic mimic. The Usual Suspects was a difficult project to get together. When things got tricky, he pitched in to keep the actors onside, calling them up to say we would still be on.

‘He went above and beyond to keep the film together. He was a de facto executive producer and absolutely believed in the project.’

Richard Eyre, former director of the National Theatre, said: ‘Kevin Spacey will make a success of the Old Vic. He’s taking it very seriously, has done a lot of work to prepare for his season, and has thought it out clearly. He’s not a dilettante and understands that a lot is expected of him and a lot has to be delivered.’

Much has been made of the actor’s links with New Labour and of the role of Sally Greene, owner of the Old Vic and wife of Robert Bourne, the property tycoon and Labour donor. Even for the celebrated networker, Spacey represents her greatest coup. She said: ‘It’s a love affair with him and the Old Vic. He’s an actor-manager-producer-director. You walk in and he’s at the centre of the room. He steals oxygen from the room.

‘I don’t “squire him about” at all, he goes out with his own friends. He goes to a lot of theatre, two or three times a week. He tends to see previews rather than the first nights. People get used to it: I don’t think London is one of those places where people call out: “Hey, Kevin!” He blends in quite easily.’

Blending in is the preference of the private Spacey, who was once described by the playwright Lanford Wilson as ‘medium everything’. In a 1998 interview he remarked: ‘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 that character on screen.’

The insistent theme, whether in a South London park at 4.30am or any other time, appears to be one man and his dog. ‘Thousands of things make me happy,’ he once said. ‘Thousands of things. Watching my dogs play on the grass makes me happy.’ That record, at least, appears to be straight. But perhaps it is only a matter of time before the cruel whispers begin: does Kevin Spacey, Hollywood icon and saviour of the Old Vic, secretly prefer cats?

  • Additional reporting by Lorna Martin