The nice man cometh

In his new film, American Beauty, Kevin Spacey finally gets to do likeable after years of being good at being bad. And the word is, he’s got a hit on his hands
By Richard Rayner

Sunday January 2, 2000
The Observer, UK.

Kevin Spacey is about to take a vacation, his first in nearly two years. Three days after closing on Broadway in his acclaimed revival of Eugene O’Neill’s four and a half hour marathon The Iceman Cometh, he bounces into one of his favourite Los Angeles haunts, a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard he would rather remained nameless, a place to meet and greet and hang out, where the waitresses know him by his first name and he enjoys them well enough to be inclined to joke and flirt.

‘Make me one of those iced, swirly, frothy frappuccino mocha things,’ he says to a young woman dressed modishly in black. ‘What? What? Why do I make you laugh so much?’ he says in a soft, deadpan voice, because she does, indeed, seem to be giggling, helplessly. ‘Am I so funny?’

This is not at all the Spacey we know from his various screen personae: the creepy, criminal mastermind Keyser Soze masquerading as a whining gimp in The Usual Suspects (a turn for which he won an Oscar in 1995), the demented serial killer who outwits both Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman (two guys who usually never lose) in Seven, the bitter loser squabbling and sniping with Judy Davis in The Ref, or supercilious, faggy murderer Jim Williams in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the flesh, Spacey is much more high-energy and high-spirited and odd.

He is wearing sharp black trousers and a crisp, white, button-down shirt with a Pentel pen in the pocket. With his round, almost anonymous face, he looks both bland and groomed, like an accountant about to take a vacation, except for the black baseball cap that says ‘NYU Film’. Which is to say that Spacey does not at first strike you as an actor at all – a considerable irony, because he is the consummate actor of his generation, an actor right down to the fibre of his no doubt immaculate cotton socks.

He moves with Japanese neatness and almost feline delicacy. He has a scar above the lid of his left eye, the result of an altercation with a cat named Prince Albert when he was growing up just over the hill from here, in the San Fernando Valley.

Spacey takes gum from his mouth, places it with exquisite deliberation in the centre of a spotless white ashtray and eagerly hits the mark about his new movie American Beauty, co-starring Annette Bening and directed by first-timer Sam Mendes (the young English director whose work for the stage includes the recent London and New York runs of Cabaret and The Blue Room ). American Beauty is the buzz film, having been described by Steven Spielberg as the best thing he has seen in years, and a reminder of why he himself wants to make movies – giddy praise indeed, even if Spielberg’s Dreamworks company did produce the picture.

In talking about American Beauty, for once it is right to use superlatives. This film is howlingly funny, but not a comedy. It ends tragically, yet reminds us of the beauty of life. It centres on the disintegration and renaissance of an executive, Lester Burnham (Spacey), and his relationship with his wife (Bening, who lets rip in ways both hilarious and terrifying). Although Lester whacks off in the shower, lusts and drools over his daughter’s sultry best friend and blackmails his boss when he is fired, the film concerns itself as much with suburban morality and teenage angst as it does with the male menopause.

American Beauty will, I think, quickly find itself in the category of masterpieces such as The Graduate, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ordinary People. It is emotionally spacious, perfectly modulated and seems likely to redefine Spacey’s career and kick it on to another level.

‘Kevin has been pigeonholed as a Machiavelli, the cleverest man on screen,’ says Mendes. ‘Here he plays a man who’s blind to the world and outrageous and foolish and charming by turn. This is a very different part for him because audiences can love his character while being shocked by what he does. I think Kevin realised right from the start how big a moment this would be in his career if it worked.’

In the restaurant, Spacey removes his baseball cap, revealing thinning black hair. At 39, he conducts himself with the relaxed confidence of a man quite aware of the fact that he’s really hitting his stride these days. ‘People tend to want you the way they discovered you, and I got dissolved in very dark parts. It’s been the greatest thing in the world to me when I’ve heard people say about American Beauty, “I never thought he could do this.” Well, I can do it and I’ve been trying to tell people for years.’

He first read TV comedy writer Alan Ball’s screenplay in the summer of 1998, when he was still playing in Iceman in London. ‘I knew that it was sensational, ahead of its time on so many levels that are relevant to the world we find ourselves in as we walk into the millennium. To me, the whole film is about perception and how easy it is to misperceive or to perceive only what you care to perceive. People ask, “How does a thing like Columbine, Colorado, happen?” I think this movie answers that question. It’s right there in front of us. There are usually unnoticed goings- on between families and neighbours and co-workers that are subterranean truths once you examine them.’

At which point Spacey, examining me examining his tongue nervously fretting at his lip, excuses himself and bolts out to his car to apply something to an area that, he tells me, got burned windsailing. Keyser Soze windsailing? Kevin Spacey, the Valley boy turned Julliard graduate and archetypal New York theatre figure windsailing? It does not seem to fit, but then for years journalists have been trying to work out who Spacey really is.

There’s the mysterious issue of his real name, for instance – Kevin Fowler. Where does the Spacey come from? He is not letting on, and Internet speculation is rife. The game took an unpleasant turn a couple of years back when a magazine article centred itself on another rumour, that Spacey is gay. He bounds back up the stairs from the car park and sits again, lip duly salved. I ask what impact the piece had had on him and his career.

He accepts the question graciously but becomes animated, leaning back in his chair and waving his arms, as though the memory – whatever he may say to the contrary – stings. ‘It didn’t impact on me at all. It had nothing to do with me. People say they’re appalled about my private life being dragged through the pages of a magazine. I was laughing with Ed Norton about this recently, because my private life wasn’t put out there at all. My private life was intact. That was just presumption, rumour, based on nothing.

‘If you come to me and say, I hear you’re a bigot, I hear you’re a paedophile, I hear you cheat on your taxes, you bet your ass I’d stand up and defend myself because those are things I don’t want to be associated with and I find reprehensible. But what’s wrong with gay people? Why should I be pressed to stand up and say I’m not one of them?’

Spacey may choose not to take journalists on a personal journey of his experience, but when you meet him, he is much funnier and more intimate than expected. After acting in high school, and while he was at Julliard, he began his professional career as a stand-up comedian, doing impressions. During the lunch, chatting away, picking at the salmon he has ordered from the still giggling waitress, his voice takes on the tones of some of those he has admired or met or worked with. In front of my eyes, he becomes Johnny Carson, Katharine Hepburn, John Gielgud, Danny DeVito, Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino.

These last two have become his career guides, as well as close friends. He still has the photograph Lemmon signed for him as a child, and it was Pacino who gave him his first big break in the movies in Glengarry Glenross and later invited him to be his co-conspirator in the Shakespeare documentary Looking for Richard. Spacey both acted in the film and tagged along for the ride, sitting off camera while Pacino conducted his interviews with scores of noted academics, directors and actors. Now he speaks of both Lemmon and Pacino with a humour and warmth that borders on veneration, giving a glimpse of the Spacey who once was, and to some extent still is, the nerdiest of theatre fans.

It occurs to me, putting aside all consideration of who he is as a private indi vidual, that this is who Kevin Spacey is becoming as an actor – a shotgun marriage of two great performers and stars who seem, on the face of it, improbable bedfellows – Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino.

‘He’s a strategist as an actor and, like Lemmon, he doesn’t look like a film star,’ agrees Mendes. ‘While we were shooting American Beauty , we talked a lot about The Apartment and the way Lemmon made that character so real and normal, right down to the way his hair changed through the course of the movie – becoming both more and more distressed and yet more and more true to his inner self. Kevin’s concentration is like a laser beam. And like Pacino, you always feel certain he’s going to find those moments that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.’

Spacey has worked extremely hard during these past two years, turning his career in this new direction that seems to fit so well. In between productions of Iceman in London and New York (where he lives with his dog in a small Greenwich Village apartment), he shot three movies back to back – American Beauty, Ordinary Decent Criminal , based on the life of Irish gangster Martin Cahill, and The Big Kahuna , produced by his own Trigger Street Productions, a $2 million movie about two salesmen, in which he stars with a pal from LA Confidential, Danny DeVito.

He has his own company to do low-budget films that will both bolster his credibility and keep him topped up with a supply of good parts should the studio well run dry. He is already talking about a screen version of Iceman, and foresees a small run of films based on plays, because the material is to hand and he sees a ready way into it.

‘I’m just as susceptible as anybody to the things that pull and tempt you,’ Spacey says. ‘You have to seek out those things both in terms of people and material that are sincere and driven by a similar sensibility to your own. Pretty obviously I’m not only interested in making lots of dough and being famous. As far as Hollywood goes, I don’t want to contribute to the problem, whatever I perceive the problem to be.’

What does he perceive the problem to be?

‘Oh, it’s massive. It’s massive and it’s ugly,’ he says with a big grin, too smart, too damned relaxed to be drawn into a harangue about the ills of the movie industry. He’s at a happy place in his career and, besides, he is about to go on vacation.

So Kevin Spacey calls over the waitress and asks for another iced, swirly mocha thing.


Harper’s Bazaar October 1999 (US) / The Observer January 2, 2000 (UK)

Thanks to Jaye.