Profile: Kevin Spacey

Unusual suspect

A disappointing debut at the Old Vic just ads another puzzle to a curious career

sundaytelegraph100304There remains some doubt as to whether Kevin Spacey was, as he claimed, beaten up in a London park six months ago, but the facts of his latest misadventure are painfully clear. While going about his lawful business as boss of the Old Vic, the acclaimed Hollywood actor was set upon by a mob of affronted critics.

“Two-and-a-half hours of the most tedious drivel ever flushed up on the London stage,” fumed one. “I’ve had more fun lying in gutters,” wrote another.

Among the items unlikely to be recovered is the idea that Spacey’s star power alone can solve the problems of a theatre recently threatened with conversion into a lap-dancing joint. After all the hype and genuine anticipation that followed his arrival at the Old Vic a year ago, Spacey opened his reign last week with Cloaca, a comedy on the theme of male bonding written by Maria Goos, a Dutch playwright previously unknown to British audiences.

The view that Ms Goos’s obscurity is no accident was forcefully expressed by Charles Spencer, the theatre critic of The Daily Telegraph, who declared the resulting show to be “a stinker”.

If the play was a strange choice, it was, by way of mitigation, the choice of a strange man. Spacey, 45, has been behaving oddly ever since he moved to London late in 2003.

“There’s nothing I don’t love about this place,” he purred, but not long afterwards was admitted to St Thomas’s Hospital, Westminster following a mysterious incident in a park at 4.30am. Spacey said he had been hit on the head by a mugger who stole his mobile telephone, but he soon withdrew the allegation saying that he tripped over his dog’s lead.

Spacey’s head attracted further unwelcome attention when he arrived for a movie premiere with a thick coating of what appeared to be black spray paint covering his bald patch. The pop papers quickly renamed him Kevin Spraycy, and wondered how cheap a star earning millions from the movies has to be not to invest in a rug.

Then the actor’s brother, Randy B Fowler, a spiky-haired, £100-a-night Rod Stewart impersonator, came forward to declare that Kevin is “a bit of a weirdo”. Randy was backed in this assessment by his wife, Trish, who claimed: “Everything that Kevin has ever said in an interview has been a lie.”

What kind of whoppers might Kevin have been telling? Well, there was a piece in Esquire not long ago when he spoke movingly of his father, Thomas Fowler, who died on Christmas Eve in 1992. “He was a very normal, middle-class man, born in Caspar, Wyoming, but he had an absolute love of England,” said Spacey. “He spent the war here. I think he always fancied himself as an aristocrat. He admired things of that kind of sophistication; leather-bound books, beautiful watches, cufflinks . . .”

According to other sources, Thomas was a fanatical Nazi supporter whose home was filled with Third Reich memorabilia. He never had a proper job, and devoted most of his energies to the American Nazi Party. This is broadly borne out by Randy, who remembers being ordered to leave the Cub Scouts because the troop leader was Jewish.

Assuming – which perhaps we shouldn’t – that any of this is true, you can hardly blame Spacey for attempting to put a gloss on things, or for dodging, which he does as a matter of course, seemingly innocuous questions about his life. Mel Gibson took terrible heat when it was alleged that his father was a Holocaust denier, and the smart boys at the Groucho Club could have endless fun goose-stepping through the bar late at night when Kevin drops in for a drink.

“What am I supposed to do,” he said last year. “Tell everyone my deepest and darkest secrets, just because people want to know? Go on the Oprah Winfrey show and cry?”

Yet even in an age of celebrity non-disclosure, when stars speak solely to plug, the extent of Spacey’s reluctance to “open his heart” is unusual. It has led to much speculation about the unmarried actor’s private life, and intense discussion of how, as one film writer put it, “he has risen to stardom without trace – without anyone knowing who he is”.

Or what, exactly, he is doing at the Old Vic. When Spacey’s appointment was announced, many in Theatreland assumed that the deal was a stunt. Spacey would give the struggling south London theatre a valuable publicity fix, and receive in return lots of the higher-cultural kudos Hollywood types love to wallow in. Soon enough he’d quietly slip away, leaving only his illustrious name in the programme.

Here, after all, was a major movie star, one riding the success of American Beauty, a dark, poetic excursion into small-town life, for which he won an Oscar for best actor playing against Annette Benning. Why would anybody renounce the big paydays and glamour of moviedom for the greasy streets of Southwark?

The first thing Spacey did was adopt a dog from Battersea Dogs Home. He called it Mini. Then he won another Mini at a charity auction hosted by Elton John and, properly equipped with car and canine, he settled into a London life from which, to date, he shows no sign of wanting to be dislodged.

“I understand why people might feel sceptical,” he said. “I’ve sensed since my appointment that people look at me with narrowed eyes, as if to say: ‘Are you really doing this?’, and the only way I’ll be able to prove that I’m serious is by turning up for work every day.”

Previous lives are quickly forgotten in showbusiness, and few of those who doubted Spacey remembered, or ever knew, that all his roots were in theatre, and, to some extent, in the London theatre.

A rebellious boy from New Jersey, Kevin Spacey Fowler had drifted into acting in the 1970s, making his Broadway debut in Ibsen’s Ghosts in 1982 and later breaking into films, in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), with Jack Lemmon, and The Usual Suspects (1995), for which he won the Oscar for best supporting actor.

In 1998, he came to London to play the messianic Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s four-and-half-hour masterpiece The Iceman Cometh, at the Almeida Theatre. It was a triumphant performance that screamed for a West End transfer. But Spacey, who was producing the transfer himself, struggled to find a suitable theatre.

“So I asked if the Old Vic was available,” he recalls. Spacey says he remembered going to the venue with his parents as a child, and feeling at home in it. “Everybody’s response was, ‘Yeah, well, it’s over on the South Bank. Audiences can’t find it. You don’t want to go there.’ ” It was to the Old Vic that The Iceman went, and the run was a phenomenal success.

Spacey can point to the precise night he decided to become the theatre’s artistic director. It was the night after the London premiere of American Beauty in November 1999. Unable to sleep he took a cab to the South Bank, walked along the river to the Old Vic and sat in a car park gazing at it. “And I thought, ‘What are you doing? All you have wanted to do since you were 13 is run a theatre.’ ”

The place has possessed him ever since, and, as the date of the great man’s debut production neared, theatre lovers were sweaty with anticipation. What they got was Cloaca, meaning “sewer” in Latin, and the critics duly held their noses.

We may not know much about Spacey, but what we do know suggests that he is unlikely to be deterred. There are no big nights in the theatre; only good nights and bad nights, and this one, at least, didn’t land him in hospital. ~

The Sunday Telegraph
October 3, 2004

Thanks to Vivienne.