I was born to run the Old Vic
Oscar-winning actor and devoted Anglophile Kevin Spacey unveils his ambitious plans for the famous theatre where he takes over as artistic director next year. Interview by John Hiscock
If anyone was destined from birth to take creative control of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey believes he is that man. “For me, this is a remarkable thing. I feel that everything in my life has been leading up to this,” he says quietly. “This is what I was meant to do.”
He exudes a passionate enthusiasm mixed with a kind of awed delight as he contemplates his task when he becomes the troubled theatre’s artistic director in the autumn of next year; but there’s a lot for him to do before then.
“We have a year and a half in which to spend time fund-raising, staffing, picking the directors we want, picking the plays and forming a company around those plays,” he says. “We’ll be doing new plays, old plays, Shakespeare . . . and we’ll do some surprises.
“When you look at the history of the British theatre, you see that some of the great writing came out of anger at the policies that were being pursued by either royalty or by parliament or by Mrs Thatcher. Go back and look at some of the plays of Trevor Griffiths or Barrie Keeffe. Where are those writers? Where are their voices? We’re going to find them because I know they’re out there.”
The 43-year-old Oscar-winning actor will himself star in two productions a year, as well as directing plays and using his influence to persuade Hollywood stars to continue the growing tradition of appearing on the London stage for prestige rather than money. Judi Dench is expected to star in some of the productions, and Stephen Daldry, Oscar-nominated for The Hours, has said he will add his talents to the company.
For Spacey, it is the stuff of dreams. “I’m supremely excited at the idea of running a theatre,” he says, “because I believe an enormous amount can be accomplished and I can use what has happened for me in films as a magnet not just for actors, directors and writers, but I hope for a whole new audience that wouldn’t necessarily come to the theatre otherwise.”
Spacey is talking with me in Los Angeles about his plans for the Old Vic the day after his return from a tour of American cities and college campuses discussing his new film, the Alan Parker-directed The Life of David Gale (out here on March 14) – or, as he puts it, “hawking my wares like a pimp in Amsterdam”.
He is one of Hollywood’s more mysterious personalities, a widely admired actor who keeps his private life very much to himself. Although he is known for his performances in films such as American Beauty (for which he won a best actor Oscar), The Usual Suspects (best supporting actor Oscar) and LA Confidential, he learned his trade on the stage. He studied at Juilliard, leaving early to join the New York Shakespeare Festival and then started work on Broadway, making his debut opposite Liv Ullmann in Ghosts.
Dressed in a black leather jacket and slacks, he is cool, amiable and articulate and, while reluctant to divulge too many details yet, it is plain that he has devoted much thought and energy to his new job. There are also, he says with a smile, a couple of misconceptions he wants to put right straight away. First, there’s the business of the much-publicised leaky roof. True, he concedes, the roof needs about £350,000 spent to put it right. “But there has been an excessive amount of attention paid to it – it’s as if people are being rained on in the theatre,” he says. “Actually, when you come into the theatre you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong with it. It’s an incredibly beautiful space and it still looks gorgeous.
“There’s also been a bit of misreporting about the theatre having been some kind of a failure and that I’m riding in on a white horse and saving it, which is a bit of a disservice to the people who have been working there for the last five years doing major productions that have been selling out; the theatre has actually been running at a profit since we redesigned the board in 1998, so it’s been doing quite well.
“This next phase is a step I have known was coming for two years but we managed to keep it a secret, which was pretty good considering it only leaked the day before we announced it.”
While assuming full responsibility for the theatre’s artistic successes or failures, he is adamant that the duties of providing the money for repairs and maintenance should lie elsewhere. “These are areas where the Arts Council and the Government should step up,” he said. “It’s a Grade II Theatre Trust building and finally, now they can see there’s an artistic vision and that there’s going to be leadership and a real company formed, I think we’ll have a far better shot at getting them to help us out. We’re not asking them for money to do our productions, but we are looking to them to help us with the refurbishing of the buildings.”
The prospect of starting a new life in London holds no terrors for the Los Angeles-raised actor, who was six when his parents, frequent visitors to London, took him to see his first play at the Old Vic. He has since visited the city many times for both work and pleasure and appeared on the Old Vic stage himself in 1998 in Howard Davies’s staging of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. He returned to the role in a Broadway revival the following year.
He has not yet done anything about looking for a house in London but, he says, he is looking forward to settling there. “There’s nothing I don’t like about London,” he says. “I’m an Anglophile. I don’t mind the weather at all. I’ll be there for six months or more of the year but whatever the weather may be, there is a huge upside in the spirit in which I take on this new adventure.”
Before moving to London, he hopes to be able to squeeze in one more film and achieve his long-held ambition to portray Bobby Darin in a film biography of the late singer that has been in the works for several years. Filming is due to begin in June on Beyond the Sea, which Spacey will also produce and in which he will sing several of Darin’s songs, including Dream Lover, Mack the Knife, Splish Splash and the title song.
“It’s been the single hardest film to raise financing for,” he says. “Thankfully, films driven by music are back in favour, although I don’t think they were ever out of favour with audiences. I just think people in this industry have short memories because they don’t remember films like All That Jazz and Fame.”
His film acting career will not intrude on his duties at the Old Vic. “If I get one good film script a year, I’m lucky, so it’s not really an issue,” he says.
Although determined that his stint at the Old Vic will be remembered as a successful and innovative one, he is realistic enough to expect some setbacks. “I suspect we’ll have our growing pains, as any new organisation has,” he says. “But I hope we’ll be given a chance to make mistakes and learn, and that the worth of our company will be judged on what we put on that stage over a reasonable period of time.”