Kevin Spacey heats up Broadway in The Iceman Cometh

LOST IN SPACEY

Kevin Spacey, producer/star of The Iceman Cometh, can’t say enough about his return to Broadway—or too little about his private life

By Erik Jackson

Looking a little shorter than his domineering screen presence might have you expect, Kevin Spacey barrels into Sam’s, a Theater-District haunt, a black baseball cap scrunched down on his head. On a break from rehearsals for The Iceman Cometh, he claims a table near the rear, places both hands flat on the red-checked tablecloth and flashes a warm, crooked grin. I’m immediately disarmed. Has returning to the stage cracked the actor’s usually chilly shell? It’s hard to tell for sure, but he certainly seems sanguine—and for good reason.

Following Spacey’s triumph in The Iceman Cometh at London’s Almeida Theatre, the actor is bringing the four-and-a-quarter-hour Eugene O’Neill epic to the Great White Way this week. “The reason I did it, bottom line, is because 17 years ago, on this block, next door at the Music Box Theatre, I auditioned to replace Alan Rickman in Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” remembers Spacey, his eyes slightly tearing. “[Iceman helmer] Howard Davies was directing, and Christopher Hampton had written the play. And in me, they felt that they had found their replacement.” The producers, wanting a marquee name to sell tickets, vetoed Spacey. “But Howard and Christopher fought diligently for this young puppy who had shown virtually no promise up to that point,” Spacey continues. “And I never forgot that.”

Nearly two decades later, the Spacey-Davies reunion has paid off with an unlikely smash: The 60-year-old, dialogue-driven drama is generating advance ticket sales that have surpassed The Blue Room’s—and as a result of his performance, Spacey became the first American actor to win London’s prestigious Evening Standard award. Spacey plays Hickey, a garrulous hardware hawker who indulges in an annual binge at a divey downtown West Side bar. But on this particular visit, the newly sober Hickey arrives with a startling agenda: to, one by one, rid the bar’s whiskey-soaked patrons of their crippling pipe dreams. Spacey commands the crack ensemble with a galvanizing evangelical fervor that appears to follow him offstage.

Unlike other cinema stars who’ve recently braved the boards, Spacey has extensive stage experience. His solid New York theater roots were put down nearly 20 years ago, when the Juilliard dropout manned phones for the New York Shakespeare Festival, awaiting his proverbial big break. That break came in the same way that Spacey consumes his turkey club—in little bites. After toiling briefly in Off-Off obscurity, he eventually made his Broadway debut in 1982 with Ibsen’s Ghosts, alongside Liv Ullmann. Four years later, he costarred with his idol Jack Lemmon in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and in 1991, he scored a Tony for his work in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. Soon after, Spacey turned his focus to film, delivering back-to-back performances as Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects (a role for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and as John Doe, beheader of Gwyneth Paltrow, in Seven. “It worked out better than I could ever have dreamed,” he says.

Still, Spacey isn’t relying on his bankability to sell Iceman. Reflecting the script’s socialist themes, the show’s initial ads are conspicuously free of names (save those of O’Neill and Davies), and on full cast lists, Spacey’s name is buried, alphabetically, beneath those of costars Tony Danza and Robert Sean Leonard. Everyone involved in the production is working for his or her union minimum (albeit with the promise of shared profits). “The man has taken a year of his life to do Iceman Cometh for $1,162 a week,” says coproducer Emanuel Azenberg. “He could have done three movies and made $17 million, or whatever his price is for a movie. He loves the idea that this is an ensemble and that everyone in the company is equal.”

They’re so equal that Spacey demanded that the walls in the dressing rooms be knocked down to create a large, communal room. Azenberg says jokingly that “Kevin’s vision of this production is like summer camp.” Spacey insists that his approach to the production is essential to create the necessary ensemble magic. “It’s the fact that we all end up in some big room going, ‘What the f*** was that?’ and ‘Screw them if they don’t get it!’ ” he says. “I mean, whatever’s going on, we’re together.”

The desire to bond with his coworkers isn’t unusual for Spacey. “Wherever I go, I try to make people my family,” he says. “Wherever I go, I try to make my home.” Perhaps the actor is eager to compensate for his own painful, nomadic childhood and adolescence throughout California. “It was very upsetting to move away from places where my friends were,” he recalls. “And always having to be the new kid and go to a new school.” After a pause, he adds, “And being mad at my family. Really mad at my father.” His late father, a technical-manual writer who secretly wanted to be a novelist, competed for jobs that were few and far between.

Despite Spacey’s anger at his itinerant dad, the actor claims he’s like to be a father himself. “I want children,” he says. “Maybe it’s because so many of my friends are having kids. I’m a little tired of being Uncle Kevin. I actually think it’s a role I’d be prepared for.” It’s an uncharacteristically personal revelation from a man who doesn’t like talking about his off-screen activities. When I ask about journalists digging into his personal life, for instance, Spacey’s body language speaks volumes: He leans back in his chair, firmly crosses his arms and frequently turns his head to one side or the other. “Quite frankly,” he states with quiet menace, “there are some things that are none of our g**d****d business, and we should respect that. But you can’t ask people who don’t have respect to have respect.”

Stung by reporters who have tried to pin down his famously ambiguous sexuality—most notably in a notorious, insinuating 1997 Esquire cover story (“A despicable moment,” hisses Spacey)—the actor remains resolutely vague about his personal relationships. (Consequently, the actor’s choice to reveal racy, off-the-record details of a recent trip to Amsterdam seems more like deliberate spin than casual conversation.) To hear Spacey tell it, the mystery that surrounds him is part of a deliberate attempt to preserve his capacity to slip unburdened into characters. The argument could be made, however, that while we know a heck of a lot about, say, Vanessa Redgrave, she can still convincingly become Mrs. Dalloway.

But much of Spacey’s allure as an actor stems from what he hides. “Kevin has a sexuality that’s subtle—beneath the surface,” says actress Linda Fiorentino, Spacey’s longtime friend and costar in the upcoming Ordinary Decent Criminals. Off-screen, it’s tempting to try and peek beneath the surface, too. Watch his eyes involuntarily flick to the tape recorder before he mentions any name, from (oddly) the titles of his films to (not-so-oddly) Michael Eisner. Or try to decipher his bone-dry humor when a group of white-haired ladies from Florida interrupts us for a picture. “Oh, I don’t have any lipstick on!” cries one of the gals. “No matter,” replies Spacey with a slow glance in my direction; “none of us do.” This good-natured yet sly knock typifies Spacey’s slightly snarling, under-the-radar delivery, his magnetic combination of sass and charm. It’s like he’s the bouncer for Club Spacey, standing just behind the velvet rope—he makes you long for him to pick you, to let you in. “What he’s doing is what we all do in our lives,” says Iceman director Davies. “We conduct ourselves on several levels. What Kevin manages to do with his acting is hint at all these other layers—the darker aspects, the secrets, the disappointments, the ironic humor. And that hinting is very, very attractive.”

In fact, Spacey was so good at seducing audiences with his characters’ dark—in some cases, diabolical—nuances that he worried he’d be forever typecast as a psychopath. “Those roles were great fun, but then they want you to do it in 27 other movies,” he says with a roll of his eyes. So after playing shady characters in films such as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, L.A. Confidential and Hurlyburly (for which, incidentally, he was an understudy during its Broadway run in the mid-’80s), Spacey has made a conscious choice to shift his roles—and, perhaps, his public image—toward the lighter side of the spectrum.

In the upcoming film American Beauty, Spacey plays a man who turns his midlife crisis into a rediscovered adolescence. (Timely: Spacey turns 40 this July.) “He’s not, for a change, the Machiavel, the most intelligent man on-screen,” says Beauty’s director, Sam Mendes. “He’s not the person who’s thinking five steps ahead of everyone else. He’s sort of an Everyman figure.” Costar Annette Bening confirms Spacey’s new direction. “Let’s just put it this way,” she says. “His comic talents are going to be very evident.”

During Iceman rehearsals, Spacey starred in and produced another film comedy, Hospitality Suite. Spacey speaks with pride about his faith in the material, originally a play by an unknown writer. The time and energy he spent nurturing the project reminds Spacey of the late director Alan Pakula (who fought to cast him in Consenting Adults), of director Des McAnuff (who gave him his 1981 NYC stage debut as a messenger with six lines in Henry IV, Part I ), of Davies and Hampton—of all the players who touched Spacey by putting their trust in him. “I don’t ever want to get too far away from that feeling,” he says with a faraway look, perhaps not thinking five steps ahead. “I’m still feeling it. I feel it when I walk into that theater every day and see Howard Davies. I think, 18 years ago, he believed in me. And it was worth the wait.”

Time Out New York
April 8 – 15, 1999
Issue #185

Pages 10 – 12, full page color photo on page 9.
Article by Erik Jackson. Photographs by Stephen Danelian