Bad seed cop, unassuming killer, evil bandito insect: Kevin Spacey’s had his card marked “psycho” throughout his career. Now he’s drawing Oscar whispers for his family man gone astray in American Beauty. As he says himself, he’s only just begun.

Interview by Dan Jolin. Photograph by Cliff Watts/Icon International.

TTF_INTERVIEWImage is everything — and doesn’t Kevin Spacey know it. Having broken and entered into the public consciousness as two of the ‘90’s most cunningly evil criminals, the man who boxed Gwyneth Paltrow’s head for Se7en has long realised that if he didn’t do something about it, every script which thumped onto his doormat would involve either a fiendish twist, or a twisted fiend, or both.

But, thanks to a modest DreamWorks drama helmed by a British theatre director, that’s all about to change. In Sam Mendes’ American Beauty — which has already entranced Stateside audiences and critics —the Kevin Spacey who trod the boards in a galaxy of different theatre roles before he ‘graduated’ to cinema has finally caught up with the Kevin Spacey who even spooks the bad guys in celluloid crime thrillers.

“I was looking for a contemporary everyman figure,” says Mendes, who first crossed paths with Spacey on the British theatre circuit and decided that, without him in the lead, American Beauty wouldn’t even be worth working on. “I was looking for an actor who could embody the spirit of someone who’s both an ordinary man and a special man. And Kevin has a kind of phlegmatic, vulnerable, foolish quality, as well as an ability to turn every mundane moment into an extraordinary moment of focus. He has a laser beam behind his eyes. With just a twitch of the head he zaps von and makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.”

In American Beauty, Spacey does the zapping as Jester Burnham, a beleaguered magazine advertising salesman who suddenly realises his job is worthless, his marriage is loveless, his daughter despises him and his suburban existence has become utterly unfulfilling. So he reacts by trying to rediscover his adolescence, scoring weed off his new teenage neighbour, hitting on his daughter’s sexy cheerleader pal and pumping his body back into shape.

If the reaction from the from audiences, critics and the industry is anything to go by, this role could do more than just transform Spacey’s onscreen identity. There’s already talk of Academy recognition – it seems the man who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in ‘95 for The Usual Suspects maybe in the running for 2000’s Best Lead gong. But, for the man himself, this is just the beginning…

Sam Mendes was very specific about casting you as Lester in American Beauty. Were you as sure about him, a first-time movie director, as he was about you?

Being familiar with Sam’s work, I knew on a lot of levels we’d be in really good hands, because his work in the theatre’s always been incredibly visual and very stylised. But I could never have predicted that he’d have such a good cinema head, where he thinks in a way that leads to exactly what I’d hoped film can do. When I saw American Beauty for the first time I just thought: “Man, he has walked right into a film career — and a deserved film career.

So you worked well together, then.

We were very collaborative from the very beginning. We talked about every role in the movie, we talked about actors, we talked about what direction we felt the script went in and where it got into a little trouble. There was a fantastic open dialogue between us right from the start. But I try to put myself in the hands of a director and trust them entirely. I like to let them guide me and shape me like I’m a piece of butter. You know, take my shapeless form and carve it. And thank God, because I do better work when I’m directed well than when I’m left to my own devices.

For American Beauty, Mendes encouraged you, along with the rest of the cast, to contribute to your characters’ backgrounds through rehearsals. How much did you bring to Lester?

We met at exactly the tight moment. Lester and I, because I was experiencing my own sense of wanting to break out and change and move beyond things that I’d felt I’d become identified with. The industry, and journalists, and to some degree audiences, like you the way they discover you, and it takes a while to get away from something if a particular impression has been laid.

And with me it was a pretty dark impression, laid back in ‘95. I played characters who were manipulative and always seven steps ahead of everybody else, and this was an incredible territory to play. But I recognised pretty early on that if I wanted to move in another direction I was going to have to take some steps toward doing that. Then there was another whole new impression that started about me because of my personal life, because I wouldn’t answer certain questions about my personal life, so then I became even more mysterious, even more dark.

So I moved myself in a direction where I could start to play characters who were closer to my own experience and closer to the kind of work I’d done in the theatre. What’s been most interesting is, since American Beauty opened in the United States, the tenor of the kind of parts I’ve been offered has changed completely.

And you’ve even been voted a sex symbol in American mag Movieline…

Hahahahal Yeah. But you go back and study Humphrey Bogart, you go back and study Dustin Hoffman, you go back and study a lot of actors who people wanted to pigeonhole very early on: “Oh, they’ll never do this, they’ll never do that.” Well, that’s all you have to say to a guy like me to make me wanna go out and do it.

Do you still get people shouting: “Hey, it’s Keyser Soze!” when they see you?

I get that at basketball games, when I go down the aisle, and I get it a few times in bars. It’s very interesting – people tend to talk about the characters I’ve played as if they were real people, and that for me is the measure that at least I got close to what I was supposed to do.

And of course, thanks to The Usual Suspects and Se7en, you’re now very closely associated with plot twists. Even American Beauty takes some unexpected turns of its own…

I’m fascinated by the fact that, in several films I’ve done, there does seem to be this thing towards the end that, hinged on a perception, suddenly flips. Maybe I’m personally fascinated by that. I don’t go looking for it, but it’s very often true that it does happen. But I don’t usually know what character they want me to look at when I read a script. I just love reading a story. And then the character becomes obvious to me while I’m reading it.

Was that the case with Se7en? The big twist was: it’s Kevin Spacey! You’re not on the credits or anything…

Let me tell you the scenario of how it worked and why I thought to have no credit. I’d just shot Outbreak, I’d already shot Swimming With Sharks, I’d shot The Usual Suspects prior to Outbreak and I knew those films were going to be opening in that next year. Now, they’d already cast somebody as John Doe, and bad begun shooting with them, but then they were fired. So I had auditioned and not gotten that role the first time around. Then they called and said: “Well, it didn’t work out, could you get on a plane and start shooting on Tuesday?” This was Friday night. I was like: “Let me read it again and think about it.”

The next day I spoke to David Fincher on the phone and said: “By the time this film opens, Sharks, Outbreak and Usual Suspects will have opened, and if any of those do well, my screen persona’s going to be a little different, a little more wily. So if I go see the movie and I see Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and the next credit’s Kevin Spacey, and it’s a film about a serial killer that they’re chasing through the film and I don’t show up for the first 25 minutes… I’m gonna figure out who’s playing it!”

I said: “I don’t want a credit. I think it’s better for the movie, because he shows up so late, that the audience has absolutely no idea who’s playing this guy, and whether they’ll ever find him or not!” This became quite a fight over the next two days, because New Line really didn’t want to remove my name. But I said: “It’s the deal-breaker.”

And it turned out to be a fantastic move. At the end of the day they were delighted with it, because it became the thing that people talked about. And it also meant that I got to be in a movie that made a gazillion dollars around the world and I didn’t do a single interview, and they couldn’t use my picture. It was hysterical!

What do you think about this new LA Confidential TV series – and the fact that Kiefer Sutherland’s possibly playing your part?

I have no idea how I’ll feel about that until I see it. I mean, I think Kiefer’s a terrific actor, I’ve known him for a long time. If it’s done well and they honour the integrity of the film, then I wish them well. If they turn out to do a piece of crap then it should probably be cancelled.

Did you ever meet James Ellroy while working on LA Confidential?

Oh yeah, we spent a lot of time with Ellroy. He’s hysterical. He’s out of his mind. He called me “Alpha Dog.” I have absolutely no idea why he called me Alpha Dog, but he did. And I accept that title and wear it well.

Ellroy went totally off the rails as a child and as a teenager. Weren’t you a bit of a tear away yourself?

No, you know, so much is made of that…

But you apparently burned down a tree-house and were sent to a military school, which later expelled you…

Yeah, I know… The truth of it is, I wasn’t any more or less rambunctious than most kids, but father was in the military and his response to lack of discipline was to send us to military school. I didn’t last a year there. I get thrown out, but not because I stabbed anybody. I got into a fight somebody – and they deserved it – and it was really after that that I into public school and then got into drama as a result of that.

So did those experiences help push you towards acting?

They didn’t push me towards acting, they pushed more towards a guidance counsellor, who said: “You have a lot of energy and maybe you should take a couple of elective courses.” And drama was one of them.

What sort of roles do you find yourself rejecting most?

Well, I’ve turned down any number of roles that in some cases went to actors who I thought were better for the role. Very often, Ill read a script and I’ll think: “This is a story, this is a wonderful part, and I’m the wrong guy to do it. This should be some else. My presence will be wrong in this film.”

Could you name such a film?

I wouldn’t because it’s a disservice to the people who did it. But I will say that there’s never been a case when I’ve turned something down and thought that the person who did eventually do it wasn’t right. There’s a lot of films that I turned down because I thought they were crap, and they were crap, and they are crap, no matter how much money they make. They’re crap. So I just try to avoid crap.

I’ve been fortunate I that boneheads have turned down parts that I then got. Bless them. Bless you boneheads for not doing it. And I’m also lucky that I’ve got scripts before other people have.

So what turns you on to a script?

I search for films that I think will last beyond the first weekend. I’m looking for movies that will stand the test of time, as opposed to: “We had a good third weekend and aren’t we terrific?” I think there’ll always be that kind of stuff and those kind of movies, but I’m looking for stuff that’s going to be challenging for me and challenging for the audience.

You’ve made it clear you want to move away from the “dark impression”, but could you see yourself going completely the other way? Would you for example, do a Farrelly Brothers comedy?

Oh, I’d love to do an out-and-out comedy, but the hardest thing is that my criterion for comedy is Preston Sturges. So that’s very hard to find. Would I do a movie that’s just pure toilet humour? Probably not. But I certainly laugh at those kind of films. What I’m looking for in terms of a comedy is something that’s really rich with dialogue. I think I’ve found a great romantic comedy, which I’m working on with Dean Devlin. That would be great fun to do because it harks back to those great male/female [claps his hands]… where they… [claps his hands again]… fall in love, and yet within that are all these very interesting, complex elements.

I’d also love to do a musical. There’s a lot of things I’d like to try. So, yeah, I feel like now, in some ways, the last 10 years has been building a foundation for me to get started. Hahahaha! So I’m just getting started! I look at it like there’s a whole vast amount of stuff that I want to walk towards, that I haven’t had the opportunity to do yet. And now I’m going to move in those directions.

February 2000, Total Film Magazine (Issue 37)  – Thanks to Jaye for the article.