by Mike Welch

VeniceCover2002For a guy who said he had a few days off, Kevin Spacey has been pretty hard to nail down. It’s late by the time we meet up at his low-key Los Angeles hotel. I walk up to the front desk and deliver the code name that will grant me access to the two-time Oscar winner. The guy behind the desk gives me a wink as he picks up the phone. Security is tight these days, and when you’re a high profile celebrity such as Spacey, you can’t be too careful.

The clerk hangs up the phone and gives me the go ahead. He whispers the room number even though we are the only ones in the lobby. I give him a nod and head to the elevator. This past year has been a busy one for Spacey. He portrayed a psychologically unsound man named Prot, who might or might not be an alien, in K-Pax, which broke box-office records for an opening weekend in October. He spent months in Nova Scotia where, in between playing pool with Judi Dench and freezing his buns off, he played Quoyle— “a guy just like you and me”— in The Shipping News, directed by Lasse Hallström, due out on Christmas Day. Then he shot down to Austin, Texas, to play David Gale, a man sentenced to death in a film called The Life Of David Gale, for director Alan Parker. All the while his production company, Trigger Street Productions, is in pre-production on its second film, The United States of Leland, which he will be producing hands-on. In between all this there’s press to do, photo shoots, meetings, script reading, phone calls, conference calls, and a few top secret projects in the works that for the life of me I couldn’t get out of him. Smart man.

Venice: How did you come across The Shipping News?

Kevin Spacey: A friend of mine handed me that book and said, “Read this or I’ll light you on fire.” So I read it. That was six or seven years ago. I thought, christ, what a beautiful story. The thing the film won’t ever, ever achieve is the symmetry of how [The Shipping News author E. Annie Proulx] used these knots as chapter headings. And I don’t know what it meant in actuality but I know there was this great feeling that these knots were these complex pieces, and each chapter started with a description of a different knot. That’s something the film metaphorically won’t have because they’ve abandoned that as a visual. But I do think that the film will manage to retain the feeling that the descriptive device in the book had—which was that there are a series of characters in the film who are these different kinds of knots, and the movie is about unraveling these knots, [my character] Quoyle being perhaps the most difficult knot to unravel. So I read this thing and I remember saying this is an incredibly beautiful story. This was, by the way, at a period where I was playing characters that were rather different than Quoyle is, but I immediately recognized that there was a Quoyle in me and I had this interest in playing [him]. And then, of course, I found out that the movie had been bought and people were already assigned to play these roles, but for whatever reason, those incarnations of the film didn’t happen. And here we are in 2001 and The Shipping News is opening Christmas Day, much to my surprise.

What attracted you more, the character of Quoyle, or the story?

It never dawned on me until I was really in the midst of preparing for the film, anything other than the story; the story was just fantastic. It didn’t hit me that I was going to have to figure out how to play Quoyle until I was really almost on my way. We were doing some last minute looking through the script and Lasse was so determined to get it right and we spent a lot of time collaborating as we headed toward production. And it was suddenly then, on the way to Halifax, which is where we began shooting, that it dawned on me—I had no idea how to play the role. Then I realized the challenge of it. Normally, whenever I play a character, I’ve felt, particularly with a central character, a certain responsibility about driving the narrative. Some of the characters I’ve played have been really energetic, and are quite clearly trying to succeed at something. In this case, when you break it down, Quoyle is not trying to achieve anything. There was no way to prepare for this movie and think, “Oh, he’s here, then at this point he’s here, then he’s here.” What he is, is a character who’s just trying to get through the f***ing day. He’s trying to be a good father and stay out of the water, avoid boats. He’s a reactor. There were no hooks, there was nowhere to hang my f***ing hat.

Where did you reach to find the character?  

There were actually two places that I reached for. One was an overall feeling of what this character experiences and accepts about himself and learns about his family and his world through the course of the film. The other one was completely and absolutely and as honestly as I could, to openly trust Lasse Hallström to get me there. He had the movie in his head, I didn’t. I mean, he knew what he was up to. I just allowed myself everyday to be open to whatever his suggestions would be based on what I brought to the set. Sometimes I brought things to the set that he seemed very pleased with, and other times I’d bring my work to the set and he would think, what are you doing? And he would tell me in his incredibly non-confrontational, subtle, backdoor approach.

What was unique about working with Lasse Hallström?  

You know, a lot of people talk about what the role of a director is, and you’ll hear ‘psychologist,’ ‘leader,’ you’ll hear a lot of different things. I would say that ‘father figure’ would be the one that makes Lasse unique. He has a commanding presence without any effort. He’s incredibly relaxed, [with a] fun sense of humor; therefore, he’s able to give you suggestions, clues about where you ought to go with a particular scene in the course of your day’s work. He’s also, surprisingly, German. Most people, of course, think he’s Swedish, but I personally think he’s a secret German. I’ve seen him in lederhosen, I’ve seen him singing with a stein of beer, and I think this whole Swedish thing is just a scam.

How was the cast of Shipping News?

Well, Julianne is beautiful and absolutely radiant. I think she just glows in this part. It’s partly the way Lasse shoots her, but she manages to have a quality in the film of an incredibly beautiful woman, but at the same time is extraordinarily fragile and somewhat  broken. Judi Dench, how do you talk about the subtlety of what she’s able to achieve in this role? We became exceptionally close through the shooting of the movie, and she’s a helluva pool player. Working with her was like being in the desert and finding a well of the most delicious water that you could possibly hope to find. She’s divine. Cate Blanchett. I have only one thing to say about Cate Blanchett: marshmallows and sweat.

That’s two things.  

Yes, but they go hand in hand in the movie.    

Do you think a lot of people will identify with Quoyle?

Yes, yes I do. Quoyle is a man who’s very lost and doesn’t know his own worth, never been encouraged. I think a lot of people will recognize him. I recognized him.

There’s a lot of talk about an Oscar nomination for you in this role. How do you feel about that?  

[Big laugh] What I find interesting about that is, even if that’s true, who has seen the movie? No one has seen the movie yet. It’s just hype. It’s nice to be included in the conversation but it’s just meaningless. It doesn’t mean anything until December 25th when the movie is out and the public has an opportunity to see the film, and until the people in our industry see it—people who have some degree of influence and their own individual opinions to make about the merit of a person’s performance in a movie. Until then it’s…well, I’m trying to be polite, but it’s hype, and I don’t care for hype. The work should lead, not the talk.

Forget the Oscar talk. You were just honored with the Golden Apple Award.

Oh yes, the Golden Apple Award. [It’s] given out by the Hollywood Women’s Press Association to the actor with the most colorful personality, and with the greatest news impact which has enhanced Hollywood’s glamorous image throughout the world in 2001. And as I told them, I don’t know which of these attributes I should address first. Regarding the issue of enhancing Hollywood’s glamorous image throughout the world, I’m pretty confident that devouring an entire banana in K-Pax and at least the first twenty-five minutes of The Shipping News, where I’ve never looked worse in my life—I have done nothing to enhance Hollywood’s image. But I am very glad the Hollywood Women’s Press Association has expanded their view on what they consider glamorous. And it was very nice for Sean Penn to come out and present me with this award.

You’ve been back on stage lately, not for acting but for singing. How did that come about?

Venice2002photo2It’s just been a couple of times for a couple of benefits, and the benefits all primarily had to do with trying to raise money for those lives that have been altered by the events of September 11th. So I got up and sang. I understand that it’s been a surprise for people that don’t know me, but for anybody who’s known me for a long time, they know that singing has been a part of my life since I was very young. I have been singing my whole life, and I continue to sing. So I suddenly found myself in a place where I needed to do it, I needed to sing, it meant a lot to me. It’s a completely different form of expression, and there’s something unbelievably liberating about it. I needed to do it, and in the right context, the right place, and the right time, I’ll do it again.

You performed at the Tribute to John Lennon in New York this year and brought the house down with a medley of “Hey Jude” and “Blackbird,” followed by “Hi-dee-Ho.” How did that feel?

Like I should go through a Jack Daniels period and get a bunch of Kevettes and go on the road.

You do a lot of charity work. How do you choose what you do and don’t do?

My feeling about charity is, whether you’re contributing your time or your name, I don’t want to become ineffective. You have to be quite decisive about what you choose to do and where you decide to appear. Because, otherwise, I’m afraid if you do too many of those things, people are going to expect that you’re always going to show up. There are some people that do always show up, and after awhile their effectiveness is not as razor sharp. I want to try to make sure that with the things that I do, I can be really effective. If you choose wisely, you can raise the biggest amount of money that you hope to raise. There are a lot of things I do that people don’t hear about.

Where are you in your acting career?

I hope early. [long pause] I’m not happy with most of my work.



What is it that you want to achieve in your work?

Well, I truly don’t know what I want to achieve, I just know when I feel I haven’t achieved, and I haven’t. So I keep trying. I want to get back up on stage because I feel I’m so much better able to craft a performance. Every now and then you get close. Every now and then there’s a fleeting moment in something. You know, I’ll watch a movie I’m in and there’ll be a moment or two where I’ll go, ‘Oh, ok, that worked.’ And the rest of the time I’m thinking, ‘You’re f***ing fumbling through it and you didn’t really play that and that’s a gimmick and that’s a trick and that was crap.’

In what movie would you say you did your best work?

Probably one nobody has ever seen. Or in the theater.

“The Iceman Cometh?”

Yeah. I got close in “Iceman.” The play keeps feeding you every night. But film performances are only as good as you were that particular day. Then they send it away and you never, ever, get a chance to do it again. You never get to second-guess it. You never get the chance to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if I tried it this way, what if I said that line like this, instead of like that.’ But you go and see the movie and that’s it. That’s as good as you’ll ever be. And even if that is somebody else’s excellent, it might be your passable. And that’s what I feel, that I’ve been passable for awhile. And nine times out of ten if I see something on film, particularly lately, that I think actually works, it’s just a f***ing miracle. You have no idea how it works. It’s chemistry, it’s a moment, it’s people involved. There’s this incredibly great story about when Olivier was at the Old Vic doing Othello. And apparently one night he gave a performance that was so daring and dazzling that cast members were standing in the wings watching what was happening on stage and calling their friends and saying, “Get down here, you’ve got to see this.” By the end of the play he must’ve taken 13 or 14 curtain calls. People were screaming and cheering. He walked from the stage and through a line of cast members on either side backstage applauding him which they’d never done before, and he went into his dressing room and slammed the door. You could hear him in there throwing things and cursing and people came to the door but he wouldn’t open it for anybody. The next day, Vanessa Redgrave, who was in the production, got there a little early and discovered that Olivier was in his dressing room already, and she knocked on the door and went in. She was puzzled and curious about why his behavior the night before had been the way it was, because everyone thought it was the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen, and Olivier said, “I know. I know.” She said, “It was. It was the most extraordinary performance I’ve ever seen you give.” And he said, “I’m fully aware of that, I just have no idea how I did it.” And what he was faced with was, how do I go out there again tonight and do it again if I don’t know how I did it? So that’s very often the feeling. You get all this attention and at the end of the day you just don’t know how you did it.

Some might say you’re being too critical of your own work.

That’s my job. That’s exactly what my job is. My job is not to sit back and think, you know, things are going so great. I hear that all the time from people. “Oh, it’s so incredible, your career is going so great.” And I just nod my head and think, you don’t have the first f***ing clue how my career is going. Only I do. And I know better than you do. And I know better than any critic who may want to slay me in print or anywhere else. I know better than they do. They can’t get close to the adjectives I use on myself. But what else am I supposed to do, sit back and pat myself on the back and think, ‘Oh, you really did it.’ No. I rarely ever raise my thumb up and think I really did it. So I’ve become uncomfortable with how successful I’ve become. It’s uncomfortable. I don’t deserve it. So I keep working hard at it. I keep trying to find new things.

Do you miss your anonymity?

No. It’s not like it’s black and white. It’s not like it was one day one thing and the next day another. It’s a very slow, gradual thing. It goes through different phases. I don’t miss it, it just would be nice sometimes to do the work and go home.

How is it being constantly approached by people?

Venice2002photo3Sometimes people are just inappropriate. I try very hard to be nice to anybody that comes up to me and says something genuine and heartfelt about my work, but sometimes it’s inappropriate. You know, people camped out where you’re living or staying is inappropriate. It’s inappropriate when you’re having dinner with your family and somebody comes over and squats down next to you, and because they know you from movies, expect that you should drop whatever it is you are doing and literally abandon whomever it is you are with. That makes me uncomfortable. I usually tell people, because I think it’s important to tell people when they’ve crossed a line. Most of the time I find that people are very nice, and that it’s important to remember that even though in the course of my day I may have had that happen many times, but for that person, to be able to come and say hello, it’s happened once. Plus, I’m also very skillful at disappearing.

Aside from acting and singing, you direct and produce. How do you like producing?

It is very satisfying for me to watch a group of people pull it together and believe in something and believe there’s a reason to do it. And to find myself able to help and facilitate [their] doing it the way they want to do it, and the way they see doing it, is incredibly satisfying.

It’s been seven years since you directed your first film, Albino Alligator. Why haven’t you directed anything since?

I was not drawn to find anything to direct because I know, and have known, for at least 10 years what I was going to direct next. So it’s been a process of preparing myself for that and getting it in order, getting it ready. It’s going to require a level of focus and commitment for a long period of time that will completely take me away from the process of acting, probably for a year and a half. So knowing that, it’s made me not want to direct anything else, because my heart and my focus and my commitment is to this particular film, which I am very close to announcing.

So directing Albino Alligator was intended to be a trial run?

I wasn’t even really looking for anything to direct when that came along. I thought it would be a really great experience and it was. We had a great group of actors. It was great process because I walked out of it having learned so much and feel, because of that experience, I’m ready to step up to the game in an entirely different way.

Are you having fun?

Yes. I am having fun. I’m becoming much more comfortable with the public responsibilities that I have to not just help the work that I do, but to help those people who are kind enough to finance the work, and help them try to get their money back. So there’s an obligation there that I feel is my responsibility to help. And I’m learning more and more to have fun with it.

Would you give the same advice to young actors today as you would have five years ago?

You can’t advise someone. You can’t tell a young actor or actress or director or screenwriter how to make it work for them. You can only express to them, if they’re willing to hear it, things you recognize about their particular struggle and ambition, and hope they might hear something that sounds familiar. Everyone’s experience is so completely different and it all depends on the degree of which you are dedicated to the work that you are doing, and staying focused and allowing its effect to happen in a natural way. Follow your heart if you can find it. A lot of people haven’t been introduced to their heart.

Anything else?

I have for you, because you’ve been doing such a good job with this interview, I have several Coffee Bean bucks. They’re gift certificates. They’re made out to Kevin but I’m sure they won’t…they’re five dollars each. [Kevin starts counting the certificates out.] I’ve got a whole bunch. Ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five. Twenty-five dollars worth of Coffee Bean bucks for you.

Very generous. 

Yeah, yeah. Anytime. Just tell them your name is Kevin, and if they argue with you, tell them Kevin Costner gave them to you.

Where did you get them?

Kevin Bacon, he got them from him.

What about Kevin Pollak?

Kevin Pollak wasn’t even invited. I know that hurts him. [laughs] It hurts him a lot. Kevin’s stung; he’s stung that they invited Jay Mohr.  

Thanks for the bucks.

No problem.

Venice – December 2001/January 2002
Photography by Brigitte Lacombe
Styling by Deborah Waknin/Art Mix The Company
Grooming Terri Apanasewicz/Cloutier
Clothing Georgio Armani