Inner Spacey

Kevin Spacey dials down the sarcasm, sings Simon and Garfunkel tunes for charity and becomes the sweetheart of the holiday movie season. Really.

by Merle Ginsberg

W-November2000An audience with Kevin Spacey can feel like something of a mixed blessing. You revel in the actor’s focused attention, his fierce intelligence and sometimes slashing wit, all the while wondering what it would be like if he suddenly turned it all against you.

You can’t help imagining him on the offensive, brandishing that Sub-Zero sardonic edge familiar from so many of his films, and cutting some sophomore director (or magazine journalist) to the quick. Hell, Spacey was even a little scary in American Beauty, and he was only playing a suburban nebbish.

That coiled spring within him has always given Spacey’s performances tremendous power. But lately, the tension seems to be easing, if only a little. Sitting at the patio restaurant at L’Ermitage Hotel Beverly Hills on a breezy, sunny afternoon in late September, he’s the picture of Zenlike contentment in a navy blue linen shirt, khakis and newly reddish hair for his role as death-row prisoner and human rights advocate David Gale. He’s so unself-conscious he thinks nothing of devouring a late sack lunch in front of a reporter, and he is jocular, polite and patient enough to spend three hours when he had promised only one.

The former angry young man, the biggest troublemaker at the San Fernando Valley’s Chatsworth High School (and then at Northridge Military Academy, which booted him out for rowdiness), is now warm and fuzzy. It’s the kind of contentment that only clout can bring. The Iceman is now The Niceman, putting his own money behind obscure theatrical productions, deferring his salary to get unusual movies made, subsidizing students’ theater tickets and, most surprising, turning his own ego down to the level of an almost-whisper — albeit a stern one.

“I actually like directors who can shape me, mold me, be tough on me and say ‘No, that’s not it, that’s not it, that not it,”‘ he insists, sipping an Amstel.

Okay. But what director has the nerve to do it?

“All the ones I work with,” Spacey replies. The ones who do defer to their big-name stars, he adds, aren’t doing their jobs. “In fact,” he says, “there are a lot of actors who should be told to f—ing cut it out! You know, stop turning in the same crap year after year! ” (Warm and fuzzy has its limits.)

Spacey will soon demonstrate his trademark intensity in two of the year’s weightiest and most substantial films: Universal’s K-Pax, the story of a man, Prot (pronounced “Prote”), who thinks he’s an alien from outer space and the shrink (Jeff Bridges) who doubts him, and Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of the acclaimed Annie Proulx novel The Shipping News, Miramax’s Christmas release, about R.G. Quoyle, a common man who loses his troubled wife only to find new warmth in a freezing-cold fishing village on the coast of Newfoundland.

“I first read Shipping News in 1995,” Spacey recalls, “and I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is beautiful!’ But my name would not have come on anyone’s radar screen. It’s been six years since then, and for me to have gone from Seven to K-Pax to Shipping News – well, it’s been a long, extraordinary journey.”

He pops open some small plastic containers filled with indecipherable vegetable dips prepared for him by a studio-provided chef — impossibly healthy-looking stuff that even he doesn’t know the contents of. “I think this is lentil tofu pate,” he says, studying a greenish substance, part of a diet regimen meant to help him lose the 26 pounds he gained to play Quoyle.

“I am not drinking at all, either,” he adds, following a gulp of beer. “I can drink only one day a week. Lasse Hallström wanted me to put on a lot of weight.” (The two met years ago, when the woman Spacey has “gone out with for years,” Dianne Dryer, was the script supervisor on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. ) Spacey, a former stand up comic, recalls Hallström’s exact words in a dead on impression of the director’s lilting Swedish accent: “He said, ‘I want you to be a loaf.'”

The role presents Spacey, 42, in an entirely new light, and not just physically. “This was certainly an interesting stretch, to do something where he can’t use his immediate charm and intelligence,” Hallström says. “The need to be absolutely direct and honest was the challenge. That’s a part of Kevin’s personality that most people don’t see.”

In addition to The Life of David Gale, to be directed by Alan Parker, Spacey has committed to two years’ worth of movie work: a romantic comedy, yet to be named; a biopic of singer Bobby Darren (yes, Spacey sings); his sophomore outing as a director (after Albino Alligator), which he’s not yet ready to discuss, and several projects being developed by his company, Trigger Street.

Indeed, part of the secret to Spacey’s success may be his seemingly boundless energy. “He’s always got so many things going on it makes me dizzy,” says Robert Sean Leonard, who starred with him in the Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh, “and he can concentrate on all of them at once, with equal intensity. He walks into a room, and he’s just quaking with excitement over his projects.”

“He’s a real life force,” says lain Softley, the British director of Backbeat, Wings of the Dove and K-Pax. “Kevin has an incredible appetite – – but he’s very focused. He was writing a New York Times obit for Jason Robards between rehearsing scenes for K-Pax, but it never once diluted his concentration. I wish I could be that way.”

Spacey’s character in K-Pax (based on a 1995 novel by Gene Brewer), a self-proclaimed alien, is forced into a mental institution where shrink Bridges can study him. When Spacey first read the script, back in the mid Nineties, he was offered the psychiatrist role, even after begging for a go at Prot. A few years (and two Oscars) later, Spacey not only got the part he wanted but the right to approve his co-star and director. He favored Softley over more seasoned auteurs because, as Softley puts it, “I shared Kevin’s interest in making more challenging films inside the system – films that will get the biggest possible audience but push the bounds of what we’ll see. We could have made K-Pax a light comedy, but we wanted to do humor while also confronting tragedy and loss.”

Of course, neither man — nor the suits at Universal — could have predicted the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11, or the seeming shift in the public mood toward serious and heartfelt entertainment.

“It would appear that things are about to change in our culture,” Spacey says. “People I know are suddenly saying things like, ‘Most of my life I’ve tried to do what’s important – but now I don’t want to do anything trivial ever again.’ When you see Dan Rather or the governor of New York weeping on national television, suddenly it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s all right to feel. But of course, it’s always been all right.”

Spacey has been making his own contribution in the wake of the disaster. In addition to hosting an appreciation of John Lennon’s music to benefit New York firefighters, Spacey sang Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at a special LA benefit concert held in lieu of the Latin Grammys. “There I am with all these unbelievable Latin stars, Joan Osbome and me!” he says. “It seemed to go over okay. I don’t think l got in too much trouble vocally.”

Indeed, those who happened to catch the performance were astonished at his singing prowess. But Spacey was more concerned with the message behind the music, particularly after Clear Channel Communications — the San Antonio-based company, which, with more than 1,200 radio stations across the country, has come to dominate the nation’s airwaves — issued its deejays a list of 150 songs that might be considered inappropriate in the current climate. It included “Imagine” by John Lennon and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

“How horribly insensitive I was to sing that song! ” Spacey says  mockingly.

“They can line up with Jerry Falwell for all his idiotic comments recently,” he fumes. “What an absolute dunce! I couldn’t believe his comments, about Teletubbies and now the World Trade Center! You would think that maybe, at a moment like this, those kinds of stupid, backward f—ing, another-century, right-wing ideological comments would not be uttered. But then he’s a bonehead, so how would he know? It’s just embarrassing that he’s a public figure in American life. Absolutely infuriating.”

Cracking open what looks vaguely like dessert — and turns out to be vanilla banana tofu pie with strawberries — Spacey ends his tirade and relaxes into his chair. “I think this bonding feeling we all have now is about to grow,” he says, quite sincerely. “We have to give back. I get paid more money than I ever thought I’d get in my entire life. But I’m trying to make sure it goes back. What else am I supposed to do with it?”

He seems dumbstruck by the spoils of celebrity. “You work your whole life and you have no money and you can’t buy a goddamn thing,” he says, “and finally you get to a place where you can afford it and all anybody wants to do is … give you s—! Armani, Prada, Donna Karan. It makes your friends just hate you! I just try to be the person who I always was, and if I do get too involved with all that stuff, boy, do I have a group of people around me to kick my ass.”

Sadly, one of those people, his mentor Jack Lemmon (whom Spacey met doing Long Days Journey into Night, in 1986), died this summer and left a huge void in his life. “Lemmon, my dear, dear Jack,” he says softly. “He taught me everything about how to behave in this industry. This is a man who was at the top of his profession for 40 years, and he never became a dick. You know?”

Another thing Spacey learned from Lemmon — and from his other influences — is how to remain a character actor, even while doing leading roles. “Bogart, Tracy, those guys never stopped being character actors,” he says. “I’m a character actor, too — who’s getting away with murder!”

Spacey’s had only one real clunker since Seven put him on the map: 2000’s Pay It Forward, in which he played a schoolteacher who tries to kick off a chain of good deeds to transform the world. He attributes some of that failure to the over-hyping of the actors who were in it.

“I thought the idea of Pay It Forward was beautiful,” he explains. “But at the end of the day it didn’t come together. And if you market a film by shoving ‘Oscar’ down people’s throats, you’re going to build up a certain amount of resentment from journalists and the public. You’ll notice on the marketing for K-Pax, that word hasn’t been used anywhere.

“It’s hard to imagine a two-time Oscar winner — for The Usual Suspects and American Beauty –– asking a studio to avoid mentioning his résumé. “You bet your ass I did! ” he explodes.

But if Spacey intends to keep the word “Oscar” out of Miramax’s campaign for The Shipping News, he might be fighting an uphill battle. The Weinsteins have a well-deserved rep as geniuses of Oscar marketing.

“I might make that difficult for them,” he says, smiling slightly. “Look, there’s just too much talk about awards far too early in the season. The film is opening on Christmas, and if it legitimately earns a place there … well, then it legitimately does. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter how much you scream it, it ain’t going to make it so. And I think there’s an enormous wisdom at Miramax about that, and they’ve learned this lesson the hard way as well as anyone else.”

After he finishes his current film commitments, Spacey says that like Henry Fonda, who took seven years away from movie making to concentrate on plays, he intends to return to the theater indefinitely. One reason: Quite simply, he’s made enough money. His normal salary is now in the $10 million range, but on those occasions when he’s deferred an up-front payment for a share of the gross — as he did for American Beauty — he has generally made out well.

“You make a deal on a more interesting film in order to get the film made,” he says, acknowledging that he learned the lesson from Lemmon. “You know how many actors lose movies because they won’t pay them their quote? And that’s just … dumb. Dumb. How are you ever going to find good material if the basis on which you do or do not do the movie is money?”

Given his knack for finding good material, it’s hard to imagine Spacey actually giving up the movies altogether. But he might just do it.

“Going back to the theater will make me unbelievably happy!” he says with passion. “More than anything else. Nothing will make me feel as challenged, as fulfilled. And I want to do things that make me incredibly happy. I don’t want to took back at my life and say, ‘Well, it was good, wasn’t it?’ l want to enjoy my life — while it’s still happening.”

Photo by Michael Thompson

November 2001, Pages 314 – 317, pictures from Fall From Grace, The Usual Suspects, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Beauty, Swimming With Sharks, K-Pax, L.A. Confidential and The Shipping News. Main photo found on Contents page and as a full-page photo on page 315.