Kevin Spacey: Spaced Out
There is something about Kevin Spacey. Something calming, almost sleepy, uncomplicated.
Controversial, loaded, open, closed, it doesn't matter how a question comes, each answer is as honest and frank as the next. Maybe it's because he has nothing to lose, or to prove for that matter. He's got Oscars, a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, owns a production company, has conquered Shakespeare, is Artistic Director of The Old Vic... the list goes on.
Or maybe, as a journalist, you just genuinely feel free enough to ask whatever springs to mind without a sugar-coating considered.
Whatever the truth, it's a tactic which works for both parties, especially when you're after a good read.
Spacey attended the Doha Tribeca Film Festival for the Middle East premiere of Casino Jack, which sees him cast in the role of Jack Abramoff (aka Casino Jack), a man who controls access to some of the most powerful politicians on the planet. Based on a true story, Spacey plays another in a long line of bad guys — beady-eyed villain Mel Profitt in the television series Wiseguy, a sinister office manager in Glengarry Glen Ross, a sadistic Hollywood exec in Swimming With Sharks, creepy, smooth-talking eyewitness Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and, most famously, Lester Burnham in American Beauty. But not according to him.
"People often say to me ‘ahhhh, you love to play the villain', but I don't see it that way. I can't judge a character. How do you play villainy? For an actor that's not a person. You have to play a person who makes choices and who does things. Therefore, I think one of the great things about being an actor is when you're forced to be in someone shoes, you have empathy for them because you're no longer judging them with misinformation or a very narrow perspective.
"Characters I have played come off as fully-rounded human beings, meaning they're likable. They do terrible things, but against your better instincts you still like them because I've tried to humanise them rather than play a typical villain."
With the aid of charismatic spin-doctor Michael Scanlon, Abramoff sets out to build a dynasty that would surpass that of both the Kennedys and the Bushes. But in order to do so, he must first establish his own gambling empire using funds raised by his lobbying group. He soon finds himself falling deeper and deeper into a world of crime and eventually murder. The political world and the criminal underground collide in a major catastrophe that puts not only Abramoff and his family in peril, but the White House as well.
Spacey met with Abramoff in prison in order to prepare for the role. "I found him to be incredibly charming, incredibly funny. I didn't do much research about him, because I wanted to wait until I met him before I read what others had to say about him," he said, taking off his grey flat-cap and resting it on white, linen trousers.
"One thing which struck me was his devotion to his religion. He was devout, yet he was doing these awful things. Contradictions," he said thoughtfully. "That's what makes characters interesting, because we're all full of them."
Spacey's film career began modestly, with a small part as a subway thief in a film called Heartburn in the '80s. Typecast as more of a character actor than leading man, he stayed on the periphery until he discovered what he playfully refers to as "The Dark Side".
After 12 years in Hollywood and his biggest success yet, as Lester Burnham, a middle-aged corporate cog on the brink of psychological melt-down, which earned him a Best Actor Oscar, Spacey seemed poised to redefine himself as a Hollywood headliner.
But while that may have been what the industry wanted, it wasn't Spacey's dream.
After American Beauty and 12 years in Hollywood he decided to go back to his first love — the theatre, more specifically The Old Vic in London as artistic director.
"Theatre is the actor's medium. Film is the director's medium. But there's never been a moment when I didn't like movies. When I decided to go to the Old Vic, there was lots of commentary that I was walking away from Hollywood, that I was turning my back on film."
‘Walking towards something'
Using words which can't be printed in the pages of a family newspaper, I'm amazed how even swear words sound calm coming from him. "You don't know me, you don't know what motivates me and you also only know me as a film actor, so you don't know about my 25 years being a dedicated theatre actor before I ever stepped in front of the camera. I wasn't walking away from something, I was walking towards something. After 12 years I was like, well that went better than I could have hoped.
"The end of '99, American Beauty had come out and I thought, well now what? Am I gonna spend the next 10 years chasing the same dream. I don't really want to.
"Instead, I thought I'll take all the good fortune that's come my way and put it towards something that wasn't about me, or my ambition or my success.
"You don't wanna have the same thing for breakfast every day — which I don't by the way," he said lifting the mood.
"My mother said to me when I was very young and continued to say to me as I was growing up, if you're lucky enough to have a dream come true, make sure you have another dream. I'm already thinking about my next dream."
Living proof of his decision to do something other than for himself, Spacey took acting workshops at DTFF.
"It was my first acting class at junior high school and I'll never forget it. After we did a little scene, we had to improvise. It was fantastic, because the whole room sort of clapped and I was like, this is for me. What was that? And they haven't been able to stop me since.
"The reason I love to do these workshops, is because I had the chance when I was kid. It was the beginning for me because I was very shy as a kid, I mean I did the funny voices, but I was fundamentally shy. I found my self-esteem for the first time.
"For me, the most memorable day — and I'll never forget it — was when I went to a workshop with Jack Lemmon. We had to do a scene from a play which we were gonna see him do later that day and for me as a 13-year-old boy to do a scene and have Jack Lemmon come over and put his hand on my shoulder and say, ‘That was terrific kid. This kid's an actor. He's gonna be a great actor,' was extraordinary."
Life has a wonderful way of going full circle, as 11 years later Spacey auditioned for and won the role of Lemmon's son in a Broadway play. "He became the most important mentor in my life."
It was Lemmon who inspired Spacey to give back.
"Jack had a philosophy which he often spoke about, which was if you've done well in the profession you wanted to do well in, then it's your obligation to spend some time sending the elevator back down.
"I always liked that expression, so I adopted it for myself, and when I do these workshops now I always look out and I see myself. I feel like I'm repaying the debt."