Kevin Spacey – 20 years ago when he was the world’s most respected actor

                                                    July 2004 By Philip Berk

There was a time when people were more interested in Kevin Spacey’s sexuality than his Academy Award winning performances.

But nowadays no one seems to care.

At his press conference for Beyond the Sea, they’d rather talk about his stewardship of the prestigious Old Vic in England than who he’s in a relationship with.

Has any other American ever been so honored? I ask him.

None that he can think of.

Is this a dream come true?

“For me, this is a remarkable thing. I feel that everything in my life has been leading up to this. This is what I was meant to do.”

Thus far his record has been spotty to say the least.

Among his failures there’s been an obscure Dutch play Cloaca and Arthur Miller’s misbegotten Resurrection Blues for which he hired Robert Altman to direct. His only success has been Ian McKellen in the Xmas pantomime Aladdin.

To which he responds, “We’ve had our growing pains, but I hope we’ll be given a chance to make mistakes and our worth will be judged over a reasonable period of time.”

His other dream come true of course is Beyond the Sea, the film biography of pop singer Bobby Darin, best remembered for such songs as Dream Lover, Mac the Knife, Splish Splash, and of course the title song.

“It’s been the single hardest film to raise financing for. Thankfully, films driven by music are back in favor, although I don’t think they were ever out of favor with audiences. I just think people in this industry have short memories because they don’t remember films like All That Jazz and Fame.”

Spacey not only plays the lead, he co-wrote and directed the film as well. 

And he does his own singing.

What convinced him he had the chops for that?

“I sang an old Sinatra song once when I hosted Saturday Night Live. Clint Eastwood saw the show and called to say I have a nice set of pipes. That’s how I came to do Old Black Magic in his film. But I’ve always had a definite musical sense even when I read something. As a kid I was able to do impressions because I was able to hear how it sounded.”

Did he work with a voice coach?

“We started working on the music in ‘98, initially with Roger Kellaway a respected jazz artist. He was one of Bobby’s accompanists. We worked anywhere we could. I’d do a benefit just to find out if I could sing in front of an audience. Then we brought in Phil Ramone, we went into a recording studio where we laid down about twenty tracks, So while I was acting in other movies I was preparing, working with orchestrations without my vocals.”

 So it’s been almost a decade long journey?

“Even longer The project was at Warner Bros. in development about fifteen years ago. I kept my eye on it, kept tracking it; there were a lot of rumors other actors were cast, but for one reason or other it never happened. It just so happened about 96, 97, 98 I did a series of films for Warner Bros. I began to have a relationship with executives who had the key to the golden box where the rights were. It took about five and a half years to convince Warner Bros. to hand over those rights. Generally they don’t like to do that even if they don’t end up making the film.”

But after that, in keeping with the title,  it was clear sailing?

“On the contrary. the obstacles really just began. Not only had I bought the rights I had a acquired a property with a reputation that it couldn’t get made. In addition films that I did between 99 and 2000 after American Beauty didn’t do well, and you know the way this town thinks: you’re only as good as your last film. So there I was trying figure out how to tell the story and trying raise the money to get it made. It’s no secret that I was turned down by darn near every studio in this town, the argument being, Who’s ever heard of Bobby Darin?” 

Ultimately Lions Gate stepped to the plate

“And I have to say they’ve been a terrific partner.”

The film premiered at he Toronto Film Festival two years ago. It was greeted by a rave review from America’s most respected critic (Todd McCarthy of Variety) and then won the support of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. which nominated Kevin for a Golden Globe.

But ever since the response has been tepid and the reviews downright hostile.

Some of the criticism focused on Kevin’s age.

“You mean, am I too old to play the part, too long in the tooth? That negative poking commentary hounded me for two years before we started shooting; ultimately I told my producer, ‘You just have to recognize the elephant in the room and then move on.’ That’s why I ended up writing a scene in the movie where a reporter asks that question. That way people know I know it too. I’m not so blind I don’t get it.  Maybe then people will relax and enjoy the film. At the end of the day it was never a big issue because in the first scenes I wasn’t playing Bobby at seventeen. It’s the mature Bobby and the idea to me is, Is it a memory, is it a dream, is it a movie, is it a movie within a movie, is it a nightmare? I don’t want the audience to ever know. I want the audience to decide for themselves what it is. So for me the age issue is minimal, At the end of the day we did the movie we wanted to, we addressed that issue with some degree of humor. And for me Bobby Darin is timeless.”

His wife Sandra Dee (played by Kate Bosworth) was a far bigger star than Bobby in the early sixties. The film suggests otherwise. How come? I ask him.

“Well you’re right, I think for three or years she was one of the biggest box office stars in the States. But I didn’t set out to tell the Sandra Dee story. I set out to tell the Bobby Darin story of which she is a large part. There’s no doubt that when Bobby went off to make Come September, he had seen her on magazine covers. I think he targeted her. I think he thought what a great marriage that would make. I think he was surprised when he ended up falling in love with her. They were two people both deeply sheltered by their families, she by a mother who was overly protective. She was also so much younger than him; I mean he found out on their wedding night that she was only seventeen. They didn’t have a lot in common except the fact that they fell in love. It’s always difficult when you’re making a film about somebody to know what an audience is going to accept; you want the character to be likable. But I wasn’t afraid to show Bobby as difficult, arrogant, insensitive  particularly in his relationship to her.  At the same time I had to be smart about how much of her story I was going to tell. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

The film has much in common with The Boy From Oz (Hugh Jackman’s musical biography of  Peter Allen) borrowing the conceit of the adult star coming to terms with his teenage self. 

Is he aware of that?

“Someone told me about this, but I was never aware of it. My bigger influence was the musical Nine, which oddly enough is where I found William Ulrich who plays little Bobby. He played little Guido opposite Antonio Banderas in the Broadway production. The reason I used him was because Bobby Darin had said several times in his lifetime that he felt like two people. Walden Robert Cossotto had spent half his life trying to become Bobby Darin, and Bobby Darin spent the rest of his life trying to get back to Walden Robert Cossotto. That to me was a very compelling comment about the duality and the struggle between these two forces. So that’s why I decided to use the boy as in a sense his muse.”

Getting back to the Old Vic, what  does he hope to achieve?

“I am excited at the idea of  running a theatre because I believe an enormous amount can be accomplished and I can use what has happened for me in films as a magnet not just for actors, directors and writers, but I hope for a whole new audience that wouldn’t necessarily come to the theatre otherwise.”

The infusion of American actors. Is that how he hopes to resuscitate the institution ?

“There’s  been a bit of misreporting about the theatre having been some kind of a failure and that I’m riding in on a white horse and saving it, which is a bit of a disservice to the people who have been working there for the last  five years doing major productions that have been selling out; the theatre has actually been running at a profit since we redesigned the board in 1998, so it’s been doing quite well.”

Has he any misgivings about living in England?

“None whatsoever.”

What about the weather? 

“There’s nothing I don’t like about London. And I don’t mind the weather. I can understand people who live there all the time complaining about the weather, but that’s like people who complain about never being able to get off the isle of Manhattan. I live a life that allows me to go to other places so I always have something to compare cities to, and I never get stuck in one place for long. Clearly I’ll be there six or more months out of the year running a theatre, but whatever downside there may be, the weather, there’s a huge upside. I’ve been going to London since I was six or seven years old. My parents took trips to London. I saw my first plays at the Old Vic when I was that age.“

Is that when he decided to become an actor?

“My parents say I was born an actor.”

No single epiphany that he can remember?

“There were a series of things that I did as a youngster that my parents frowned upon, and for which I was duly punished. So I punished the punishers and kept going. My parents sent me to military school which I didn’t take to well. I didn’t like violence, and it was a very violent atmosphere. So I was happy when I was kicked out, although it puzzled me that the the week I was kicked out, I won the leadership medal, so figure that out. In any event, out of a very troubled and difficult time when I was not happy, I discovered theatre. But there are so many examples of people from very difficult, humble beginnings who’ve made extraordinary lives for themselves. Not that  mine was that difficult, but it was mine.”

Can he remember the first play he ever saw?

“It was in London. I was with my family. We saw a number of plays. On one incredible evening at an early preview of one of those plays, part of the set fell over the actor. The play was Sherlock Holmes, and the actor was playing Dr. Watson. They quickly repaired the set, and when the play resumed, he walked down center stage, took a cigarette out of his pocket, looked back at the set, and said to the audience,‘I knew I should never have moved to Kensington.’ This is a story I’ve been telling since I was a kid. I told it one night in the dressing room (at the Old Vic) when I was doing Iceman Cometh, and Tim Piggott Smith who was with me in the play, quietly said, ‘That was me.’ It was just incredible.”

Spacey  achieved unprecedented acclaim for his performance in that O’Neill drama, becoming the first American actor to win the coveted Olivier award. He repeated the role in New York but lost the Tony to Brian Dennehy (for Death of a Salesman.)

His envy of other actors may have caused him to turn to alcohol (he hasn’t had a drink in eight years) but he has only kind things to say about Val Kilmer. 

After expulsion from the military academy, he attended a public school where his fellow actors were Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer.

Kilmer’s meteoric rise must have irked him, but when I asked him about it, he volunteered, “Val was one of the most honorable and best actors I ever knew. He had a great influence on me as a person, and I’m happy with the success he’s had.”

He’s always had a great rapport with his Iceman Cometh director.

“I met Howard Davies twenty years ago. He was a very respected British theater director. I auditioned to replace Alan Rickman in the Broadway production Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Howard wanted both me and another actress to take over the leads, but when the producers were told ‘Kevin Spacey,’ their answer was ‘Who?’ So rather than cast the two unknowns, they closed the production. By the way the other actor was Glenn Close!”

Eventually he and Davies were reunited. 

“One of the great joys of working on Iceman was the opportunity it gave me to spend five and a half months with eighteen actors with not a single ego among them. There wasn’t a moment of tension, not a moment of crap, not a moment of bullshit, not a moment of wasted time.”

As opposed to working in film?

“I’ve been fortunate on many of the films I’ve done. The environment has been terrific. But there are times where people aren’t getting along. You spend a great deal of time trying to put out fires. I believe if people are taken care of, if they’re protected and told they’re appreciated, something great will come out of it.” 

Someone who does that is (director) Clint Eastwood. They worked together on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

“He makes you feel your contribution is extremely important. He forces you to become responsible for your own performance, by not saying a lot. He’s an almost Zen like presence on the set. It’s a very quiet set. We speak the same language,  because very often he shoots rehearsals or uses first or second takes. You learn very quickly that you better be prepared, not just the actors, every single member of the crew. And if something’s wrong you better tell him because he’s going to see it in the dailies.”

Another inspiration was the late Jack Lemmon.

“Jack did a lot of good things in his life that he didn’t talk about, that he didn’t publicize. And he always used to say to me, ‘There is only one responsibility you have if you’ve done well in this business, and that is to send the elevator back down.’ That’s what you’re supposed to do with it. And that’s just what I believe in my heart. And I couldn’t have had a better example. When I did Long Day’s Journey Into Night I was twenty-six years old. It was my first  big role. I was playing Jack’s son, and every night he was an example of how to behave and what to do with success and all that attention. So for me, there’s nothing worth having unless I can share it.”

Speaking of which, is it true he discovered Colin Farrell?

“In the sense that I was in London eight years ago rehearsing Iceman Cometh and someone suggested we see the show at the Donmar. It had a short run of five performances and five of us made the last performance on a Saturday night.  About fifty minutes into the play a young lad comes bounding down the stairs playing an autistic child and within five minutes everyone in my row was asking, Who’s that? He’s really good. We all met afterwards. Colin and I ended up having a conversation. I knew he was going off to Ireland to make  a film,  but then a couple of months later I suggested to a director. ‘Listen I met this young actor, You ought to meet him.’ So Colin met him for Ordinary Decent Criminal, which” (he jokes) “was released on an airplane. But then I started talking to some of my colleagues back in the States. ‘There’s something about this kid, I’m telling you.’ I sort of put the word out, spoke to an agent,  and a year later Colin got the lead in Joel Schumacher’s film,  and he’s been quite kind in acknowledging that. But it’s just thrilling to see what’s happened to him. And the good thing is, he’s the same guy he was then. He hasn’t changed, and I don’t think he ever will.” 

Will running the Old Vic mean he’ll have to sacrifice his movie career?

 “If I get one good film script a year, I’m lucky; so it’s not really an issue.” 

The script it turns out is Superman Returns, in theatres later in the month in which he plays arch villain Lex Luther

Ironically, the last time that role was played it was filled it was by another Oscar winner (for best actor) Gene Hackman. 

The film reunites Kevin with director Bryan Singer, whose The Usual Suspects earned Kevin his first Oscar.

For the record, he still keeps his private life private. Although he is known for his performances in films such as American Beauty (for which he won a best actor Oscar), The Usual Suspects (best supporting actor Oscar) and LA Confidential, he learned his trade on stage at the New York Shakespeare Festival where he made his Broadway debut playing Oswald opposite Liv Ullmann in Ghosts,

His next movie, to be shot in London, will be (Vince Vaughn’s) Joe Claus.

Again he plays the villain!