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Interview: Kevin Spacey Takes Another Left Turn

After winning two Oscars in relatively short succession, Kevin Spacey left Hollywood. He moved to London, became Artistic Director of the Old Vic, and starred in a production there every year. One of the most notable projects undertaken by Spacey in that time was The Bridge Project version of "Richard III," directed by Sam Mendes. The critically-acclaimed reinterpretation of the William Shakespeare classic toured the world and director Jeremy Whelehan chronicled the production in "NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage," now in theaters and available online at NowtheFilm.com. Spacey is also self-distributing the film, which feels like just another in a long line of pattern-breaking decisions by the actor. Oscar winners don’t self-distribute documentaries. They don’t star in Netflix Originals. They don’t take theater jobs that pull them from the film industry. They certainly don’t star in video games. The day before our interview, it was announced that Spacey would have a lead role in this fall’s "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare." The unpredictability of Kevin Spacey’s career seems to be one of the things that excites him most at this point in his life. We spoke about the blurred lines of his form, Sir David Lean, the timelessness of Shakespeare (and its influence on "House of Cards"), and even the moment he knew he didn’t just want to be an actor but that he already was one.

As so often happens, my introduction as a writer for this site provokes a prologue about Roger Ebert himself and what the subject thought of him.

KEVIN SPACEY: A critic in the great sense of it. I think back to great criticism, whether it’s books or music or theater or film. Kenneth Tynan. They knew what they were talking about and knew their history and knew connections between work and authors. Now we don’t have so many critics. OR everybody’s an expert. If you have a blog, you’re an expert.

I want to start with a discussion of blurred lines. There used to be "TV actors" and "Film actors". We’re here discussing a film about a theater production. There are people on this floor probably watching your TV show "House of Cards" on their iPad. And, yesterday, it’s announced that you’ll play a starring role in the next "Call of Duty" video game. What do you think has happened that has allowed you this creative freedom across so many platforms?

I’ve lived in London for the last decade and it seems to me that those lines have been blurred there for a very long time. You could look at British actors for the last 30 years and they did movies, they did TV, they did theater. There was never that kind of snobbery about it. In the United States, there was some degree of snobbery. People "ended up" on television after your film career was over. There are a couple things that have happened that have been really exciting. It seems to me that if you were to go back and say that something really "started to change" in terms of the mentality of the creators and, maybe to some degree, the executives, when "Hill Street Blues" debuted. I go back to "Hill Street Blues." If you went back and read the notes that the network gave to Steve Bochco, they were all actually an explanation of most of the things that have made the remarkable efforts of programming in the last 15 years successful. That they wanted to change. They were very nervous that there were multiple plotlines—very, very difficult to follow. The characters weren’t good at their jobs. Some of them weren’t likable. Some of them weren’t attractive. They felt that they were going to offend their audience. If the network had had their way…Luckily, Steve Bochco had agreed to do that series because he got complete autonomy so he didn’t change a goddamn thing. He did exactly what he wanted to do and that series went on to really shift.

Now, I have this memory of when Jack Lemmon invited me to come sit at his table at the AFI Tribute to Sir David Lean.

What year is this?

1990. Jack and I had done "Long Day’s Journey Into Night" and we had done "The Murder of Mary Phagan" and we had done a film called "Dad." We had not yet done "Glengarry Glen Ross."

It’s this incredible night. There’s Jimmy Stewart, there’s Johnny Carson, there’s Sir David Lean. It was an amazing time. Here’s what I remember most about the evening: Lean, who had gout at that point and couldn’t walk to the stage gave his speech at his table. He stood and he spent the entirety of his acceptance speech…he started normally thanking people he had worked with and yadda yadda and then he stopped. He spent the entirety of the rest of his speech making a plea to the studios to support emerging talents. Everyone who had been given the AFI Award could be called a trailblazer. He was worried at that point that the film business was in trouble. They were making parts 2, 3, 4, and 5. They were no longer focusing on and championing emerging filmmakers. He said this sentence that I never forgot: "If the film business continues to support emerging talents then the business is going to go up and up and up and up, and if you don’t, and I’m talking to you moneymen in the room, you’re going to lose it all to television. Television will take over." He, that night, gave a warning, and nobody paid any attention. And it would only be eight years later that "The Sopranos" would debut on HBO and change the face of the industry forever.

David Lean, of all people.

I know. (Laughs). What was interesting looking at that: The foretelling and the ignoring of all that, the takeover of character-driven drama that has taken place, the remarkable programming—at the same time that the technological innovation has happened in platforms and ways to find audiences. So, creativity and technology has intersected. So, now, we’re at a place where…do you know who Lucas Cruikshank is? Six, seven years ago he makes a web series about a hyperactive 6-year-old. He makes another one. And another one. As of this April, he’s had one BILLION views. And then you see someone like Louis C.K., people who are finding their own YouTube challenges, self-releasing, self-financing. Here’s what’s been interesting from the perspective of someone who’s been in the industry for a long time: We’ve been really successful at building walls. We don’t want you in. "You’ve got to have an agent. You’ve got to be in Hollywood or New York." We’ve built up all of these fantastic walls that keep emerging talents out. And now? There’s no barrier. You can get in. You can get seen. Your work can get seen. So, unless the studios and networks make it more inviting they’re going to continue to miss out.

Different platforms, different freedoms fascinate me and yet we’re here discussing a documentary about "Richard III." With all of these new tools, why do we still so often go back to Shakespeare? Why does it still matter?

Because he was the greatest expression of the human mind that has ever put pen to paper. Everyone accepts that. Remarkably, here Sam Mendes had an idea how to attack this play and make it feel relevant and accessible and not 450 years old—there was the Arab Spring happening at the very moment we were making decisions about what we were going to do visually and trying to make the play feel, especially for young people, not like something we dusted off like a museum piece but relevant. And then you can look at "House of Cards," which has become this big success. Do MOST people know that it’s entirely based on "Richard III"? That Francis Underwood is turning and talking to the audience because Shakespeare invented direct address? I know some people think Ferris Bueller invented direct address. He didn’t. It was William Shakespeare.

Theater is, for me, and for a slew of the greatest actors, always our primary focus. Sometimes people will say to me, "Denzel Washington is doing a Broadway play and it feels like Hollywood actors are doing more theater than ever." And I go, "That’s only because you don’t know what happened before a year ago." If you actually go back and look at Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon—they were going back and doing theater their entire careers. There has always been a relationship between success in film and where people learned their craft. And many of us have never looked at the theater as a "stepping stone."

Absolutely true. But not many of those people devoted the amount of time that you have to it in the last 15 years, being artistic director of the Old Vic.

Well, I’m fucking crazy. (Laughs.)

All right. Let’s expound on that just a little bit. Is there any part of you that questioned: Is this going to take me away from other projects I may want to do? Have you regretted missing out on any film roles because you were so committed to the Old Vic?

I look at it now: I made the decision in 2000. I moved to London in 2003. It is now 2014. I don’t think I could have picked a better decade. (Smiles). Frankly, I haven’t missed much.

And to have found something like "House of Cards," which requires a tremendous amount of my attention and my time. It’s just the most remarkable transition as I’m leaving the Old Vic. It’s been incredible to find such a phenomenal part with an incredible group of actors, great writing, great directors. I’m enormously grateful for the decade because I know, working with Trevor Nunn, working with Matthew Warchus, Howard Davies, Sam Mendes—I did a play every year. It’s made me a better actor.

Something that struck me about this film was the focus on the sense of community that arises in any production but particularly one in which you take it around the world. There’s also a sense that you need to be able to trust each other on a level playing field as you’re rehearsing. You must know that young actors have to walk into a production like this with Kevin Spacey with a little bit of "Oh my GOD, it’s Kevin Spacey." How do you alleviate any star power, if you will, so you can all trust each other and operate on the same level? Or do you leave it up to them to deal with?

Let me put it to you this way. When I moved to London, there was a tremendous amount of "Oh, this movie actor is coming to do theater." There was a lot of criticism that followed that. A movie actor was going to tell them how to do theater. They could create headlines using my name that they couldn’t with any other artistic director. I remember saying to my staff…people were saying I should fight back and tell them what I was doing. And, I said, "Look. A) I’m not going to take the bait. B) Eventually, they’ll realize that I’m still showing up to work everyday. That’s my job. They’ll get over me. They’ll start judging us as a theatre company and it will no longer be about me." It’s a little bit like that. My job is to show up every day and be a company member. Now, I do believe that there is a leadership role. I was taught that by Jack Lemmon. You’re playing a leading role, it’s also a leadership role. You can be a part of leading an environment, creating a space. Maybe it will take people a couple days to get over that but it’s the same thing an audience experiences too. I was just reading this wonderful interview with Bryan Cranston about his playing LBJ on Broadway and young people are coming to the theatre for the first time because of "Breaking Bad." And his attitude is "I don’t care why they come. Our job is to get them in the seat." If for ten minutes all they’re thinking is "Breaking Bad," if you’ve done your work, and, by every indication he fucking has, they start to accept him as Lyndon Baines Johnson. They start to accept this play. They go into this world. They believe it. So, fine, it’s a temporal part of it. Eventually, everyone does get over it. Even the younger actors who might feel intimidated at first…I have DIRECTORS who feel intimidated. My job is to let them know I’m actually a better actor when I’m directed. I’m not a better actor when I’m left to my own devices. I like being directed. I like someone going in and saying, "That really sucked what you just did. Let’s try it this way." That’s when I can do my best work, when I’m part of an ensemble. My attitude has always been that the danger of film is that it isolates actors. It turns actors into it being about their close-up and stardom and it’s just not right. Our job, our fundamental job is to not serve ourselves. It’s to serve the writing. And if you serve the writing, you will serve yourself in the end.

A lot of young actors would say, "All right. I’m starting off. And it would be a dream of mine to someday win a couple Oscars and star on Broadway and the Old Vic…" You’ve done so much with your career, how do you set new challenges? How do you find new mountains to climb? Or do you not do that?

I SO do that. But I don’t think of it necessarily as "mountains." I like to think of things that are "firsts." It’s exciting to me to do something maybe that no one else has done or no one has done in that way. How we’ve done "House of Cards." Me deciding to distribute this film? Never done it before. Last night on Jimmy Fallon? Doing barbershop quartet. Never done that before. Even doing "Call of Duty"? A first. That’s very exciting to me. Being the first American to run an institution like the Old Vic. "Firsts" are fun.

Have you always been that way? Looking for a challenge that may require a different skill set?

Yeah. I really can go back. Last week, I went back to my old high school because "CBS This Morning" was following me around and I went back to talk to the drama students there. I can remember…I was in 11th grade doing a production of Arthur Miller’s "All My Sons." We were chosen as one of the three best productions in high school theater that year. What they do then is that you take those productions to a festival. We went to Northridge College. On Friday night, Beverly Hills High did "Story Theatre"; Saturday night, Chatsworth High did "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"; Sunday matinee, we did "All My Sons." On Saturday night, I sat in this theatre watching two actors I had seen many times before. I watched these two actors and I remember sitting there thinking, "Oh my God, these actors are so good. This play was so well directed. It’s the best production I’ve ever seen." And that was Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer. I went, in my brain, "I wish I could transfer to this school." Next day, fade out and fade in, we do our production of "All My Sons." By the way, this was a definitive experience of doing this play that I’ll never forget—it was in THIS production of THAT play on THAT day that, for the first time, I realized I was having an effect on the audience because of the character I was playing. It was no longer about my friends coming to see me in a play and my parents were coming and everyone was proud of me and it was being the center of attention…It was the CHARACTER. It was the moment that I realized I no longer wanted to be an actor, I WAS an actor. It was a definitive realization. While I was dealing with that, after the curtain call, I was sitting backstage, and this man walked up to me and said, "My name is Robert Corelli." He was the drama teacher at Chatsworth, who had directed the production the night before. And he said, "I just wanted to come back and tell you that was an extraordinary piece of work and I shouldn’t be saying this but I would like you to transfer to my school." And so I transferred to Chatsworth and I spent my last year doing plays with Val and Mare and this remarkable director who is no 81 years old and when we took "Richard III" to Singapore and he came over with his wife. I stopped the audience at the curtain call to introduce the man who, if he had not believed in me, I wouldn’t be standing here today.

So, to get back to the question. I feel like I’ve been doing this "make a left turn" thing my whole life.


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