STAGE TO SCREENS: Kevin Spacey Talks About His New Film, and His Idols

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Kevin Spacey Talks About His New Film, and His Idols
 
This month, Kevin Spacey discusses his latest film, in which he plays "Shrink" to stars.
Kevin Spacey
Kevin Spacey Photo by Peggy Sirota

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Happy birthday, Kevin Spacey! As this column first appears, July 26, the gifted actor turns 50. A screenwriter once described Spacey's gifts as an actor as "intelligence, wit, bravado, irreverence and sensitivity." Among Spacey's numerous awards are a Tony (Lost in Yonkers) and two Oscars ("The Usual Suspects," "American Beauty").

Also a director, producer, and singer (he did his own vocals portraying Bobby Darin in "Beyond the Sea," which he directed and co-wrote), since 2003 he's been artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre. Its Broadway transfer of The Norman Conquests, selected as Best Revival by the Tony and Drama Desk Awards, finishes its run as Spacey blows out his candles.

Like one of his idols, Henry Fonda, he considers theatre a priority. With several films awaiting release, and more in development, Spacey stars (Sept. 18-Dec. 20) in Inherit the Wind, directed by Trevor Nunn, at the Old Vic.

He plays Henry Drummond, a character that's been portrayed by three of Spacey's other idols: Spencer Tracy (in the 1960 movie), Jason Robards (TV, '88), and Jack Lemmon (TV, '99). The character's based on Clarence Darrow, the famed attorney played by both Fonda (on Broadway and TV in 1974), and Spacey (on "American Playhouse," 1991). "Darrow profoundly affected me," claims Spacey, "his ideas, exploring who he was. I'm going back to a character I have tremendous affection for, and lumber around in his ideas for a couple of months." Might it transfer to Broadway? "Let's get it up on its feet first — and see."

In his new movie, "Shrink," which opened in limited release on July 24 and starts nationwide July 31, Spacey plays Henry Carter, an L.A. psychiatrist to the stars, "far more screwed up than any of his patients."

Mourning his deceased wife, Carter tries to dull his pain with a daily diet of alcohol and pot. He connects an ensemble cast of characters, including a "functioning alcoholic" movie star (Robin Williams), an "aging" actress (Saffron Burrows), a struggling screenwriter (Mark Webber), a power agent (Dallas Roberts), his assistant (Pell James), a pro-bono patient (Keke Palmer), Carter's dealer (Jesse Plemons), a drug-addicted movie actor (Jack Huston), his girlfriend (Laura Ramsey) and Carter's psychiatrist-father (Robert Loggia).

"Shrink" is Spacey's latest exhibit in an eclectic rogues' gallery that boasts such portraits as insufferable movie producer Buddy Ackerman in "Swimming with Sharks"; Roger "Verbal" Kint in "The Usual Suspects"; Jack Vincennes, a smooth-talking police detective, who's fatally shot halfway through "L.A. Confidential"; John Doe, the maniacal serial killer, in "Se7en"; and Lester Burnham, the mid-life-crisis victim, in "American Beauty."

Are there similarities between Lester Burnham and Henry Carter? "Well, the obvious one is that Lester also is self-medicating and smoking pot — and, quite frankly, I think that Lester was smoking much better shit," he says with a laugh.

"But I never thought that Lester gave up. Despite hating his life, his marriage, and his job, I always thought he was a winning personality. I think Carter's quite different. He embraces the muck [that he's in]. Lester lives in an unnamed suburbia; Henry Carter's knee-deep in Los Angeles, the narcissistic capital of the world."

As Carter, Spacey looks completely wasted, exactly how one imagines an alcoholic-pothead would appear. He declares, "I had to look like shit. We had a remarkable make-up department — because, clearly, I rarely look like shit." He laughs.

"Starting at 6 AM, they had to 'build' me. They just reversed the usual process. I think you get a little hint, at the end of the movie, that Carter's starting to pull his head out of his ass."

Thomas Moffett wrote the screenplay, and Jonas Pate directed.

Robin Williams and he share one of Spacey's favorite scenes in the film. "We improvised a lot of it. I've known Robin a long time. He's so much fun to work with. …I'm so happy that his [heart] operation was successful. He's doing great."

What attracted Spacey to the role? "It made me laugh, and I was touched by the relationship between Carter and [15-year-old] Keke Palmer's character. To me, it's the most-satisfying relationship in the film. We had a great time. She's really talented and has her feet on the ground."

Did it take time for him to wind down after playing scenes as a depressed character? "It's different in films than in theatre. You don't ever really play the character. What you play are bits and moments of a character, spread over 25 or 30 days, in various locations, with various actors.

"With a play, you live in a character for two hours, or longer. At the end of the night, you can feel like you've been hit by a truck. Sometimes, it's hard for me to do curtain calls, because I'm still in the world [of the character]. In movies, you rarely experience that — or, at least, I rarely do. I'm able to hang up the character with the costume."

Does he consider acting to be a form of therapy? "Yes, I do. You get to express emotions and physically get to go places that most people don't get a chance to do. If you're forced to look at life from another person's view — and put yourself in another person's shoes, which is what the job of acting is — it's an incredibly humanizing force. One of the most positive things is that it makes it that much harder to be prejudicial against other people.

"Our job [as actors] is to bring light to places that are dark. You have to understand what motivates somebody, why someone did something. I think that's what therapists — the good ones — try to do."

Protective of his private life — an oft-repeated remark insists that the less one knows about him as a person, the more believable he can be as a character — Spacey started out doing stand-up comedy. His expert impersonations range from Johnny Carson to Katharine Hepburn, and include Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Christopher Walken, Bill Clinton, Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, William Hurt, Ian McKellen and John Gielgud.

Imitating Carson on the telephone, he'd often obtain "Tonight Show" tickets, and later on make reservations at Studio 54 for Carson's "sons" (Spacey and pal).

Two of his idols — Jason Robards (1922-2000) and Jack Lemmon (1925-2001) — became his friends, whom he regarded as "almost second fathers."

Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh
photo by Tristam Kenton

Robards (also born July 26) and Spacey played the same Eugene O'Neill characters: Hickey in The Iceman Cometh and Jamie Tyrone — as a young man in Long Day's Journey into Night and an older one in A Moon for the Misbegotten. A breakthrough role (and May 1956 Off-Broadway debut) for Robards, he reprised the character on TV (in '60). Spacey played Hickey at the Old Vic, becoming the first American to win an Olivier Award. He earned an Outer Critics Circle Award for its Broadway transfer.

Jamie was originated by Robards in the November 1956 production of Long Day's Journey (his Broadway debut). He reprised it for the '62 movie version. Spacey played the part, his breakthrough role, in the first Broadway revival, on TV, and in the West End.

On Broadway, Robards starred in a 1973 revival of Misbegotten (reprising his performance on TV in 1975); Spacey played the role in 2007. They met in 1985, at the Kennedy Center, where Robards was starring in a pre-Broadway Iceman revival. Spacey, in rehearsals for The Seagull, starring Colleen Dewhurst, would sneak into the presidential box of the Eisenhower theatre.

"Night after night, I would watch the master." Invited by Dewhurst to escort her to the Iceman closing-night party, Spacey met "the master." Aware that Spacey soon would be playing Jamie, Robards greeted him by saying: "Be good to him. He was very good to me." Said Spacey, "That night, [Robards] passed the torch to me."

Remembering Robards in the New York Times (Jan. 14, 2001), Spacey wrote that the actor's "passionate commitment to the art of acting will burn so bright that the lights of the American theatre will never go out." (His son, Sam Robards, had a supporting role in "American Beauty.").

Kevin Spacey in A Moon for the Misbegotten
photo by Simon Annand

When Spacey was 13, he attended a seminar and Q&A that Jack Lemmon did at the Mark Taper Forum, prior to a performance of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, co-starring Walter Matthau and Maureen Stapleton. Afterwards, Spacey got Lemmon's autograph, and told him that he wanted to be an actor. Lemmon spoke to him for several minutes. Thirteen years later, Spacey played Lemmon's son in the Long Day's Journey revival, directed by Jonathan Miller.

"Suddenly, I was working every night with my idol. Watching him, learning from him — his example, his dedication." Amazed that Lemmon was both a great actor and generous to a fault, Spacey declared that Lemmon "helped to change and shape me."

Lemmon and he also appeared in TV's "The Murder of Mary Phagan," and the movies "Dad" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" (which Lemmon liked to call "Gene Barry-Glenn Close"). Said Spacey, "That should have been [Lemmon's] third Oscar."

Before shooting a scene, Lemmon would always say, "It's magic time." Writing in Entertainment Weekly (Jan.4, 2002), following his friend's death, Spacey stated, "Jack Lemmon was unique in the world of show business. He always treated people with respect and never let Hollywood glory affect his basic decency....I will always carry with me a little bit of Jack's 'magic time' wherever I go."

Spacey's "American Beauty" character, was modeled on Lemmon's C.C. Baxter in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment." He noted, "It made Lester a guy people could identify with." Spacey dedicated his second Oscar to Lemmon. Best Picture of 1999, "American Beauty" marked the Oscar-winning screen directorial debut of Sam Mendes, who chose Spacey over studio-suggested stars Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Burnham, said Spacey, "was a character I could relate to — a role closer to my own feelings and experiences, something I'd never done before."

Curtis Hanson directed Spacey in "L.A. Confidential." Recalled the actor: "I asked him whom he would have cast [as Jack Vincennes] if the film were being made in 1952, the time of the movie." Spacey expected to hear, "William Holden," but Hanson responded, "Dean Martin." Spacey watched two Martin movies — "Rio Bravo" and "Some Came Running" — and used him as his role model.

Youngest of three (he has an older brother, Randall, and sister, Julie) born to the former Kathleen Spacey, a secretary, and Thomas Fowler, a technical writer, Kevin Spacey Fowler was born in South Orange, NJ, and grew up in Southern California's San Fernando Valley.

Life as an actor began at Canoga Park High School. Spacey had a role in Arthur Miller's All My Sons. The play was one of three that competed for best high-school production, at Northridge College. Following one scene, Spacey received exit applause — "the first time in my life when I realized I could have an effect on people."

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, starring Chatsworth High students Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer, was also in competition. Their drama teacher, Robert Correlli, urged Spacey to switch schools, which he did. (Correlli was Spacey's guest, as was Jack Lemmon, at the 1999 ceremony when he received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.)

Student Spacey appeared in UTBU and Gypsy (as Herbie), and played Captain von Trapp, opposite Winningham's Maria, in The Sound of Music. She successfully auditioned for TV's "The Gong Show"; Spacey auditioned and was rejected.

Trying to break through as a stand-up comedian, along with Robin Williams, David Letterman and Jay Leno, Spacey did his impressions. "When [stand up] works, there's no greater joy...[but] I wouldn't have wanted to do it for a living. It's too brutal." Val Kilmer, then at Juilliard, convinced him to take its four-year course.

Halfway through, Spacey quit in order to make his professional stage debut, as a messenger, in a 1981 production of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I at Central Park's Delacorte Theatre. In the company were newcomers Kilmer, Mandy Patinkin, and John Goodman.

Off-Broadway, he played the lead in The Robbers and performed in Barbarians. He made his Broadway debut in Ghosts, followed by The Mousetrap (Barter Theater), As You Like It and The Misanthrope (both, Seattle Rep), Toyer (understudying Brad Davis, at Kennedy Center), Uncle Vanya (in L.A.), Sleuth (George Street Playhouse), A Fantastic Voyage with W.B. Yeats (White Barn), and Real Dreams (at Williamstown).

Asking director Mike Nichols for a chance to tour in The Real Thing, Spacey was given a choice: to tour, or to understudy on Broadway in Hurlyburly. Choosing the latter, over the course of seven months he played all four male roles.

"First, I played Phil. Mike saw something, was really pleased, and called me: 'That was great; how soon can you learn Mickey?'...'Could you learn Eddie?'...'Would you learn Artie?'" (In the 1998 movie version, Spacey played Mickey.) Nichols also directed him (as a thief who robs Meryl Streep) in "Heartburn," his 1986 movie debut, and a cameo in "Working Girl" (1988).

His television breakthrough was as toe-obsessed drug dealer Mel Profitt in TV's "Wiseguy." Stated Spacey, "I was interested in playing a character that was going to continually evolve and change, from scene to scene, episode to episode." He did nine 1988 episodes.

TV work includes "Fall from Grace" (as TV evangelist Jim Bakker, opposite the Tammy Faye of Bernadette Peters), hosting "Saturday Night Live" (in 1997 and 2006), "Freedom: A History of Us," (six episodes), "Inside the Actors Studio" and "Recount."

Other plays followed: As It Is in Heaven (Perry Street Theatre), Right Behind the Flag (Playwrights Horizons), National Anthems (Long Wharf), Playland (MTC). He also produced the 2000 Off-Broadway play about baseball legend Ty Cobb.

Auditioning to succeed Alan Rickman in 1987's Les Liaisons Dangereuse, director Howard Davies deemed him "excellent." However, the producers, not wanting to risk having an unknown take over, closed the play. Years later, Spacey immediately accepted Davies' offer to star in Iceman Cometh. They again worked together in Moon for the Misbegotten.

Al Pacino was also instrumental in Spacey's career. Lost in Yonkers earned Spacey and co-stars Mercedes Ruehl and Irene Worth Tony and Drama Desk Awards. Though the women got to reprise their roles in the 1993 film version, Spacey — not yet a movie name — was passed over. Richard Dreyfuss inherited the role of Uncle Louie.

However, Pacino was impressed with Spacey's performance, and brought director James Foley, then preparing the film verson of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," to see the comedy. Aware that Foley was searching for an actor to play the office manager, Pacino asked, "What about him?" Spacey was cast. (Later, Pacino and Spacey worked together in "Looking for Richard").

Last year, at the Old Vic, Spacey appeared in Mamet's Speed-the-Plow with Jeff Goldblum and Laura Michelle Kelly. Spacey's also appeared there in National Anthems, The Philadelphia Story, and Richard II. He's directed Cloaca and Complicit — and, with Sam Mendes, formed the Bridge Project, which transfers productions between the Old Vic and BAM.

Upcoming, Spacey's a computer voice in "Moon," a member of a secret military unit in "The Men Who Stare at Goats," disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in "Casino Jack," and a paroled billionaire in "Father of Invention."

Films in development include "Q," "Ugly Americans," "Rigged," "Catalonia" (based on a George Orwell book) and (as co-producer) "The Social Network," an Aaron Sorkin screenplay about the formation of Facebook.

Says Spacey, "In my opinion, the best actors in films are the ones who came out of theatre. You cannot go wrong by learning your craft as a theatre artist. A Spacey rule, in wearing his many hats, is: 'Never, never allow bullshit to come to the working environment.' Try to keep a happy environment. That's my modus operandi.

"My priority is the Old Vic. I sneak in movies when I can. To me, it's no different than when movies were my priority, and sneaking in plays. I've just of flipped it on its head. So far, it's working out alright."

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Various and Sundry

In last month's column, I wrote that the third season of "30 Rock", which won back-to-back Emmys as Outstanding Comedy, seemed ripe to reap a "Rock"-slide of nominations. The competitors have been announced, and it leads the list with 22.

Among the nominees: the sitcom itself, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, guest stars Elaine Stritch, Alan Alda, and Steve Martin. Fey's also up for her portrayal of an Alaskan governor on "Saturday Night Live".

Neil Patrick Harris, who did a great job as host of this year's Tony Awards (which is nominated), will do the same for the Emmys (Sept. 20, CBS, 8 PM ET). Harris is also a nominee for his sitcom "How I Met Your Mother". Among his other hosting stints the past year: The World Magic Awards, TV Land Awards, and WGA Awards. Might Harris next be host for the Oscars...and even the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards?

Congratulations to some of the stage-related Emmy nominees: Cherry Jones ("24"), Carol Burnett ("Law & Order: SVU"); Glenn Close ("Damages"); Michael C. Hall("Dexter"); Janet McTeer ("Into the Storm"); Kristen Chenoweth ("Pushing Daisies"); Cicely Tyson ("Relative Stranger"); Mary-Louise Parker ("Weeds"); Shirley MacLaine ("Coco Chanel").

Also: Ian McKellen ("King Lear"); Kevin Kline ("Cyrano de Bergerac"); Jessica Lange ("Grey Gardens"); Christine Baranski ("The Big Bang Theory"); Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men"); Gabriel Byrne, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis ("In Treatment"); Davis' God of Carnage; Marcia Gay Harden ("The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler"); and 92-year-old Ernest Borgnine ("ER").

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83-year-old Jerry Lewis, who won an honorary Oscar this year, announced plans to make his Broadway directorial debut with a musical version of his 1963 comedy "The Nutty Professor". Book and lyrics are by three-time Tony/four-time Drama Desk winner Rupert Holmes and music by Pulitzer Prize/Tony/Drama Desk winner Marvin Hamlisch.

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Christine Lahti, an Oscar/Emmy/New York Film Critics/Golden Globe winner, plays an ADA on the first four episodes of "Law & Order: SVU" (Season 11).

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"Nurse Jackie" (SHO, 10:30 PM ET), starring Edie Falco, continues to book top-flight stage actors as guest stars. A recent episode featured three Tony winners: Judith Ivey, Swoosie Kurtz, Blythe Danner, and another had Tony winner Andrea Martin.

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On TNT, in December, "Men of a Certain Age" stars Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher. Series co-creator Romano describes it as a "dramedy."

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The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences announced that, as occurred from 1931 to '42, hereafter there will be ten nominees in the Best Picture category. How long has it been since there were that many pictures in one year worthy of being nominated?

Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stage to screens@aol.com.

Eve Best and Kevin Spacey in <i>A Moon for the Misbegotten</i>
Eve Best and Kevin Spacey in A Moon for the Misbegotten Photo by Simon Annand
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