is a man who knows when to get on his bike. Take the morning of our
interview, a balmy Wednesday in June on which central London is even
more than usually snarled with traffic. In transit to our meeting place –
a chic West End hotel – he abandons his taxi and leaps on a rental
bicycle, or so I’m told by a neatly dressed man with a moustache and
clipboard whose job entails keeping abreast of Spacey’s movements, for
today at least.
Minutes later, Spacey glides in sweat-free and bang on time,
despite having made an iced latte pit stop en route. Smiling hungrily,
and dressed in a sharp navy blazer, striped tie and chinos, he looks
like a crocodile disguised as a Rotarian. But as he slouches into an
armchair and amiably lobs the screwed-up wrapper of his drinking straw
towards a wastepaper basket in the corner – a near miss – I start to
wonder if my wary first impression was entirely fair.
It was certainly swayed
by the fact that Spacey’s career is currently in the sixth fruitful
year of its death-dealing control freak phase, a character type at which
the 57-year-old actor has proved remarkably adept. First came his
three-month stint as Richard III at the Old Vic
– a production of the Shakespeare play, directed by Sam Mendes, that
was called the crowning glory of his 11-year creative directorship at
the London theatre.
Next came six seasons of Netflix’s glossily rancorous political serial House of Cards,
in which Spacey plays President Frank Underwood – a character whose
original incarnation, in a series of novels by the British author and
Conservative peer Michael Dobbs, was partly inspired by Richard III and
Macbeth. And this week, we have the first film Spacey shot since leaving
the Old Vic in 2015: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver,
a car-chase thriller in which he plays Doc, the dark mind and barbed
tongue behind a madcap Atlanta bank-robbing crew. It’s a role, like
those other two, that turns on the classic Spacey bark/bite conundrum:
you think his character can’t possibly be as scary as he sounds, and
then he actually gets to work.
were hints of that in his performance in The Usual Suspects, too: the
first in a quartet of towering film roles that made his reputation and
won him two Academy Awards in five years flat. (The others were Se7en,
L.A. Confidential and American Beauty.)
This kind of actor-audience tension reminds Spacey of
Shakespeare – a lot does – and specifically, the way theatre-goers
around the world reacted when, as a raging Richard III, he directly
addressed members of the audience while pouring out his nefarious
schemes. (The theatrical technique was adopted by House of Cards, to
similarly chilling ends.)
“In 12 different theatres in 12 different cities around the
world, I was looking into the audience’s eyes and seeing the same
extraordinary reaction everywhere: ‘This is so awesome, I’m in on it,
I’m a co-conspirator!’” he recalls. “And they kept totally supporting
him, right up until the moment they find out he murdered the kids. Then
when I looked at them it was like, ‘Oh, f—,’” he beams.
Spacey sets about his
work with a steely resolve and says his sense of purpose has redoubled
following the deaths of a number of close friends, not least the actor Tim Pigott-Smith, in April of this year, and the theatre director Howard Davies last October, both of whom worked with Spacey on the 1999 Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh.
says he’s spent the last year-and-a-half “working with a whole series
of experts, doctors and others, because I have watched, over the last
six years, colleagues and friends of mine drop dead at 52, or 56, or 65.
It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get one of the five things
that men over 50 are getting, but maybe you can hold it off until your
80s or your 90s. So I’m working on extending my life and not shortening
For one thing, he still has so much to do. He’s written letters asking directors he admires – Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen,
Wong Kar-wai – to bear him in mind for future roles. (“I keep opening
the paper and reading that Woody Allen’s doing a film with Alec
Baldwin,” he mock-splutters.) He wants to find a new creative
director-like role that will “advance [his] love and appreciation of
theatre” – another Old Vic gig, essentially – albeit “with the caveat
that I don’t want to run a building again.”
Then this tantalising prospect: “I have a gigantic project
for television,” he says. “Once House of Cards is finished. This is a
very specific project that will be the next big thing I do.” He declines
to elaborate, so I ask if it will reunite him with David Fincher, the
director who, along with the playwright Beau Willimon, helped bring
House of Cards to Netflix. “It is not a Fincher production,” he replies.
also his ongoing mission to open up theatre to a younger, broader crowd.
At the Old Vic he relentlessly raised funds to keep the theatre running
without public subsidy, while simultaneously fighting to bring its
productions to new audiences – specifically, youngsters who wouldn’t
have otherwise wandered through its doors.
fact, he’s just returned to England from New York, and a restaging of
his penultimate Old Vic production – David W. Rintels’ intimate one-man
show Clarence Darrow, about the American civil rights lawyer – in a
23,000-seater tennis stadium in Queens, designed to bring in a crowd for
whom Broadway is alien turf. Critics didn’t exactly take to the idea,
with the New York Times branding the exercise a “folly”. But for Spacey,
the bragging rights are in the numbers: 200 student tickets sold every
night, and a further 250 given away free to 18 to 25-year-olds. “And
yes, my producers don’t like me, but in the end we still make a profit,”
he says, lacing the word “like” with pure venom. “We just don’t make as
big a profit.”
This nose-thumbing single-mindedness considered, it’s
perhaps surprising that Spacey enjoyed working on Baby Driver as much as
he did. The film is so tightly choreographed – most scenes unfold in
snappy sync with a musical accompaniment – that Spacey had to act out
entire scenes with an earpiece keeping time, to ensure his every line
and gesture fell on the beat.
“Let me put it this way,” he says. “Every time you work with a
director, you have something to lose and something to gain. Some
directors, when you’re doing a play, like to get up on their feet on day
one and block the first act, and you’re like, ‘I don’t f—ing know who
I’m playing yet, let alone why they would walk from here to there.’ And
others sit down at a table and you spend a week examining Shakespeare
before anyone gets on their feet.”
What did he have to lose on Baby Driver? “I could have been fired and Edgar could have got in Michael Caine
instead,” he deadpans. Spacey is an accurate and merciless mimic – see
YouTube for details – and says he would sometimes drop into the British
actor’s accent on set, “just to make Edgar smile.”
He does this throughout our conversation too: reminiscences of Ian McKellen’s
Widow Twankey at the Old Vic’s Christmas pantomime, for example, come
with a note-perfect impersonation attached. In fact, interviewing Spacey
often feels as if you’re in the front row for a one-man show of his
devising. He doesn’t converse so much as monologue, and adjusts his tone
and posture with a slinky precision while moving from one point to the
next. And when he talks about losing Pigott-Smith and Davies, his words
are so tender, and his delivery so wrong-footingly serene, I find myself
It’s not that you feel that Spacey is being insincere so much as
suspect that for him, this might be what sincerity is. Perhaps it’s an
up-close-and-personal version of Diderot’s paradox of the actor: you can
either convincingly express an emotion or feel it for real, but never
both at once.
While hosting the Tony Awards
a few weeks ago, Spacey joked about the long-running rumours around his
sexuality – but again, at a cautious remove. During the opening skit he
dragged up as Norma Desmond, from Sunset Boulevard, and trilled a line
from the musical – “I’m coming out!” – before hurriedly backtracking, to
laughter from the crowd.
doesn’t talk publicly about his personal life, perhaps after being
burned by a 1997 magazine interview that heavily insinuated he was gay.
Given his long-standing decision not to discuss any of this, did he feel
odd joking about it on the stage of an awards show?
“I really don’t think that anything isn’t a subject for comedy,” he
shrugs. “In many ways, political correctness has made comedy really
difficult.We were just trying to have fun, and poking fun at oneself as much as anyone else. I
said pretty early on that I was not interested in turning the evening
into a political opportunity, and I wanted to do things that would be
surprising and different.”He mentions another gag, about the Hillary Clinton
email scandal, which many might have thought his long-standing
friendship with her husband, might have precluded: again, not so.
“If we can’t make fun of ourselves and others, and even people
we might agree with versus people we don’t agree with, then I don’t
think that’s good for comedy.”
his inspirations in life, he says, has been Jack Lemmon. The two met
when Spacey was a timid 13-year-old – the youngest of three siblings –
at an acting workshop in Los Angeles. Lemmon was “an idol” – someone
he’d marveled at on countless cinema trips with his mother Kathleen
Ann, who instilled her own love of classic films and theatre in her
recalls the older man laying a hand on his shoulder after the class and
telling him: “You’re a born actor, and you should go to New York and
study this, because you were meant to do this with your life.” The
advice took. At 19, Spacey was accepted by the Juilliard School, and in
his mid-20s, he was cast opposite Lemmon in a Broadway production of
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as the elder actor’s son. During
rehearsals, he told him the story of their first meeting when he was 13.
Lemmon remembered every detail.
Spacey describes Lemmon, who died in 2001, as a “father figure” (his
actual father Thomas, a technical writer and frustrated novelist, passed
away in 1994). He lost his mother to a brain tumour in 2003.
teen who got that vital dose of Lemmon aid more than four decades ago
may be long gone, but Spacey remembers him well – along with the precise
point, two years later, when he fully understood what acting was.
“Something shifted,” he explains, during a school production of All
My Sons, the Arthur Miller play. Before then he’d primarily enjoyed
acting because it put him at the centre of attention, but as he stood on
stage, the 15-year-old realised the faces in front of him – parents,
classmates, strangers – weren’t actually looking at him, Kevin Spacey,
“I realised they were responding to the character I was playing,” he says. “That it wasn’t about me.”
“Of course I start with a story, but a story is not a conclusion. A story could end here or there, and each ending would convey a different meaning. Sometimes it’s unclear - you know you’re doing the right thing by instinct, but you’re not sure why.”
Everybody at film school, the films they made were like the filmmakers they were obsessed with. So it was a lot of Spielberg knockoffs, a lot of like Wes Anderson knockoffs. I want my voice to be different so I started watching nothing but foreign films. I went to Blockbuster and I chose the Foreign Film wall and I just randomly selected, picking things off. I remember seeing Tarantino’s face on the box for Chungking Express. And I was like, why is Tarantino on the box of Chungking Express? I think his company put that movie out in the States. I just watched that film. I’ve never been to Hong Kong, I have no idea what this is like and I don’t really read subtitles but this is amazing. So I was like ‘I want to do this.’