Kevin Spacey has put his screen career on the back burner to breathe new life into English theatre and is considering setting up an Old Vic in the UAE.
All the world's a stage for Spacey
Kevin Spacey is a difficult man to pin down. The two-time Oscar winner has several careers that keep him perpetually on the move and sometimes even he doesn't seem sure which hat he is supposed to be wearing.
He is temporarily Spacey-the-film-star when I catch up with him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he is promoting his latest movie, Casino Jack. He is also talking up the Old Vic Theatre, of which he is the artistic director - he has just flown in from rehearsals in London and is due to return shortly after our talk - and finds time to plug the Facebook film The Social Network, of which he is executive producer.
To confuse matters even further, the actor, who began his career as a stand-up comic, likes to lapse into a series of impersonations - Johnny Carson, Walter Matthau, Jimmy Stewart and the comedian Lewis Black are his favourites.
His conversation ranges from the advantages and otherwise of the internet, to politics and the present state of the United States to Casino Jack, in which he portrays Jack Abramoff, a convicted former US lobbyist. But it is plain his heart is in the theatre and, having just signed up for five more years at the Old Vic, he is planning ever-more ambitious projects between now and his departure in 2015.
One of them is a global tour of Richard III, in which he will be directed as the monarch by Sam Mendes, and he is also exploring the idea of setting up a Middle Eastern outpost of the Old Vic, possibly in Abu Dhabi.
"One of the things I want to do is come to the region and work with emerging talents and organise educational programmes," he says. "I don't want to say: 'Oh, look at me, I'm here doing a play'. I want to create a sense of excitement about the theatre in places where it isn't on the map. It's a tremendously exciting thing to be able to go to other countries and give them opportunities to see an English-language play they would never normally see unless they travelled to England or New York.
"To make an argument and a case for living theatre in as many places as we can is an extremely exciting prospect."
Since joining the Old Vic in 2003, Spacey, as well as extending its sphere and scope internationally, has done a phenomenal job in restoring the fortunes of the 200-year-old venue and proving a major British institution can be run without any public subsidy. He also has set up educational programmes and conducts regular workshops with graduating students from drama schools in London.
His efforts were recognised this year when he received an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) from Prince Charles for services to drama. “I made a 10-year commitment and I’m going to end up doing 11 years but the first year I was just trying not to get hit by a bus,” he says, laughing. “Before I started I sat down with former artistic directors of the major theatres of England and I got a sense that they had all started out to create an international theatre. One of them said to me one night: ‘We all feel we failed but because you’re American you might have a better shot at it’.
“We started the company from the ground up and I think this is just the right amount of time because a theatre needs new blood after a decade and it will allow me to have these five years as a transition period, both in terms of fund-raising and trying to raise money for a production fund so the next artistic director doesn’t have to spend nearly as much time as I did in raising money.”
Spacey, 51, is amiable and talkative, smartly dressed in a dark suit and a blue shirt and tie. He reviles the word “celebrity” and downplays his film acting talents by paraphrasing Robert Mitchum: “I learn my lines, I show up and I try not to bump into the camera.”
Still, he won Oscars for his supporting role in The Usual Suspects in 1995 and as Best Actor for American Beauty in 1999, and is one of America’s in-demand actors. One of Hollywood’s more mysterious personalities, he is urbanely witty and talks articulately and passionately about his work while keeping his private life to himself.
The nearest he has ever come to talking about it was when he once said: “I’ve always chosen to try to maintain a degree of dignity about that stuff. Not for a second have I ever got an indication from any of the thousands of letters I receive that anybody gives two hoots about what my private life is. Nobody cares. They like the work.”
He is being touted as a possible awards contender for his performance in Casino Jack, a movie that explores the wild excesses and escapades of Jack Abramoff, a powerful Washington lobbyist who used his connections to create a personal empire of wealth and influence, but found himself involved with Mafia assassins, murder and a scandal that spins out of control.
Abramoff served three and a half years of a six-year prison sentence, and Spacey visited him behind bars to try to get a handle on the character. “He was portrayed in the media as the devil incarnate, the worst man who walked the face of the Earth, but let’s face it, he isn’t the devil,” Spacey says. “He did some things that a lot of other people were doing and are still doing. The notion that throwing Jack Abramoff under the bus was going to clean up the lobbying industry is a joke.”
George Hickenlooper, the director of Casino Jack and Spacey’s good friend, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 47 on October 29. “I haven’t really made the adjustment to the fact that George isn’t with us,” Spacey says. “It feels very odd that as we roll out this movie George isn’t sitting here with me because he would be. He believed in this film and was very proud of it.”
Spacey has finished work on another movie, Margin Call, in which he plays a morally ambiguous Wall Street trader during the 2008 financial collapse, and he will return to the US for more promotional duties when it is released next year. But for the next few months he will be back in London, focusing his attentions on the Old Vic, which as we talked was close to ending its run of the Noel Coward play Design for Living and is now embarked on a three-month run of the comedy of errors A Flea in Her Ear.
His love of theatre was instilled in him from an early age: he was six when his parents, frequent visitors to London, took him to see his first play, at the Old Vic. He studied at Juilliard, the performing arts conservatory in New York, leaving early to join the New York Shakespeare Festival. He then started work on Broadway, making his debut opposite Liv Ullman in Ibsen’s Ghosts.
His stage performances paved the way for supporting roles in feature films until his Oscar-winning performance in The Usual Suspects propelled him into the spotlight. He made memorable appearances in LA Confidential and Se7en, establishing a reputation as an actor willing to tackle unique, character-centred roles, such as Jim Williams, the homosexual accused of murder in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and as Mickey, the cynically sarcastic casting agent in the film version of Hurlyburly. He went on to play the depressed suburban father in American Beauty in 1999.
In between his movies he continued to return to the theatre and appeared on the London stage for the first time in 1998 in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. His appointment five years later as the theatre’s artistic director didn’t cause him any anxiety, although it was met with mixed reactions.
His first production, Cloaca, was not well received. Later plays in which he took to the stage himself – The Philadelphia Story, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Richard II, Inherit the Wind and Speed the Plow, among others – were met with acclaim. He is now generally acknowledged to be the best thing that has happened to the English theatre for many years and he, in turn, has developed a deep affection for his adopted city, where he lives in a South London flat with his Jack Russell, Minnie. He cycles or walks to the theatre and around the city streets. When back in the US, he has to re-accustom himself to the rigours of the Los Angeles freeways.
“I’d forgotten how much time I have to put into my day driving from one place to the other when I’m in LA,” he says. “I’m in my eighth year of living in London, and I feel very much at home there. I’m there full time except when I make a film in the States. One of the things I like about it is, it’s a walking city and you meet people along the way: the shop owners, the local dry-cleaner, people in the cafe or your local pub. There’s a sense of community that you share that’s hard to find in a city where you have to have a tank of gas just to get to the convenience store.”
Our time is up and the peripatetic Spacey has other people to see and other projects to discuss. With a jovial smile and a courteous handshake, he heads for his waiting car and the congested freeways of the city where he was raised but from which he is now estranged.
Casino Jack is due to be released in the UAE on Thursday.