Kevin Spacey manages to simultaneously run a theater in London and make films -- such as his new movie, 21 -- in the United States. How can he succeed at both? HE’S KEVIN SPACEY, THAT’S HOW.
About a half hour into our conversation, Kevin Spacey breaks into his Jack Lemmon impersonation -- which is kind of disappointing. Not that he does a bad Jack Lemmon. On the contrary, the two-time Oscar-winning actor (for his roles in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty) is well known as a master imitator. In addition to his portrayal of Lemmon, he does brilliant impressions of Johnny Carson, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Bill Clinton, and Christopher Walken. But this reporter was kind of hoping not for Lemmon but for a little Al Pacino. Because when Spacey, in an unforgettable appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, said, as Pacino, “OH, FUNNY!” the impression was as spot-on and hysterical as anything Rich Little has ever done.
But for this interview, he’s not doing his Lemmon impersonation as a talk show gimmick. He’s actually telling an important story -- about a lesson that Lemmon, one of Spacey’s idols, ingrained in him. “He told me,” Spacey recalls, “that if you’ve done well in this business, it is your obligation to spend an enormous amount of your time sending the elevator back down.”
Which is exactly what Spacey is trying to do with his work today. He wants to use his movie and theater career to inspire, teach, develop, and promote young artists across the globe. That’s why, in his role as the artistic director of London’s Old Vic theater, a position he has held since 2003 and one that requires him to live fulltime in London, he has pushed the theater to become extensively involved in local cultural youth-development programs using the craft and artists of the theater as an educational tool. It’s also why his film company, Trigger Street Productions -- which was formed in 1997 by Spacey and his business partner, Dana Brunetti, and has since produced many of his plays and movies -- is best known for its development of young talent and new projects in a wide variety of media. So whether he is working at the Old Vic -- following in the footsteps of people like Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier -- or starring in new films like Trigger Street’s soon-to-be- released 21 -- in which he plays the head of a group of MIT students who take casinos for millions by using a brilliant card-counting system at the blackjack tables -- Spacey is trying hard to make his career have meaning. He is indeed paying it forward.
You still seem very passionate about films, so why did you become the artistic director of the Old Vic and begin to concentrate on the theater?
Part of it was just lifestyle. From about 1991, I really focused on doing film. So for the next 10 to 12 years, that’s what I did. I snuck a play in here and there. But at the end of 1999, after American Beauty and having done The Iceman Cometh in London and New York, I was at a place where it was, Okay, now what [am] I going to spend the next 10 years of my life doing? I decided to flip it and do theater more and challenge myself and perhaps squeeze films in here and there. I continually read stories of my retiring from film or that I don’t like movies. I’ve never said that. It’s just that theater gives me something else. We’re trying to build a theater company that lasts until long after I’m gone, which is a challenge.
When did you know that was what you wanted to do for the next 10 years?
It’s just about timing. I was doing The Iceman Cometh at the Old Vic in late 1999. I fell in love with the place -- the building, the feeling you have there. I was asked to be on the committee to help find an artistic director. And the truth was I didn’t feel like I knew enough about its history. We gathered about 40 people to have a discussion about what it was about and our mission, and everyone agreed it was at its best when it was an actor’s theater. [After] I left there that night, I couldn’t sleep. So I got into a cab, I went to the Old Vic, and it was raining. I was standing in front of it, and I realized, What are you doing? You want a change, you want something outside your career, and you want something lasting. So I threw my hat in the ring.
You took over as artistic director for the Old Vic in 2003 and moved back to London to live there full-time. How is the business going?
As of early February, now in our fourth season, more than 950,000 people have bought tickets and seen shows there. We feel we’ve established ourselves as a destination in London again.
You spend a lot of time working with young actors, writers, and producers. Why?
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1970s. I graduated high school in 1977. That was a time when, in the United States, there was a lot of money in high schools for the performing arts. So from the time I was about 10 or 11, the kind of things I got exposed to from being in the drama department and the speech club were workshops, seminars, professional productions, directing one-act plays -- all these things in addition to the plays we were already doing.1
And those programs even gave you access to big-name stars.
When I was 13 years old, I found myself in a workshop with Jack Lemmon, who was a big idol of mine.2 We’d done a little performance, after which he came over to me and said [Spacey does his Jack Lemmon voice], “You ought to think about becoming an actor. That was terrific. This kid’s got talent.” That was a huge moment for me. Those were the first steps of my own confidence, where I realized not only could I do something well but that perhaps this was what I was meant to do. So I believe strongly in using the tools of theater as an education opportunity. It can give kids a sense of self-worth. I think that’s incredibly valuable no matter what they end up going into later in life. So the work we’re doing [with youth development at the Old Vic] is very dear to me. It’s become the core of what we are.
What you do with the theater work in London seems to be very similar to what you do with TriggerStreet.com in terms of trying to tap and nurture young talent. Is that true?
It is absolutely true. To me, they go hand in hand. It goes back to “sending the elevator back down.” And that’s what Dana and I have tried to do with TriggerStreet.com. It’s been such a pleasure to watch the literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who’ve become members, from all over the world, find a platform for their work. For us, that’s incredibly satisfying. The members run the site. It’s their community. They make it work and make it happen. It’s very similar to the outreach we do with the Old Vic. And it’s wonderful to see it give them the confidence they need to move into a business that’s very intimidating and competitive.
You’ve said, “To me, it’s always been about the writing.” Even in film?
Anyone worth his or her salt realizes it begins with the written word. As actors, we’re interpreters. That’s what I am. We’re there to serve the writing. As a producer, my job is to make sure the story is being told in the way that is the most effective, but also in a way that protects the writer.3 Theater teaches you that. You come to have an appreciation of writing, of story, of arc, of character, of how to tell that story in two hours.
In 1999, years after you’d been awarded and gained fame for your role in TV’s Wiseguy and for your acting in the big screen’s The Usual Suspects, Seven, and L.A. Confidential, you said you weren’t going to take “dark” roles for a while. But in 21, you return to such a role. Why?
The point I was trying to make in 1999 was that when I emerged on the scene, it was in a series of movies where people were trying to say, “Oh, this is what he does.” And I resisted that because as an actor, you don’t want to be pigeonholed in the way the public and the industry view you, because it limits the types of roles you can be offered. Now people don’t want you to change. They like you the way they discovered you.
Lord knows we have a lot of actors who just turn up and do versions of what they’ve done before. But that was at a point when I was seeking out other kinds of roles. And I think there were a series of movies that allowed me to try to do new things. … But this was a movie that was important to me and was one with a primarily young cast, so it was important to us to have a Laurence Fishburne or an actor like myself who is more established and might generate interest from an audience that might not come out if it was only that young cast.
So you didn’t necessarily see yourself immediately in the Mickey Rosa role when you first read the story?4
Nine times out of 10, I don’t appear in the films we produce at Trigger Street.5 I always reserve that decision until I see the screenplay. It wasn’t until the script was done that I said, “Yeah, this would be a lot of fun to do.”
Originally, you wanted to make this movie more than five years ago. How did the timing change your approach? The challenge we faced was: How do we make Vegas interesting again? If we had been able to do this movie when we wanted to do it, I think we would have been ahead of the curve in terms of Vegas. But in the past five or six years, you’ve seen so many Vegas films and TV shows and poker tournaments. So [in 21,] you see how Boston is shot and how different the lives of the MIT students are in Boston versus how Vegas is shot and how different their lives are in Vegas. It shows how clearly they are two different worlds.
What film does 21remind you of? Risky Business6 -- young characters thrown into a world of making money and suddenly having to be responsible for this in a situation where the central character is completely out of his league. In that film, too, there was the morality question of, which way will you go? So I think it has that sort of appeal. I’m certain the casinos are going to love a movie like this, because they’re going to want people to think they can go make a million bucks playing blackjack.
Even with 21 and other films coming out this year, you’ve said you’re not planning on leaving London. Does it feel like home now? It is, I think, now the cultural capital of Europe. Just in the South Bank, where we are, the number of experiences you have -- the Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre, the Old Vic, the jazz clubs, the art galleries -- there’s a lot going on. I suppose if I didn’t enjoy the work I’m doing, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way. But I’m running a theater; it’s what I’ve dreamed of doing my entire life. It’s wonderful.
1. Spacey appeared in The Sound of Music with future actress Mare Winningham, and he was friends with Val Kilmer, who graduated two years ahead of Spacey and who convinced Spacey to follow him to Juilliard. Spacey quit Juilliard after two years. He has said, “I didn’t play well with others.
2. They would later costar in the film version of the David Mamet play Glengarry Glen Ross.
3. In Beyond the Sea, the story of singer Bobby Darin that Spacey produced, starred in, and cowrote, he was able to do all of these things -- and sing the songs.
4. Spacey and his business partner, Dana Brunetti, had heard rumors of the MIT blackjack team more than a decade ago, but it was only when they saw Ben Mezrich’s 2002 story in Wired magazine that they realized they could get the movie made. Brunetti, by the way, Googled Mezrich, left a message, and Mezrich thought it was a prank by his buddies. Mezrich is interviewed in the DownLow section on page 94.
5. Trigger Street Productions’ name comes from a street where Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger, lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth, where Spacey grew up. Spacey had always dreamed of opening a Trigger Street neighborhood theater, which is sort of what he has turned the Old Vic into in London.
6. When this film came out in 1983, Spacey was making his name on the New York theater scene. He’d made his Broadway debut the year before in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts.