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Interview: Kevin Spacey for "Pay it Forward"

By Paul Fischer Friday October 20th 2000 12:24AM
Kevin Spacey for "Pay it Forward"

Two time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is fiercely passionate about his work, but about his privacy, he remains adamant that it's nobody else's business. In this candid interview with Paul Fischer, Spacey talks candidly about teaching, privacy, the media and his passions. One thing you can say about two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is that he is passionate. Not only about acting, mind you. One of the main attractions for taking on the role of a teacher in the new film Pay it Forward, was that it gave him an opportunity to play an influential school teacher.

Not surprisingly, Spacey recalls the influence of teachers on his OWN life. "One in particular was my high school drama teacher who I see all the time and in fact saw him just a week ago." Spacey adds that one of the reasons he wanted to do Pay it Forward was "because I had teachers, including him, who had such a huge influence on my life, who took me under their wing when I was quite young - as young as 8, 10, 11, 12, who gave me a sense of confidence, who took an interest in my life, who gave me a sense of hope, who grabbed me by the scruff of my neck when I needed it and let me down the right road."

In Pay it Forward, Spacey plays a social studies teacher who challenges his 11-year-old students to come up with an idea that will change the world. Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) decides to step up to the plate. His idea is a game called "pay it forward." In the game, every time somebody does a favour for you, you "pay it forward" to three other people. Surprisingly, the idea seems to work, helping his teacher to come out of his shell and reveal a dark past, and bringing his mother, Arlene McKinney (Helen Hunt)--who works two jobs to keep their household afloat--new freedom. In this film, Spacey says that he "wanted to bring a teacher to life who is similar to the teachers I had, who had a kind of wry sense of humour, who were self-deprecating, who prodded and nudged you in gentle ways, rather than force you to stand at the back of the room or go to detention, but who were disciplined in ways and made you want to be disciplined in ways, because they encouraged you." It is ironic that Spacey, who was born in New Jersey but grew up in Los Angeles, talks here about the gentler, kinder approach to discipline. As a child, Spacey had a rebellious streak and conformity did not come easy. "I went through a period of great rebellion within my family, when I was about 9 or 10. I was mad, I had no focus, had no real interest in anything, and so I started to do things that were just rebellious and stupid," such as playing with matches, "and stuff that kids shouldn't do." As a result of that, Spacey's parents sent him off to military school where he remained for a little over a year - until he got thrown out, "because I got into a fight." Getting kicked out was, however, fortuitous "because it was then that I returned to public school, found theatre and started to act. In a strange way, that led me to the kinds of teachers I'm talking about, because it was really in that next series of public schools, that I really started to find myself and teachers, who started to see that underneath this unruliness was some innate talent and a lot of as yet unfocussed energy." The son of a technical procedure writer and a secretary, Spacey's family moved a great deal thanks to his father's job, eventually settling in Los Angeles. It was there that Spacey attended Chatsworth High School, where he became very active in the theatre. Some of his high school contemporaries included Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer; Spacey was Von Trapp to the former's Maria in a production of The Sound of Music, and was encouraged to go to New York's Julliard by the latter. After an attempt at stand-up comedy, Spacey did go to Julliard, where he continued to act with school pal Kilmer, who was two years his senior. His time at Julliard was cut short after his second year, when Spacey decided to quit school to begin his career. He made his theatrical debut in 1981 with Shakespeare in the Park, performing alongside the likes of Kilmer, Mandy Patinkin, and John Goodman. The actor continued to be a fixture on the theatre scene throughout the decade, performing both on Broadway and in regional productions. It was through the theatre that he got his first big break: while auditioning for a Tom Stoppard play, Spacey was approached by director Mike Nichols, who cast him in his production of David Rabe's Hurlyburly. The actor's work in the play-in which he eventually played all of the male leads-led Nichols to cast him as a subway mugger in his 1986 Heartburn. Two years later, the director and actor worked together again in Working Girl, in which Spacey had a small but memorable role as a sleazy businessman. By this time, Spacey was starting to work steadily in film, although he maintained his stage work, winning a 1990 Tony Award for his role in the Broadway production of Lost in Yonkers. He also did a substantial amount of television work, appearing on the series Wiseguy as deranged criminal Mel Proffitt. Criminal or morally questionable activities were to figure largely in Spacey's subsequent portrayals: his first starring role in a film was as the husband of a murdered woman in the 1992 Consenting Adults. The same year, he won acclaim for his portrayal of a foul-mouthed, leech-like real estate agent in Glengarry Glen Ross. Spacey's next memorable film role was as yet another foul-mouthed jerk in the 1994 Swimming with Sharks, which he also co-produced. He was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his portrayal of an abusive studio executive, and he gained further recognition the same year for his entirely different role in The Ref, in which he played one half of a constantly arguing married couple. However, it was with his performance in the following year's The Usual Suspects that Spacey fully stepped into the spotlight. As the enigmatic, garrulous "Verbal" Kint, Spacey was one of the more celebrated aspects of the critically lauded sleeper hit, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work. If that weren't enough, the actor won additional acclaim the same year for his role as a serial killer in the stylish and unrelentingly creepy thriller Seven. The actor has since starred in a variety of films, as in Clint Eastwood's highly anticipated adaptation of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) and the big-budget thriller The Negotiator in 1998. The same year, he also lent his voice to the computer-animated A Bug's Life and starred in the screen adaptation of Hurlyburly. While doing steady film work, Spacey also continued to appear on the stage, winning raves for his performance in an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, first on the London stage in 1998, and then on Broadway the following year. Also in 1999, Spacey won his second Academy Award, this time as Best Actor for American Beauty, director Sam Mendes's dark comedy about a man experiencing a midlife crisis Having played a series of emotionally fragile characters of late, notably in his Oscar winning American Beauty, Kevin Spacey may crave a change of pace. Yet in Pay it Forward, Spacey returns to familiar acting territory and doesn't mind one bit. "I just think that 9 times out of 10 they're the more interesting characters. You read scripts where it's the perfect cop or the perfect lawyer, you know? There are a few fake problems here and there, but nothing going on, and I think as an actor, not particularly interesting to play. What IS interesting to play characters where you think: How am I going to do that? What I want an audience to experience is what I feel when I first read a script. THAT'S the moment I know that I think I might do a movie. If I read s script and it moves me, I'm touched by it, if it challenges me or if I think: God, what a story, then I'm hooked," Spacey explains. In the case of Pay it Forward, Spacey admits that this very personal piece came along at the right time in his life, as he can relate to the notion of .paying it forward', something he says he has advocated throughout his life. Yet, as with his previous films, this one examines issues in an emotive but unsentimental way. "The challenge was to avoid the sticky, gooey, movie-of-the-week quality that this easily could have become, so we spent a lot of time trying to wrench out that that kind of unwanted sentimentality, to let the audience do that kind of work, rather than us sitting around pushing buttons and trying to make things emote." Much has been written about Spacey in recent years, in terms of who he is, and where the actor ends and the person begins. It is an interesting discussion when it comes to an actor as chameleon-like and intense as Spacey, but when asked to discuss these issues, which relates to the media's fascination with the lifge of Spacey off screen, he remains as forthright as ever. "It's a curiosity that there's so much pop psychology that goes on when I sit down and talk to a writer; they're just trying to figure it all out, because usually it's all laid out for them."

Spacey insists that he will not make journalists' work easy, he won't lay it all out for them. "And I certainly won't lay out areas of my life that I think are just private. I just think no matter how much you're curious, there are things that are just none of your damn business, I don't care WHO you are, or what you think." Spacey insists that he is actor first, and star well and truly second. "I'm not someone who's led my life trying to get publicity; I'd rather do my work and go home. But I feel that I have a responsibility to help the film and I have relations with the studio and with those who put up the money so that I can tell a story that I believe in. I'm not out there trying to get press for myself nor am I trying to convince anybody that I'm living any kind of a life. I'm actually trying to convince people: I don't WANT you to know WHAT I'm living, because it's none of your business. There's only one thing I haven't talked about and for that I'm this big mystery." What Spacey is referring to is, of course "one's sex life. And you know? It's private."

Yet Spacey has to deal with that side of his profession, the nmedia's fascination with the private aspects of celebrity. And deal with it, he does. "It's out there and has little to do with my daily life", he says emphatically. "The only time this comes up is when I'm talking to reporters. Do you think this comes up in my LIFE? It comes up out THERE and there's this whole cottage industry, this whole group of people who has a political agenda about it, and that's their own deal. The fact remains that most of the stuff I've read is firstly absolutely not true and secondly, it's being talked about by people who have never met me." Spacey also believes that if you know too much about the actor off the screen, it might taint your impression of him or her ON the screen. "I'm supposed to convince you, for two hours, that I'm somebody else. Now if you know everything about my life, if you think you've got me figured out and you think you know all my dark secrets, how am I ever going to convince you that I'm somebody else?" Spacey has often been accused of being closed off, a similar trait to elements of his latest screen character. Closed off or not, the actor insists that if you want to see an open Spacey, see him at the movies, because that is where he really opens up. "I open myself up every time I walk on screen and give you everything that I am. There are parts of me that are in every movie that I've done. That to me is what my job is. Am I now supposed to go on Oprah and cry and tell you my deepest, darkest secrets because YOU want to know? What I do as an actor is more important THERE, than what I'm doing in my living room."

It is no surprise then that Spacey became an actor and why he immerses himself in this world of make believe. "Who DOESN'T want to do that? I mean we all played as kids. You play games, you take on different characters, you imitate; the fun and the love of play has never left me. I don't see myself as a movie star, but a character actor, and that's what I've always been. No matter what happens outside of this odd cottage industry that I have nothing to do with, I will ALWAYS be that, and as long as I FOCUS on that, I'll let others say what they need to say." There endeth the lesson.

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