Kevin Spacey has never worked quite so hard in spreading the news that his ambitious Bobby Darrin biopic is finally coming to town. Years in the works, if one was to believe the hype, but Spacey insists that despite media reports that playing Darrin has somehow been a lifelong ambition for the Oscar winner, that assertion could not be further from the truth.
“I didn’t get the rights to this film until the year 2000 so I had nothing to do with its 15-year journey at Warner Brothers. I was never attached to that film and somehow in a lot of stories that I’ve read, it seems to be that the movie itself is being talked about as being this 15 year journey for me, which it wasn’t. The truth is, I’ve dreamed about doing it since the late 1980’s and I wanted to do that movie but my actual participation in this film didn’t really begin until 1999, so one has to separate the dream from the reality in the sense that until I got the rights.”
Once Spacey acquired the rights, his arduous journey in getting the film made began, yet given the actor’s unique choices as an actor, Spacey denies that a growing lack of box office clout presented problems in getting Beyond the Sea financed. “What I got when I got those rights, was the film’s reputation, which at that point was, not being able to figure out how to make it. They’ve hired all these great writers, they’ve had all these drafts, maybe the movie shouldn’t be done and ultimately the argument I would constantly hear was: it’s a great story, a great script and wonderful music, but how many people have ever heard of Bobby Darin.” Spacey says that he never quite understood that logic. “The argument on their end, the people that you go to, to try and raise money, is people only go to movies about famous people if they know who they are. Then I would say, well wait a minute, if you use that logic why do audiences go to movies about fictional characters that they’ve never heard of? “
Spacey adds that “they go, enjoy a movie and they discover a character like Forrest Gump or other great characters in the course of the experience. You don’t have to walk into a movie like that, having passed a litmus test about knowledge, so I wanted to make a movie in which it didn’t matter if you knew who Bobby Darin was or not.” Spacey’s interpretation of the famed singer, immortalised on song in the likes of ‘Mack the Knife’ is a musical odyssey, told from Darrin’s own perspective, utilising the musical as a way to tell this story to that unfamiliar audience to which he refers. That was one of the specific reasons that Spacey decided to turn the biopic on its head, and turn the crooner’s story, into a loving, musical tribute. “I think also to some degree because films that are driven by music have a tarnished reputation. It doesn’t matter how many times you cite All That Jazz, Fame, Moulin Rouge or Chicago, those are all used as anomalies and I believe that this form should never have gone out of style. I think the musical form is a great form and I’m so happy that this year Beyond the Sea is not opening in a vacuum. We’ve had the lovely Ray which is doing incredibly well, we have a Johnny Cash film coming up next year, all of which I think is all terrific for the genre. In a sense, these other movies are laying the ground work because Beyond the Sea is not conventional as I was interested in making a film that celebrated entertainment, that was a romantic film, not just about veiled romance but romance of the period, the music and the style.”
As to why Darrin in particular that has ignited such passion for Spacey, who both stars and directs, Spacey is unequivocal. “It starts with his music, and with my absolute unabashed adoration of him as a performer. Then I think it’s when you then learn what I learned when I read a couple of books about him when I was in my twenties, I learned about what he overcame, how sick he was about some of the personal dramas he went through and that he packed in so much in a fifteen-year career. I think ultimately because he died so young, I feel his legacy is not as strong or in the place that it should be and that because he changed his look, because the last six years of his career, he was going through all sorts of personal turmoil, writing the kinds of music and physically looking so different to the way people “wanted their Bobby Darin to be”, that dissipated his legacy. I think he made choices that were detrimental to his personal career but they were very advantageous to his personal life.”
Spacey also concedes that there was a lot in Darrin about which the actor could identify. “I think he was one of the last great all-round entertainers that we ever had. He did everything, and I think he wanted to do everything because I think he knew he was going to have such a short life. And he often said, you can live a lot of times if you know how. And I think that’s what pushed him to say I’m not going to rest on my laurels, I’m not going to just do the thing they want me to do. I’m going to do what I have to do, I’m going to do the things that test my talent, that test my ability and push me. He walked and lived on the edge and I think sometimes the most interesting things are the things on the edge and I myself in the last five years have experienced that conflict between professional expectations and personal freedom where I’ve chosen to do things that critics have not cared for, almost in a way ‘how dare you try to do something that we don’t think you’re right for’. You can’t live for that, but you have to live for yourself and I think I understand that aspect about Bobby more than I ever did.”
Spacey is not a Hollywood movie star in the conventional sense of the word. Resisting the allure of stardom, Spacey’s 20-year career has often been defined by original choices, such as his need to have taken over London’s Old Vic Theatre Company, a project, one would think, more daunting than even directing and starring in Beyond the Sea. “I’ve always been a theatre rat and ended up having a film career that has surprised me, so I feel that I want to do more theatre, so I just decided that I didn’t want to spend the next ten years making movie after movie after movie after movie after movie and occasionally trying to fit a play in, so I thought I’d rather do it the other way around. So I’m going to do play after play after play and occasionally fit a movie in,” he adds smilingly.
And for those heading to London, Spacey promises a diverse theatrical agenda. “I just directed the first play which, I’ve been running now, which is a new play and Ian McKellen is coming back to the Old Vic for the first time since 1965 to do a pantomime, Aladdin. Then I’m doing two plays back-to-back, one called National Anthems, and then we’re doing Philadelphia Story.” It appears that Kevin Spacey is about to redefine himself in more ways than one.