Kevin Spacey is having the time of his life these days, from his 10-year commitment as Artistic Director of London’s Old Vic, to playing one of the comic world’s most enduring bad guys, Lex Luthor, in the multi-million dollar Superman Returns.
It’s quite the showy part for an actor who prides himself on his diversity, and Lex is as different from his recent Bobby Darren as you can get. The busy actor divides his time between the London theatre and movies, but for this Oscar winner, given the choice, there is no contest. Spacey talked to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.
Question: How do you turn an iconic character, Lex Luthor, into your own and not make him Gene Hackman-ish?
Spacey: Don’t watch Gene Hackman [laughter]. First rule is trust your director which I do, implicitly. And essentially when Bryan first started talking to me about it, about a year before I actually got offered it, he always said it’s going to be darker, it’s going to be bitter, it’s going to be Lex out for revenge and so I took the role on before I read a script and then when I started to see the script, I saw exactly what they were doing in terms of shaping the story line and the character. Then you know, on the set, there was a lot of sort of honing and a lot of discussions about what line is exactly right, what helps this, what makes this funny, and it was just a complete blast. But when you have the experience I had with Bryan ten years ago, and he’s the same man that he was then, it was like a day hadn’t gone by with us. We just have a language and it gives you such confidence as an actor to work with a director who’s so absolutely clear about what his vision is and what a scene should be about and how to approach it and then you just try to give him as many different colours as possible, then hopefully he cuts it together in a way that it all goes along well.
Question: So do this you were also involved in doing the Old Vic.
Spacey: I am full-time involved in the Old Vic.
Question: Was it hard to balance those duties with taking on this big film?
Spacey: No, not at all. I mean, the balance for me, last year I was on stage 41 weeks and three different plays and I made Superman for six weeks. The balance for me was exactly right.
Question: How hard is that for you as an actor to get all that work done so quickly?
Spacey: I love it. That’s actually the best way to do it. The worst way to do it is when you’re on a movie for 3 or 4 months and you have 20 days where you don’t work, and you have 10 days when you don’t work. What was great about this experience was Bryan had arranged the schedule because of my commitments at the Vic and I took a six week leave from The Philadelphia Story, another actor took over my role because I wasn’t playing the lead and Bryan said to me, “I’m going to work you like a dog and I’m going to work you right up to the last moment” and he did because I was due back on stage, I mean we’d sold tickets so I had to get on that plane. He worked me until 8:45 on a Friday night and I was on a 10:15 plane back to London and on stage the next night. So I went back to do more Philadelphia Story but this time with a wig because I had no hair.
Question: Is it true Bryan mentioned Superman to you on the set of The Usual Suspects? I thought I’d read once that he had mentioned it even back then, as a dream project.
Spacey: I mean he might have but if he did, I don’t recall it. What I do know is that we had some kind of conversation when I went in to meet Tim Burton, 10 or 11 years ago when Tim was going to do it. And apparently Tim wanted me to play the Lex Luther part but I never read a script. It was apparently an entirely different scenario and I think it was Nick Cage. And I remember we had a conversation then about it and I think it was then that I remember Bryan saying, “Oh, what an incredible thing that would be”. He was always such a huge fan of the genre and the comic book and had such respect for it and I think in a way it’s great because I think that they all approached it with a certain reverence for the Donner films, a complete respect for the fan base and I think, although I haven’t seen the film, I think that it probably has a feeling of enormous homage to that style.
Question: What’s your feeling about Superman? I mean are you a big fan?
Spacey: As a kid I was into like model cars and rockets and stuff. I wasn’t a comic book reader so I just never was into it that way. I mean, I have a vague memory of the TV series and re-runs of the original series and then I remember when the first Donner film came out, we all went down to the Westwood Theatre on Friday night and we were going to see Brando and, because we were all actors in drama class. “Let’s go see Brando, how cool”. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I didn’t want to watch the Donner films again because I’d just played Richard II at the Old Vic and there are film performances and recordings of Gielgud doing Richard II and I just absolutely avoided them because you have to approach it in your own way, in the same way that we love to see actors take on similar parts. How many actors played Hamlet, how many actors played Richard III? That’s part of the joy is to see how a different actor will approach something and so I just kind of avoided it but yeah, it’s absolutely iconic and a lot of fun and I always hope that the performance in the movie would have as much humour as I think that kind of role offers.
Question: What has the Old Vic experience taught you about, or re-taught you about film acting if at all? What have you learned from that experience?
Spacey: Well I think that there’s no doubt in my mind that I have to credit the theatre experiences I’ve had. What I’ve learned from working in the theatre and continue to learn in working in the theatre in terms of how I’m able to bring that to a film because in the theatre, not just through the course of rehearsal but night after night after night, the ritual of getting up, you learn about arc, you learn about telling a story over 2 ½ hours. And if you haven’t had that experience, I think it’s much harder in a film situation to figure out how to create an arc in a very crazy shooting schedule where you’re doing, the honest truth is and to some degree, the frustration as an actor in movies is you never get to play the whole part. You play this and that and that and that and that. The point is that it is what theatre trains you and teaches you about how to give the performance so when you walk on a film set, when you’re working on a script, I’m always thinking “how am I going to make this?” If I was able to play this part you know, I’d sooner be directed by somebody who I trust as much as Bryan but how do you create it so that when they cut it all together, it’s going to have an arc to it. I mean look, how many movies do we go to and we see actors who, they must have shown up on that day and they must have felt that they had the right energy and they must have thought that it was all going well and they cut it together and it was like a flat line. They’re playing the same thing in every single scene. The same kind of energy whether it’s anger or whatever. But in the theatre you learn through what it’s like to stand in front of an audience because they’re going to tell you very quickly whether you’re holding them or you’re not holding them, whether they’re absolutely attentive and following the story and it’s clear or whether they’re not. And I absolutely have always believed that the work that I’ve been able to do in the theatre has had a huge effect on the work I’ve done in film.
Question: Is there a role an iconic stage role that you’re yearning to play and trying to persuade the Old Vic to …
Spacey: Well the good thing is, I don’t have to persuade anybody. I just play it myself.
Question: What do you want to play?
Spacey: I mean there are a lot of parts. There’s an enormous amount of Shakespeare I’d like to do, Richard II was an extraordinary experience because it’s not produced all that often.
Question: Are you old enough to do Lear yet?
Spacey: No. I think maybe when I’m 80.
Question: You don’t even want to.
Spacey: God no. No, cause why? I’m not a good enough actor to play Lear. I think you need age. But to have really my first major Shakespearean part to be directed by Trevor Nunn, in what was an extraordinary production just an incredible modern take on that play and he did so many things with the text that I think made it very, very clear. There’s a lot of Shakespeare, there’s a lot of Moliere, there’s a lot of new work that we’re developing that I’d like to do. You know, I’m reluctant to say which because I’ll read nine stories in the London Press that I’ve announced I’m doing Richard III and I’m not, so the truth is there are endless amounts of work to do and I’m there for another eight years.
Question: Eight years?
Spacey: Yeah, I made a ten year commitment.
Question: Are you enjoying the London press?
Question: That answers it all really doesn’t it.
Spacey: I’m enjoying my role as the artistic director of the Old Vic.
Question: What was your first reaction when you saw Brandon in a suit?
Spacey: There’s Superman. Yeah, actually when I first arrived on the set in Sydney they were shooting and I came over and said hi to Bryan, and Brandon was walking out of the Daily Planet, dressed as Superman “Oh fuck! There’s Superman”.
Question: I understand you tormented Brandon.
Spacey: I did torment.
Question: What kinds of things did you do?
Spacey: You know when you’re on movie sets, they give you a golf cart and you drive around in a golf cart to get from one set to the other. So I had my golf cart, kind of souped up. I had Kryptonite stripes put on the side and I had a big Superman logo on the front with an X through it and it was called the Super Blaster. And then we tied a Superman doll on the back with a chain so I just dragged it around, sort of like in Rainy Days, by the end of the shoot it was just this fuckin’ ball of mess with a little cape. I had a bull horn and I used to scream through the bull horn “Superman must die!”. I can remember, I was driving back from the stage and Brandon was coming out of his trailer and he hadn’t seen this yet, “Superman must die”. Funny, oh Fuck, I’m so screwed.
Question: Now have you been told to set aside certain months in 2007 for Superman the sequel or …?
Spacey: No I think they’re probably going to wait until they see how this one does and then make a decision about whether they’re going to go ahead.
Question: What can he do with the character, where do you take the character next as an actor?
Spacey: I don’t know. The good news is that I don’t have to think about that. I mean the truth is they may well have already thought about the life of it after this but if they have, they haven’t revealed any secrets to me. You know when you’re fortunate enough to have a director like Bryan and writers like that, you just sort of put yourself in their hands and say, “Hi guys, whatever you want me to do”.
Question: Do you ever improvise at all?
Spacey: Yeah there’s certainly some improvisation that goes on. I have no idea, I couldn’t pinpoint because I haven’t seen the movie what survived but there are times when you’re sort of throwing stuff in and times when Bryan will say, “Just try something” and where things just happen. When the camera’s just rolling and you try something, something comes to you but because everyone was so specific and wanted to make sure that we took care of the story and character and stuff that there wasn’t a whole lot of it going on but we certainly had a lot of fun.
Question: How does your Old Vic appointment impact your movie career in the UK or is it a matter of just play it very much by ear.
Spacey: Well the truth is my full time commitment, no matter where I am, is to the Old Vic. And if a movie comes along that happens to work within a pre-existing schedule at the Old Vic, if we’ve announced a play, and we’ve announced a slot that we’re doing a play, then I’m committed. Movies come second.
Question: Is there anything that you would like, movie-wise, that you’re thinking about doing?
Spacey: I’m going to make a film in the fall while I’m doing Moon from Mystery Garden in London with Vince Vaughan and Paul Giamatti in which Paul is playing Santa Claus and Vince is playing his brother who’s never got any credit and I play an efficiency expert who comes to the North Pole.
Question: So another piece of realism.
Spacey: Yeah, that’s my realistic phase. And it’s called Joe Claus and then I’m making a film that I’m producing with Sony that’s the true story of the MIT Card Counters who were in the art of card counting at 21 and Robert Luketic is directing that so I’ll make that at the beginning of next year. I play the teacher that teaches them how to count cards.
Question: Any chance in the future of directing?
Spacey: Not for a while. I mean I happen to know what I’m doing over the next three years in theatre and it does not afford me the year-long time you need to direct a film. But perhaps after that.