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Interview with Kevin Spacey

16 March 2015 | London Calling

From Hollywood heavyweight to king of the stage, Kevin Spacey has also spent three series of House of Cards scheming to become perhaps the most Machiavellian leader of the Free World yet. Busy he may be with theatre, TV and movies, but Spacey still makes time to talk about his love of London.

When Hollywood demands a scheming character of ambiguous-at-best morals, you can bet Kevin Spacey is on the shortlist. The actor – currently playing the dastardly Frank Underwood in House of Cards - earned his stripes off-Broadway, before climbing the rungs of Hollywood, delivering knock out performances in American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, and Se7en.

Rather than continue on in LA’s never-ending game of career snakes and ladders, however, Spacey threw a curveball. Turning his back on the big screen, the actor moved to London where he took over as creative director of the Old Vic Theatre, taking it from the brink of collapse to the multi-million pound theatre it is today.

Curiously, it was receiving the ultimate movie actor’s accolade that led to Spacey’s personal theatre renaissance. “The Oscar meant to me a pinnacle, but then I got scared. It scared me that I was going to keep doing the same thing over and over I was like 'I don't want to keep doing this same thing.’ And London felt right,” he says.

It was a change of pace Spacey craved. “I needed to get away and find a new challenge which came right after the Oscar win for American Beauty in '99. Shortly afterwards, that's when I decided to go to the Old Vic. I missed the stage. I'm a theatre rat. I don't look like the guys in the movies.”

He might not ‘look’ like the guy in the movies, but Spacey hasn’t rejected cinema in its entirety. He’s taken a cameo roles in Horrible Bosses and played Lex Luthor in (the perhaps best forgotten) Superman Returns.

Growing up in LA, Spacey’s never been one to stick at things once he’s tired of them. The first clue would be his expulsion from military school. Spacey also quit Los Angeles Valley College to study drama at New York’s Julliard School, but only lasted two years before deciding to make things happen by himself, against all odds persuading director Jonathan Miller to audition him for a Broadway show.

Spacey is not afraid to work hard – “I had just spent 12 years seeing if I could build a career as a film actor and it worked out better than I could have hoped” – so he diverted that energy into London’s theatre scene. Some 15 years on, Spacey’s still infatuated with the city. “Where do you start? I couldn't list everything off but the energy, the culture, the vibrancy, the pace are all fantastic.”

His tenure at the Old Vic comes to an end this year, and theatre connoisseurs will say goodbye to the man who brought high profile actors – including Kim Cattrall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard Dreyfus, Ian McKellen and of course Spacey himself (he’s partial to a one man show) – back to the stage. “It's been an incredible experience but I've more work to do, a lot of money to raise so the next director doesn't have to spend as much time fundraising as I have,” he says.

However, Spacey hasn’t devoted himself exclusively to London’s art scene; unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that he has taken on Washington too. The Netflix original series, House of Cards, sees him become the ruthless and gloriously conniving Frank Underwood. He’s helped take television onto the Internet, and cemented his reputation as ultimate baddie. But Spacey is keen to remind us that Frank Underwood, however scheming, is still a human being. “That's one of the things that I'm learning, and he's still learning. That's part of the fun of going to work every day, we get to decide how much of the onion we want to peel and how much we don't.”

Whether Spacey likes Underwood, however, is a very different question: “It's very dangerous as an actor to judge the characters I play. It's dangerous to make a moral judgment of a character because if you do, you'll wear that on your sleeve. I’m afraid I wouldn't be able to play with complete and total honesty and let the chips fall where they may.”

“First of all, it's hard for me to judge a character and say, ‘he's so evil, he's so bad’. And I go, 'Well, those are things that I can't play'. You can't play evil, it's not an active thing. You can play unintention, you can play the reason someone does what they do and you can play the reason someone justifies what they do.”

Part of Underwood’s skillset involves the art of seductive coercion – and while Spacey is by no means killing for his wins, he’s decided to take a more hands on approach when it comes to finding work. One method would be by sending Woody Allen a Netflix subscription to make sure he considered him for his next film…

While the two have talked, sadly at the moment their schedules collide, but ever persistent Spacey has another plan at hand. “Now, I'm going to write letters to every director and
filmmaker I've loved in my life, because I believe in letters. They're incredibly important and I don't think people write enough letters. But I think when you generally put yourself in front of someone, and it's not a joke.

“I wrote Woody Allen a serious letter; I've admired him for so long and he's never hired me. And I thought, maybe he doesn't know me. And then he wrote me this wonderful letter saying, 'no no, I've seen your work and I've seen you do this and theatre and now that you've put you in front of me again, let's see what we can do.'”

Straddling the worlds of theatre and Hollywood, and on his way to becoming Allen’s latest muse, Spacey isn’t planning on leaving London behind. Happy in the capital, his work can shine on both sides of the Atlantic.

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