You know when Kevin Spacey walks in a room he often displays a forthrightness and a uncompromising directness. Sometimes he can say things that bluntly “tell it like it is” or be as elusive as was that mysterious character, Keyser Sose, who made The Usual Suspects, a powerful suspense thriller and Spacey famous.
Now Spacey plays another character as outrageous and bold as Soze was elusive, the convicted felon, Republican darling and corrupt lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. Under the firm director of the late George Hickenlooper, the film indicts Bush-era Washington with a mixture of humor and mayhem. In the course of this performnance, Spacey has been nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe.
Recently the New Jersey-born 51-year-old actor and director, took time off from all his work as the Artistic Director of England’s Old Vic Theater to promote this film, especially since its director died unexpectedly at 47. Tackling Abramoff gave Spacey a chance to both humanize the man and indict the political decay in Washington.
Fortunately, there is another chance to see Spacey speak live, tonight as part of Arts and Leisure Weekend. As part of the 10th Anniversary of this series other legends of film, theater, music, television, dance, media and more — from Robert Redford to Trent Reznor to Tim Rice — will appear through January 9th at the Times Center (242 West 41st St.) For more information and tickets go to: http://www.nytimes.whsites.net/artsandleisureweekend/#
Q: You did such a brilliant over-the-top performance and in doing so convinced us that he really believe in his own religiosity will be such a character. How did you strike that balance?
KS: A lot of it was George. He had a mantra from the first day that we met to talk about the film, which was “I don’t want to make a fucking boring movie about Washington. I want to make fucking ‘Good Fellas in DC,” and I was like, “Alright. That movie is pretty cool.”
Tonally, I took a little lesson from having done a film for HBO called Recount. You can almost hear as you say to people, “We’re going to make a movie about an election,” and then, “We’re going to make a movie about a lobbyist,” that you can hear the yawning start across the nation.
But if you look at Recount and the way that film was approached, and quite frankly Sydney Pollack, who was originally going to direct the film and then became to ill to do it, who suggested Jay Roach, which was really a great idea because Jay’s ability with comedy meant that he wasn’t afraid to allow the outrageousness of the circumstances, some of the characteristics of people involved, the choices that were being made, which are just frankly inherently funny.
Some of the stuff you couldn’t write this shit, and I think in the case of this film, because again, it’s a case of very larger than life characters, outrageous situations, misguided choices, yadda, yadda, yadda. Plus a guy who sort of had this sort of affinity for Hollywood and movies and did all these impressions and stuff, which was great because I was able to infuse the film with that kind of tonal stuff which really I think just ends up helping a movie like this be just entertaining.
Q: Can you reenact the private meeting that you actually had with Abramoff in the warden’s conference room?
KS: I can’t reenact it. I’ve been very circumspect about the specifics of that meeting because it was a private meeting, it was a lengthy meeting, I felt very grateful that he agreed to meet with me. I can only tell you that it was for me very, very helpful because I made a decision once I found out we were going to get a chance to meet him.
George met him four times before I met him with George. But when I found out I was going to get a chance to meet him I thought that’s great because being able to meet the person you’re going to play is very unique. And so I decided not to read anything. I mean I was in London when this whole story broke so I kind of remembered it but it wasn’t in my face in the way it would have been here.
Frankly, I don’t think most people in America know who Jack Abramoff is unless you really followed it or you’re from the Beltway. So I didn’t read anything, I didn’t do any research at all, I just wanted to go meet the man and be able to take as much from him as I could. I was more interested in the emotional terrain of what he was going through than I was the specifics of “Did you do that?” or “Did you cross the line?”
I figured look, whatever he was going to say and whatever agenda he might have had or in telling me this but not telling me that, I knew I was going to be able to vet a lot of other people and find out the degree with which he’d been open and up front.
I came away feeling he was very open and up front. Then I went and spent two days in DC meeting his whole team of lobbyists, a lot of other lawyers, people that knew him, people that liked him, people that hated him, people that felt he didn’t get as many years in prison as he should have.
Then I started looking at all of the commentary and all of the news reports. Now you’ve got this plethora of information and you have to sort from that what’s true, what’s not true, what’s myth, what’s lazy journalism, what is factual, and within all that try to come up with what you think is a reasonable, — within the tone of this film — a reasonable human being and to try to humanize somebody who’d been hugely dehumanized.
Q: What’s up with Abramoff now? Wasn’t he released from a halfway house and has been working in a Baltimore pizza parlor?
KS: Yes, I believe it was a kosher pizza parlor. But now he’s free — completely free.
Lady: Have you had any contact with him?
KS: His sons came to the AFI premier in Los Angeles and I know that the family, as difficult as it might be for them to watch some aspects of the film, I think they feel it’s fair, that we didn’t set out to play him as a one dimensional villain but as a person.
Lady: Did you trade impersonations? George mentioned it.
KS: I’m not going to talk about the content of that meeting. I really am just going to not make that fodder. I can’t confirm or deny it. I can just tell you that I’m not going to talk about it.
Are you excited about awards?
KS: They’re sort of amazing. First of all, this nomination for this film came as such a big surprise because the movie opens tomorrow, so it’s not even in people’s consciousness. So I’m very happy that the Hollywood Foreign Press actually watched the screeners or went to a screening.
I was happy about that because to get recognized in a time when there are so many great films and so many great performances that people are talking about. Jeff Bridges got nominated today for a SAG, he didn’t get a Golden Globe. Different groups have different reasons and some are from your peers and some are from critics, so I was very, very happy because at the end of the day this has been the most bizarre couple of months since George died.
To not have him with us has just been very, very difficult, and I know that for George it would have meant the world that people might take an interest in seeing this movie. So if getting nominated helps people want to go out and see the movie that would have made George very happy.
Q: Does the fact that there are documentaries and other efforts to document Abramoff in a nonfiction way help or hurt?
KS: I have no idea. I never saw the documentary so I don’t have an opinion on it itself. I know there was some sort of snarking going back and forth between George and that filmmaker and it was just like shut up, who cares? It’s fine; there’s a book and there’s a documentary.
We live in a world where all of these things can exist; I did not and do not see that as competition. It’s a different perspective into telling a story and god knows it’s a very fascinating story.
Q: The courtroom scene? The fantasy thing that you did in he senate hearing? Where that came from and how you developed it.
KS: Abramoff was helpful in ways that he probably didn’t even know he was helpful. When he told George and me that if he had known he was going to go to jail he would have never taken the fifth in front of the senate. George and I drove away from the prison that day and we [asked ourselves] what would that scene be like if he hadn’t taken the fifth? As a result that scene was rewritten and turned into this.
The reason we wanted to do it was because we felt it was such an incredible opportunity to show the hypocrisy of what was happening in that senate hearing and what often happens in senate hearing because there are dog and pony shows. But there had been a number of senators and congressmen who had taken checks from Abramoff, and McCain had taken lots of money from competing Indian casinos for exactly what they were there pointing their fingers at Abramoff about. We thought it sort of highlighted it in a very humorous way rather than having to tell a lecture about it.
Q: One thing that really makes the film work is the dynamic between you and Barry. How did you guys work it out?
KS: Look, I’ve always like Barry, I’ve always felt that Barry hasn’t really gotten the kind of due he deserves. I had a blast working with him; he’s very focused. And it was so much about finding a rhythm with him because if you thought Abramoff was going Scanlon was just really going, I mean literally diving off the board. We just really had a great chemistry together and George helped us both find that relationship.
Q: Are you as revolted by Washington as Barry who said he was revolted by Washington, so how do you feel about what’s happening?
KS: I’m not revolted by Washington, I am frustrated by the fact that there are good people there, there are good people in the lobbying industry. Lobbyists and serve a very useful purpose. But I do think that as long as we in the United States continue to insist that our politicians have to spend all of their time raising millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars for tv ads and that’s all it’s about that it will be corrupt. And if we leave it in the hands of politicians to clean up the lobbying industry or to clean up campaign finance reform nothing’s going to happen.
Q: You took a little break from Hollywood to do the Old Vic work. Are you going back to that now? Or will you do some more movies again?
KS: It’s not that I took a little break, it’s that I dedicated myself to a 10-year vision of starting a theater company in London. I’m in my eighth year living in London, our seventh season, so I’ve got four and a half more years to go as artistic director. And because that my focus and my commitment had to shift away from my own career and my own ambitions I just didn’t want to chase the same dream for another 10 years. But now that we’re in our seventh season and we’ve been running and we’ve got an incredible staff and things are going incredibly well I’ve been doing more central roles in films than I’ve had the opportunity to do.
However, even though I’ve got this film and one that opens at Sundance called Margin Call — and I did a film for Warner Brothers called Horrible Bosses that will be out in summer — even with a bunch of movies that are coming out, starting in May I’m doing Richard III with Sam Mendes, and that will take me from May until March of 2012. It is a 12-week commitment at the Old Vic, then we’re touring to nine cities around the world on three continents, and then we’re taking a Christmas break. Then we come to BAM in Brooklyn and that will play until March. So I would say that is a very long commitment and I don’t think I’ll be having any time to do movies in between. But my hope is to continue to do film. I love film. I’ve been very, very grateful I made the decision I made.
Q: Have you considered taking any of the plays that you’ve done at the Old Vic to the big screen?
KS: Well [John] Frankenheimer did a version of The Iceman Cometh in the 1970s that I think Jeff Bridges was in. There’s no doubt that some of the great films that have been made have come out of the theater. The thing that I’m looking at now in terms of some of our productions in coming years is can we find a way to film them that actually makes the theater experience watchable on film?
It’s one of the hardest nuts to crack because as much as I would like people to see more theater and I would like them to be invested in it, I also don’t want them to discover theater on film. I want them to come to a theater and actually sit in a seat and actually experience the three dimensional experience. There are ways to get the word out and maybe reach a wider audience. They’ve been doing some really great stuff with opera and the National Theatre has put some of their plays on where you can go to a movie theater in a local town and actually see a “live” performance. But we haven’t figured out how to crack that nut quite yet.
Q: There’s been talk about documenting in 3D and Werner Herzog made a documentary in 3-D. Would you ever consider documenting theater in 3D?
KS: Theater is 3D.
Q: But in terms of as a film experience.
KS: I don’t know, maybe it is a good avenue to look at whether that technology would make theater quite exciting to watch on film. It’s certainly cool to watch animation; that fucking shit just comes right at you.
Q: Would you be interested in doing a sister of Old Vic here in New York?
KS: If somebody was willing to give me $30 million absolutely. Because that’s probably what it would cost. It’s a very expensive town.
Q: As an actor do you find theater or film more rewarding?
KS: Theater because the process of doing a play is an organic one and the process of doing a film is totally un-organic. When you do a play you show up every day with a whole company and you all work on it every day with a director. You work on different sections of it and you start putting scenes together and then you start running acts. Every day for six weeks you come together as a company, and then you get up on stage and you start to share it with an audience and they start to teach you things and you work on it and work on it.
Then eventually you’re in the run of a play and you will work with a group of actors and stage management and backstage crew for 12 weeks or 16 weeks and you become a family. You make families in theater.
Movie schedules are based around three things: actors’ availabilities, when are sets being built, or when can you rent the place you’re going to film in? Now actors’ availabilities means that if I’ve got four or five scenes with Jeff Bridges in a film but he’s on another movie I may start working on that movie and then three weeks later Jeff will come in for seven days and we’ll work for seven days and then he goes away and he’s on another movie and I don’t see him again.
Every day you have new people, new locations, new situations; rarely do you have an entire company come together. It’s literally at these kinds of award things where you end get Best Ensemble or whatever and you get oh everybody’s back together, it’s great.
But the film experience is just very unorganic. It’s little strips of film that somebody else, the director and the editor, put together, so you don’t ever even really play the whole performance, you just play pieces of it. But in theater that’s our medium, that’s the actor’s medium, so it’s a much more satisfying place, at least for me.
For other stories by Brad Balfour go to: http://filmfestivaltraveler.com/