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American Paradox

Kevin Spacey continues to seek offbeat roles that test the limits of his talent.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

First impressions can be deceiving. Dangerously so. Take a certain Academy Award-winning actor, for example. His blue collar "everyman's" face belies a razor-sharp white collar intellect and a demeanor that makes it crystal clear within minutes of meeting him that he is no one's man but his own. Should he choose to run with a crowd, it's inevitable that he will emerge as the leader. He'll slip smoothly to the front through charm and wit, thinning the herd as he goes to insure survival of the fittest. Including, of course, himself. In the space of a minute, he can display graciousness and sarcasm, a ready laugh or a cutting response.

Pre-1995, he was known simply as a character actor playing interesting but eccentric roles on stage and screen. In the last seven years, he's become one of America's most sought-after leading men, winning two Oscars, one Tony and a host of other kudos for his work playing those same interesting, eccentric roles on stage and screen.

He's a full-fledged movie star who eschews limousines for an SUV, haunts off-Broadway playhouses rather than rehab centers, and who would much rather discuss the state of the economy, the state of the industry or the state of New York than his own state of mind.

He is an extraordinarily private man in an extraordinarily public line of work.

Dichotomy, thy name is Kevin Spacey.

A crowd of 200 or more has gathered on the Austin, Texas, movie set of The Life of David Gale. Since the morning shoot is taking place on the campus of the University of Texas, the crowd is made up predominantly of students clutching cameras, publicity photos and paper and pens, in the hopes of catching a glimpse and an autograph of the movie's lead, actor Kevin Spacey.

Some have been waiting for hours, joined by other fans who have ferreted out the movie's shooting schedule and are patiently waiting across the narrow street from the campus building where the filming is taking place.

One man, a heavily tattooed, long-haul trucker in his mid-50s, can hardly stand still as he clutches his "Awards Edition" American Beauty video.

"I've just got to get his autograph," he whispers. He recites a list of five or six movies, commenting on "Kevin's genius," or "Kevin's brilliance," only to have a student break in and start comparing notes on "Kevin's take" on a particular scene.

Screams of "Kevin!" greet the actor as he exits the building and crosses the street to sign autographs; it's obvious that we won't hear a "Thank you, Mr. Spacey" here today. Actor Kevin Spacey is simply Kevin to his fans, approachable and affable.

Spacey appears to work hard to maintain that approachability, gladly spending 30 minutes or more signing notebooks and T-shirts, video boxes and photographs. He shakes hands, questions individuals on their majors and career aspirations, poses for snapshots, makes quips and jokes, and generally engages in light conversation with a couple hundred people who want to say they've conversed with Kevin.

Not bad for a guy who, five minutes earlier, was knee-deep in the somber roll of David Gale, a university professor and an activist opposed to capital punishment who finds himself convicted of murder and sentenced to death row.

But then shifting rolls and refining and redefining characters are perhaps what the 42-year-old Spacey does best. Few do it better.

Case in point: Consider the role of Verbal Kint, the character in 1995's The Usual Suspects that served as the mid-career launching pad for Spacey, catapulting the actor into the viewing mainstream of studio executives and moviegoers and earning the little known character actor his first Oscar.

It was a role in which Spacey's Kint blossomed from a gimpy, wimpy, second-class con man into the elusive master criminal Keyser Soze. It was a role that called for an actor to play an actor and as Kint morphed into Soze, Spacey morphed into stardom.

The Usual Suspects was followed later that year by Seven, the thriller that pitted Spacey's brilliant and twisted murdering John Doe against lawmen Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt.

Spacey had an opportunity to work with Freeman again that year in Outbreak, in which, alongside Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo, he played an infectious-disease specialist with a cynical viewpoint who always had a slightly sarcastic comeback.

Those character traits -- adroit sarcasm, a certain level of arrogance, and a dry delivery -- proved to be a sort of typecasting for Spacey as he moved into rolls that included the officious district attorney in A Time to Kill, the cool and collected Southern gentleman murderer in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the smarmy, too-slick-for-words movie executive in Hurlyburly.

Spacey's never played a dummy or a dreamer on film. His roles in L.A. Confidential and The Negotiator, his Academy Award-winning role in American Beauty, and his subsequent roles in Pay It Forward and the recent K-PAX only continued the run of movies that showcased his ability for deadpan delivery and smart wisecracks.

Spacey's latest film, The Shipping News, expected to open Christmas Day, shows the actor portraying yet another troubled man, albeit one who is, as Spacey puts it, "a man of absolutely no confidence. Life keeps happening to him. It's a reactive life [and] this character doesn't have an ironic, cynical, greedy bone in his body."

Based on Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Shipping News is a dark, moody movie. Spacey plays Quoyle, a man deceived and abandoned by his late wife (Cate Blanchett). He is lured by his aunt (Dame Judi Dench) to start a new life as a single father on the coast of Newfoundland, where he finds some level of peace in a relationship with a local woman (Julianne Moore).

Spacey read the book in 1997, kept an eye on the story even as it was bought and prepared for another actor, and then snapped it up the minute the rights -- and the two-time Academy Award-nominee director Lasse Hallström -- were available again.

What drove him to the film, muses Spacey, was the rather depressing role of Quoyle, an emotionally and geographically isolated man who does all he can to simply exist.

"Quoyle's not trying to do anything but to get through the day, to not get on the boat, and be a good father. He's a man who falls in love once and forever, hard, and it will never go away, no matter how badly that woman treats him, no matter how much she uses his heart as an ashtray. He will always love her. Her name will forever be written on his heart. In his daughter, he sees her. His story is told on his face."

Spacey also admits that Quoyle's character is a "distinctly different role [for me] in a movie, but my work in the theater for fifteen years prior is very much these kinds of men. Certainly back in 1996, nobody [in Hollywood] would have considered me, Kevin Spacey, for this role."

If Spacey readily admits to having fallen in love with The Shipping News as a story and with Newfoundland as a locale, he also laughs when discussing Newfoundland's legendary weather. The cold and damp climate, which serves as the book's natural backdrop for the story of a depressed fishing village, presented a challenge when it came time to schedule filming.

"The 'Newfies' themselves joke that they have four seasons: fall, winter, misery and summer. We," grins Spacey, "were pretty much in misery the whole time!"

Hours off the set were predominantly spent with fellow cast and crew members; the group became enamored of a bar called Rocky's, where Spacey and some locals taught Dench to play pool.

"She pretended not to like it but she did. I think that it surprised a lot of people to see a Dame up there with her ass on the end of a pool table trying to do a backhand shot. It was," smiles Spacey, "pretty hilarious."

The obvious delight that Spacey takes in provoking mischief and mayhem is nothing new; he's been doing it most of his life. An admitted class clown ("yes, we were the ones in the back of the room making fart noises") Spacey -- born Kevin Fowler -- spent his youth constantly moving around Southern California. His father, Geoffrey, a technical writer, subsisted on contract work, so the family would settle down for a few months here, a few months there. Spacey credits his mother, Kathleen, for providing the only regular emotional -- and financial -- support that he and his sister knew as kids.

Spacey had a few mishaps during those teen years, including the infamous burning down of his sister's tree house, which resulted in a stint at a juvenile military academy (where, ironically, the young Spacey won a leadership award one week and an expulsion the next). Nevertheless, he landed adroitly on his feet, this time on stage.

While performing in a high school production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons for the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California, Spacey was spotted and recruited for the drama department at Chatsworth High School.

Located in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles, the school was close enough to his father's current work assignment to permit Spacey to enroll. Spacey found himself part of a drama troupe that included other professionals-to-be Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham.

Even in high school, Spacey stood out as the ordinary-looking student whose talent and demeanor was anything but ordinary. Working part-time selling shoes at a nearby mall, he served customers while doing dead-on imitations of Johnny Carson and Jack Lemmon.

His obsession with theater and performing was, he says, absolute.

"I never, ever want to lose touch with when I was fourteen or fifteen years old and I was dreaming about building a theater and I was dreaming about doing plays and writing things with friends and watching them perform," says Spacey. "I never went through a period where I thought, 'Oh, I'll do something else,' or 'Maybe this isn't right.' Never."

At Kilmer's urging, Spacey moved to New York at age nineteen to attend the Julliard School of Performing Arts where both actors snagged bit parts in Shakespeare in the Park productions with the legendary Joseph Papp. Soon after, Spacey became one of Papp's assistants, handing out assignments and earning the money necessary to make ends meet until Papp, unbeknownst to Spacey, came to a nighttime performance that Spacey was in and promptly fired him the next day.

Papp, the story goes, insisted that Spacey devote himself to performing full-time and, partly because he now had no other choice, Spacey did. He says it was also a time to grow up.

"I had a teacher at Julliard that was incredible, who I presumed didn't care for me because she was so tough on me, and I said that one day in sort of heated anger about some confrontation that we had. She said to me, 'You big idiot!' She said, 'Don't you realize that I'm hard on you because I think and I know that you're the most talented student in this class and the laziest.'"

"And I was, like [Spacey puts on a dumbfounded face] 'whoa!' I think people drop seeds, and sometimes it took a while for those seeds to grow [and] for me to realize that, 'Oh, you mean I really have to work? I have to work at this?!' So, umm, I went to work."

In the 20 years since, he's never stopped working, and if in that same 20 years Spacey has managed to capture audiences' attention and applause, he's also captured a certain amount of curiosity about his personal life.

Part of that curiosity, he says, is because he simply doesn't care to feed the media information about his life outside of work.

"You know, I don't have any real interest in being understood, so most of the psychobabble [about the media's perception] I don't even bother to answer to. It's simply pop psychology, and if you don't participate in the dialogue they will make up their own dialogue! And I simply won't participate. It just doesn't matter, all that sort of 'you're perceived as this, you're perceived as that.' I don't care about being understood. I care about capturing people's attention."

Unfortunately, much of the attention he caught was directed at his personal life, specifically innuendos about his sexual preferences and whether he was, conversely, a closeted homosexual or an avowed (but equally paranoid) heterosexual. Finally, frustrated with repeatedly asking why in the hell anyone really cared about any of it, he used Playboy last year as a forum for addressing what he is not, which is gay.

Spacey is, obviously, tired of the constant prying into his life. "Interpretation sort of takes flight, so that one thing you say gets blown into another thing and another thing, and before you know it, there's a perception and a persona that, quite frankly, in this case I had very little to do with. Really, I had very little to do with it."

As intent as Spacey is in keeping his private life to himself, he's wildly and constantly in the public eye in one way or another, one moment "rescuing" composer George Stoll's 1945 Oscar for Anchor's Away from a Butterfields auction (bidding more than $150,000) and returning it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, quietly narrating an IMAX documentary on Sir Ernest Shackleton's legendary Antarctic expedition or, with sarcasm, lambasting religious leader Jerry Falwell for blaming the September 11 terrorist attacks on divorce, abortion rights and homosexuality.

That constant public exposure isn't going to end anytime soon. Besides becoming one of the first leading men studio executives and casting agents call, Spacey is opting to spend even more time on stage ("my first love, really") doing live performances and developing film projects through his production company, Trigger Street Productions.

Unlike many production companies set up by artists almost as vanity vehicles, Spacey created Trigger Street as a venue for young writers, cinematographers, directors and actors. Founded in 1997, the company has already produced the independent film The Big Kahuna with Danny DeVito, a Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (which received five Tony nominations, including best actor by Spacey), and an off-Broadway production of Cobb. Future projects include an independent film that will deal with juveniles awaiting trial, which was penned and will be directed by a former teacher in the court system. Some of the Trigger Street projects will involve Spacey as an actor or director, and some will not.

In addition, the company is considering a biography on singer/musician Bobby Darin, a favorite of Spacey's and a performer to whom Spacey bears an almost uncanny resemblance. Spacey's admiration for Darin is based, not surprisingly, on Darin's ability to shift roles and avoid typecasting. "He never, ever wanted to be pinned down," Spacey enthuses. "He started in rock and roll and he had hits in the late '50s which turned him into a rock-and-roll pop star, but he wasn't satisfied by that. He wanted to do something else and they told him he was crazy. Dick Clark told him he was out of his mind. 'You want to do popular songs?! Are you fucking crazy? You're a fucking rock-and-roll star.'"

As Spacey elaborates on Darin's life -- as actor, as musician, as a singer of every possible type of music genre -- he becomes visibly animated. "You take a look at [Darin's] life and it's a pretty dramatic, fluid ride. For a period of time he was probably the coolest guy on earth. He was just the swingingest guy ever."

"You know, he was short and bald when he was home, but when he walked out that door, he was Bobby Darin."

If moviegoers had any question about Spacey's ability to croon Darin's songs -- or anyone else's for that matter -- that question was set to rest during two recent events.

In two very public venues -- the benefit performance that replaced last year's Latin Grammys and "Come Together: A Night for John Lennon's Words and Music," which served as a post - September 11 benefit concert, Spacey surprised more than a few folks with his ability to carry a tune and hit a high note.

Spacey, who also hosted the Lennon tribute, briefly panicked at the thought of following top-name talent onto the stage, but credits the 6,000-plus crowd at Radio City Music Hall with helping him to bare his pipes in front of a live -- and televised -- audience.

"The moment the audience realized what I was doing, this roar came up. People were on their feet before I even opened my mouth and the energy…wow. They started screaming; they were absolutely so totally with me that that gave me the confidence to be able to get through the song. What I wanted that evening to be and what I wanted people to feel, I really felt coming back. For me, it was just an extraordinary healing."

For Spacey, who makes his home in New York with canine housemates Legacy and Mini, the changes he sees in the city of New York -- and the changes he sees in the entertainment industry -- are far more dramatic than a public singing debut for a benefit performance.

"The ripples of what has happened in New York and what has happened in our world are going to [cause] monumental change -- some tangible and some which we won't even recognize," says Spacey. "I think that after twenty or so years of living in a society that is largely selfish and largely fed by cynicism and glibness, what has happened is finally making people stop and reconsider and think about consequences. There are consequences to what we say, to what we do, about how we treat each other.

"And," he pauses, "sometimes it's only these kind of events that can shake a society up."

Including the entertainment industry?

"I think you just have to go back to the history of the entertainment industry to see that the Hollywood community has always rallied in times of crisis. You can always question individual motives, [but] the fact of the matter is, just look at what Bob Hope did for all those years. It doesn't surprise me that the community has rallied. What else can we do? It's a responsibility."

There's also a responsibility, Spacey feels, for reassessing what the entertainment industry -- and the American public -- values as entertainment.

"Reassessment is good. It's not about being politically correct, it's about realizing consequences to what you do. And for a long time, people have just been blowing up buildings in movies. You know, the body count in movies is grotesque -- unnecessary and grotesque.

"It's ridiculous to turn around and say that we're also not affected by violence in movies. Of course we are. Is it to blame for a particular act? No, but the fact of the matter is, how can we think that what we do doesn't affect people? Of course it does. That's what we're setting out to do, to affect people. There are," Spacey sighs, "movies that make people think and there are movies that inspire people and there are movies that are like a ride at Disneyland. A very frightening ride."

Spacey pauses for a moment and looks out over the Austin park where one more scene is set to be shot, his eyes shifting slowly from greenbelt to trees, from cloudless blue sky to the excited faces of the college-aged extras who will, perhaps, find their face immortalized for the first time on a movie screen.

Spacey absorbs the general sense of well-being that permeates the view and takes a moment to sum up his thoughts on change.

"We're not one community," he says slowly, "and we won't all think alike, but I do think that I'm hearing more and more from people -- people who I find worthy of paying attention to -- statements like 'I tried my whole life to do things that are important and I don't want to do anything trivial during the rest of my life.' That's how I'm feeling, too.

Seattle-based author Betsy Model is a former NPR/BBC correspondent who contributes to more than 30 domestic and international publications.

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