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American Paradox

Kevin Spacey continues to seek offbeat roles that test the limits of his talent.

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"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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