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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

(continued from page 6)

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."


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