Cineastes might want to claim Kevin Spacey first and foremost as a film actor: He won Oscars for his roles in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, and his roles in films like Glengarry Glen Ross, Henry & June, Moon, The Ref, and particularly David Fincher’s Seven remain indelible. But for the past couple of years, TV fans have felt more of a claim, given Spacey’s resurgence in the public eye as the chillingly sociopathic star of Netflix’s original series House Of Cards. And theater fans have a claim, too: After American Beauty, Spacey decided to rededicate himself to live theater, and in 2003, he became artistic director of London’s famed Old Vic theater, a position he’ll hold until 2015. He’s performed in and directed plays with the Old Vic for the past decade, and as part of his tenure there, he and American Beauty and Skyfall director Sam Mendes co-founded The Bridge Project, a touring theater troupe that brought British and American actors together in an attempt to merge their sensibilities.
The final play for the three-year Bridge Project was an immense production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, with Mendes directing and Spacey in the title role; it launched an international tour in 2011, hitting theaters from New York to Istanbul to Beijing over the course of a year and hundreds of performances. The production and tour are chronicled in an ebullient behind-the-scenes documentary, NOW: In The Wings On A World Stage, which attempts to get across the actors’ experience around the world, from rehearsals to vacation-day adventures with Spacey, sailing on a private yacht or taking thrill rides in SUVs among steep, treacherous sand dunes. The film is Jeremy Whelehan’s directorial debut; Spacey executive-produced it and is self-releasing it simultaneously in theaters and online at NowTheFilm.com. While in Chicago promoting the film’s weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Spacey helped The Dissolve trace the links between NOW, The Bridge Project, House Of Cards, and his decision to jump ship on his high school in 11th grade.
The Dissolve: Why the decision to make a documentary about your production of Richard III, rather than filming the production itself?
Kevin Spacey: Part of it was, I was sitting next to Sam Mendes in the first year of The Bridge Project. He had directed The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard. And we were in the Epidaurus theater in Greece, and I was watching Simon Russell Beale onstage doing Winter’s Tale, and I went [whispers] “Whatever we do next, we have to come here.” And then we started talking that night about what a remarkable, unique, rare thing it is nowadays to bring a troupe of actors around the world. It’s ambitious and crazy and expensive. Somehow, we thought, there’s a way to capture what that is, and maybe there’s a way to capture…
You know, people look at me slightly like a puzzled dog when they ask, “So, you moved to London to run a theater at the moment your film career was at its peak? And you do plays? Don’t you get bored? Isn’t it all the same?” So we did the film partly to answer some of those questions, for people who just don’t get theater, who don’t understand why it means so much to those of us who call ourselves “theater rats.” I wanted to introduce an audience to a company, to what a company is. That was pretty much the motivation.
The Dissolve: The theater company as a concept, rather than introducing one particular theater company, since Richard III was the end of The Bridge Project’s three-year run?
Spacey: Yes. I mean, look: I had little idea of what we were going to get. It’s not like we had a vision of what it was going to be. I spoke to a number of documentary filmmakers who said, “You don’t ever know what you’re going to get until you get it. You might have an idea…” And we had an idea. But frankly, I sat down with the company and said, “Okay, look, we have this idea where we’d like to film everything, but we don’t know what we’re going to do with it. It could be just a very expensive home movie, we’re not entirely sure.”
Some people were very cool with that, particularly Sam. Others were not so cool with it, like Gemma [Jones]. Gemma was like, “Get that fucking camera out of my face!” for a while. And then Jeremy, our first-time director, was this lovely Irish lad who ingratiated himself and became a member of the company, and eventually people just forgot. I completely forgot there were cameras around most of the time. I just said, “Capture it,” and that was all. So it really wasn’t, “Oh I know this is going to be a company that’s gonna have a good time together, and have all these experiences.” We just knew we were gonna do this play, and we were gonna go on the road and let the chips fall where they may.
The Dissolve: There are certainly reviews out there now saying it’s an expensive home movie, or a vanity project. How do you respond to those reactions?
Spacey: I just disagree. I’ve been in theaters watching people see it. What I’m pleased about is that people are walking out of it and totally getting it: “Wow, I was able to see things I’ve never understood, or seen before, about the theater. I understood what it means to all of you to be members of a company.” I always try to remember, good or bad, a critic is one opinion. It’s just one person’s opinion. We’ve had wonderful reviews in addition to a couple negative ones, so I think, in the end, people should really check these things out for themselves, and then they can make their own determination.
The Dissolve: You’ve said one of the reasons you wanted to get away from film acting was you felt boxed into these venomous, dark character roles. But to go from that statement to King Richard, and then Frank Underwood in House Of Cards… Neither of those characters make you feel typecast?
Spacey: The other plays I’ve done over the past 10 years have been nothing like Richard III. Most of the movies I’ve done in the past decade have not been anything like Frank Underwood. I don’t look at it like, “Oh, he’s doing these two things, which are the only things he’s doing.” But also, I don’t judge the characters I play, so I don’t categorize them as villains. They’re people. My job is to serve the writing and let others judge these characters and categorize them. For me, I have done so many different kinds of things that it just doesn’t compute in my brain that way.
The Dissolve: I’ve read about you talking to many other famous people who’ve played King Richard, and watching their productions. Going into your own Richard III, was there anything you wanted to bring to the role that you hadn’t seen before?
Spacey: It wasn’t so much that. I was hoping maybe they might give me some secret key to how to play it. But I like talking to actors about how they’ve attacked something. The thing I don’t do is, I don’t spend a lot of time coming up with a concept, or doing lots of work before rehearsal. I like to discover a play and a role with a director and with a company. That was certainly true in this case. I don’t prepare—except for in the case of this play and in Richard II’s case, I learned as much of the play as much as I could. But that’s just learning the words, not learning how to say the words. That’s just trying to get your head around the ideas. And then I really let Sam and what other actors are doing move me and prod me: “Well, let’s investigate that, let’s try it this way.”
Sam works very much in that way, where he’s really guiding you. There’s almost nothing you can do wrong in the process of rehearsal. There’s either something that illuminates it better, or something that doesn’t illuminate it as well. So I don’t walk in with really any idea of how I’m gonna approach it.
The Dissolve: How does his style compare as a film director to a stage director?
Spacey: There’s no difference. In fact, I knew Sam really well as a theater director before we did American Beauty, and nothing about what he did in that film surprised me. His visual style in theater was stunning. His ability to place human beings in their landscape, where they were, how it looked… none of that surprised me what he and [cinematographer] Conrad Hall were able to come up with. The other thing about Sam that is really true—and he just says, “This was because I’d never directed a movie before, so this was the only way I knew how to do it”—was, he applied the best of theater to that experience. So we rehearsed American Beauty like a play. I mean, we didn’t have six weeks, but we had two weeks, which is almost unheard-of in a film experience. Normally in film, you’re like, “Oh, hi, you’re playing my father? Hi!” “Rolling!” “Okay!” You know? There’s very little time to digest, to investigate, to try things, to throw something out. But we were literally on a big soundstage, with all the sets drawn out with tape. We knew where the furniture was gonna be. And whether you had a hundred lines or one line, every one of the actors in that movie was in that experience. So by the time we got to shooting, we were like a company. And he was exactly the same when he came to do Richard III. It was just a longer process.
Sam is also one of those directors who is able to describe what he’s looking for, and what he expects for every department. And he also knows not only what direction to give you, but when to give it to you. There are some directors who… [Pauses, rolls eyes, makes jabber-jabber motion with one hand.] Some directors either want to impress you with how much they know, or they just tell you stuff when it’s way too early for you to take that note. Sometimes Sam would say to me, like in a preview… [Pauses.] I’d been working on the play for six weeks, and we’d been in previews for a week or so. Then he came up and said, “You know, you’ve been doing it this way for a while, and I actually think you might want to try another direction.” He gave me the reason, and I said, “How long have you been thinking that?” He says, “I kinda felt that way since week three.” I said, “Why didn’t you fucking tell me!” He said, “It’s because you weren’t ready for it yet, but now you are.” It’s just that ability to see where that actor is in that particular process of understanding a role, and when he can nudge you in a new direction, because you’re able to take that note. Some directors just fill you with so much information, when you don’t know enough yet to process it. They’re smarter than you are, thank God, but they don’t have that ability Sam has, and a few other directors I’ve worked with, who just know exactly the moment to drop it.
The Dissolve: Who else is on that list?
Spacey: [David] Fincher. But also, Fincher does this other thing which is brilliant, which is that he just beats the acting out of you. He just does take after take after take after take. And sometimes he doesn’t say anything for a while, so you eventually let go of all the shit you’re doing, and start just saying the words and having the intention and realize that’s what he’s looking for. Simplicity! [Laughs.] “Stop all that actor shit!”
The Dissolve: There’s a moment in NOW where Sam says his goal with you is to get you to stop watching yourself, and to make you too vulnerable to analyze your acting. Are those things he actually told you at any point? Was that just him trying to sum up after the fact?
Spacey: Yeah, he never said those things to me, either in American Beauty or during Richard III. Those were things where I saw the film, and I was like, “Oh. I didn’t know that.” I wasn’t there when Jeremy interviewed Sam, so all that stuff… All the interviews with actors were completely new to me, because I wasn’t there for any of that.
The Dissolve: I saw the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, so I was there for the Q&A with you and the troupe afterward. You spoke at one point about how you don’t ever go off before a performance and try to get into character, or find your character—you just launch straight into it, and put whatever mood you’re in that day into the role. Did that result in any particularly memorable performances for you?
Spacey: Yeah, because you discover stuff. If you start in a different place… The story has this arc, and I know where it’s going, but I’m not thinking about that, I’m thinking about where I am in the moment. I try to be quite forgiving with myself, and let go of things if they don’t work. If a scene doesn’t play so well, you just have to let it go and keep moving forward. But yeah, there are often times where, because I would attack something with a different attitude, that would open up something new. You do something different, and the other actor in the scene responds differently—all of that is just this wonderful fabric of investigation. That night at Tribeca, I made the analogy about how being in a play is like playing tennis. Every time you play, you use the same rules, but it’s still a different game every time you’re out there. And that’s true for everybody. And then the act of being watched changes it, too. It’s very different working on a play in rehearsal, and then doing another rehearsal in a theater, and then… I remember the difference between rehearsing in Epidaurus during the daytime, and then doing a show at night in front of an audience. It was just extraordinary, the difference.
The Dissolve: You don’t really talk much in NOW about the physicality of playing Richard, but the film shows many scenes from the play, and the performance looks incredibly damaging to your body. And then there’s the moment at the end where you’re hoisted up on a crane by your feet every night. Over the course of hundreds of performances, how do you protect yourself while doing that?
Spacey: The very choices I made were designed to protect me. It looked a certain way, but actually it wasn’t that difficult. And here’s why: I wanted it to look mechanical and like, “Ugh, that must hurt.” The leg brace looked like this agonizing device, but actually, it was like putting on a glove. The leg brace did nothing. It had absolutely no function other than the physical look. I was doing all the work by turning my leg in. Then I had the withered hand and the hump.
But here’s what you may not know: You can either be working on a stage… [Gets up, acts out movement and placement onstage.] You’re the audience. The stage is flat, or what we call a rake stage. [Indicates a stage tilted downward toward the audience.] We were working on a rake stage. What that means is, for the actors, we were always being pushed forward, or facing this way and pushed that way [turns left, points right], or facing this way and pushed that way [turns right, points left]. So when I found that out from Sam, I spent time with some physical therapists to talk about what would visually be a great look. I wanted to be able to have an audience feel that this character is deformed, but still be remarkably fast, and able to do things you wouldn’t expect. So, by doing this [half-crouches, one foot turned inward, hunched forward]—it’s a fencing pose—I became the only actor in balance on that stage. So I was protecting myself by the very choice of doing this.
And that’s how I got through as many performances as I did without killing myself. And I chose that partly because I talked to [Ian] McKellen, I talked to Simon Russell Beale, Simon Callow, and they all said to me at some point in the conversation, “Be careful, don’t hurt yourself.” And that was about the physicality. So it meant a lot to me to be able to come up with something that would help me physically over a long period of time.
The Dissolve: The fact that you’re self-distributing this film seems like a huge gamble, which feels like it ties into your Edinburgh talk about Hollywood’s failure to be adventurous. Do you think your career has succeeded because you have a risk-taker mentality? Or do you just have more freedom to take risks because of your career success?
Spacey: [Pauses, muses.] I was in 11th grade, and I was doing a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at Canoga Park High School, and we got chosen as one of the three best productions in Southern California high-school theater that year. They’d take those productions and transfer them for one weekend to Northridge College [California State University], where the performers would do all these workshops with professionals. Friday night, Beverly Hills High did story theater. Saturday night, Chatsworth High did The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, and Sunday afternoon, we did our production of All My Sons. I remember sitting on Saturday night, watching this production of Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which was as good as any professional production I had ever seen, with two actors who were unbelievable. I remember having this thought: “I want to transfer to that school. God, I wanna go to that school, I wanna work with those two actors so much.” And that was Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer.
And the next day, we did our production of All My Sons, and I had an experience—a fundamental recognition, during that performance, that I was no longer in a position of wanting to be an actor. I was an actor, and I knew it during that performance. I was sitting backstage in a chair after the curtain call, thinking about that, and what that meant. It was no longer, “Oh my parents came and saw me in this play, and my friends will make fun of me…” I was an actor. And while I was sitting there, this man walked up to me and said hello, and I said hello, and he said, “My name is Robert Carrelli.” I knew who he was—he was the drama teacher at Chatsworth High, and he directed that production of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. He said, “I just wanted to tell you that was a remarkable performance, an extraordinary piece of work. I shouldn’t be saying this, but I want you to transfer to my school.” And I went [awestruck gasp] “Are you a mind reader?” I transferred to Chatsworth. That was a big risk. And I was called a lot of names as a result.
So in my mind, I’ve been doing this my whole life. I like challenges. Doing things that are, for me, unexpected. Different. I like firsts. So yeah, I’m very fortunate that I’m in a position to be able to take risks, but it’s not like, “Ah, I only started doing that once I became a successful actor.” I’ve been doing it my whole life. And I could cite many other instances of taking risks way before I was in any position to afford the risk. It gets me out of bed in the morning. It makes my heart beat faster.
The Dissolve: After everything this film says about the theater experience for actors, and everything you’ve said about your personal love of theater, why go back to TV with House Of Cards? Is part of it that risk of doing something new, with Netflix launching its production and distribution arm?
Spacey: Well, there were a bunch of reasons why I thought it was a great idea. And also—look, don’t misunderstand the fact that theater is my primary allegiance. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in film or television. I love living in both worlds, certainly. But there were a lot of firsts with House Of Cards. And it was an opportunity to work with David Fincher again, to create something that hadn’t been done before, an American version of this really great British series. I get to play a role that, ironically, is based on Richard III, to work with a playwright named Beau Willimon who is a remarkable writer, and at the same time be part of a brand new paradigm.
I’d been talking for eight or nine years about how one of these companies that’s made a gazillion dollars—Yahoo or YouTube or Netflix—as a porthole for content, if they’re gonna wanna compete, they’re gonna have to get into the original-content business. So it didn’t surprise me. It just surprised me that I ended up being a part of it, and producing it. And it’s been incredible to see how much audiences love being in control. I think appointment viewing is maybe behind us, and this is what’s ahead of us. The platforms don’t matter anymore; it’s all about the content. And it’s this really incredibly exciting time where all this creativity is coming, merging, at the same time that technology is… This intersection of these two things is happening at the same time. I think it means there’s going to be all kinds of new things that we could not imagine over the next decade. It’s a very exciting time.
The Dissolve: So how are you going to stay on top of it? What’s your plan from here?
Spacey: Oh, I pay attention. As I say, I’m interested in things I haven’t done before. I mean, I don’t know, that’s part of the fun of it, is keeping watch, keeping your ear to the ground, getting some sense of what might be interesting to explore. And there’s a lot.
The Dissolve: What excites you about a role these days? I’ve read that you don’t covet specific roles like Richard. You choose roles when people who excite you come to you with them. But what says to you, “This is something I wanna do?”
Spacey: That’s like a hypothetical. It’s always different, you know. Every time out, it’s different. I don’t have a process I follow. It’s just different every time. And I suppose, usually, if there’s maybe one consistent—if I read something that knocks me out, on whatever level it knocks me out on, that’s the experience I want the audience to have when they watch it for the first time. I want them to have the experience I had when I read it, of seeing it and feeling it, and going “Oh my God, I have to do this. This is a remarkable thing.” That’s what I want an audience to feel. And you know, sometimes I’ve been incredibly lucky, and that has happened, because all the elements came together. And sometimes you bring the best talents in the world together, and you can still produce a turkey. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: So does that desire to show the audience something that bowled you over, to share something with other people, explain NOW?
Spacey: Yes. It’s an embrace of the actor, it’s an embrace of theater, and it’s also for all those people who don’t get live theater. I hope I can change your mind by the end of this movie. Maybe you’ll walk out going, “That was pretty cool.”