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KEVIN SPACEY'S BALANCING ACT
BY JEFF MAURO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BLAKE LITTLE

JUGGLING DUAL ROLES AS LEX LUTHOR IN "SUPERMAN RETURNS" AND THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE OLD VIC THEATRE COMPANY IN LONDON, THE TWO TIME ACADEMY-AWARD WINNER SURFS A FINE LINE BETWEEN MOVIE STAR AND CLASSIC STAGE ACTOR.    

Do yourself a favor: Don't call Kevin Spacey a celebrity. At least not to his face. The actor who has made a career out of his everyman expressions, his lilting delivery that cuts a track in our mind's recorder ("I have fast-food experience"- who else can deliver a line that simple yet charge it with so much irony and information?) does not want to go there. Despite the trifecta of Spacey's most recognizable roles as Verbal Kint in "The Usual Suspects," Lester Burnham in "American Beauty," and Jack Vincennes: in "L.A. Confidential " - he does not consider himself a member of the Hollywood elite.

"There are sides to this industry that are so peripheral to the work," Spacey says, settling into a chair and balancing a Starbucks on his knee. "These things have nothing to do with what you get up every day to try to dedicate your life to. And so therefore, if you don't participate in them, as I generally don't, then you can become deeply...hated. And you can be accused of arrogance and all kinds of things because you won't play the game. But the truth is I really don't give a s**t. What I care about is the people I work with."

What I really want to ask him is how he's managed to achieve such success and be embraced by Hollywood (albeit briefly) without embracing it back. But the words are barely out of my mouth before: "You are dragging me into a conversation I find remarkably boring. So lets move on"

He sighs. A big, heaving sigh, like when you're two hours into an argument with your wife and it's gone nowhere. Tired, exasperated, what's the point. You're already out of things to say, and you feel like you haven't even started yet. Spacey flat-palms his forehead, then rubs his eyebrows with thumb and forefinger, like: Where's this going? He doesn't like my questions so far, and he's letting me know it. 

We are ostensibly here, in Hollywood, to promote "Superman Returns," the summer blockbuster that reintroduces the Man of Steel to a new generation. Directed by Bryan Singer of "X-Men" and "X2" fame, the movie stars little-known Brandon Routh as Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, and Spacey as arch-villain Lex Luthor. Of all the comparisons that can and will be made with the Superman franchise of the 1970s and 80s - Routh vs. Christopher Reeve, Singer's vision vs. Richard Donner's original film - it's probably Spacey who has the biggest shoes to fill in re-imagining Luthor compared to Gene Hackman's bald-as-a-cueball nut job.

Interesting choice for an actor who claims to shun the spotlight (although Singer and Spacey worked together on "The Usual Suspects," :and Spacey considers him one of "the finest directors out there"). The truth is, these days, Spacey prefers to spend his time not only away from Hollywood, but out of the country entirely. Currently the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre Company in London, Spacey seems entirely happy - almost devilishly satisfied with himself for having chosen art over fame.

"My life is better," he says, smiling for the first time. "I did not like the hot spot of being in the heat of it all. And quite frankly, it's been very valuable to take a little shine off my career. It's been really good, because I live a better life." 

About this point, he's adamant: Kevin Spacey is now happy, he's creatively satisfied, and he does not miss the hoopla of Hollywood. But I sense...something. It's not bitterness: "I always find it funny when I read something that says I ran away to the Old Vic because the movies I made after 'American Beauty' didn't make money, or didn't do as well, or critics didn't like them as much. I just sort of laugh because these boneheads don't know that I made the decision to go to the Old Vic in 1999 - right after 'American Beauty' premiered in London.

"It's not sour grapes. I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing. Even a movie like 'Superman Returns,' which in some ways will put me back in the spotlight a little bit - here's the good news: A month later I'm back in rehearsal at the Old Vic." 

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is failure to participate. Spacey has always made his own choices and gone his own way. Who else would insist on a non-credited role as the serial killer in "Se7en" because he didn't want the audience knowing who the bad guy was? Who else would follow 'American Beauty" with "The Shipping News"? And who else would devote a year of his life - not to mention take all the heat for directing, co-writing, starring in and singing all the songs for "Beyond the Sea"? The 2004 Bobby Darin biopic would have had to be the work of genius to deflect all the flack that comes from a so-called vanity project.

No, I don't believe that Spacey "ran away" because he had to. Come on - he's Kevin Spacey! And what about "Superman Returns"? You don't get roles like that when you're an outcast - Bryan Singer or no Bryan Singer. "I see a lot of people saying they don't want the celebrity life," he continues. "But I do see them living it. There are some careers that I absolutely would not want. They're not people anymore, they're industries. In terms of the industry of celebrity, I mean nothing. I don't sell newspapers. I'm not hounded. I'm not chased. Nobody photographs me walking out the stage door at the Old Vic and sell it and get ten cents for it. And I love it. It's calculated, and it's worked.

"You cannot stand on the outside of thinking what it's going to like to become well-known and have any idea what it's going to be. No one can prepare you for it. It will simply be your experience. This is my experience. I had a little taste of it, I don't want it. I walked away from it. I'm done, thank you very much. I'll continue making movies. I'll continue having a good time, but that? No." 

Spacey has made a huge commitment to the Old Vic - about 10 years by his estimation to establish a thriving theater company that successfully places bums in seats, as he puts it, without relying solely on Spacey's presence on stage. "I don't want the Old become only identified with me," he says. "It must become a destination for all theatergoers. I'll take good parts, but I won't take all of them.

And in between? A movie role here and there? "When and if it fits into my theater schedule. But then, if a script comes along that I think is incredible, trust me - I'm not the first name on people's lists."

Clearly, he's serious about this. As an actor, he's no doubt dedicated to his craft - maybe to the point of asking too much of himself.

There's a dark side to Spacey, a sadness that comes, apparently, from dissatisfaction and the never-ending struggle to do better with each role.

"I don't ever pat myself on the back," he sighs again. "I'm not a satisfied person. Because when you start to become satisfied - well I don't ever want to become satisfied. I'm troubled by my work. I'm obsessed with it, and it's never good enough. A lot of my friends wish I could enjoy it more, but I don't. I just don't. You can have won Academy Awards, you can be at the top of your profession. And it still....isn't good....enough."

Even successes like 'American Beauty" offer him little solace. In the fleeting glory of a perfect role, he sees the aftermath of adoration and awards. "I knew that, after American Beauty,' it would probably be awhile before I would do any film that people would like. Because there was a bar that was set - it was a once in a lifetime thing. You're lucky if you ever get a role like that in your life. The level on which I seem to be judged is a hell of a lot higher, and I think it's because of American Beauty.' And it can set you up as kind of a target. You really want to believe that all the things people say about you are true, but they're not. They're really not."

And so, for the time being at least, the actor who would not be a celebrity will trod the boards in 'A Moon for the Misbegotten" at Old Vic this fall, with a possible run on Broadway sometime in the future. And he will also light up the screen as the irrepressible, never-say-die Lex Luthor this summer, and it will bring him a full serving of attention and a minor blast of the spotlight again - whether he wants it or not.

"What the hell are you supposed to do with celebrity?" he asks. Buy houses and airplanes? You know, everyone's talking about this pathetic issue and it's not interesting to me. I'm an actor. That's who I am. Celebrity is not a profession."

Still, one wonders whether photos of Lex Luthor will sell for more than a dime. ~

Avery Cardoza's Player, July/August 2006. www.cardozaplayer.com

 

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 Driving Mr. Spacey!: The positively untrue life and times of Kevin Spacey,
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