21 - Kevin Spacey interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
KEVIN Spacey talks about balancing a film career with his duties at London’s Old Vic theatre, the allure of a gambling drama like 21 (in which he stars and produces) and whether he’s happy being at a casino table.
He also talks about rising above the criticisms of his early tenure as artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre and how he went about winning back audiences, as well as some of his British passions…
Q. Have you been surprised at the way you’ve been able to maintain a presence in high-profile American films while running the Old Vic theatre in London?
Kevin Spacey: No… because it was always my hope that I could maintain it. I suspected that when I started at the Old Vic that my focus would have to really shift. As much preparation as I did, and as much research as I did about previous artistic directors and their roles, or conversations I had with friends of mine who had been artistic directors, I really didn’t know until I was in the middle of it just how much the job required, and what a really day-to-day job it was. I’m involved in every single aspect of the company, but as we’ve gone on and as we’ve grown it’s been much easier for me to delegate because I now have an incredible staff. We literally started with David Liddiment and myself in a dressing room with a phone five years ago. But now we have a pretty substantial staff of people who really believe in and understand what our ethos is as a company.
I feel it’s very easy now for me to delegate. I’ve got an incredible education officer, who is constantly coming up with great ideas of what we should do and how we should continue to use education as a tool. So, when you look at it, I made three movies last year. Even if the Old Vic didn’t exist that’s a lot of movies to do in one year. I think certainly for the first two years I really was focussing [on the theatre] a lot because other than having shot Superman [Returns] for six weeks, I was completely dedicated to the Vic. The balancing act is trying to keep one foot in the film world but my first priority and my focus continues to be the Vic.
Q. Why do you need to do films, is it because you love them?
Kevin Spacey: Because I think to disappear entirely from films would be stupid. If it weren’t for films I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing at the Old Vic, that’s for sure. But I also know if it weren’t for theatre I wouldn’t have had a film career. So I kind of feel like they complement each other. That said, I do more producing in films than I do acting as that’s just really a measure of availability and time. There are movies that come along sometimes that I’m offered that I just can’t do because I’m already committed or we’ve already sold tickets to a production we’re doing that I’m in. Once I make a decision to do a play I’m not going to change that, no matter what.
Q. Is 21 the kind of film you would have sought out, an old-fashioned caper movie?
Kevin Spacey: Yeah, definitely. It’s also got that Risky Business quality to it that I thought about when I first read that story about 15 years ago, when these rumours came out of Boston from some friends that this thing was maybe going on. There’s just something about what it’s like when young people fall into making astronomical amounts of money in an unconventional way, and the potential of the greed, corruption and the seduction that’s thrown at them. It’s about how they respond to it and, at the end of the day, what decisions they’re going to make and what kind of people they’re going to be in the end. That’s also the terrain that Ben Mezrich [the author of the novel upon which the film is based] seems quite fascinated with; young men making a lot of money and what it does to them.
Q. Would former maths teachers consider your playing a maths professor a great leap of faith?
Kevin Spacey: [Laughs] Yes, I would say it would probably be one of the greater leaps of faith. But that’s where acting comes in.
Q. How good are you at card counting now?
Kevin Spacey: Look, I get it conceptually, it was explained to me and I nod my head and say it makes sense. And then they start doing the cards and it’s like: “F**k! What? Stop! How many?” And you’re completely f**ked. I could no more count a single deck of cards than I could count six. Also, if you meet the guys who were on the team, when we did what we like to call our research trips to Vegas – it’s very important when you’re a producer to take research trips – they’re not allowed to play, but they could come with us and stand behind me while I played blackjack. Every time they wanted me to up my bet they’d just push against my chair. And I won every time. I wish they would just come around forever but they seem to have lives.
Q. Did the success of films like Ocean’s Eleven help with the financing of a movie like this?
Kevin Spacey: Well, we’ve had a kind of interesting journey on this movie because we found it five years ago. We sold it to MGM, they failed to tell us they were being sold, so we went through four years of being parked and not knowing whether the film was ever going to get out of there. Finally, Sony bought MGM, looked at the catalogue that was on the dock and pulled out two of them: James Bond and us. So we were very happy about that. But one of the things we were worried about was that five years ago we thought we were ahead of the curve, because this movie was about Vegas.
Then suddenly in the interim all these movies and all these TV shows and all these poker tournaments and all this reality shows started to happen and we were like, “f**k, we’re so f**ked!” So, one of the big issues creatively was how to make Vegas interesting again. And one of the big reasons we wanted Russell Carpenter was that from a cinematography point of view, we wanted to be able to make Boston, both its feel and its colours and the way its shot, very different from Vegas and the life they take on there. The colours, the hues, the actual film we were using, was hugely important to us, because we were a little worried we might be behind the eight ball now.
But I think that by doing the photography in the way that they have, by going into the cards, by going into the minds – I think it’s very helpful for an audience to know how it works. I’ve always felt that movies about poker were very confusing to me because I can’t figure out the hand. I can never figure it out. But 21 is such an easy game that even if you’re a foreigner I think you’re going to get what they’re doing, you’re going to get the game. You may not be able to count cards but you’re going to get the game.
Q. Are you a fan of Las Vegas?
Kevin Spacey: For periods of time. I’ve had a lot of fun in Vegas when I’ve gone… you go for two or three days at a time, you’re there with friends, having a party, getting drunk, going to all the places you’re meant to go to and seeing the shows. That’s all great. But being there for a month and some days is very different. I certainly didn’t party while we were doing 21 and I didn’t even gamble because of my responsibilities as a producer. But also just the hours… you just can’t do it. So, I did a lot of other things when I had days off. It’s just not a city for the daytime.
Q. How did Vegas take to the production?
Kevin Spacey: Well, at first we wondered if we’d be rejected by the casinos. But then it turned out to be completely the opposite, they didn’t only want us they welcomed us, and they let us shoot in so many different casinos and places. I think it’s because they secretly want everyone in America to see this movie and think they can come to Vegas and break the bank. I do think there’s an ulterior motive to their welcoming favours. I’ve got to say that Robert Earl in particular, who runs Planet Hollywood, couldn’t have been better to us. It was our home base while we were there, it was where we all stayed, and we shot quite a lot in Planet Hollywood. But all the other casinos where we shot were equally welcoming to us. I guess they look at it as an advertisement.
Q. Would you describe yourself as a risk-taker in real life?
Kevin Spacey: Yeah, I probably am. I think coming to London and starting a theatre company was probably a pretty big risk. But as I sit here in the middle of our fourth season, about to hit our millionth patron mark of audiences that have come in, it’s encouraging for a fledgling theatre company.
Q. You weren’t given the smoothest of rides when you started, though, were you?
Kevin Spacey: I didn’t expect it. I think that’s par for the course. If you go back and study the history of theatrical beginnings as I did when I started, you would easily have been as prepared as I was for the critical assessments. If you go back and look at the first three seasons of the Royal Shakespeare Company, they were a disaster according to the critics. Now, we think of the RSC as the RSC, and they can do no wrong. But when they started they were not welcomed. Sam Wanamaker was not welcomed with his idea of the Globe Theatre. Peter Hall had his critics, and he was called a disaster in his first three seasons at the National. Olivier had his critics. You just go down the line and you start to realise that that’s the way things have been greeted. Now, I kind of fully prepared myself for even worse, because I knew I was a film actor and I was an American and that seemed to be ripe for a sniper’s target. And actually it was less personal than I thought it was going to be. And it ended when I hoped it would. By that I mean when they stopped judging the theatre company and it was about me. When it stopped being about my ‘reign’ and they started to judge the plays as the plays and judge them as plays.
I always knew it would take us probably three or four seasons to establish ourselves, and that’s exactly what happened and that’s exactly what I kept telling my staff. I said: “Keep your heads high, we have a 10-year vision, and we’ll get through this, it’s been done before.” The truth is that unless I’d have come riding down Waterloo Road on a white horse with Laurence Olivier on my shoulders, they wouldn’t have liked me no matter what I did. So, I did what I wanted to do.
Q. Why do you think you experienced such fervent criticism?
Kevin Spacey: Well, you have to also put in context why there was the passionate criticism [there was]. People have very, very strong, fervent memories of what the Old Vic theatre is to them. Both as critics, some of them have been doing it since the 50s, but also as young people who remember going to the theatre. There’s kind of an impression that the only thing that belongs on the Old Vic’s stage in some peoples’ minds is Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw and Chekhov. But I had to look at what I was facing, which was a theatre that had ceased having an artistic director in 1976, that ceased being a company in 1976, and for 30 years was a booking house. There were two exceptions, when Jonathan Miller came and tried to start a company and when Peter Hall came and tried to start a company. They were not given subsidy and they both eventually abandoned those companies. My task was, how do we return the Old Vic as a destination theatre for audiences who’d not been coming for 30 years? Yes, there’d occasionally be a hit play, but there was no audience development, there was no education, there was nothing like what we do with Old Vic New Voices. It didn’t exist, it was a building with a great history, but not a great recent history.
So, I had to face the question… it’s a thousand seat theatre, it’s not the Almeida, it’s not the Donmar, it’s not The Royal Court, it’s a 1,045 seat theatre. If you’re playing under 70% you’re dead in the water, because we have no subsidy. Our risks are our risks, and if we have a show that goes down, it seriously damages us, particularly as we were just starting out. So, what I had to look at was, alright, I could pretty much predict that people expected us to start with Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw and Chekhov. But I was fairly convinced that if I started there, I would be playing to an already theatre going audience and that audience would be very now. And unless I put big stars in every show, it was not guaranteed that you’d be playing over 70%.
The only way I felt to get a broader, more diverse and younger audience into that building and start to build an audience was to do work that I thought would be exciting, entertaining but maybe not what you’d expect to see on the Old Vic stage. But something that would bring more than the audience that already goes to Chekhov and Ibsen and Shakespeare. That’s what we came under criticism for, what we programmed. And I maintain we were right to programme what we did because if we hadn’t have gotten our audience in the first two seasons we wouldn’t have lasted because there’s no way I could convince anybody to keep giving us money if nobody’s coming.
I always said, although I guess some things you say just fall through the cracks: “We’ll get to the classics, we’ll do the classic works, we’ll absolutely do it.” Well, now we’ve done The Entertainer and A Moon For The Misbegotten, and we’ve got a Pygmalion coming in the next couple of weeks. We’ve got Sam Mendes directing two classic plays over the next three seasons, a year in rep, so that’s six classic productions that will be coming into the Vic. And at the same time we’re doing new work like Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, and Stephen Fry’s Cinderella. We’re trying to appeal in some ways to a slightly different audience with each production we do, and we’re encouraged by the response of the British public. In the face of all of that criticism they never stopped coming, and I never stopped getting letters from the British public saying: “Hang in there, hang in there!” It was always my intention to hang in there, so I’m glad that it’s going along alright.
Q. Is there anything else in British culture you’ve taken to?
Kevin Spacey: I’ve definitely gotten into modern art in a way that I never really was before. I go to art galleries and see a lot of stuff. I’ve bought a few things. I’d sort of admired it before but I never really got into it, there’s just such an incredible amount of places to go and galleries to see and openings. I’m kind of flying in for a half hour and looking at some place and being introduced to a lot of interesting artists that are emerging. And some that have been around for a while, the Chapman Brothers and Paul Insect, Goldie’s even become an artist and actually done some really interesting stuff. That’s a scene that I’m getting more and more into.
I’ve also always been into the jazz scene here, on any given night I’m very happy to be cosily tucked into Ronnie Scott’s. And, of course, there’s the theatre and being able to go see all kinds of things. One of the great breaks I’ve given myself is that Speed-The-Plow is the first of the five plays I’ve done at the Vic where I made a decision that we wouldn’t do Wednesday matinees – simply because if you’re just an actor in a play, eight performances a week, you can do it. But running the company at the same time, having a Wednesday matinee absolutely killed my week because it screws up Tuesday night, it screws up Wednesday, it screws up Wednesday night, and it screws up Thursday morning. Doing two in a day is a lot, especially if it’s a play, as Speed is, that reaches a kind of epic, emotional life. So, I’m very happy that I gave myself a break because it’s given me another chance to go see things on Wednesday when I normally wouldn’t be able to.