When Kevin Spacey walks in a room, he expresses himself with such a forthrightness and uncompromising directness that the air crackles. Sometimes he can say things that bluntly "tell it like it is" or be as evasive as that mysterious character, Keyser Sose, from The Usual Suspects -- the powerful suspense thriller directed by Bryan Singer that made the character and Spacey famous.
Now Spacey plays another personality as outrageous and bold as Soze was mysterious and elusive -- Jack Abramoff, the convicted felon, Republican darling and corrupt lobbyist. Under the directorship of the late George Hickenlooper, the film, Casino Jack, indicts Bush-era Washington D.C. with a mixture of humor and mayhem. In the wake of this performance, Spacey garnered a nomination for a Best Actor Golden Globe.
Recently the New Jersey-born, 51-year-old thespian took time off from his work as the Artistic Director of England's Old Vic Theater to promote this film, made even more necessary by untimely death of Hickenlooper at 47. Tackling Abramoff gave Spacey a chance to both humanize the man, address Washington's political malaise, and, during this roundtable discussion, elaborate on his process as an actor.
Last night, Spacey was further in the public eye when he kicked off the opening night of the 10th New York Times Annual Arts and Leisure Weekend. Though you missed Spacey's appearance (and will have to make due with the following text interview), other legends of film, theater, music, television, dance, and media -- from Robert Redford to Michelle Williams to Billy Joe Armstrong -- will still be appearing through January 9th at the Times Center (242 West 41st St.)
Tickets for some of the other talks are still available. For more information and tickets go here.
Or view them live online since they are being broadcast as live streams. Go to: LivesStream.com/NYTimes
Q: You did such a brilliant over-the-top performance and in doing so convinced us that he really believe in his own religiosity will be such a character. How did you strike that balance?
KS: A lot of it was George. He had a mantra from the first day that we met to talk about the film, which was "I don't want to make a fucking boring movie about Washington. I want to make fucking 'Good Fellas in DC," and I was like, "Alright. That movie is pretty cool."
Tonally, I took a little lesson from having done a film for HBO called Recount. You can almost hear, as you say to people, "We're going to make a movie about an election," and then, "We're going to make a movie about a lobbyist," that yawning start across the nation.
But if you look at Recount and the way that film was approached -- [the late] Sydney Pollack, who was originally going to direct the film and then became too ill to do it, suggested Jay Roach, which was really a great idea because of Jay's ability with comedy -- meant that he wasn't afraid to show the outrageousness of the circumstances, some of the characteristics of people involved, and the choices that were being made, which are just frankly inherently funny.
You couldn't [make up] some of the stuff, and, I think, again in the case of this film, it's a story of very larger-than-life characters [creating] outrageous situations, misguided choices, and yadda, yadda, yadda. Plus [it's about] a guy who had this affinity for Hollywood movies and did all these impressions and stuff, which was great because I was able to infuse the film with that kind of tonal stuff which really ends up helping a movie just be more entertaining.
Q: Can you reenact the private meeting that you actually had with Abramoff in jail in the warden's conference room -- the one that you used to infuse your performance?
KS: I can't reenact it. I've been very circumspect about the specifics of that meeting because it was a private meeting, it was a lengthy meeting, I felt very grateful that he agreed to meet with me. I can only tell you that it was for me very, very helpful because I made a decision once I found out we were going to get a chance to meet him.
George met him four times before I met him with George. But when I found out I was going to get a chance to meet him I thought that's great because being able to meet the person you're going to play is very unique. And so I decided not to read anything. I mean I was in London when this whole story broke so I kind of remembered it but it wasn't in my face in the way it would have been here.
Frankly, I don't think most people in America know who Jack Abramoff is unless you really followed it or you're from the Beltway. So I didn't read anything, I didn't do any research at all, I just wanted to go meet the man and be able to take as much from him as I could. I was more interested in the emotional terrain of what he was going through than I was the specifics of "Did you do that?" or "Did you cross the line?"
I figured look, whatever he was going to say and whatever agenda he might have had or in telling me this but not telling me that, I knew I was going to be able to vet a lot of other people and find out the degree with which he'd been open and up front.
I came away feeling he was very open and up front. Then I went and spent two days in DC meeting his whole team of lobbyists, a lot of other lawyers, people that knew him, people that liked him, people that hated him, people that felt he didn't get as many years in prison as he should have.
Then I started looking at all of the commentary and the news reports. Now you've got this plethora of information and you have to sort from that what's true, what's not true, what's myth, what's lazy journalism, what is factual, and within all that try to come up with what you think is a reasonable, -- within the tone of this film -- a reasonable human being and to try to humanize somebody who'd been hugely dehumanized.
Q: What's up with Abramoff now? Wasn't he released from a halfway house and has been working in a Baltimore pizza parlor?
KS: Yes, I believe it was a kosher pizza parlor. But now he's free -- completely free.
Q: Have you had any contact with him?
KS: His sons came to the AFI premiere in Los Angeles and I know that the family, as difficult as it might be for them to watch some aspects of the film, they feel it's fair, that we didn't set out to play him as a one-dimensional villain but as a person.
Q: Did you trade impersonations with him when you met him?
KS: I'm not going to talk about the content of that meeting. I really am going to not make that fodder. I can't confirm or deny it. I can just tell you that I'm not going to talk about it.
Q: Are you excited about the awards?
KS: They're sort of amazing. First of all, the nomination for this film came as such a big surprise because the movie has just opened, so it's not even in people's consciousness. I'm very happy that the Hollywood Foreign Press actually watched the screeners or went to a screening.
I was happy because to get recognized in a time when there are so many great films and so many great performances that people are talking about. Jeff Bridges got nominated today for a SAG, he didn't get a Golden Globe. Different groups have different reasons and some are from your peers and some are from critics, so I was very, very happy because at the end of the day this has been the most bizarre couple of months since George died.
To not have him with us has just been very, very difficult, and I know that for George it would have meant the world that people might take an interest in seeing this movie. So if getting nominated helps people want to go out and see the movie that would have made George very happy.
Q: Does the fact that there are documentaries such as Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and the United States of Money and other efforts to document Abramoff in a nonfiction way help or hurt?
KS: I have no idea. I never saw the documentary so I don't have an opinion on it itself. I know there was some sort of snarking going back and forth between George and that filmmaker and it was just like shut up, who cares? It's fine; there's a book and there's a documentary.
We live in a world where all of these things can exist; I did not and do not see that as competition. It's a different perspective into telling a story and god knows it's a very fascinating story.
Q: The fantasy thing that you did in the senate hearing -- the courtroom scene, where that came from and how did you developed it?
KS: Abramoff was helpful in ways that he probably didn't even know he was helpful. When he told George and me that if he had known he was going to go to jail he would have never taken the fifth in front of the senate. George and I drove away from the prison that day and we [asked ourselves] what would that scene be like if he hadn't taken the fifth? As a result that scene was rewritten and turned into this.
The reason we wanted to do it was because we felt it was such an incredible opportunity to show the hypocrisy of what was happening in that senate hearing and what often happens in senate hearings because they are such dog-and-pony shows. But there had been a number of senators and congressmen who had taken checks from Abramoff -- John McCain had taken lots of money from competing Indian casinos for exactly what they were there pointing their fingers at Abramoff about. We thought it sort of highlighted it in a very humorous way rather than having to tell a lecture about it.
Q: One thing that really makes the film work is the dynamic between you and co-star Barry Pepper who played Abramoff's partner and co-defendant Michael Scanlon. How did you guys work it out?
KS: Look, I've always like Barry, I've always felt that Barry hasn't really gotten the kind of due he deserves. I had a blast working with him; he's very focused. And it was so much about finding a rhythm with him because if you thought Abramoff was going Scanlon was just really going, I mean literally diving off the board. We just had a really great chemistry together and George helped us both find that relationship.
Q: Are you as revolted by Washington D.C. as Barry is who said he was revolted by it; so how do you feel about what's happening?
KS: I'm not revolted by Washington, I am frustrated by the fact that there are good people there, there are good people in the lobbying industry. Lobbyists serve a very useful purpose. But I do think that as long as we in the United States continue to insist that our politicians have to spend all of their time raising millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars for TV ads and that it's all about that, then it will be corrupt. If we leave it in the hands of politicians to clean up the lobbying industry or to clean up campaign finance reform nothing's going to happen.
Q: You took a break from Hollywood to do the Old Vic work. Are you going back to that now or will you do more movies again?
KS: It's not that I took a little break. I dedicated myself to a 10-year vision of starting a theater company in London. I'm in my eighth year living in London, our seventh season, so I've got four and a half more years to go as artistic director. And because that my focus and my commitment had to shift away from my own career and my own ambitions I just didn't want to chase the same dream for another 10 years. But now that we're in our seventh season and we've been running and we've got an incredible staff and things are going incredibly well I've been doing more central roles in films than I've had the opportunity to do.
However, even though I've got this film and one that opens at Sundance called Margin Call -- and I did a film for Warner Brothers called Horrible Bosses that will be out in summer -- even with a bunch of movies coming out, starting in May, I'm doing Richard III with Sam Mendes, and that will take me from May until March of 2012.
It is a 12-week commitment at the Old Vic, then we're touring to nine cities around the world on three continents, and then we're taking a Christmas break. Then we come to BAM in Brooklyn and that will play until March. So I would say that is a very long commitment and I don't think I'll be having any time to do movies in between. But my hope is to continue to do film. I love film. I've been very, very grateful I made the decision I made.
Q: Have you considered taking any of the plays that you've done at the Old Vic to the big screen?
KS: Well [John] Frankenheimer did a version of The Iceman Cometh in the 1970s that I think Jeff Bridges was in. There's no doubt that some of the great films that have been made have come out of the theater. The thing that I'm looking at now in terms of some of our productions in coming years is can we find a way to film them that actually makes the theater experience watchable on film?
It's one of the hardest nuts to crack because as much as I would like people to see more theater and I would like them to be invested in it, I also don't want them to discover theater on film. I want them to come to a theater and actually sit in a seat and actually experience the three dimensional experience. There are ways to get the word out and maybe reach a wider audience. They've been doing some really great stuff with opera and the National Theatre has put some of their plays on where you can go to a movie theater in a local town and actually see a "live" performance. But we haven't figured out how to crack that nut quite yet.
Q: There's been talk about documenting in 3D and Werner Herzog made a documentary in 3-D. Would you ever consider documenting theater in 3D?
KS: Theater is 3D.
Q: But in terms of as a film experience.
KS: I don't know, maybe it is a good avenue to look at whether that technology would make theater quite exciting to watch on film. It's certainly cool to watch animation; that fucking shit just comes right at you.
Q: Would you be interested in doing a sister of Old Vic here in New York?
KS: If somebody was willing to give me $30 million absolutely. Because that's probably what it would cost. It's a very expensive town.
Q: As an actor do you find theater or film more rewarding?
KS: Theater because the process of doing a play is an organic one and the process of doing a film is totally un-organic. When you do a play you show up every day with a whole company and you all work on it every day with a director. You work on different sections of it and you start putting scenes together and then you start running acts. Every day for six weeks you come together as a company, and then you get up on stage and you start to share it with an audience and they start to teach you things and you work on it and work on it.
Then eventually you're in the run of a play and you will work with a group of actors and stage management and backstage crew for 12 weeks or 16 weeks and you become a family. You make families in theater.
Movie schedules are based around three things: actors' availabilities, when are sets being built, or when can you rent the place you're going to film in? Now actors' availabilities means that if I've got four or five scenes with Jeff Bridges in a film but he's on another movie I may start working on that movie and then three weeks later Jeff will come in for seven days and we'll work for seven days and then he goes away and he's on another movie and I don't see him again.
Every day you have new people, new locations, new situations; rarely do you have an entire company come together. It's literally at these kinds of award things where you end get Best Ensemble or whatever and you get oh everybody's back together, it's great.
But the film experience is just very unorganic. It's little strips of film that somebody else, the director and the editor, put together, so you don't ever even really play the whole performance, you just play pieces of it. But in theater that's our medium, that's the actor's medium, so it's a much more satisfying place, at least for me.
For other stories by Brad Balfour go to: FilmFestivalTraveler.com