Fame hasn’t really intruded on my life

His successes on the silver screen have brought him two Oscars. Butfor four years now, American actor Kevin Spacey's main line of business has been that of theatre director in London.

Interview: Peter Hossli

spaceyYou spend forty weeks a year in London. We’re sitting in a Hotel in New York. What brought you here?
Kevin Spacey:
I came to New York for pre-production meetings about the play that we’re bringing to Broadway, Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten.

You produce plays in London and then bring them to New York. Has the Old Vic become Off-Off-Broadway?
Spacey: I’ve always had a hope and desire that we will have opportunities to take work not just to New York, but to other cities in the United States, and to other cities around the world. We can argue politics, we can disagree about policies. But plays and artists can be used as tools for education, and tools for how we should better treat each other.

You moved do London in 2003, when did you decide to change your life?
Spacey: I made the decision to run the Old Vic at the end of 1999, American Beauty has just been released. Now, I definitely feel at home in London. I no longer feel that I’m getting settled. It is where I live. It is my primary home, and will be for the next eight or nine years.

You decided to move at the height of your thriving movie career. Why cut it short to run a theatre?
Spacey: I suppose that all depends on what your view of movies is. I wasn’t leaving anything behind or cutting anything off. I’m walking towards something. I’m doing something that has more meaning for me. I can affect more people’s lives doing what I’m doing in London in the theatre, than I do in movies.

How come? Movies still reach more people.
Spacey: Movies sometimes affect people. But the theatre is real and it’s tangible. The theatre is one of the most thrilling and memorable experiences that an audience can have. There are lots of movies you walk out of. You’re not in the parking lot before you’ve forgotten the damn thing. But plays stay with people. Theatre performances stay with people.

But only few people see plays.
Spacey: We touch many lives with our work in over 3000 schools throughout England, and with the outreach that we’ve done with our own neighbors. We work with young companies of actors, writers, directors and actors between 18 and 25. I actually see – literally see the far-reaching effects it has on someone’s confidence. On someone’s ability to learn how to collaborate with other artists. Kids who are 11, 12 years old stand up on a stage, and suddenly discover that they can do something. It gives them some sense of passion and direction. They learn how to stand up for themselves and present themselves, no matter what career they end up in their lives.

You talk a lot about what you give. But what do you get out of this?
Spacey: I don’t look at it in terms of what I’m getting out of it. Its about much more than that. I had this extraordinary run in movies. Remarkable run. It went better than I could have ever imagined. In ’99 there I was, in the midst of American Beauty having opened, and this entire attention happening. And I had to sit down with myself, and ultimately with the group that has been a part of my life. And say, “Well, now what am I supposed to do. Am I supposed to spend the next ten years of my life making movie after movie after movie, trying to top myself, trying to stay hot, trying to be on the best list, trying to make sure my movies make money?” I don’t want that life. It’s unsatisfying. I had it, I did it. Why spend the rest of my life repeating myself? What I’d rather do – what I think is the right thing to do, is to take all of the incredible opportunity and success and put it to good use. I like to work. I like to go to work every single day. And I like to be inspired and moved and challenged and terrified and worried.

What’s the thing that gets you up in the morning?
Spacey: In the theatre, you have a chance to actually create families. In movies, you don’t. You work with somebody one day, who’s playing your brother or playing your sister, and they do two scenes, and then they go away and you never see them again. You might see them at a premiere. In theatre, you all come together every day. You work on a play for five hours, six hours, eight hours, every day for five or six weeks. And then you come every night, and you’re all up for it, and you’re all engaged in sharing a story with an audience. And it grows and improves and changes and shifts from the beginning of a run to the end of a run. These relationships last. These people become a part of your family. And so in the last two and a half seasons, we have created at the Old Vic nine families. We’ve done nine plays. And the families extend to not just the actors in the company, but to those on the staff, to those who work in the technical department, to those working backstage. Even to our ushers. All become a part of our family.

As a film actor you played many rather creepy characters. Has the move to London helped you to leave behind these somehow stereotypical roles?
Spacey: There will always be directors and producers who only think of me that way. There’s nothing I can do about that. For some people, you get stereotyped. I’ve tried my level best to not repeat myself. And even if I’m playing roles that have certain qualities that are similar – they’re not the same parts. Otherwise, I would have spent my time making a whole hell of a lot of money doing a whole hell of a lot of bad movies that were just, bad versions of things I’d done before. Essentially, I found that the kind of roles that I was being offered didn’t interest me. Most of the great parts I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten because somebody else turned them down. Or because the director really, truly wanted me and fought for me.

But with two Oscars under your belt you must be able to do whatever you want to do?
Spacey: The truth is, I don’t. You get to do what you’re offered to do. You get to do what you pursue, or you get to do what you produce. But you don’t get offered every part. So when people look back, and try to see a pattern – there is no pattern. It’s just when you were available, when something was interesting to you, when you thought, and “Well, that’s a good idea.” Because I am a person who has to feed a theatre habit -I don’t get paid any money in London to do what I’m doing – occasionally I have to do a movie in order to keep that going. I hope to try to pick movies that I can live with myself in the morning. Not every movie is going to be a great movie; just as not every play is going to be a great play. It’s not an exact science.

What has the theatre given you?
Spacey: My acting career. Entirely. From beginning, until end. I wouldn’t have a film career if it weren’t for theatre. If I had not learned my craft in the theatre for more than ten years before I ever did a film, I wouldn’t have had a film career. I never used the theatre as a stepping-stone to movies.

In both movies and theatre, time is essential. How do you approach it?
Spacey: I am a big believer that you fill the time you have. If you have eight weeks to rehearse a play, you’ll take eight weeks. If you have four weeks, you’ll take four weeks. If you have 24 hours, you’ll take 24 hours. Time can be on your side, when you embrace it. I truly believe that time can be your friend. I work better under a deadline than I do without one. I respond to pressure very well. It forces you to think quickly. It forces you to come up with solutions. When you don’t have money as the answer, it forces you into more creative solutions than you might possibly have ever thought of.

How hard is it for a Hollywood star to be under the harsh eyes of England’s critics?
Spacey: I don’t recognize the term “Hollywood star.”. First of all, I don’t live in Hollywood. Second of all, I’m a character actor who is primarily a theatre actor, who’s done very well in movies. I’m not a celebrity. That’s not a profession. I’m an actor. And I’m an artistic director. For the press, I’m often framed as a Hollywood star. But I think it’s just lazy. I don’t think of myself that way. And therefore, all I would say is that anyone can take any kind of criticism they want at us. But it’s better if it’s on fair terms.

How difficult was it for you to pack and live in a another country?
Spacey: After 40 years living in the United States, and working here, there is something extraordinary about picking up your life and moving to a different place, a different culture, and starting fresh. And that’s what I’ve done. The only things I really miss are my friends, and places in New York. And experiences that I have here. But I have made a great number of friends in England, and a great number of families, as I said. I’m incredibly happy there. I’m happier there than I think I’ve ever been.

A friend of yours is the famous young cook Jamie Oliver. How do you enjoy London’s cuisine?
Spacey: I did a benefit with him. London is a real international city. So, you can find any kind of food you want, compared to any country in the world. The days of people complaining about British food are long since gone.

How does your involvement with the Old Vic influence the choice of movies that you’re making?
Spacey: It doesn’t. It’s a simple rule. If I get offered a film, and it can work around my schedule at the Old Vic, then I’ll consider it. If it doesn’t, then I won’t.

So the Old Vic has priority?
Spacey: Over everything. Everything.

You could make more money while making movies. What does money mean to you?
Spacey: It’s not productive to start making comparisons between what one could make in movies versus what one can make in theatre. They’re incomparable. It’s just a choice. When I see the kind of money that I need to raise and have successfully raised for the work we’re doing at the Old Vic, money means a hell of a lot to me. We couldn’t do what we do without money. Personally? I want to be rich in all the ways that have value. And that’s the way I try to live my life.

What does fame mean to you?
Spacey: There are more pluses than negatives. And because I basically am a pretty average-looking guy – and with a hat on, I look like a banker – I’m basically left alone. So, fame hasn’t really intruded on my life. I am a consistent believer that you never cross a line. And I’ve never crossed a line.

What you mean by this?
Spacey: The fact that I am a well-known person to encroach on my personal life. Never have allowed it, never will.

What do you consider your weakness?
Spacey: Dogs.

Then you and I wouldn’t get along. Why dogs?
Spacey: I fall to pieces for dogs. Seriously, my weaknesses are probably exactly the same as anyone else’s. I have been the victim of my own hubris. I have been the victim of my own ego. I have been the victim of my own stupidity. But you learn from lessons in life, and try not to make the same mistakes you made before.

How do you overcome fear?
Spacey: I’ve always been much more comfortable when I have the security of a character that I’m playing, and I’ve been directed incredibly well by a director with a vision about something. I’m much more comfortable in wearing of suit than when I have to stand up at some awards show and hope that I say a name right. But I hope the fear never goes away. It always is a bit of those adrenaline nerves, that you can use and help forge yourself through something, and sort of get through it. If you just ended up getting up there every night and it’s like nothing -then you’re not hugely motivated.

What did your parents tell you when you told them that you want to be an actor?
Spacey: There was no sit-down, telling my parents I’m going to be an actor. They knew I wanted to be an actor before I did. My parents always saw me as the performer in the family. I started acting when I was eight years old. It wasn’t a decision. It just happened. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I really realized that I was an actor.

Are there movies or plays, or one movie or one play, that made you want to become one?
Spacey: It’s dozens and dozens and dozens of experiences. You know, seeing Henry Fonda or Spencer Tracy or Jimmy Stewart or Katherine Hepburn. I fell in love with great movies, and then ultimately great theatre, that led me to want to say, “I want to be like that.”

Is there a role, a movie role that you wish you had played?
Spacey: No. There are maybe two or three movies in the last 15 years that I was in the running for and I didn’t get, or I really wanted, but the director didn’t want me.

Can you tell me which ones they’re?
Spacey: No, I don’t ever believe in talking out of school. I think it’s bad behavior. I can say that in every one of those cases, I haven’t been disappointed by the performance of the actor that did it.

You’re a close friend of former President Bill Clinton. What’s so special about this man?
Spacey: The work that his administration did, will go down as one of the great presidencies in our history. I think the work he’s doing as an ex-President is phenomenal. The amount of focus and attention he’s bringing to so many issues. The amount of pressure he’s putting on so many governments and corporations to step up, to help, is admirable.

How did you connect?
Spacey: We just happened to have struck up a friendship many years ago. One of the reasons we became friends, is because we’ve always had ideas about what our position and what our roles can be. I don’t look at a part in a film or a play, or my role here at the Old Vic as merely an artistic role. It’s a leadership role. As I leader you have to try to create an environment in which everybody can do their best, and feels confident, and feels that their contribution is as valuable as yours. Even though in a lot of cases I get all the attention, I don’t do all the work. I think that the president feels very much that way. He can bring people together. And can use his position to try to influence people to do good things. And that is, essentially, what I’ve set out to do for the rest of my life. What the hell else I’m supposed to do?

Kevin Spacey, 47, is one of the most distinguished character actors of our times. He created memorable roles on stage and on film. Throughout the 1990s he stared in films like «Seven», «L.A. Confidential», «The Usual Suspects» and «American Beauty». For roles the latter two he won Academy Awards In 2003 he announced that he would overhaul his life and his career. He became the artistic director of the Old Vic, one of London’s oldest theaters. Today, Spacey not only runs a theatre company, he also stars in plays and does outreach work. If he finds the time, he still acts in and even directs films. But, he says, «my priority is the Old Vic».