A good bad man is hard to find. Unless Kevin Spacey’s in the general vicinity.
Consider, momentarily, the two men that come to the minds of most casting agents looking for villains: Critics have charged that Tommy Lee Jones’ post-Oscar performances in “Natural Born Killers,” “Cobb” and “Batman Forever” have soared so far over the top he’s in danger of straying off the radar screen, and Dennis Hopper has made a lucrative career pounding on the ever-wearying note that created “Blue Velvet’s” Frank Booth.
The only constant in Spacey’s most memorable performances, says Brad Jenkel, producer of the actor’s directorial debut, “Albino Alligator,” is that “he plays guys who have this morality problem. They have this weird side to them. I guess that’s what attracts him to them.”
Adds Bryan Singer, director of Spacey’s latest, the caper film “The Usual Suspects,” which opens Wednesday: “He’s a very complicated person. [Acting] is basically a simple exercise of living life truthfully under imaginary circumstances. But beneath him is a complex person, and that gives way to a character with greater depth than you see on the surface.”
Spacey’s breakthrough came while playing Mel Profitt, the drug-addicted gun-runner involved with his own sister, on the cult TV series “Wiseguy.” He won a Tony on Broadway in 1991 for playing the charismatic yet unreliable Uncle Louie in “Lost in Yonkers.” From there, he played the venally banal middle manager in the film version of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the seductively hedonistic sociopath of “Consenting Adults” and one-half of the couple that doesn’t let the fact that they’ve been taken hostage detract from their bilious bickering in “The Ref.”
And 1995 is shaping up as a career year: Spacey, now 36, continued his lively parade of dirt-bags with the guilefully psychopathic movie studio executive fond of bellowing such things as “You’re happy--I hate that!” in this year’s “Swimming With Sharks.” He co-starred in his first blockbuster-type movie this year, “Outbreak"--playing, in a twist, the character so likable it was obvious he was doomed. And he’s just been cast in the Joel Schumacher-directed version of the John Grisham thriller “A Time to Kill.”
Now, however, “The Usual Suspects” is on the front burner. Spacey portrays the limping con man Verbal Kint, alternately sniveling and tart-tongued, the only survivor of a dockyards blood bath that may have involved a shadowy, internationally feared crime lord. “I am not a rat!” he insists repeatedly during an emotional interrogation (Chazz Palminteri is his sparring partner), yet he jabbers on and on nonetheless about his take on events.
Singer, who created the role for Spacey, recalls: “He came in with this haircut [with a geeky widow’s peak] and I immediately knew he was right. Later, he was demonstrating limps across this restaurant. He’d go to the bathroom with one limp, come back from the bathroom with a different limp.”
One of Spacey’s strengths, Singer adds, is that he doesn’t really look the part he often plays. “He looks kind of peevish and wimpy,” Singer says. “Audiences feel sorry for him. But one second he can look terrifying and the next second he can look completely innocent.”
Singer echoes the thoughts of many in the industry right about now: “He’s very, very cool.”
Got all that? Good, appreciate it while you can, because as things stand now, Spacey’s acting career may soon be history.
On the set of his directorial debut, the darkly comic hostage thriller “Albino Alligator,” which Miramax plans to release early next year, Spacey looks like an action director. Not in the sense that John McTiernan is an action director, but in the sense that Jackson Pollock was an action painter. He moves restlessly around his rehearsing actors, checking them out from every angle, finding the action, the emotional focus. During one shot, he abruptly abandons his playback monitor and slides up to the camera like a ballplayer stealing second.
He confers privately with actors, encouraging the cast and crew at large. “We’ve learned something here--excellent,” he enthuses after a botched take.
“He’s very special,” offers Faye Dunaway, one of Spacey’s stars. “He’s got vigor and vitality and energy. He’s done his homework in spades.”
Producer Jenkel likewise attests to Spacey’s dogged preparedness, then adds, “I wonder if he’ll ever act again because he’s such a great director. He has truly been entertained by this. It’s too bad, because he’s such a great actor.”
Spacey confesses: “I have to say that acting pales to this experience.”
Spacey is a seeming anomaly on the current, glib Hollywood landscape. He’s extremely knowledgeable of film history, discussing the work of other actors (his take on how Spencer Tracy hit his marks is particularly hilarious) and directors with a passion and insight that compares to such film fanatics as Martin Scorsese, and he tackles non-industry issues on more than a fashionably surface level. His answers to questions are thorough, yet he speaks volumes with a subtle facial expression.
Spacey credits Mike Nichols with helping him find his own authorial voice and set demeanor, even though he had only bit parts in “Heartburn” and “Working Girl.” (“I had to wink at Meryl Streep,” Spacey recalls of his assignment in the former.)
“He directed me [on Broadway] in ‘Hurlyburly'--I was the understudy, the pinch-hitter, warming up in the bullpen every night for a different role. But Mike would let me come to the set, even though I only had a few days’ work.
“Mike is the kind of director that everyone wants to do a really good job for. It was a really great lesson, watching the way he dealt with problems: No one was mistreated, no one became the object of unfounded wrath.
“I’ve worked with screamers and they’re boring, " he continues. “Nobody wants to work hard for them. That’s when it becomes a job .”
Spacey also gives high marks to Singer and “Usual Suspects.” “Your film will be around for 50, 60 years, or it’s gonna be around for eight. Many other films become dated, with trendy references, rather than making a film that will last forever. This one will be around for a while.”
Outside of the fairly ludicrous thriller “Consenting Adults,” in which Spacey was roundly considered the only redeeming feature, films he has been featured in have managed to have a strong measure of integrity, if not always box-office punch. Though many actors like to say, “It’s all about the work,” Spacey apparently means it, paying acute attention to material, even back in 1987, when he was a struggling actor and “Wiseguy” came calling.
“I was so resistant to it,” he recalls. “I was theater-arrogant, you know how it is--'Series, I’m not going to do a series!’ ” (He narrows his eyes and adds in a conspiratorial hushed tone, “I was lucky to get hired.”)
“So I went on this audition, very cranky about it, but the script was good. I turned it down. They couldn’t believe I turned it down. I don’t know if I came off as an arrogant putz or my arguments were legitimate about doing series work. . . .
“I called Jack Lemmon [Spacey and Lemmon starred in a Broadway production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 1986]. I wanted to talk about the Golden Days of TV--I wanted to get an impression of why TV was ‘golden’ then. Jack said one reason why was that it was brand new. No one did it before, you didn’t know it would work. He said there was"--and here, Spacey does a spot-on imitation of Lemmon, even scrunching up his face to suggest his adviser--" 'a certain abandon to this whole [expletive] thing.’
“That word abandon flew into my brain when I went to Vancouver [to shoot “Wiseguy”] and that’s what I did. People responded to that. When anything is just slightly left of center, it really pops out because most TV doesn’t do that. It was just so darn bizarre.”
Abandon. Spacey has made it his motto. On “Swimming With Sharks,” which he also produced, Spacey poured a special kind of venom into his portrayal of a movie producer who terrorizes his personal assistant, and then he devised a promotion in which he became a personal assistant’s personal assistant. In leaner days, he was Joe Papp’s assistant at New York’s Shakespeare Festival, but never expected to return to such grunt work.
“They had their way with me, they kept shopping me out to other people, because it was fun to have me show up in a boardroom to serve coffee to everyone,” he recalls with a smile.
Nonetheless, that film neglected to find an audience, as did “The Ref,” which many had pegged as a sure-fire hit.
“I don’t want to denigrate, but sometimes office politics and positioning and that stuff takes precedent over people’s love of movies and their knowledge of the history of cinema,” he says with a shrug.
“You simply don’t have that experience in the theater, where someone tries to sell the play in a way that doesn’t reflect what the play is. Everyone wants the play to be successful.”
To that end, Spacey returns to the New York stage next year, producing and starring in “National Anthems,” a play he appeared in to great success years ago and, because of his own personal attachment to the piece, one he hopes to turn into a regional perennial. Spacey routinely cites his stage work when asked about the array of villains he has portrayed--his stage persona is nothing like his persona in film.
Nonetheless, he cops to a certain amount of typecasting. “I was doing a phone interview a while back, one which I ended quickly,” he recalls. “The guy says, ‘So--I’ve seen you play a lot of [expletive]. Are you trustworthy?’ I’m sorry, excuse me? He says, ‘You’re just such a believable jerk. Are you trustworthy?’ I said, ‘Acting--you ever heard of it?’ ”
And yet, he has let the power of acting affect, even fool, him. “When doing ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ at the end, I was incredibly depressed,” he says. “I would come to work and everyone would say, ‘You [expletive],’ ‘You secretary,’ ‘Kiss my [another expletive],’ ‘You woman,’ '[Still another expletive] you.’ Having Al Pacino do that to you is really convincing. After a while you start thinking, ‘I’m not talented, I’m gonna get caught, they’re gonna fire me.’ Ultimately I realized that was the cumulative effect of just hearing good actors call me every name in the book for 10 weeks straight.”
Now is a key point in Spacey’s career--"Usual Suspects” is a critical favorite, but will audiences send his personal stock soaring? Will “Albino Alligator” make him the latest hot auteur ? Or will he continue to do solid work in solid movies that get flimsy audience response?
“I’m very conflicted about it,” he says. “I don’t spend that much time worrying about it, but I remember getting out of Juilliard thinking, ‘I want to be famous in five minutes.’ [Now], I’m happy I haven’t participated in things I’m embarrassed about. I’ve been specific about things I wanted to do and I’m going to try to keep making them.”
With that, Spacey must return his attentions to “Albino Alligator.” He recalls with a laugh the directorial advice a friend left on his answering machine:
“He said, ‘Hope it’s going well, but just remember John Ford’s adage: “When the hero comes into town, [he moves] right to left. When the hero goes out of town, it’s left to right.” ’ “
It’s too soon to tell which direction Spacey is heading.