Movie talent is drawn to West End shows

Kevin Spacey has won two Oscars, but ask the 46-year-old actor where he feels most at home and his reply is the theater. “It’s my primary allegiance and primary focus,” says Spacey, who is entering his second year as artistic director at London’s venerable Old Vic playhouse. “Theater is really an actor’s medium,” says the Juilliard-educated thesp.

So it’s not surprising that he swapped New York for London. Even more than in Manhattan, London has long fostered a synergy between film and theater.

It was while running the 251-seat Donmar Warehouse that Sam Mendes took time off to helm “American Beauty,” for which he won an Oscar. Stephen Daldry scored a smash with “Billy Elliot” onscreen and has done the same with “Billy Elliot — the Musical” onstage. Richard Eyre moved from helming the film “Stage Beauty” to last winter’s stage musical titan “Mary Poppins.”

The synergy can be even more precise: Nicholas Hytner had a roaring hit at the National with his Broadway-bound staging of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” and spent much of the summer putting the play onscreen.

Anthony Minghella, on the other hand, is taking a break from movies to direct his first opera, “Madam Butterfly,” opening Nov. 5 at the English National Opera.

“I don’t think we swim so much in a bespoke swimming pool in the way that people in L.A. do,” says Minghella, explaining the ready shift between disciplines made by many British helmers. (Minghella himself began in theater.) “Whereas the film industry in L.A. is all-consuming, in Britain, if you live in London, you live in London and you make films; it’s not your defining characteristic.” As a result, he adds, “I don’t think we feel so separate from, say, music and the arts in general.”

Do folk in Hollywood look askance at such cultural traffic? If you have the right colleagues, says Spacey, they don’t.

“I can tell you that the people I work with and the people who have been working with me get it,” Spacey says of his predilection for the live art form. He points to the reaction when he told his business associates that he was thinking of taking the reins at the Old Vic. “None of them thought I was crazy or out of my mind,” the actor says. “Whether you go off the radar (in Hollywood) or not is OK because I’m doing what I want to do.”

The past year found Spacey spending 36 weeks on plays and only six weeks on one film, Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns.”

Spacey is not the only American in London to have made such a choice of late. In the same week as he was addressing this topic, Rob Lowe was opening in the West End preem of Aaron Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men.” Lowe’s theater turn found the celluloid star taking to the very stage that last year hosted another ex-Brat Packer, Molly Ringwald in “When Harry Met Sally.”

“London is very much the center of all things at the moment, including theater,” he says. “I’ve done Broadway but this is my West End debut, and with Aaron Sorkin. So between that and being able to play the Haymarket (one of London’s most beautiful auditoriums) it just was a fantastic opportunity.”

Lowe arrives in the same West End season that has already seen Val Kilmer star in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” just as David Schwimmer had success in the world preem of new Neil LaBute play “Some Girls.”

“It’s great that people are getting that opportunity,” Lowe says. “Every actor probably aspires to play the West End; I know I did.”

That sentiment explains the steady flow of American stars to the London stage, whether it’s Kathleen Turner and Jessica Lange or younger thesps like Jake Gyllenhaal, Matt Damon and Macaulay Culkin. Gwyneth Paltrow performed “Proof” in a John Madden production at the Donmar as a dry run for Madden’s film version.

British thesps, no matter how starry onscreen, almost all visit the stage. Judi Dench might be in constant demand for movies, but she has two theater projects lined up for 2006. The same shuttling back and forth defines Maggie Smith, John Hurt and Michael Gambon, not to mention the likes of Ewan McGregor, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.

“It’s always been like this,” says Old Vic impresario Sally Greene, who secured Spacey for her theater’s top spot. “Look at Laurence Olivier, after all.” His legacy, in more ways than he could have predicted, lingers on.

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