Actor draws energy and wisdom from his onstage experience
Kevin Spacey lives with “House of Cards” through a stack of his own cards, which are peppered with lines and directions. “My cards are my routine,” Spacey explains after another 12 hours on the set of the Netflix series, which shoots in Baltimore.
At a certain point in production, Spacey ditches his script in favor of the more mobile notecards, allowing him to wander restaurants, elevators, stores, anywhere he wants, and absorb Francis Underwood.
“I like to live with the material two weeks ahead. … My cards, they’re my compact little bible.”
As production shifts back into overdrive on the Netflix streaming series, Spacey is, in a way, only now beginning to understand his character — the conniving, power-hungry House majority whip from South Carolina hellbent on rising to America’s highest office.
With Netflix ordering 26 episodes of the political thriller upfront, Spacey admits that, at the beginning of “House of Cards,” “there was a lot I didn’t know yet (about this character), but that would become clearer the more we went on.
“There’s a certain amount of trust you have to have in yourself, and the writing as it evolves,” he says. “Because it’s evolving at a certain pace.”
The evolution of Spacey as an actor has been on a steady course for decades now. Before there were cards or “House of Cards,” and before Oscar wins and BAFTA kudos and Critics Choice awards, there was simply a young Spacey and the stage.
The theater is Spacey’s true first calling, going back to his days growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, when he transferred to Chatsworth High so that he could act alongside fellow students Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham.
After years in the biz, he understands that theater offers strength that working in front of a camera cannot.
“It takes stamina to get up like an athlete every single night, seven to eight performances a week, 20 weeks in a row,” and perform a play, Spacey says. “And there are many young performers who only learn their craft in the two minute bits it takes to film a scene. You never learn the arc of storytelling, the arc of a character that way.”
Spacey’s theater experience, particularly at London’s Old Vic — where he’s held a decade-long tenure as artistic director — has certainly influenced his work in “House of Cards.” The thesp widely cites his experience playing the titular character in Sam Mendes’ production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” as one that shaped his portrayal of Underwood, particularly when it comes to direct-to-audience addresses.
Willimon’s background as a playwright complemented Spacey’s love of theater, allowing the two to push each other creatively in “House of Cards.” Their first encounter occurred when the thesp arrived at the Summer Play Festival in Gotham to speak with playwrights “in a small, windowless room in the basement of Theater Row,” Willimon recalls.
“I remember being impressed and inspired that this major movie star had remained so dedicated to theater and was willing to talk to a small group of writers who were just starting out,” he says.
Dana Brunetti, Spacey’s biz partner and prez of his shingle Triggerstreet Prods., quips that the thesp’s commitment to theater can, at times, be “a pain in the ass.”
“He used to pass on movies all the time, and if he’d made a commitment to the Old Vic, that took precedent,” Brunetti says. “It didn’t matter how great the pay day was, or how great the movie was. People said he was retired because he was doing theater, but he’s just totally committed to that.”
Stepping away from the Hollywood limelight and heading over the Pond to the Old Vic perhaps amplified Spacey’s already notoriously elusive persona. In an era of unfettered coverage of celeb scandal, Spacey says succinctly that “consistency” with the press is key to keeping his private life private.
“This is a culture where people want to be famous,” says Brunetti. “Kevin is a great actor who became famous because of his craft. He never chased being a celebrity. He chased his art, and by default became well-known.”
While Spacey chased his art, however, the landscape of entertainment changed markedly, and resembles something quite different from the mid-1990s, when the thesp won a supporting actor Oscar for “The Usual Suspects” and then nabbed an actor trophy for 1999’s “American Beauty.”
Spacey notes the surge in loud tentpole films as one of the reasons why he has enjoyed heading to a fresh medium — in this case, the streaming platform of Netflix.
“The stigma that used to exist many years ago that actors from film don’t do television seems to have disappeared,” Spacey says. “That camera doesn’t know it’s a TV camera … or even a streaming camera. It’s just a camera.”
With “House of Cards,” Spacey has found a slice of creative heaven not afforded to many. There was no pilot process, and two seasons were ordered immediately by Netflix. Adding to the pleasure is Robin Wright, a longtime friend of Spacey’s who plays Underwood’s wife in the show, and David Fincher, who came aboard to helm a couple episodes and exec produce.
“If I could do everything with David Fincher, I would,” Spacey says without a hint of jest. “His nuances, his ability to push me in all kinds of different directions, to layer something I missed … working with him is like working with someone who has an X-ACTO blade.”
Though Spacey already boasts an extensive film resume, there are still filmmakers with whom he dreams of working.
“There are some directors where I think, ‘Why do you never call?’ I wrote a letter to Woody Allen recently. I introduced myself as an actor he might have heard of, but perhaps not, and I gifted him a Netflix subscription so he could watch my show.”
(Allen did write back to Spacey, which the actor says was “even more awesome.”)
Even with many critically acclaimed projects under his belt, when asked to name a favorite film he’s done, Spacey can only say, “I hope it’s ahead of me, and not behind me.”
“It’s not easy to sustain a long career and sometimes I don’t even think about how long I’ve been doing it. And then, I realize we’ve been doing it for a really long time, and I’m still as excited to get up and go to work as I ever was. And that’s fucking great,” Spacey says decidedly, before winding down and shuffling through his cards before another day on set.