It remains perhaps the crowning movie star mystery of the 1990s — how was it that Kevin Spacey, after years of laboring in mostly supporting and under-developed roles for underwhelming movies, suddenly blew everyone away in a grand slam of performances over a 12-month period starting in 1994.
The shock began with an astonishingly caustic turn as a brutal-then-brutalized Hollywood exec named Buddy Ackerman in “Swimming With Sharks,” continued with a genre-bending supporting role in “Outbreak” and was capped by unforgettable scene-stealers: first, as the terrifyingly smart serial killer John Doe in “Seven,” and his Oscar-winning performance as the elusive Verbal Kint (and, perhaps, Keyser Soze) in “The Usual Suspects.”
No actor had a comparable year in the decade — not even Spacey. But, as usual for actors trained in the theater, the year was hardly an unexpected bolt from the blue: Spacey had, in his own quiet way, been mapping it out all along.
And just as the rest of the decade has proven to be sheer upward trajectory for the actor, it also appears to be capped by two symbolic moments: His potentially emblematic performance as alienated suburban husband Lester Burnham in “American Beauty” and his winning the annual Piper-Heidsieck Independent Vision award at the Sundance Film Festival. The kudo is given annually to an actor whose “contribution to the body of independent cinema has been outstanding.”
In a wide-ranging phone interview, Spacey noted that “I’ve wanted to build up a body of work, and in a way, I never really wanted to ‘arrive.’ I wanted to be quietly working under the bridge, under all of the noisy traffic of movies, just weaving my baskets. It’s not in my nature to make a loud noise.”
Perhaps early on a victim of the show business division between stage and film, with those in each realm generally unaware of each other, Spacey continually found stage roles that indicated that theater people knew something about him that movie people didn’t.
“This continued all the way from my work with (the late) Joseph Papp at the Public and Shakespeare in the Park,” he says, “to ‘Lost in Yonkers,”‘ for which Spacey won a Tony.
Indeed, Spacey worked exclusively in theater for several years after his graduation from New York’s Julliard School in 1981 — and even before, when he performed on stage at Chatsworth High School in California’s San Fernando Valley.
(Even at this early phase, Spacey’s keynote ability to surprise held forth: Kicked out of Northridge Military Academy for making mischief, he ended up as class valedictorian at Chatsworth.)
Without an agent or prospects, Spacey managed to get into the Public Theatre’s stock room and eventually got into artistic director Papp’s good graces becoming his personal assistant. “It was a way of learning another side of the theater from the man who mattered most to it,” says Spacey.
Throughout the ’80s, Spacey was the kind of blue-collar stage actor who directors, playwrights and producers could rely on to consistently deliver. “You know,” he reflects, “that may be considered an asset, but in some ways for me, it wasn’t. I would be one of those ‘theater people’ whom filmmakers would draw on to fill a slot in their movies, and I got tired of it really fast.”
This syndrome of slotting Spacey into brief, semi-colorful second- and third-tier supporting roles basically began with 1988’s “Working Girl” and continued through Philip Kaufman’s “Henry and June” in 1990.
This status also hurt him for awhile in the theater — until it later redounded to him in unexpected ways. “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” producers had rejected him (as well as Glenn Close, who went on to star in the film version) to replace Alan Rickman in the early ’80s Broadway edition.
“Howard Davies was the director,” recalls Spacey, “and really fought for me, and was so incensed by my rejection, and Glenn’s, that he shut down the production. I was shooting ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ in mid-’97 when the producers of ‘The Iceman Cometh’ at (London’s) Almeida Theatre talked to me. I must have mentioned this story about Howard to them, because two weeks later they told me that Howard was directing and would I play Hickey.”
Spacey agreed, but when he perused O’Neill’s massive epic (so massive, that a typical performance can clock in at nearly four hours, capped with Hickey’s famous 30-minute “pipedream” monologue), “I thought to myself, ‘My God, what have I gotten myself into?”‘
He got himself into a hit, in fact, which successfully transferred from the Almeida to the venerable Old Vic Theatre (Spacey’s choice, once he climbed aboard as a co-producer) and then to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway.
“I will always be doing this,” Spacey promises. “I will always be going from movies back to the theater, to reinvestigate myself, to take on roles you just don’t get in the movies.”
But the “Iceman” episode also points out an important quality in the actor: He is a man with a long memory. When he speaks about Papp, it’s as if the impressario were still alive. When he speaks about how “L.A. Confidential” director Curtis Hanson “fought for me, tooth and nail, project after project,” it’s as if it were two hours ago.
“I could never get to first base with the studios with Kevin,” Hanson explains, “because he was mostly unknown and he was ‘different.’ Then, when Kevin won the Tony for ‘Lost in Yonkers’ and the Oscar for ‘The Usual Suspects,’ there was no resistance anymore, of course. It’s like he had been discovered.
“The qualities he had that studio people couldn’t get past in order to see his talent were exactly the qualities I liked. He is continually surprising and interesting — that’s hard to find. A lot of actors approach characters trying to make the characters fit them, hence the line, ‘Oh, I would never say that.’
“That’s not Kevin, because he goes to the words and the intent behind them and completely serves the character.”
If Spacey’s 1995 explosion on the scene busted down one barrier — visibility — he finds that fighting against type is a never-ending struggle. “Maybe the most important thing for an actor to recognize is knowing what you won’t do, not so much what you can do,” he says, “but this is balanced with always finding a new challenge against expectations.”
An example of the latter began after the wave of roles, starting with John in “Glengarry Glen Ross” through attorney Rufus in “A Time to Kill,” which put a stamp on Spacey as, as he puts it, “doing characters who were very manipulative, kind of like the weather, where they created havoc but weren’t affected. The problem was that after ‘Seven’ and ‘Usual Suspects,’ I got loads of scripts with bad variations on these roles.
“An actor can’t turn his career on a dime, so I decided to do a gradual shift that started with Jack in ‘L.A. Confidential.’ Characters who had a bit more vulnerability to them, who walk smack into their own consciences. These are closer to my own experience.
“The step that completes this for me has been with Sam Mendes on ‘American Beauty,’ where I worked with a director who had a very sure hand, who encouraged incredible sculpting and refining of scenes.”
Spacey says he’s impressed at first-timer Mendes’ ability to jump from the theater to film, from his perspective at having made his own first film, “Albino Alligator.”
“What Sam managed to create, even though it was funded by a major like DreamWorks, was essentially an independent film. I’ve learned that being ‘independent’ isn’t a matter of budget, but a state of mind, what you bring to it.”
His role as an independent doesn’t end there. He has played an increasingly active role as indie producer, beginning in 1994 with “Swimming With Sharks,” continuing with the upcoming “The Big Kahuna,” co-starring Danny DeVito and adapted by Roger Rueff from his acclaimed play, “Hospitality Suite.”
“My view is that if you want to do what you love, you do what you do to make it happen. If you use a big studio movie to help fund a movie like ‘Big Kahuna,’ which cost only $1.8 million, that’s what you do.”