When news leaked last month that disgraced “House of Cards” actor Kevin Spacey had landed his first acting gig in over four years, taking on a supporting role in an Italian indie film, the backlash on social media was instantaneous — and intense.
It was enough to prompt veteran actor Vanessa Redgrave, whose husband Franco Nero is directing and starring in the feature, “L’umo Che Disegno Dio” (The Man Who Drew God), to publicly distance herself from the project. “While there have been discussions about the possibility of her joining the cast, she will not appear in the film,” her representative said in a statement.
For Spacey’s alleged victims, news of his casting was yet another unwelcome reminder of a period of time they would much rather forget. “It’s definitely a pain in the ass every time he does something that becomes a story,” said one individual, who claims he was groped by Spacey in London in 2007. Speaking to Variety on condition of anonymity, he explained that each time Spacey hits the news, he is flooded with interview requests.
“In most other similar circumstances in society, there’s an element of contrition required before you reintegrate. That hasn’t existed at all. Instead, what we’ve had is bloody creepy Christmas messages every year,” the person said, referring to the annual homemade videos Spacey has taken to posting every December on YouTube for the last three years.
The actor’s fall from grace began in 2017, when “Rent” and “Star Trek: Discovery” actor Anthony Rapp first publicly claimed Spacey had made a non-consensual sexual advance towards him when he was 14. Rapp’s story, which appeared in BuzzFeed News, was followed by a cascade of allegations of misconduct against Spacey. (Rapp declined to comment for this story.)
Although Spacey ostensibly apologized to Rapp shortly after the piece was published, Spacey’s statement — in which he claimed to have no recollection of the incident and attempted to distract from the allegations by publicly declaring his sexual orientation for the first time — was widely criticized.
In the U.K., the actor is still potentially facing criminal charges. A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service tells Variety: “We are examining a file of evidence referred to us by the Metropolitan Police.” Within that file are believed to be complaints stemming from an 11-year period during which Spacey was artistic director of the Old Vic theater in London. In 2017, the theater admitted it had received 20 personal testimonies of “alleged inappropriate behavior” by Spacey.
In 2018, Spacey pled not guilty to an indecent assault charge involving a teenage boy on Nantucket Island, Mass. The charge was dropped after the alleged victim also withdrew a civil lawsuit. Elsewhere, Los Angeles officials did not pursue two sexual assault claims, one due to the statute of limitations, the other after the alleged victim died.
Nonetheless, the two-time Oscar-winning actor continues to be embroiled in multiple legal battles stemming from the allegations against him, including a civil lawsuit brought about by two plaintiffs — Rapp and another alleged victim known only as “C.D.” — as well as confidential arbitration with “House of Cards” producer Media Rights Capital. (As of 2020, Variety’s owner, Penske Media, owns a joint venture with Media Rights Capital called PMRC).
C.D. alleges that when he was 14, he had multiple non-consensual sexual encounters with Spacey, including attempted rape. C.D.’s lawsuit was dismissed last month after he refused to waive his anonymity.
“The scope of Spacey’s strategy to remain viable, such as it is, has been limited to tapping into what he considers his most valuable quality as an actor — his ability to unsettle and offer up truly grotesque performances as we’ve seen in a smaller forum over the past four years with these Christmas videos, these poetry renditions whose lyrics defiantly refuse to divorce the character from the man and so on,” said Kiran Nagendran, a senior reputation adviser with U.K. agency Montfort Communications, citing an unexpected August 2019 public appearance at a Rome museum, where Spacey gave a poetry reading.
“Now, these may delight his fans and will completely revulse his alleged victims,” continues Nagendran. “Ultimately, though, it will come down to whether the industry considers him bankable enough to offer up these unsettling performances on the big screen again, and Nero’s film will go some way to determining that, albeit arthouse is not Hollywood, of course.”
Certainly, Redgrave’s husband Nero and his producing partner Louis Nero seem to think Spacey is still bankable. “We both, Franco and I, know him,” Louis told Italian newspaper La Repubblica of Spacey’s involvement in “L’umo Che Disegno Dio.” “Kevin has a lot of respect for Franco. We sent him the script and he loved the project.”
And despite the ignominy, Spacey still has a significant social media following, with over half a million fans on Instagram and 4.1 million on Twitter. His last on-screen appearances – those three YouTube videos, each released around Christmas – have combined views of 16.7 million, even if many of the comments on the postings are unfavorable to the actor.
But his comeback poses a dilemma for the entertainment industry in terms of complicity — or at least the optics of it — especially given Spacey was apparently allowed to operate with impunity for decades. (As part of the arbitration with Media Rights Capital, further damning allegations of Spacey’s on-set behavior have emerged, including an incident in 2012 when, after burning his hand, he groped a “House of Cards” production assistant who was driving Spacey to the hospital.) “I think there was certainly lots of people in the industry who did know [about Spacey’s harassment],” said the anonymous person who spoke to Variety.
Spacey’s current attempt to resuscitate his acting career also precipitates a conversation around the thornier issue of whether someone accused of sexual harassment or assault should ever be allowed to rehabilitate their career in the entertainment industry. There are, after all, instances of beloved actors and music artists who have gone on to enjoy success despite being convicted of equally serious crimes, such as Mark Wahlberg, who was briefly jailed in 1988 for attacking a Vietnamese man, and rapper and producer Jay-Z, who in 2001 pleaded guilty to stabbing a music executive at a party.
“When we talk about rehabilitation and redemption, I think what we need to think about is […] what is it that you need to do that actually demonstrates you understand that your behavior was not one that is acceptable?” Dame Heather Rabbatts, chair of Time’s Up U.K., tells Variety.
While Time’s Up U.K. is primarily focused on encouraging the reporting of current and historic abuse within the industry, the organization’s suggestion of an independent standards body is one which, Rabbatts points out, could also potentially offer sanctions and a way back for those facing such allegations.
“It seems to me we need to think about how people not only say sorry, but how do they truly understand what it was in their behavior that was inappropriate? And how do they understand what it means around their behavior in the future?” Rabbatts explains.
“What we need to do is think about a pathway, if you like, to redemption, which takes people through a recognition of their behavior in some way.”
In Spacey’s case, the main issue is that the actor hasn’t demonstrated much palpable recognition of his alleged behavior, let alone remorse, at least in the minds of the public.
Spacey’s reps did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment.
Of course, one supporting role in an Italian indie feature doesn’t necessarily represent a road back to Hollywood. Still, as his former victim points out, the industry needs to consider Spacey’s rehabilitation not only from a financial perspective, but also an ethical one.
“Whoever’s working with him now, whoever recruits or hires him, has to surely have a certain degree of confidence for both legal liability and mental liability to know that’s not going to happen again under their watch,” this person said. “If some grip or runner on [Nero’s] film has a similar experience, which isn’t impossible given his track record, that’s not really only on Spacey. It’s also very much on those who put him in that position again.”
Adam B. Vary contributed to this report.