A candid conversation with the unusual suspect about his days as a stand-up comic, why money doesn't matter and how the media use and abuse celebrities.
With his baseball cap pulled down low, Kevin Spacey flies through Manhattan traffic on a motor scooter, weaving through bumper-to-bumper taxis, buses and limousines. Most actors of his stature (Spacey's peers and critics consider him one of America's best) would be in one of those limos, but Spacey prefers the tiny bike. He says, “People are so surprised how quickly it moves, they stare at the scooter and don't notice me”
That's how Spacey likes it. He has built a career playing often mysterious characters, from the maddeningly elusive and evil Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects (a movie that still has fans guessing) to the corrupt cop in LA Confidential to John Doe in Seven. His John Doe character was a classic Spacey career move he refused any billing in order to keep audiences guessing about the unfolding plot. He has also managed to keep an air of mystery around his personal life preferring to talk about his work when he's doing interviews.
Spacey has paid the price for rejecting the highly public life of a movie star. The worst came in 1997 when he agreed to be interviewed for a story in Esquire. Trumpeted with the cover headline KEVIN SPACEY HAS A SECRET, the magazine article, in the guise of reporting the rumor that Spacey is gay, implied that he is indeed gay. The writer, Tom Junod, offered no facts to support the innuendo though he did introduce the piece with the news that even his 80-year-old mother has heard the rumor that Spacey is gay. Junod wrote, “Spacey came out of his closet last spring when he got rid of his beard, when he had no more use for his disguises, when he relaxed by drinking a few vodka and tonics and then stood up for what he was, or at least for who he had become.” True enough, except for the minor fact that Junod was referring to Spacey's character in the Clint Eastwood film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, not to Spacey himself. It was one of many passages in the article that seemed designed to lend the reader to a conclusion backed by no information.
When the magazine hit the newsstands, Spacey fought back. He issued a statement calling the piece “dishonest and malicious.” Furthermore, he added, “Esquire has made it abundantly clear that they have now joined the ranks of distasteful journalism, and this mean-spirited, homophobic, offensive article proves that the legacy of Joseph McCarthy is alive and well.” His agent at William Morris said he would ask other clients not to grant interviews to the magazine.
The furor didn't slow Spacey down. He became even more remote in his dealings with the media but thrived in his work. Taking the formidable role of Hickey in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, he won an Olivier Award for its run in London and missed the Tony by a whisker when the production hit Broadway.
Born Kevin Spacey Fowler in South Orange, New Jersey in 1959, Spacey was raised in Southern California but his family moved often. His father occasionally wrote technical manuals; his mother was a secretary. They were strict and Kevin was rebellious, once burning down a shed in the backyard of the family's rented Malibu home. He was sent to Northridge Military Academy but was expelled after he whacked a fellow student with a tire.
Spacey was restless and bored in his next school until he discovered theater. He instantly stood out as an actor so much so that rival public high school Chatsworth (where Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham were students) recruited him. A year later, he and Winningham were chosen co-valedictorians after they starred together in a series of sold-out plays.
Winningham quickly landed in Hollywood, but Spacey's success took longer to achieve. He tried stand-up comedy and auditioned for (and was rejected by The Gong Show before he followed Kilmer and enrolled in the four-year dramatic program at Manhattan's Juilliard School. He lasted two years, won small parts on the New York stage and worked as a shoe salesman and a super in his apartment building. Shakespeare Festival director Joe Papp gave him an office job, then happened to catch Spacey's performance in a small off-off-Broadway production. He fired him the next day, telling Spacey he should be a star, not a pencil pusher.
Spacey began to work steadily in theater, in New York and regionally. On Broadway, he became the understudy for all the male roles for director Mike Nichols in the David Rabe play Hurlyburly, spelling the likes of Harvey Keitel and Ron Silver. It was Nichols who cast Spacey in the actor's first movies, Heartburn and Working Girl, but Spacey's unlikely career break came in TV, not movies, when producer Stephen Cannell cast him as a villain in Wiseguy, a cult-hit series in the late Eighties.
That part was followed by more roles on stage in Lost in Yonkers, for which he won a Tony and Long Day's Journey Into the Night; in TV movies, including the biographies of Clarence Darrow and Jim Bakker; and on the big screen with such critical successes as Glengarry Glen Ross, Consenting Adults and Henry and June. In 1995 he showed up (unbilled) three quarters through Seven as the mysterious serial killer. Next, he played a cruel and manipulative studio executive in Swimming With Sharks, then did The Usual Suspects.
Spacey's recent roles include an action film, The Negotiator, and the screen version of Hurlyburly. His latest movie is American Beauty, a black comedy that required him to pump iron and do his first on-screen nude scene.
When PLAYBOY decided to unravel the Spacey mystery, we called on Daily Variety columnist and frequent contributor Michael Fleming who interviewed Samuel L. Jackson for our June issue. It would be Spacey's first in-depth interview since the controversial Esquire article. Here's Fleming's report:
“I met Spacey in a hotel suite on Central Park South that the currently calls home. The suite shows signs of someone who plans to stay awhile: There are personal mementos such as a framed sketch of one of his favorite actors, Henry Fonda, and the storyboard of his barbell-pumping nude scene in American Beauty. There are also two black dogs a Lab named Legacy and a Jack Russell Terrier mix named Mini, whom he adopted during the Iceman run in London and refers to as ‘my British bitch.' Two electric-powered motor scooters are parked in a corner.
“He answered the door in a T-shirt and jeans and offered a quick handshake. He seemed relaxed for someone who in a few hours would be onstage in Iceman and particularly for someone who had been badly burned by his last encounter with a major magazine. Spacey immediately asked me to keep the name of the hotel a secret; it was my first glimpse of his attempts to maintain his privacy.
“After our first interview session, I had a conversation with a longtime friend of Spacey's, the writer and producer of Independence Day and Godzilla, Dean Devlin (they have known each other since high school and worked together on the stand-up comedy circuit). Devlin said, ‘What people don't know about Kevin is that he's actually gracious, and a very funny guy.' That's essentially the Spacey I found, though he was still clearly upset about the Esquire story.”
PLAYBOY: In its now infamous cover story, “Kevin Spacey Has a Secret,” Esquire reported the rumor that you are gay. Let's clear this up once and for all.
SPACEY: It's not true. It's a lie.
PB: Is that why you were so troubled by the piece?
KS: I was troubled because it was setup.
PB: How was it a setup?
KS: The editor of that magazine had recently come over from another magazine. This was his first issue. I suspect he wanted to make a name for himself. It was planned from the beginning.
PB: You obviously took the innuendo seriously to the point that your publicist denied that you're gay and your agency, William Morris, asked its clients to avoid the magazine.
KS: It's important to make this distinction: It wasn't that I cared if they inferred I was gay, because I believe people in this country are more advanced than certain members of the media who try to use their medium as a weapon. But I felt betrayed. I gave the writer, Tom Junod, more access than I'd given anybody. I made it a point not to tell my friends he was a reporter so they would be comfortable with him. What I couldn't have known was that he had an ax to grind and an agenda. On the final day, after spending six or seven days with me on the set, at dinner, hanging out, he said he wanted to ask me three questions, which I answered with absolute honesty. He wrote a nine-page article based on them.
PB: What were the questions?
KS: “You are playing a bit character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Does that concern you?” The answer was no. “You know there are rumors about you,” he said next. I said, “Yes. There are rumors about anybody if you listen hard enough.” Then he said,” But even my mother hears you're gay,” to which I responded, “More power to your mom.”
PB: What did you mean by that?
KS: In my industry, I'm surrounded by all types of people. I know gay people, straight people and people who are bisexual. There are people who haven't figured out what they are. As I said to the writer, I have nothing but admiration for these people, no matter what floats their boat. In other words, their sexuality doesn't matter in any way. I didn't want to have to say, “I'm not like them.” I don't like the question. I said, “I'm living my life, which is private. I haven't asked for the public trust. I haven't asked anybody to vote for me. I'm not being indicted for kickbacks. I'm an actor.”
PB: Is it damaging for an aspiring leading man to be labeled gay?
KS: It would sure be great if it didn't matter, but it does.
PB: What was behind the rumor?
KS: I'm not married and I won't talk about my private life, so it must mean I'm gay. The worst part was the editorial in which they attempted to justify the story. They said, “We can write whatever we want about anybody and it doesn't have to be true. We can write whatever we want about anybody so long as the junkie who told us doesn't admit he's lying.” It's why I had to comment. Esquire is supposed to show some degree of class, yet it had descended to tabloid journalism. I was picked as the experiment. Well, the experiment failed.
PB: Though you're not running for office, doesn't scrutiny of your private life come with the territory when you're a movie star?
KS: In fact, I have been quite open about my hope of having a family. I've been open about things that are of interest to me personally. But in some journalistic circles privacy means only what you do in the bedroom. I apparently haven't been forthcoming about that. Excuse me if I don't want to take the entire public on my own personal journey. I chose not to give people a private tour of my experience. But am I hiding anything? No. The entire story was made up. It's infuriating.
PB: Did you hear from your fellow actors? Has there been some good-humored ribbing?
KS: I was astounded at the number of calls I received. Everyone was supportive. “Let me know if I can do anything.” “Sue!” “If you want to take out an ad, we're there.” Everyone knew Esquire had crossed a line. It was done for one reason: to make a name for both the writer and editor. A lot of journalists agreed that it was malicious.
PB: Did the article do any long-term damage?
KS: I'm always going to have to deal with this subject. When I sit down with a journalist, he's watching every move I make. They watch where my eyes go. Everybody comes on like they're Sherlock Holmes. I may just be looking around the room, yet they're thinking, Hmmm, aha!
PB: Has it affected your love life?
KS: Most of the women I know haven't heard of the article. If they have, they know not to believe what they read. Then there are a few women who think the article might be true. It's a challenge for them: They want to be the ones to turn me around. I let them.
PB: So you've managed to find a silver lining.
KS: The experience has made me think a lot about the way we all are perceived. It's one of the big reasons I wanted to do American Beauty: to look at how perceptions start, how they're influenced and how they begin to take on a life of their own.
PB: In American Beauty, your character begins as a schlub whose wife is out...
KS: Schlub? Is that any way to describe someone you're interviewing?
PB: The point is that your character physically and emotionally transforms into an Atlas. You go from schlub to a hunky leading man.
KS: A second ago you called me a schlub. Now you're calling me a hunky leading man. I like the direction this is taking.
PB: Did you have qualms about doing your first on-camera nude scene for this movie?
KS: I just wanted to make sure my willy wouldn't be seen. They had to find a really big prop to put in the way.
PB: Was filming a nude scene like filming any other scene, except you're walking around the set nude?
KS: The main difference is that somebody who is not a relatively close friend is applying makeup to my body. It wasn't all that terrible. There was that moment when she was patting my hips. In truth, it wasn't a big deal at all. It was great to do this movie. It had the funniest script I'd read in a long time. It's ahead of its time daring, challenging. The requirement of this role was to go through an emotional, spiritual and physical change, which I'd never done before. I thought, If we can make this work, the audience is going to watch this character evolve into a person who embraces life. The subtext was the most intriguing part. As I said, it's about perception. If you presume something about another person, it leads you to make all kinds of assumptions. If your perception is wrong, it can lead to tragedy.
PB: How did you manage to physically transform?
KS: I pumped iron and ate supplements and special meals. When you work out that fast and hard, you see results quickly. I was already in pretty good shape. I'd been doing Iceman every night. Doing a play like that every night is a workout. Before that, I did Hurlyburly. When I look at myself in that, I look like my older, fatter brother. From the time I finished that film to the time I finished Iceman in London, I had lost 20 pounds.
PB: Have you kept up your exercise and diet regimen?
KS: I work out now, but not to the degree I did for the film. When you're doing it seven days a week, you want to shoot yourself.
PB: Your character has quite an acrimonious relationship with Annette Bening, who plays a philandering, social-climbing wife who loathes her underachieving husband. You both show that you can be very nasty, at least on the screen.
KS: Those scenes were glorious and hilarious. I kid her about it: I actually think she became possessed by Carolyn, her character. She would do improvs where she would begin talking as Carolyn. It would be not only hilarious but frightening. She became like this Stepford wife. I don't know how Warren [Beatty] put up with it. I'm great friends with her, but if this goes to series, I worry for her children.
PB: Your recent movies American Beauty and The Negotiator are more mainstream than many of your past films. Are you intentionally going in that direction?
KS: My interest is not to repeat myself. There's a danger in this business. You get known for something. Then people who make movies want you to do it again and again in their movie, except their movie isn't a good one. So I resist doing the same character. American Beauty and Negotiator were different from each other and completely different from any film or genre I've done. They were good actor's pieces. For Negotiator, I also thought it would be really fun to see what Sam Jackson and I could do with the story.
PB: Did you enjoy being a hero for a change?
KS: Sure. The challenge there was elevating a movie that has built-in cliches. I think we managed to do that. The fact that it's become one of the biggest rentals on video proves something. Of course, they now want us to do another one.
PB:Negotiator 2 Will you do it?
KS: I tell them, “OK, guys: You've discovered that there's an audience for Sam and me. Now go find some material that's worth it for us to do. Don't ask us to do Negotiator on a Boat. It'll sink”
PB: In Seven, you played a brutal murderer. Did you have qualms about doing such a violent film?
KS: I didn't have to participate in any of the violence. All you saw was the end result. For me, the attraction was the company. When Seven came along, I thought, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt! They always win. Here, they lose. They lose big.
PB: You chose not to take screen credit for that part. Why not?
KS: In fact, I agreed to do the film only on the condition that I would get no billing. I didn't want them to use my name or photograph to promote it. Everyone thought I was out of my mind.
PB: Weren't you?
KS: I thought, If I'm sitting in a movie theater, knowing that Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are chasing a serial killer, and that Kevin Spacey is in the movie and hasn't shown up yet, I know he's got to be the bad guy. I thought it would be much better if nobody knew who was playing the character. It would be much more of a surprise. It took two days to sell them on the idea. Later, they were very happy. The bonus was that I was in a movie that made more than $400 million worldwide and I didn't have to do a single interview.
PB: For the role, did you study serial killers?
KS: I thought an American audience would think of Jeffrey Dahmer when they watched this movie; his crimes were closest to this guy's. So I watched an interview with Dahmer. Talk about a schlub! I realized that as long as I wasn't in the backseat drooling, I could portray this guy.
PB: Do you generally research your characters?
KS: It's not something I yap about. It 's the job. You find all these people patting themselves on the back because they read a book. So what? I do whatever 's required. I 'll do the work, but I 'm also a man of instinct. For me, marrying those two things while appearing spontaneous is the key.
PB: Were you surprised by anything about Freeman or Pitt?
KS: As you 'd expect, they are consummate actors. There 's a prophet quality to Morgan, a dignity and strength. Brad is an absolutely consumed actor.
PB: It 's interesting to watch Pitt in a movie like Seven, because he seemed destined to play romantic leads Now he seems to be avoiding those parts.
KS: Paul Newman had to get over his face. So did Redford. When those guys started out in the theater, they had to prove themselves as actors. There 's great advantages to being a certain type, but there 's also disadvantages. That 's why Newman and Redford are so admirable. They could have taken an easy road, could have made a hell of a lot more money than they have. I suspect Brad is going to be that type of person.
PB: When we interviewed Samuel Jackson, he said that you act with a certain arrogance. He described how you 'd often try to one-up each other. Is that typical?
KS: It 's healthy, not unhealthy, competition. Sam and I have been around long enough to know the only way that a movie can work is if we both have our moments. But there is a healthy competition. You want the home run; you don 't want him to get the home run especially a guy like Sam. If he gets a home run, you might as well pack up and go home.
PB: Was there a similar competition with your co-stars in Glengarry Glen Ross Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon?
KS: I was just starting out then. I was intimidated. Furthermore, it was depressing to be shooting a movie in which the greatest actors around were calling me a pussy every day for six, seven weeks. I felt like I was the pillar in the center of a storm, being assaulted from all sides. When Ed Harris fucking yells at you, which he did in that film, you just fucking lie down in the road. One day, Pacino chewed me a new asshole. Al, unbeknownst to me, had asked the sound guys not to do sound. The camera was on me and Al started improvising: “Kevin, you fucking piece of shit!” I thought, Did he just say Kevin? He didn 't let up; it got very personal. I looked like a car wreck. But at the end of the scenes, he walked over and put his arm around me and said, “That was terrific.”
PB: Are you saying he manipulated you?
KS: Exactly. He forced me to react in a way that made the scenes work beautifully. I didn 't have to act. That was my first real movie role and he helped me. He got me that part.
PB: How did he get you the part?
KS: He saw me in Lost in Yonkers. Then he brought the director Jamie Foley to see the play. A week and a half later I auditioned for Glengarry. Pacino got me the part, he believed I could do it, and he pushed me to a response that I probably wouldn 't have been prepared for.
PB: Years later, you ended up in The Usual Suspects. Did you have to fight for that role?
KS: I met the director Bryan Singer as a screening of Public Access, his first film, and said to him, “If you ever need an actor, I 'm here.” A year later he sent me Usual Suspects. When I was cast, a lot of the powers-that-be tried to get him to recast the movie, because I meant nothing in terms of box office. The biggest movie I 'd done was Henry and June. But Bryan was steadfast and refused offers to raise the budget if he cast someone else.
PB: After you were nominated for the Oscar, did you expect to win?
KS: Not at all. I was up against Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, James Cromwell in Babe and Ed Harris in Apollo 13. I thought it would go to Ed.
PB: How was Oscar night?
KS: Completely surreal. You 're driving up in the limousine. We had the local television station on in the car, watching the preshow we 've all grown up watching. When they began talking about me, I thought, What am I doing here? My mom was with me. My father had died a couple years before, and I felt there was nobody else who deserved to share that evening more than her. We sat in a row with tom Cruise and Jeremy Irons and I was thinking, This is too much. Then, when I won, it was almost overwhelming. It was one of those moments that go by so fast that it didn 't sink in until the next day when I watched it on video.
PB: The next year, when you were a presenter, Billy Crystal asked you to do your impersonation of Christopher Walken. Were you as surprised as you looked?
KS: The day of the Oscars, I got a phone call from the director, who said, “Billy wants to talk to you. Call him on the cell phone.” I did, and he asked me to do the improvisation. I wanted us to rehearse, but Billy had to rehearse his monologue; he didn 't have time. So I realized that he had just asked me to improv in front of a billion people, which is exactly what happened. I had no idea what he would do. The look on my face of pure shock and horror was real.
PB: What was the impact of the Oscar? Did your price go up? Did you see better scripts?
KS: Not necessarily. I still have to search for good material. And none of this is about the money. Look at what I 've done for the past year: a play at Equity minimum. I don 't even know what that is, but my accountant will tell you it 's not a lot I 've done three movies for little money because I believed in them. I could be out making lots of more money, but I'm OK with it. At the moment, I feel like the richest guy in town.
PB: Looking back, how does LA Confidential stand up?
KS: I'm extremely proud of that film. In perhaps any other year, it would have been Best Picture, but that was the year of Titanic. The movie went a long way and it's going to be around a long time.
PB: In the film you have a great death scene. Is it challenging to die well on camera?
KS: The challenge came after I died. I'm dead and then Jimmy Cromwell moves. When you're trying to stare straight ahead and something movies, your eye automatically goes with it?it's the natural response. I had them paint two black dots on the wall by his head; I focused on them. So you never saw my eyes move. I was nervous because it was a tight shot. How long could I hold perfectly still without moving? One of the things I liked about the film, by the way, was how unexpected it was t lose a character that early on who is that significant to the film.
PB: Looking back at your movies, is there a performance that you're embarrassed by?
KS: I won't name names because I don't want to take anything away from anyone else's experience of a movie. Once I was walking on a street in Washington, D.C. with the director Peter Sellars. A woman stopped me and said she's just seen me in a play, Ghosts. She told me how much it moved her, how much she loved it. I said something like, “Oh God, it was a horrible experience. I was terrible in that. They fired the director?.” Bile just poured from my mouth.. She walked away shell-shocked. Peter Sellars looked at me and said, “You fucking asshole! How dare you take away someone else's experience! The experience that woman has was hers; it wasn't yours. Be a fucking nice guy next time and say, “Thank you very much.”
PB: Did you think that was a particularly bad performance?
KS: It was. I truly sucked. I was miserable, working out of fear. I became a bit of a jerk. It's a period in my life I'm not proud of. It cost me friendships. I wasn't good enough and it was a hard thing to admit. I had all this talent inside, but it was undeveloped and raw, untried and unfocused. I was inexperienced and yet I had this huge ambition.
PB: Is it better if an actor ascends slowly? Would you have been able to handle overnight success?
KS: I look at the actors I admire: Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. Jack Nicholson was 32 when he did Easy Rider, 38 when he did Cuckoo's Nest. What was he doing between the ages of 18 and 29? They were all relatively mature when they became successful. Then I look at the actors who become instant stars. Take a clue from Ed Norton. Look at how he's handled it. He had a movie with Richard Gere. He could have been the new guy on the block. But he used restraint. He didn't do a million interviews. He let the work lead. It grew and is now as astounding a body of work as we've seen from a young actor. So it's possible to do things right when you're young, but rare. If you're a strong person, you probably won't let yourself be sold down the river, I finally took my foot off the gas pedal when I was about 23. It took me about a year to recover. I realized I was young and frustrated because a lot of my classmates at school were already making movies while I was the understudy to Brad Davis in a play at the Kennedy Center. Given who I was, though, it was probably exactly right that it took a while.
PB: Did you always know you wanted to act?
KS: It never even dawned on me.
PB: Did your parents encourage your acting?
KS: They were thrilled that I found something that focused me.
PB: What did they do for a living?
KS: My father was unemployed a lot. He job-shopped. He wanted to be a journalist, but, over time, he fell into technical writing. He had something to do with the instruction manual for the F-16. It was meticulous stuff and, I'm sure, excruciatingly boring. Inside, he was a creative writer, so when he wasn't doing the technical stuff, he was locked up in his office writing. It didn't pay anything; he never published. He wrote a lot, though. I've got volumes of his stuff. At the time he never really shared it with us. He never thought that it was good enough. His standard was high; I've inherited some of that.
PB: Were you close to him?
KS: We connected fairly well. He was a strict disciplinarian, though he even gave us penmanship lessons on Sundays. By the time I was in junior high school, I rebelled against that strict upbringing. He sent me to military school to try to knock some sense into me. It didn't work. Nothing did until I started doing theater. They were so happy I found something to do that was positive. I miss my father a lot these days, over this past year. He passed away six years ago on Christmas Eve. My mother and I figure he did it on purpose. You're celebrating Christmas, the most beautiful time of the year to come together with your family, and then you're like, "Oh right, it's also the anniversary of- " Fucker! You know he did that on purpose.
PB: You chose not to keep your father's name. Is Spacey a stage name?
KS: My name has always been Spacey. I was born Kevin Spacey Fowler. Spacey was my middle name. When I was in high school, my grandfather passed away. His last name was Spacey, same as my great grandfather and great uncle. I decided to adopt their name because I missed my grandpa. But still, in a Daily News piece about the Tonys, the writer said I changed my name to Spacey. He said I combined Spencer Tracy's names. It's one of those things that make you love the media. Where do they get their facts? All through high school I was Kevin Spacey Fowler. Then when I went to New York, I dropped Fowler. So now, for some reason, everybody thinks I made up this name back in high school as if I didn't have enough trouble in fucking high school.
PB: Were you close to your brother and sister?
KS: My brother not only was the drum major in high school, but he's an extraordinary musician, a drummer. He still plays part-time, though he does other things, too. My sister is a paralegal. She was a model for a while. She was on a ferry from Germany to London. On the same ferry there was a soccer team that had just lost a game. She met this beaten-up soccer player and they made it to the altar together. So I have a Scottish in-law. He played on some national team. They live in the middle of the country. I'm close to my brother and sister; we see each other all the time.
PB: There's a legendary story about how you torched your sister's tree house. What happened?
KS: It wasn't that dramatic. The story has grown so that I engulfed the neighborhood in flames. It wasn't a tree house. It was a little shed in the back of our place in Malibu not the Malibu people read about. We lived in a real horrible place. It was overgrown with weeds. In the corner was this shed where my sister kept a lot of little toys. I was playing with matches and a horrible thing happened.
PB: How did your father react?
KS: There was good deal of yelling, though no hitting. That's when I landed in military school.
PB: From which you were kicked out for fighting.
KS: If two kids got into a fight in a classroom, the school would cancel classes. Everybody would go out onto the football field, where there was a ring of tires. The two kids would box, duke it out. It was an incredibly smart educational tool, showing how far we've advanced as human beings, don't you think? I got into a fight with somebody along the ring while two other guys were fighting. I picked up a tire and threw it at the guy. I was defending myself, but he broke something in his shoulder and I got kicked out. It was the same week that they had awarded me a leadership medal. They used to take us out to the Angeles National Forest for war games another useful educational tool. They would have M-1 rifles with chopped bullets. You'd be on team, stay out overnight. I managed to get through this night without getting shot or kidnapped. I led my little troop back to the base camp, free of orange powder burns, so I got this leadership medal. My parents were completely confused: How could you get a leadership medal and be kicked out the same week?
PB: Were you upset that you were expelled?
KS: I was thrilled. I was so happy to get back into a public school, to be in a place where you didn't have to stand at attention outside the principal's office for an hour with a briefcase full of books on your forearms. I'm not sure what they were trying to teach with that, either.
PB: Were things better at the new school?
KS: I discovered acting. I can pinpoint the moment. I was cast in a part in an Arthur Miller play called All My Sons. We did it at school and were chosen one of the three best productions in Southern California high school theater. We then performed the play over the course of a weekend at a college. On Sunday, after the performance, I walked off the stage and something happened. The audience began to applaud the exit, which had never happened before. All the students from all the other shows from all the other schools were applauding. I walked to the other side of the stage and they were still applauding. My fellow actors and I didn't know what to do. It was the first moment in my life when I realized I could have an effect on people. That day I was asked to go to another school's play. In it, Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer were performing. The drama teacher asked if I was interested in that school. I switched for my last year in high school.
PB: In high school, did you sense that Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer were destined for stardom?
KS: There wasn't a question. He went off to Juilliard and Mare went right out and started working in film and television. That summer she made her professional debut on The Gong Show, singing "Here, There and Everywhere".
PB: You apparently tried out, too, with different results.
KS: I auditioned doing my stand-up act, but I was rejected. I remember the audition. It was really terrible. I was rejected by lugheads. I didn't even get to be gonged. I was pregonged.
PB: Were you doing impressions at that point?
KS: For the The Gong Show audition, I did Johnny Carson. I had been in Gypsy and people said I reminded them of Carson. I thought that was kind of odd, but I started to watch him, study him, and I found I had an ability to do him. That led me to try other impressions. Also, I tried to write jokes the way Carson would.
PB: What type of jokes?
KS: I remember the Popes were dying during that period. One Pope after another was dying; it was good comic fodder. I tried the comedy clubs where there were a lot of the people you see now: Leno, Letterman, Robin Williams. Andy Kaufman was around then. It was a wild time.
PB: If you'd been more successful, would you have gone the route of comedy instead of drama?
KS: I don't think so. When it worked it worked great and when it didn't work, it was the most horrifying experience. The audiences were pretty brutal. It stopped being satisfying. It was not a life I wanted to lead, though I enjoyed telling jokes, which was why Saturday Night Live was such a blast.
PB: Was appearing on Saturday Night Live a longtime ambition?
KS: Sure. It was something I'd always wanted to do. When you grow up watching SNL, it's sort of a dream. I got there and the only thing I knew was that I wanted to avoid spoofing my movies I don't think that goes down well. So I was sitting around with the writers, asking them about previous hosts: who was drunk, who was a pain in the ass. They told me about Christopher Walken. One of them said, “Remember when he talked about auditioning for Star Wars?” I never knew he had. They said he had auditioned for the part of Han Solo. Now that was sketch. I said, “I don't do a Walken, but I've got five friends who do. They do Walken for breakfast literally. You go to breakfast with them and they order as Walken.” [As Walken] “I'll have the eggs and ham, and a cappuccino. Gimme the pancakes. Put a banana on the side.” I called them and asked them to teach me. Then I got all of Walken's movies; it was a crash course in Walken. Now, of course, all my friends hate my fucking guts. I got to do it on television before they did, and I got tagged with a great Walken impression. In fact, mine is just passable, but it got on TV first. They were like, “You fucker?.” They wanted to burn me alive because they'd been working on it for years. I come along and do the Reader's Digest version, and I get all the attention.
PB: Having been both, do you think there's a difference between comedians and actors?
KS: They're definitely different breeds, though there's a lot of the actor in the comedian. I understand why so many comedians, like Billy Crystal and Steve Martin, begin to take roles as actors. Stepping up to do stand-up comedy is like jumping into a pool of sharks. It can be brutal. Anyone who is afraid to speak in front of an audience should do five minutes on a Monday night at a comedy club. You'll get over your fear or wish you would be hit by a truck. I know: I was shy growing up. When it works, there's no greater joy. Making people laugh was a great joy. It's something I love to do more than anything, which is why my reputation as dark and brooding is so bothersome. Comedy is what allowed me to be in any social situation. Being able to do a Johnny Carson impersonation made me feel accepted. I could ingratiate myself socially, make people laugh. I didn't have to be myself. I didn't think I had that much to offer. So making people laugh was a way for me to get over my shyness and break through. Having said that, I wouldn't have wanted to do it for a living. It was too brutal.
PB: We heard you used the Carson impressions to get you and your friends, including Dean Devlin, into nightclubs. How did it work?
KS: The key was to be poker-faced. The first time I tried it we had done our act somewhere. In his act, Dean would call me onstage and I would do some improv. Then we went to Studio 54. I simply said [as Carson], “I'm on the list.” I said, “It's Carson plus three.” They let us in and suddenly there was champagne! I would also use impressions and get free hotel rooms. I would invoke the names of people who were heads of NBC Entertainment anything to get in. I was broke. I couldn't afford to pay for any of the things in New York I wanted. So acting came in handy. I wasn't working, or was making less that $100 weeks at the fucking New York Shakespeare Festival, or working as the super in my building to cut the rent. What the hell. If a bottle of champagne happened to come my way, I wasn't going to reject it because we weren't actually who we were saying we were.
PB: You followed Kilmer to Juilliard, but stayed only two years of a four-year program. What happened?
KS: I left about four days before they would have asked me to leave.
PB: Leave for what?
KS: I made up the rules. I changed the game. It wasn't that I wasn't doing my work, but I wasn't willing to sit in classes that I didn't feel were helping me. My ambition was fierce and I was selfish. It took me a while to figure out my responsibility as an actor and to understand what it means to work with a group of people in a company. Still, through a lot of diligent phone calling and harassing, I got myself an audition for Shakespeare in the Park and got in. Val also got in at that time. We were in Henry VI, Part I in inconsequential parts, but we were getting paid $125 a week to do Shakespeare for Joe Papp, which is the greatest fucking dream for an actor. I thought I was all set, but then I couldn't get arrested. It's hard to get auditions, harder to get scripts. I went back to Joe and gave him my sad song, and he hired me to work in the stockroom. I was there for three months. I eventually worked my way up to Papps's office, which was how I ended up getting to know him. We became friends.
PB: But didn't he fire you?
KS: He did. While I was doing that job, I also auditioned for parts. I got the lead in one play. Joe heard and went to see me. Next day he called me into the office and fired me. I couldn't imagine what I'd done wrong. He said, “You did not do anything wrong. Last night I saw an actor, and that's what you should be doing.” I was terrified. I had no job, no rent money. I was living in a building where I was the super, sweeping the halls and taking out the trash so they would cut my rent. Finally, I got my first Broadway play, but I was in a period of what I call the “attitudinals.”
PB: Meaning that you were in an arrogant phase?
KS: Yes, and not as good as I thought I was. I was behaving in a way that I now find reprehensible. It took me a couple of years to really shake that off and say, “That's not the life I want to live.” Next I auditioned for regional stuff, did a play at Williamstown, a play in Virginia, went wherever I could to get a job and work. After the summer of 1984, I felt I was ready to go back to New York. I auditioned for Mike Nichols for a national tour of The Real Thing, which he directed on Broadway. We chatted and he asked, “Have you read Hurlyburly?” He said, “I want you to see it. I'll set it up. I want you to come in next week and audition for a role in it I'm looking for some understudies.” There were some relatively known names auditioning for the role of Phil, which is what I wanted to read for. Harvey Keitel ended up playing Phil. I auditioned and Mike said, “I'll give you a choice. You can either go on the road with The Real Thing or stay in town and do Hurlyburly.” I chose to stay in town. I did the play for seven months.
PB: And it led to your first film role, in Heartburn, which Nichols directed. Was it a natural switch to movies?
KS: Yeah, I thought there wasn't much for me to do in that one. I was a mugger on a subway with orange hair. My first screen moment, I had to wink at Meryl Streep. It was horrifying. I couldn't wink. I was so nervous that my face was twitching.
PB: Nichols later cast you in Working Girl.
KS: That was a complete fluke. Between Heartburn and Working Girl, I had done a film called Rocket Gibraltar. I had come home at noon after walking my dog in Washington Square Park. The phone rang and it was Mike. He said, “I fired an actor this morning and I need you. There's a car on its way to your place with a script in the front seat.” He said that if he didn't finish the shooting on schedule, he'd have to postpone his wedding to Diane Sawyer two days later. So I got in the car, learned the scene as we drove across the bridge. I had never read the script, so I had no idea what the movie was about until I went and saw it. You could do worse than spend the day snorting coke on Melanie Griffith's lap.
PB: Your big break came not in theater or movies but in TV, playing the incestuous, toe-obsessed drug dealer Mel Profitt in Wiseguy.
KS: Yeah. My agents and manager were saying, “You've really got to go to Los Angeles. People are starting to hear about you. They want to put the name together with a face.” I flew out, landed at noon, rented a car and drove by William Morris to pick up a script that was waiting for me. An agent asked, “What are you doing right now?” I said, “I'm going to my friend's house and I'm going to fall over because I'm exhausted.” She said to hold on. She dialed a number and whispered into the phone, “He's right here.” To me, she said, “I think you should go over right now and meet this casting director. Something has come up and I think you might be right for it.” I drove to this building on Hollywood Boulevard that says Cannell Productions across the top. I know who Steve Cannell is because I'm a television kid; I know his name from Rockford Files and Baa Baa Black Sheep and all that stuff. I'm thinking, Oh no, I'm definitely not doing this. I'm not interested in a TV series. That's the last thing I want. But I read and I got the offer. They said we would start shooting on Monday in Vancouver. I said I wasn't interested. Steve Cannell thought I was out of my mind. The people there were thinking, Who is this pathetic no-name theater actor who dropped out of the sky saying no? But Steve convinced me. He showed me the story arc. I watched for an hour and was astounded that it wasn't about car chases but about character. I read some scripts and saw that the writing was fantastic.
PB: Were you worried about getting stuck in television in LA?
KS: There was no way. I returned to the stage for Lost in Yonkers.
PB: Your first big-movie leading role was in Consenting Adults. Why would Alan Pakula cast a relative unknown as the lead actor?
KS: When Alan asked to see me, I nervously went to his office: I was in awe. It's pretty rare to do more than one perfect movie in a career, and he'd done a couple, including All The President's Men. He was excited about me playing the role in Consenting Adults, knowing it would be a big struggle, because the studio wanted a big name. But he was determined. I flew to Los Angeles and did a screen test with Kevin Kline. Alan took the clip to Michael Eisner, who finally said, “You want to go with the new guy, go with the new guy.”
PB: It led to The Usual Suspects. Did you have a sense that it would be such a big hit?
KS: It was an amazing script. I love the fact that everybody has their own interpretation of what that movie means. Even the cast had different interpretations. When it was first screened for the cast, Gabriel Byrne dragged [director] Bryan Singer outside and began arguing. He was absolutely convinced that he was Keyser Soze. We thought that was the funniest thing. I just put myself in Bryan's hands, trusted him. I couldn't second-guess him. I've never worked with a better ensemble cast. If everybody hadn't died in the end, this is one that would have been fun to do again.
PB: Many people became obsessed with that movie. In fact, there still is lots of discussion about it on the web, some of it on the Kevin Spacey Adoration Page. What do you make of that type of attention?
KS: Occasionally I'm made aware of some of the things out there, but mostly I'm oblivious.
PB: On the site, there are sometimes 400 people who gather to chat about you. Is the attention gratifying or unnerving?
KS: Johnny Carson described it beautifully. He'd gone to some town in Texas at the height of The Tonight Show in the Sixties. He arrived at an airport and there were 500 people holding signs, waiting to greet him. He got off the plane and wandered through this crowd trying to find his car, while people patted him on the back and cheered. He said, “They greeted me as if I were an old friend. I looked at them and didn't know who the fuck any of them were.” People ask what it's like to be well known. Imagine sitting on the subway and the guy across from you is staring at you. He won't stop staring. You look, maybe smile, maybe wink. But nothing helps. At least I generally know why they're staring, but it can still be unnerving. Sometimes it can be a delightful, pleasant experience. Other times it's just odd. But once again, their perceptions aren't necessarily the reality. It's fine if they discuss me, but they don't know me.
PB: What kind of person fixates on Kevin Spacey?
KS: I look at the crowds for Iceman Cometh and they are as diverse as you can get. I get letters from so many different kinds of people.
PB: You once told Larry King, “The less an audience knows about me, the better I can do my job.” Why?
KS: When I see a film, it's particularly exciting when there is somebody onscreen I don't know at all. You believe they are the person they're playing. It makes for a great journey. The more well known the actor is, the more you know about him or her, and the more baggage comes with the part. That doesn't mean you can't be convinced, but it's tougher job. Certain people spend more time talking about themselves than working. Do the work, I say. Let the work speak for itself. Look at Nicholson, Pacino, Spencer Tracy. What do we really know about De Niro? We know the movies. Those characters live on in our minds. Forever.
PB: What do you think, then, when actors get involved in politics and social causes? You've been a strong Clinton supporter.
KS: I think you have to work for things you believe in. I do things privately and publicly.
PB: Was your support shaken by the Monica Lewinsky scandal?
KS: I know the president, and I've done a number of things for his campaigns and/or the Democratic National Committee. I like him a great deal. I've spent time with him. We did a special performance of Iceman for the president and the first lady in June. He wanted to see it in London, but he was only there for a day, and sometimes the only way you can make sure the president's going to show up is if you turn it into an event and bring it to him.
PB: What's your view on the Lewinsky scandal?
KS: I've kept pretty quiet about all that. I was drawn to President Clinton because of who he is the kind of man I believe he is, his ideas and agenda. I still feel that he is, without question, the most productive, progressive president we've ever had in this country. That's just a fact. Clinton has had more initiatives go through. He's tried more directives and new ideas. On many levels, the country reflects that. His personal life is uninteresting to me. For the $40 million spent by Ken Starr on his investigation we learned what was nobody's business but that of the man himself, his family and those adults who were involved. If I hire a plumber, I want to know the pipes are going to work when he leaves. As Clinton prepares to leave office, the pipes are working. That's how I judge him as a president. As a person, I certainly forgive him for being human. Everybody has a past. Everyone has done things they wouldn't do again. I still admire the man and think history will be kind to him.
PB: You once wrote speeches for John Anderson when he ran for president as a third-party candidate. Did you ever aspire to political office yourself?
KS: Actually, my very first campaign was Carter's in 1976, when I was in high school. Then I did some work for Congressman John Anderson when he ran for president in 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy when he ran, and then Clinton in his campaigns. Now I occasionally do things for congressmen or senators in the state I live in, or New Jersey, where I was born. Behind-the-scenes stuff and public appearances, though not ones that are hugely profiled. So politics is something I admire a great deal. When someone can take politics out of politics and be effective, I admire that. I've known people who are skilled at politics but haven't lost their humanity, and I get excited about what can happen.
PB: You've said in the past you'd like to start a family. What else would you like to accomplish? How about a part in a big family movie like a Star Wars prequel to add to your credits?
KS: Actually, I'd like both. I want kids, and who wouldn't want to be a Jedi Knight?