Every newcomer to New York has a first-apartment-in-the-city story, but Kevin Spacey’s is more of a parable. At age 19, the young actor arrived in Manhattan to attend the Juilliard School and rented a place across from the old Mark Hellinger Theatre on West 51st Street.
“I used to lean out my window and see Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller every night after Sugar Babies,” he says with nostalgia suddenly in his voice. Spacey was still new to show business; he’d taken acting classes and done some stand-up comedy in California, where he grew up, but mostly he was all eyes and ears to the city.
“It was very interesting to see how those two big stars dealt with the public differently,” he continues. “Mickey Rooney would bolt out of the stage door and duck into his car before the first audience member ever left the theater. Ann Miller would emerge a full 45 minutes later, dressed to the nines, in full makeup, and would sign autographs for 40 minutes before heading off dramatically in her big limo.” Thinking back on it now, nearly 30 years later, Spacey lets out a little laugh that dissolves into a sigh. “I ended up going Mickey’s way,” he says.
Spacey, 51, is notoriously private and generally averse to the fuss that comes with fame. It’s part of the reason he pulled back from his movie career in recent years to tend full-time to London’s Old Vic Theatre, where he is the artistic director. “I love the performing part of being an actor,” he says over lunch in Los Angeles, “but the other bullshit is much, much less interesting to me.”
And yet, here he is on the cover of a magazine talking about a slate of new and recent projects—Casino Jack, in which he plays the disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, as well as Margin Call, The Social Network (he was an executive producer on that one) and the forthcoming comedy Horrible Bosses. Not that Spacey holds back about how irritating the movie business can be. “Honestly, it’s been great having some distance from the industry,” he says. Spacey looks directly at you when he talks, and he doesn’t smile or laugh unless it’s earned. “It’s really hard to not buy into the cesspool of, ‘Are you hot and are you in? Is your movie making money? Are you going to this event? Are you talking to the right people?’ That’s fine for a lot of people, but it’s not my life, and those aren’t my priorities.”
London has been Spacey’s base since he took the reins of the Old Vic in 2003. In that time, he has overseen 35 productions, six of which he’s starred in and two he’s directed. It’s an experience he calls “the most satisfying professional undertaking of my life,” partly because he loves London itself. “I appreciate the old-fashioned elegance, and that I can walk from my flat on the South Bank at 6:30 for a 7:30 performance,” he says. Los Angeles, by contrast, is a place Spacey mostly endures. “Hell to me is an hour on the 101 freeway,” he says, explaining why he never owned a place there even in the back-to-back movie years of Seven, The Usual Suspects (which earned him his first Oscar), L.A. Confidential and American Beauty (which scored him his second). It’s New York that makes him feel most at home. Spacey’s whole demeanor softens when he talks about the city. “I adore the consolidated life and the amazing buzz of the streets,” he says. Not to mention theater, good old friends and “the endless possibilities available in a place where you never know what interesting thing awaits you around some random corner on lower Seventh Avenue.”
Spacey filmed Margin Call in New York this year. It’s a Wall Street thriller set during the early days of the 2008 financial crisis. “We shot on a high floor at One Penn Plaza, and most of the shoots were night shoots, which gave me a panoramic view of so many happy places and memories from my past.”
Spacey was born across the Hudson River in South Orange, New Jersey, where he was the youngest of three siblings, but the family moved to California when Spacey was 3. His father, a technical writer whom Spacey describes as “a tough disciplinarian,” didn’t know what to make of his youngest son’s theatrical bent, but his mother, a secretary, “believed in me first and gave me the confidence I needed.” By the time Spacey returned east to attend Juilliard, he was raring to go, though opportunities were scant at first. “I didn’t want to be a waiting actor,” he says, “so I took the only job I could get at the Public Theater in New York, which was working in the stock room in the basement. I handed out pencils and erasers. I could type and answer a switchboard, so I worked my way up. Somehow along the way, I got a rehearsal for an off-off-Broadway play and scraped my way from there.”
These days, he’s hardly scraping. The Social Network continues to be one of the most talked-about movies of the year and is a likely Oscar contender (Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is practically a shoe-in). Spacey’s contract at the Old Vic has been extended to 2015, and, oh yes, he’s been getting attention for acting again, too.
As Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack, Spacey finds nuances in a man most people wrote off as the embodiment of everything wrong with government. Abramoff served three and a half years of a six-year sentence for his role in a wide-ranging corruption scandal that rocked Congress and the Bush administration in 2006. He is scheduled for release from a halfway house in December. “I wanted to humanize him,” Spacey says. “What he was doing wasn’t black and white, right or wrong. Yes, he crossed the line and did things he shouldn’t have, but he also took the heat for a lot of politicians who still do the same thing. Now that Jack’s out and free, I suspect he’s going to become Washington’s worst nightmare.”
Rather than immerse himself in the news accounts of the scandal, Spacey spent time with the man himself. He and director George Hickenlooper visited the former $750-an-hour Republican lobbyist at a federal prison camp in Cumberland, Maryland, where Spacey and Abramoff discovered a mutual love of improv. Both master mimics, the two went back and forth as impersonators-in-chief. “For a long while, Kevin was Clinton and Jack was Reagan, and I thought I was at a presidential summit,” said Hickenlooper (who, tragically, passed away shortly after this interview).
Spacey is quick to connect the dots between Casino Jack and the greed-is-good themes of The Social Network and Margin Call. “I’m interested in a particular kind of American ambition,” he says. “It’s that need for success, even if it’s empty. I think it’s the biggest problem we face in our culture right now.”
Spacey looks straight ahead, waiting for the next question. Unlike many interview subjects, he makes no effort to fill in the gaps in conversation. In fact, he seems to relish the discomfort. People who know Spacey (and Spacey knows a ton of people. Bill Clinton is a poker buddy; Sir Paul McCartney returns his calls) will tell you he can be intimidating—and it’s true. Consider what happens when the conversation turns to his private life. Spacey, who has never been married, doesn’t flinch at personal questions, but he doesn’t give into them either:
Q: Do you want to have kids?
A: It’s a hard question. I have said yes in the past. I don’t want to get into that.
Q: Are you in love?
A: Don’t get into that.
A: Because I just don’t get into that.
Pause. Long sip of coffee.
As Spacey’s frequent collaborator Ben Mezrich, whose book was the basis for The Social Network, puts it, “I’ve known Kevin for eight years, and I still sometimes get nervous around him. He’s read everything. He knows everything. If he’s upset, he tells you. If he doesn’t like something, he tells you. I love that about him, but it took a minute to get used to.”
Then again, Spacey can be supremely charming, as when he gets rolling on a cherished memory of his first show-business mentor, Jack Lemmon (Spacey dedicated his Oscar for American Beauty to the Odd Couple star). “Jack always told me, ‘If you’ve done well in your chosen career, it’s your obligation to send the elevator back down—inspire and give opportunity to others on their way up.’” He sounds just like Lemmon when he talks. Likewise, Spacey is Bill Clinton when he invokes the president. “I know it’s late, Kev,” he says with pitch-perfect rasp in his voice, “but do you wanna come over and play cards?” The ability to lose himself like that is clearly part of Spacey’s success. As Hickenlooper said, “More than any actor I’ve ever worked with, Kevin gives himself over to his characters. He’s egoless in that way. Kevin goes away, and the character lives and breathes.”
Spacey does a stretch and looks at his watch, which is his way of saying it’s time to wrap things up. But not before sharing one more story about his early life in Manhattan. A look of sweet wistfulness comes across his face as he shares a memory about his first Broadway show, in 1986, and once again he sounds like a young man electrified by the theater district. “I remember walking down 44th Street and seeing my name next to Jack Lemmon’s on the marquee for Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” he says, and this time he lets out a sigh that ends as a laugh. “I thought, Hey, this is great! Maybe I can live this dream after all.”