Unlike most Hollywood stars, Kevin Spacey really means it when he says everything's about the work and nothing's about the ego. It's evident in his selfless acting and canny choice of roles - challenge over remuneration. It's there in his fierce protection of his private life ("I don't covet attention unless it's for the work"), fuelled by the belief that a) it's nobody's goddamn business; and b) it helps punters buy the character. And it's glaringly obvious in his current tenure as artistic director at London's Old Vic theatre. The star has put Hollywood aside to return to his first love and personally resuscitate the fortunes of the ailing playhouse.
Dressed in a baseball jacket, white shirt, jeans and sneakers and clutching a large Starbucks coffee, Spacey's comfortably huddled in the Old Vic's conference room. He's in serious, sombre mode, perhaps mulling the critics' ridiculously harsh appraisal of Cloaca, the first play he's directed for his beloved theatre. A poignant and frequently funny musing on the lives of four middle-aged male friends, it's been largely dismissed as unoriginal, superficial and - shudder - old-fashioned, reviewers seemingly miffed that Spacey hasn't polished the boards with Hollywood razzle-dazzle.
"I'm glad you saw the show," he murmurs, referring to our previous night's meeting in the Old Vic bar. Then he was dressed in jeans, hooded top and a rather fetching, flat tweed cap - kind of Seth from Emmerdale, only infinitely cooler. "Still, we're not here to talk about that," he adds with a sly trademark smirk. "It is, after all, Total FILM."
Quite. What we are here to talk about is Beyond The Sea, Spacey's long-gestating squint at the life of his childhood hero, rock/pop/country/folk/gospel crooner Bobby Darin. A deeply personal project that Spacey's been tracking since 1987, it took on added resonance when his mother Kathleen, with whom he used to sing along to Darin's songs as a kid, died of a brain tumour in 2003. So much, then, for all those stories about Spacey being packed off to a military school for being a "rambunctious" youth. Beyond The Sea celebrates his own childhood while saluting a "remarkable artist", now largely forgotten. But not for long…
Congratulations on finally making Beyond The Sea. It's been a long journey...
Thank you. I first heard they were trying to make a movie about Bobby Darin in the late '80s. At that point, I had no film credit at all - I was a relatively obscure theatre actor from off-Broadway. I kept track of the project as I began building my own film work and finally convinced Warner Bros to unleash the rights in 1999.
So how come it took another five years to make it to the big screen?
It was difficult to raise the money because, by now, the film had a reputation. It had gone through all these manufactured scripts and people felt that the studio wasn't behind it. It was hard to convince people that it wasn't going to be bad. In the end, I had to come to Europe because darn near every studio in Hollywood said no. Politely and very nicely, but no.
Obviously, you were a big Darin fan when you were growing up...
Yeah, a huge fan. I was first introduced to him by my parents, who had a pretty extensive record collection. I'd sing along to Darin while Darin was singing along to Sinatra! I wanted to make this film because he's largely been forgotten. Part of it is because he died young; part of it is because he was incredibly diverse and continued to reinvent himself, refusing to be what people wanted him to be. You walk into a record shop and he's not in one section, he's in 12 sections. It kind of dissipates the white spotlight of fame.
You did all your own singing. Do you consider your voice to be a fair semblance of Darin's?
There's a certain similarity when it comes to range issues, but I started working on the music as soon as I got the rights. I had to learn how to work in a recording studio and how to go out and sing publicly, in the heat of the moment. We worked for four years solid, until we finally ended up at Abbey Road, recording for 12 days with [composer] John Wilson and his 72-piece orchestra.
Like Bobby, you spent many years learning your craft. Did it help to prepare you for the glare of fame?
There's no question in my mind that I wasn't ready at 21 or 22. I wouldn't have made it. It doesn't matter how much talent you may or may not think you have, it's fundamental that you have time to develop it. A lot of people I grew up with and went to school with [Val Kilmer, Mare Winningham] made it famous like that [snaps fingers], right out of school. Not me - I was understudying actors on stage. But I always recognised my ship was going to come in… Just a little bit later.
Your ship came in at quite a pace in the mid '90s - a trio of villains rocketed you into the public consciousness. Let's start with Swimming With Sharks' vitriolic Hollywood producer, Buddy Ackerman...
Ignore all that second-hand journalism about who I based my character on [Don Simpson is the most obvious target]. My performance was entirely based on the screenplay. I didn't even meet those people until after the movie was done.
So you'd never encountered a disdainful, bullying producer like Buddy?
I'd worked with assholes, no question. I'd worked with arrogant people who literally didn't know what they were doing, no question. But I'd never met a person in authority who was like Buddy. I absolutely played it the way George Huang [ex-Columbia lackey] wrote it. Of course, George had experienced 70 percent of the story himself.
Swimming With Sharks was your first stab at producing...
I'm very proud because we shot the movie in 18 days - Bam! Bam! Bam! - for not very much money, yet it's become a classic for people who want to be in the movies. It's also a classic on Wall Street: a lot of people I meet in the financial world say, "Oh yeah, our boss showed us that one."
Next up was simpering master criminal Verbal Kint...
Bryan Singer's leadership created a special environment on The Usual Suspects, but none of us were entirely sure the movie would make sense. Chris McQuarrie's script was complex and admirable, but it was confusing. I know it was confusing because there were actors who actually thought the movie was going to end differently. Gabriel Byrne thought he was Keyser Soze!
So who is Keyser Soze? It's Verbal, right?
That's for the audience to decide. My job is to show up and do a part - I don't own the audience's imagination.
Surely you came up with a theory while moulding your character?
Yeah, you have to. But that doesn't mean you have to reveal it to the audience. I've heard a variety of takes and they all seem reasonable to me.
Does it annoy you when people in the street yell, "Hey, Keyser"?
No. You can't in any way feel negative about the fact that work you've done has impacted on people. I'm not someone who particularly cares for everyone knowing about my private life, so it's no surprise that people see me as my character. I always remember this: it might be my tenth time of hearing "Hey, Keyser!" that day, but it's their first time. You have to respect that.
Many people still see you as "The Guy Who Boxed Gywnnie's Head". Incredibly, you nearly didn't play John Doe...
I auditioned for John Doe in Se7en and didn't get the part. They shot with another actor and then, for whatever reason, that all went south and they brought me in. I got a call on a Friday night, and on Monday morning I was on a plane to Los Angeles, shooting on Tuesday. I don't feel like I was part of the organic development of that movie. I was an actor for hire who came in and did 12 days before getting the hell out. I was delighted with the film, though.
You did play one major part in the movie's development: you refused to be credited...
I'd just done Swimming With Sharks, The Usual Suspects and Outbreak, a big Warner Bros movie. I knew that if any of those movies did well, my profile would be… Different. How would that affect my billing in Se7en? If I'm the third-billed actor in a movie where the top two billings are trying to find somebody and they don't find that somebody until the last reel, then it's obvious who that somebody is.
The studio didn't like your thinking on that one. They couldn't use you in the movie's advertising!
It was a bit of a shit-fight for a couple of days, but I felt very strongly that it was the right thing to do for the movie. We finally won because it was a deal-breaker; I was either going to be on a plane to shoot the movie or I wasn't.
You're now famous to a point that first-time viewers may recognise you from your voice on the phone...
[Slightly irked] I don't think so.
Your villains are all tastily verbose. Does that please the stage actor in you?
Yeah. It's the same in American Beauty, too. I like really good scenes that are almost like theatre scenes. It's compelling to get a chance to sink your teeth into something. A lot of film is sparse. Sparse can be remarkable and beautiful, but it's great to have a writer who appreciates the spoken word, who delivers great speeches with conflict and attack and humour.
After LA Confidential and Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, American Beauty marked the conclusion of your move away from screen villainy...
All they wanted me to do was play villains. I could have made a lot of money doing it, but it would have been boring. Like Bobby Darin, I've experienced the conflict between professional expectations and personal freedom. But you know what? You have to follow your own route. I don't give a shit if people haven't liked some of the movies I've made since American Beauty [K-PAX, The Shipping News, The Life Of David Gale]. I don't give a toss. It's my dream out there.
You've said that American Beauty's Lester Burnham is the role you've most connected to...
It seems highly unlikely that I would have said that. I've connected on some level to most of the roles that I've played. I'm trying to think why I would have said that…
Perhaps because you were rallying against being typecast, just as Lester rallies against the tedium of his middle-aged life?
[Delivered with the famous Spacey sneer] I think you're looking for a through-line that just doesn't work.
So what did attract you to the role?
Sam Mendes and the script.
Did it surprise you how readily Sam took to cinema?
No, because I'd been seeing his plays for years. They were always visually stunning, very dynamic, and he had an ability to focus the viewer's eye to where it was supposed to go on the stage. He had a filmic sense of wide and tight shots, and of what he could do with lighting.
Lester won you a Best Actor gong after Verbal had taken a Supporting statuette. Do your Oscars mean a lot to you?
How could they not? How can you even frame a question like that? I'm asked that question so often. I'm like, "What do people want me to say? 'Oh, it means nothing?'" It means a huge amount. It's a remarkable achievement. All you have to do is look at all the actors who've won that little golden statue over the years. It's unbelievable to be thought of in the same company as them.
It's surprising how many winners claim it doesn't really mean anything...
Well, everybody's entitled to their own opinion. But what the Oscar means must be separated from the ceremony itself and all the hoopla that leads up to it. That's the commercialisation of an awards show. The award itself, granted by your community, is pretty damn extraordinary.
You've stringently avoided bland blockbusters. Hollywood churns out a lot of empty spectacles...
…And we're gonna keep getting 'em 'til we die. They'll never stop because some of the people who are in decision-making positions aren't cinephiles. Nothing will shift the bottom line. But if you actually broke down how many movies are made a year, I bet there are more independent movies than big Hollywood studio movies. So I don't put a blanket over all of Hollywood and say, "It's like this."
LA Confidential certainly isn't a bottom-line movie. Is it true you based your celebrity cop, Jack Vincennes, on Dean Martin?
[Laughs] I went up to Curtis Hanson and said, "If this really was 1950 and you really were making this movie back then, who would you cast as Jack?" I actually thought he was going to say William Holden or someone like that, but he said Dean Martin. It just didn't compute. So I went back and looked at Rio Bravo and a few of his other movies… And I saw it. His characters are slick with bravado on the surface, but just peeking out is someone who's remarkably unsatisfied. It's a real testament to Martin as an actor.
How did you research the role? Did you hang out with real cops?
No, I just showed up, learned my lines and tried not to bump into the furniture. You know, it isn't hard work to read a book or watch something or talk to somebody. You just do what it takes.
Which brings us full circle. Making Beyond The Sea must have been taxing, directing as well as starring...
I learned a great deal directing Albino Alligator. I called a lot of people, asked a lot of questions, watched a lot of movies and read an abundance of books on editing, production design and cinematography. It was a very good experience. As for singing my guts out for four years… Well, that's what you do. I'm always a bit amused by the whole, [assumes poor-little-me whine] "I have to work so hard, I have to train so hard" rigmarole. Paul Bettany put it really well recently. He said, "Yeah, it was hard preparing for Wimbledon. As hard as it is to play tennis and be paid for it."