Kevin Spacey: 'House of Cards' Star on Why He Won't Play Carson; the Right Way to Say 'F--- Off'
In the desert with the two-time Oscar winner as he explains why he won't play Johnny Carson in the NBC miniseries ("Would be too marshmallow"), follows tennis star Andy Murray and what's next (hint: singing).
This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Kevin Spacey entered his trailer, he was wearing slacks and a salmon blazer, and when he emerges, he is Tennis Man, in head-to-toe Adidas gear. Cap, navy T-shirt, flashy yellow sneakers. He unlocks the passenger door of a fire-engine red Nissan 370z for me, slides into the driver's seat and plants a heavy foot on the gas pedal while his security guy, assistant and trainer follow in another car. We're in danger of being late.
In a matter of minutes, Britain's top-ranked player, Andy Murray, will begin his third-round match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and Spacey, a self-described Murray "groupie," does not intend to miss a point. He has crisscrossed the globe during the past two-plus years to watch Murray play more than a dozen times. And for this mid-March tournament, Spacey rented a house nearby, alternating between watching Murray play and working on his own game with a pair of professional coaches.
What is it about Murray, I ask.
It's his athleticism, says Spacey, who himself is looking quite fit, and his drive. Plus, he adds, "I'm a Brit."
A what? Spacey was born in New Jersey, raised in California. But for the past decade, he has called London home, so this apparently is who he is now.
We pull up to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden a little after 11 a.m., and Spacey sorts through a collection of VIP badges. He has been told that a seat in Murray's box, where he has sat before, isn't available because Murray's coach, girlfriend and hitting partners are in it; but he's offered the next best thing, Box 117, close enough to make eye contact, if ever Murray were to break focus. "I've often thought about whispering to him, 'Keyser Soze is behind you,' " jokes Spacey, referring to the villain character in the 1995 thriller The Usual Suspects who won him his first Oscar. At least I think he's joking. The delivery is so deadpan, it's hard to be sure.
Murray blows the first set in a tie-break, and his opponent, a 70-something seed nobody knows anything about, pulls ahead in the second. His confidence appears temporarily rocked, but not Spacey's. "Come on," he bellows from his courtside seat, clapping hard every time Murray hits a winner -- and groaning each time he doesn't. He microanalyzes Murray's game as though it were a character he was considering playing.
Before the match is over, Spacey has one of his two coaches, Keith, who used to hit with Murray, push back his flight to Miami so that the two can squeeze in more practice. "Kevin doesn't half-ass anything," his producing partner Dana Brunetti will tell me later. "Once he gets into something -- working out, learning to play a musical instrument -- he goes into it full bore. So, he's always been a fan of tennis, but lately it's become an obsession."
At 54, Spacey is in his prime, eagerly pursuing new obsessions and exalting in his contradictory status in Hollywood as a big-name star who operates like an eccentric outsider. "Unless it's Martin Scorsese, and it's a really significant role, f--- off," he says. "I'm not playing someone's brother. I'm not playing the station manager. I'm not playing the FCC chairman."
As much as anything, Spacey enjoys keeping everyone guessing. "People thought I was crazy 11 years ago when I moved to London and started a theater company," he says. "What is he doing? He's out of his mind. People thought we were crazy when we made the Netflix deal for House of Cards. 'They're out of their minds, it'll never work.' I'm used to people thinking I'm nuts. And you know what? I kind of love it."
One of the unusual things about Kevin Spacey is that he has a tendency to turn into someone else, without warning. "You know," he begins, as we turn into the tennis center, "when I was on the air, 'streaming was something we did when we pulled the car over to take a leak on the side of the road." Well, hello there, Johnny Carson.
Later, there's an unmistakable impression of President Clinton, an old friend with whom Spacey used to play cards, and then a second stab at Carson. His House of Cards castmates have heard him do others, including Al Pacino, William Hurt and, his personal hero and three-time co-star, Jack Lemmon. "In between takes sometimes, he'll fall into one of his uncanny mimicries and improv some hysterical shtick," says co-star Robin Wright. Showrunner Beau Willimon says he's "been tempted more than once to write into a script that Frank [Underwood, Spacey's character] does a Marlon Brando impression."
Spacey's been fine-tuning this talent since he was a boy, initially motivated by a desire to entertain his mother, who worked as a secretary to support her three children and a chronically unemployed technical writer husband. Spacey was no model kid. He set fire to his older sister's treehouse and got kicked out of a military academy for hurling a tire at another kid's head. But he had a close relationship with his mom that endured until her death in 2003. "Hearing my mother laugh was the greatest sound I've ever heard," he says, "so I learned how to do voices and imitations."
For his senior year, Spacey was recruited to Chatsworth High School, which had a top-tier drama program that included Val Kilmer and Spacey's co-valedictorian, Mare Winningham. He followed with a stint at Los Angeles Valley community college before applying to Juilliard at the suggestion of Kilmer, already a student there. Spacey lasted two years before he decided he wanted to pursue acting as a full-time profession. Supporting himself with odd jobs, he wrote passionate letters to directors and conned his way into cocktail parties to get noticed. His impressions, part of a stand-up act that often incorporated tap dancing, also helped. Writer-producer Dean Devlin, a high school pal of Spacey's, remembers the time he got them into Studio 54 by convincing the bouncer he was Carson's son.
Spacey made his first professional stage appearance in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Henry IV in 1981 and his Broadway debut a year later in Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts. After working with the young actor on the Broadway production of David Rabe's Hurlyburly, in which a versatile Spacey served as the understudy for all of the play's male parts, director Mike Nichols cast him in his first film, 1986's Heartburn, as a thief, then again two years later as a wealthy businessman in Working Girl. Although roles seemed to come easily from there, crossing over to leading man proved a challenge -- for the simple reason that Hollywood prefers movie stars who look like other movie stars. When Devlin wrote Independence Day, he intended the role of the president for Spacey. The studio balked, and it was rewritten for Bill Pullman. "We literally had an argument," says Devlin, "and the executive, who's no longer there, said he just didn't think Kevin Spacey was a movie star."
But Spacey simply was too talented and too driven for Hollywood to ignore, and he established himself once and for all when he won the best supporting actor Oscar for The Usual Suspects, which he followed with strong performances in Seven and L.A. Confidential. None were quite as memorable as his portrayal of the depressed suburban father in 1999's American Beauty. Here again, Sam Mendes had to fight the studio to cast Spacey as his star. "They wanted a more conventional leading man, and they felt he was a supporting actor," says the director, who had been struck by Spacey's work in a London production of The Iceman Cometh. "There's one thing better than having a really good actor, and that's having a really good actor who has never done this kind of role before. I really didn't want anyone else from the beginning, and I stuck to my guns." The performance earned Spacey heaps of critical praise and his second Oscar.
But just when this misfit had found a home in Hollywood, he rejected it, moving to London in 2003 to be the first American artistic director of The Old Vic theater. "I remember having lots of very serious conversations with my mother about where I was at this particular point and just going, 'What am I supposed to do now? Am I supposed to do what I watch a lot of other people do?' Which is, 'Hey, now I'm on the list, I'm going to be in all these movies and get paid all this money,' " says Spacey. "It was absolutely unappealing to me to end up in a lot of movies I shouldn't do, to start showing up and doing the same thing over and over. I was already suffering from, 'He always plays evil guys.' 'He's always the dark character.' People love to box us in, and I wasn't going to be boxed. I decided I was going to f--- with it."
Spacey only could accept movie roles that could be completed in fewer than eight weeks because of the demands of the Old Vic job. The learning curve there was steep, with some early productions savaged by critics. Spacey insists he saw that early backlash coming and was prepared: "It's sort of the way they do it in Britain. They shit on you and then later on they go, 'Oh, we love you, and we always loved you, and we always knew we were going to love you, and we're so glad you've come.' "
Click the photo for more exclusive portraits of Kevin Spacey.
In a decade there, he has overseen more than 39 plays, starred in seven and directed two. He also managed a staff of 75 and became adept at raising money. "I've learned how to get people at auctions very drunk," he laughs. Spacey will return to the Old Vic stage in late May with a two-and-a-half week run in the one-man show Clarence Darrow and then likely once more before officially stepping down in 2015. He's leaving the organization in good shape, he says: "I never wanted to go to the Old Vic and not have it survive long after I was gone. It's not about me; it's about that theater. And the more that it's able to grow and do everything it should do without me, then I've done my job."
Although Spacey's self-imposed exile cut his income considerably, he still commands a decent payday. One source suggests he made $1 million for a couple days of work on the upcoming Horrible Bosses sequel and could easily earn a top-of-the-line $150,000-an-episode fee if he did a network pilot. But the move to the U.K. allowed him to remain out of the Hollywood spotlight at a time when celebrities' offscreen lives became as newsworthy as their onscreen ones. Spacey, whose only permanent home is in London, fiercely guards his private life. In fact, his affable demeanor shuts off the moment he is asked about it. This might date back to a 1997 Esquire profile that infamously suggested Spacey was gay. He later denied the characterization, and his agency at the time, William Morris, vehemently discouraged its clients from cooperating with the publication."Let's let people live their lives and do it the way they want to do it," he says now. "All the chips will fall in the end, and we'll all be judged by a much higher power than Entertainment Weekly can."
Those who know Spacey well say the actor, who cares for his two rescue dogs the way some would their children, often travels with big groups of close friends and trusted employees. He reads voraciously (biographies, like Andre Agassi's Open, are a favorite), enjoys TV (Dexter and Breaking Bad are two favorites) and consumes sports (basketball, baseball, tennis) with feverish passion. According to Brunetti, who transitioned from his assistant to an Oscar-nominated producer of The Social Network and Captain Phillips, both from the pair's prolific Trigger Street Productions, Spacey is as driven onscreen as he is off. He recalls a time on the Nova Scotia set of 2001's The Shipping News when a friendly game of pingpong turned into a high-stakes showdown. "There was a point where he'd be up $10K, or I'd be up $10K, so we'd bet that whole thing on one game just to keep amping up the excitement and keep it interesting," Brunetti says, adding with laughter: "He gets extremely competitive."
It was David Fincher who lured Spacey away from the theater with the promise of playing a villain to rival Keyser Soze: the nasty politician Francis Underwood. Fincher broached the idea with Spacey on the set of Social Network, and when he raised it with his fellow producers, Brunetti, Josh Donen, Eric Roth and Willimon, everybody immediately was on board. "What you need to have in Francis Underwood is someone who can be as devious, nefarious, cold-blooded and cutthroat as you can possibly imagine and at the same time have you rooting for him," says Willimon. "And we couldn't think of another actor who can pull that off as well as Kevin."
At that time, Spacey was touring the world in a Mendes-directed stage production of Shakespeare's Richard III, which turned out to be ideal preparation for the House of Cards character. "I had 10 months of looking into the eyes of audiences all over the world and seeing how much they f---ing loved it," says Spacey, noting how much more rewarding it is to directly address the audience on a stage than it is on a TV set. "With House of Cards, I'm looking down the barrel of a lens. It's incredibly disconcerting because quite often there's a glass, and I have to f---ing see my own face, which is incredibly annoying."
Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos was so taken with casting Spacey -- in part because his movies are popular for streaming -- he agreed to skip the pilot process and shell out $100 million for 26 episodes, sight unseen, the company's first foray into original programming. (Spacey reportedly got a salary bump from about $5 million to $9 million for the recently ordered third season.) And while Netflix won't provide streaming data, Spacey, also a producer, says he has seen numbers and the investment has paid off: Netflix needed to add only 565,000 more subscribers to break even on Cards' first two seasons, and that doesn't factor in the brand-building cachet, like this tweet from President Obama the day before the second season premiered: "Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please."
Working with Willimon to craft the role of Underwood has been rewarding for Spacey in a way that film roles rarely have been; scripts often go back and forth between the two before others see a final version. "I'm not a writer, and I don't want there to be any mistake about that," says the actor, a shoo-in for another Emmy nomination. "What I'm able to do is to take something that exists and go, 'I think I see what you're trying to do, but I don't think this happens efficiently enough'; or, 'I think that actually we need to be more clear about that'; or, 'I need to say it rather than to imply it.' "
The most recent scene to get his attention was a letter Underwood writes to President Walker late in season two in which he reveals that as a boy he watched his father not have the guts to take his own life. That detail wasn't in the original script; Spacey suggested it, believing that his character had to offer a secret of that magnitude. Recalls Willimon: "What Kevin said was, 'If it's going to be the ultimate direct address, I need to share something both with the audience and with Walker that I've never shared before, and it needs to be so personal and revelatory about who I am that it feels as though I'm really making myself vulnerable."
For an actor whose passion remains rooted in old-fashioned theater, the success of the Netflix experiment has given him credibility as an expert on the future of television and film. That was a theme of his attention-grabbing MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August. Spacey, the first actor to be invited to make the prestigious presentation (previous speakers include Rupert Murdoch and Google's Eric Schmidt), spoke intensely about the need for top executives to embrace risk-taking and trust its talent. "We know what works, and the only thing we don't know is why it's so difficult to find executives with the fortitude, the wisdom and the balls to do it," he said, praising Netflix for showing faith in the show's creators and not subjecting it to the indignities of the pilot process. He joked that if he were onstage running for office, his campaign slogan would be, "It's the creatives, stupid."
Spacey is putting his own money where his mouth is with Now: In the Wings on a World Stage, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the staging of his Richard III, which he will distribute himself. The film will make its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April before a limited theatrical release and for download on his website, KevinSpacey.com, on May 2. Although an earnest theater documentary would appear to lack significant commercial appeal, Spacey suggests he was offered "serious money to give someone else the rights." He declined, he says, because he's certain he can do a more effective job of finding an audience for it than a studio could -- or would: "It's an experiment to see what it's like when you can be in control of the decision‑making and can move on things when you see that an audience is there."
Spacey's Next Act: "Now," a documentary about the staging of his Richard III, which he'll self-distribute in May.
When actors enter their mid-50s, opportunities tend to narrow. With Spacey, the exact opposite is happening. He might never be offered the parts that George Clooney is, but at this point, would he even want them? He'd much rather … sing! He tested his music chops as the star of the 2004 Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, but now he wants to put his own voice out there. "I sounded like Bobby Darin then, and I'm released from that," he says. "I'm able to sound like me and be able to do different kinds of music. So, again, I'm going to f--- with it a little bit and do the unexpected."
When Sarandos was honored at Tony Bennett's Exploring the Arts gala in 2013, Spacey honored him by performing with Bennett's band. "He took a day to rehearse, it wasn't like he was just going to get up at a karaoke bar," says Sarandos. "He even rewrote the lyrics to 'Fly Me to the Moon.' He was amazing." More recently, Spacey did a benefit concert in China tied to nonprofit Best Buddies (the song list included Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind") and has another concert with a 22-piece band planned for early April to raise money for a local arts center in Miami.
Click the photo to see Spacey's many faces.
He intends to continue with House of Cards, too, but is sensitive to the risk of overstaying his welcome. "My admiration for Mary Tyler Moore is very, very big because they went out on top," he says. He reveals he has another show that he will pitch to Netflix in a month or two as a producer, not a star, but he won't say anymore. And then he has a project in the works involving letters, another one of Spacey's obsessions. He keeps hand-written notes from people like Woody Allen (Spacey pitched himself for a part in one of Allen's upcoming films and included a Netflix subscription for the director to check out his work) and Katharine Hepburn, with whom he corresponded. "I used to write her very lengthy letters about what was happening in my career," he says, "and she'd write me back: 'Dear Kevin, good for you. Loved your thoughts about my book. Kate.' "
Despite his pitch-perfect Carson impression, he says he has little interest in playing the Tonight Show host in the NBC miniseries now in development. (His name began swirling within minutes of the September announcement, though he insists he hasn't been approached.) "If [NBC] wants to start writing as if they're a cable network, then absolutely I'd take a look at it," he says, having narrated a 2012 Carson documentary on PBS. "But I'm afraid it would just be too marshmallow, and Johnny deserves something that's tougher and with more expletives."
Spacey isn't particularly interested in pursuing many film roles, either. He's in talks to star in an independent Winston Churchill biopic, but it's hard to imagine he would have time for much else. "I'm starting a third season on a series, and I'll probably do a play next year when I'm done because that truly will be my last year at the Old Vic. So I'm absolutely not available," he says. Part of the reason, he acknowledges, is that mainstream Hollywood still is offering Spacey FCC chairman material. "You'd be shocked," he adds of the unglamorous parts that routinely come his way. "There are a lot of people out there who offer roles to actors because they'll elevate their movie to a place the movie would never reach. They offer them a shitload of money for a crap part, but it doesn't make the movie any better. And I'm not interested in elevating someone's crap movie."
On the afternoon we spent together, all Spacey seems interested in elevating is his own tennis experience. Well, that and scarfing down a plate of nachos, or "naughty" food, as he describes it. As the match approaches the three-hour mark, Murray finally digs in, takes control and cruises to victory, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4. The actor lets out a whoop, then scurries out before the autograph-seekers come for him.
Spacey has given a lot of thought to the parallels between athletes like Murray and actors like himself, both masters of the high wire in their own way. "What they do is performance and it's athletic, and I've always looked at the theater in the same way," he says between bites of a postmatch hot dog in the VIP lounge. "It's different every time you're out onstage, just as it is when they're out on the court. You have to always be ready, always be alive and always be willing to move in a new direction."