Kevin Spacey Reveals the Best (Non-Acting) Advice Jack Lemmon Gave Him

Wesley Mann
Kevin Spacey and his mentees.

The 'House of Cards' star says in THR's Philanthropy Issue why he was inspired to mentor aspiring young actors

This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Kevin Spacey is deeply in debt. Or at least that's how he sees it.

He owes Jack Lemmon, who became his mentor when Spacey was a 13-year-old acting student in a summer workshop. (The two remained close friends until Lemmon's death in 2001.) He owes Katharine Hepburn, whom a young Spacey once approached at a stage door after a matinee and presented with a dozen roses. She sat on the bumper of her station wagon and chatted with the aspiring actor for 10 minutes about Spencer Tracy and her career in film and onstage. He certainly owes producer Joe Papp, who gave the 20-year-old Spacey his first big break in theater, hiring him as a backstage stock boy, then firing him — with two months' severance — so that he could better spend his time auditioning.

At long last, Spacey is finding ways of paying them back. He has been helping aspiring young actors via the Kevin Spacey Foundation, which has given out 20 performing-arts scholarships and more than 60 grants since its founding in the U.K. in 2010. Spacey got the idea for the organization while winding down his tenure as artistic director at the Old Vic Theatre in London, where he already had helped countless young British actors with his Old Vic New Voices program.

"Jack Lemmon used to say, 'You've got to send the elevator back down,' " Spacey, 55, tells THR as he mingles with the five American KSF beneficiaries gathered at a community theater in Annapolis, Md., near where Spacey is shooting the third season of Netflix's House of Cards. "I was these kids. I was a recipient before I showed any promise."

These recipients, however, certainly do show promise. Hughes William Thompson, 24, received a grant to produce a short film titled A New Man, which premiered in March at the New York Shorts Festival; Stacy Willyard, 32, started a theater group for middle school students from Baltimore's worst slums; Joe Gerbino, 24, shot a documentary about a young mime troupe in Brooklyn; Erica A. Hart, 24, made a short film about a soldier returning from war; and Dana Katz used her grant to stage a contemporary dance performance called Thousand Plateaus, which she hopes to take on tour. "More than money, it was the recognition," says Katz. "Having [Spacey] interested in supporting me as an artist is a pure honor and inspiration." 

Go here to find out more about the Kevin Spacey Foundation and make a donation.

Purchase tickets here for Spacey's concert at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 29 benefiting the Kevin Spacey Foundation.

Read more from THR's Philanthropy Issue here.