Tonys Host Kevin Spacey: "It's Impossible to Say What Will Happen"

Courtesy of Joe Pugliese/CBS
Kevin Spacey

The actor this month is juggling the season five 'House of Cards' launch, his one-man 'Clarence Darrow' show at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the release of 'Baby Driver' and his emcee debut at Radio City Music Hall.

To borrow a line from the musical-theater classic Carousel, June is bustin' out all over for Kevin Spacey.

Even by the indefatigable standards of someone who headed a major London theater company, The Old Vic, for more than a decade while balancing film, television and stage roles, this month will see the two-time Oscar winner wearing many hats.

That includes hosting the Tony Awards June 11, following in the footsteps of such recent frontmen for Broadway's annual honors as Neil Patrick Harris, Hugh Jackman and James Corden.

Immediately after that, on June 15-16, Spacey will reprise the title role in the solo play Clarence Darrow, a success for him in London, this time swapping a law court for a tennis court to perform the portrait of the legendary American justice crusader in the massive Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York.

Onscreen, he's bookending the month by playing contrasting villains — Machiavellian U.S. President Frank Underwood in season five of Netflix's addictive drama of Washington intrigue, House of Cards, which hit the streaming platform May 30; and a crime boss who masterminds daring heists in Edgar Wright's Sundance hit Baby Driver, opening June 28.

"They are both entirely distinctive jobs with different aspects," says Spacey of the two roles. "Which makes them completely not of the same cloth."

Will Spacey tune up the vocal pipes he displayed as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea and show off his song-and-dance skills at the Tonys? He took a moment in the midst of rehearsals to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about the upcoming gig.

When it was announced that you were hosting the Tonys, you joked about being way down the list of possible emcees. So where did the idea to have you step into the role come from?

In all honesty, I think it came from everybody else turning it down. I wasn't exaggerating about that. I think it was one of the latest times that they've announced a host, but I was absolutely delighted. I’m a theater rat, so to be part of the season and celebrate Broadway was, I thought, a wonderful opportunity. I don't mind so much because quite often in the course of my career I have taken roles that other actors have turned down. I'm always delighted when someone turns something down.

And great for us in the audience to have a host who can bring a fresh take, so it feels like a win-win.

Well, so far I've been having a very good time working toward it and prepping, and now in rehearsals.

Given that hosting a major awards show is unchartered territory for you, who is your ideal role model?

Part of me feels that way, way, way too much has been made about hosts. I sort of think back to the days when Bob Hope and Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal all had multi-year contracts; they hosted and learned how to host shows. But somewhere along the way, they started auditioning hosts and then firing them if they didn't get the ratings they wanted. I go back to the days where I feel like, 'Yeah, let somebody learn how to host things like this.' So if we do well, maybe they'll ask me back. I come from the school of thought, which I suppose really came from Johnny Carson, which is that he went out every night, and basically, his objective was to entertain the 500 people that were sitting in his studio audience. And my objective is to go out and entertain the 6,000 people sitting in Radio City Music Hall. I feel that if we do well with them we'll do well on the broadcast.

Can we expect song-and-dance elements?

It's impossible to say what will happen. We are in the midst of discussing all that and trying to make some decisions about how we want to, a) have some fun; and b) embrace the season, and hopefully do some things that will be surprising and unexpected. But mostly, really, really have a good time.

How many of the nominated shows have you managed to catch, and do you have any favorites among them?

I've spent the last week at the theater every single night, and I will spend the next week-and-a-half at the theater every single night, and I'll see everything that's still open. It's been great, I've really enjoyed it.

There are a lot of hits in the mix this year, like Hello Dolly! and Dear Evan Hansen, but no all-consuming behemoth like Hamilton last year. Which shows do you expect to generate strong material for you and your writing team?

I think that there's lots of good potential fodder for both embracing but maybe also spoofing some of the shows and the stars and material. I also think it's kind of fantastic that this season there's not one dominant show. But you've got things like Come From Away, which is a beautifully conceived production, and very emotional. And then you've got some incredibly complex plays and performances. I had the pleasure of seeing Kevin Kline do a masterful, a flawless performance in Present Laughter the other night. Extraordinary. Every time I've gone out I've had such a great time, it's so nice to catch up. And I'm very pleased that I will in fact be doing an eight-show week as an audience member.

That leads naturally into my next question. Amazingly, for those of us who've followed your stage work, it's been ten years since you were last on Broadway. In the meantime, of course you've been running the Old Vic, along with acting. Any plans to come back soon?

Well, I was at BAM five years ago with Richard III, which we toured all over the world. And I also would have to say that although, yes, it's true I haven't been on Broadway since 2007, I spent 12 years in London running a theater company where I did a play or two plays every year. I don't want the impression to be that I haven't been doing theater.

Nobody is ever going to say you've been slacking! But if you were to come back to Broadway what kind of a vehicle would you ideally be looking for: a new play, a revival of a classic? Would you ever consider doing a musical?

Well, I am going to get up and do two nights at Arthur Ashe in this remarkable one-man show about Clarence Darrow, which I did in my last appearance at the Old Vic. It's a beautiful play. So we're doing it at Ashe because I didn't have a chance to do a long run and I felt it was a real opportunity since it's a place where drama happens all the time. We're not going to be selling out the whole stadium; that was never the intention. But we can play in front of 5,000 or 7,000 people, and we'll use the big TV screens and turn center court into a stage. I'm very excited about that opportunity because it's great to take a place that was never known as a theater space and repurpose it in that way.

As far as what's next on Broadway, I really don't know. I'm always reading material. But I don't think I could do a musical because it's such a long commitment. You can't come in and do a musical for just a few weeks; I don't think that's possible with my House of Cards schedule and other things I'm doing. But I certainly will without question try to find something that I can do in a limited run. It would be great to return. But I'm happy that in a weird way I'm celebrating Broadway and the Tonys on the 11th and then on the 15th and 16th I'm going to Queens to do a play out there. So I'm expanding my theatrical roots.

You mentioned House of Cards, the fifth season of which has just premiered. Can we expect President Frank Underwood to make an appearance at the Tonys or is he like Donald Trump and really not much of a theater guy?

No, I think the Underwoods totally appreciate culture, and enjoy music and theater. I literally don't know yet whether that is going to be a possibility. It's entirely possible, but world events obviously will decide whether the current alternative-reality sitting president will attend the Tonys.

You won a Tony in 1991 for Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, and you've done Ibsen, David Rabe and of course a lot of Eugene O'Neill. What's been your most treasured Broadway experience?

I probably would have to say doing The Iceman Cometh for a number of reasons. It was a really extraordinary ensemble of 26 actors, including our understudies, a director like Howard Davies, who we lost last year, quite sadly, because Howard and I were planning our next production when he passed. I had such an incredible time with him doing both Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten. But I just think back on that production that it was one of those impossible things, where it's a four-and-a-half hour play with a large cast, and the idea that we could have been successful was very much doubted. And yet it was an incredible experience and a big success, and we also managed to create a ticket policy for students, which is very important to me. We had 100 of our seats every night for young people under 25, and that increased to 200 every night when we extended the run.

That I think is sort of the most important argument that I would make about the living theater, is that we have to begin to find more concrete, more effective and more standard ways in which to invite young people to the theater — to get them to come, to make it affordable, to make it entertaining, to make it inviting. One of the things I'm happiest about with Clarence Darrow is that 400 of our seats now will be for young people; teenagers who are coming with an adult, and then the 18-to-25-year-olds are for free. That's just my way of saying I think theater should be welcoming. I wish there was more of it in the Broadway mindset. I don't believe it should be the responsibility of each individual producer; I think it should be the responsibility of the theater owners.

Jumping back to the Tony Awards before we wrap up, did you watch the Tonys when you were growing up or starting out as an actor, and if you did, what does it mean to you to be hosting the ceremony now?

Absolutely, it's pretty incredible. I remember watching so many of my favorite actors both perform and present and then obviously win over the years from when I was very young. Katharine Hepburn did a number from Coco one year; [Lauren] Bacall and [Jason] Robards and [Jack] Lemmon — all the people that have had such an influence on my life and my work and what the theater means to me. I would never have had the career I've had if it wasn't for the work and the training and the experience that I've had in the theater. So for me it's just an amazing thrill and a big honor.

One of the toughest aspects of hosting the Tonys is that for a lot of viewers, especially outside the New York area, the shows being celebrated are completely unfamiliar. Have you thought about ways to keep the telecast audience-friendly across the widest possible viewer spectrum?

No, I'm not concerning myself with that. I literally have no concern whether it's inside-baseball or not. That's what this show is, and I think when it's been at its best, it's because the performers and the presenters and the show itself embrace the season at hand. And when it's been at its worst is when they try to appeal to a much wider audience. I'm not concerned with that. It's inside-baseball but all you can hope is that people will have such a good time they'll actually want to follow the teams.

Is it too undiplomatic to ask of the nominated shows if you have any particular favorites; any productions or performers you're especially rooting for?

Yeah, no I can't. I think it's incredibly important that as I've been doing every night, I go backstage, I see all the casts, I greet everybody and congratulate them on the incredible work that they do. But I'm in a position where I'm the host and it's not appropriate for me to take sides.

The 71st Annual Tony Awards will air live from Radio City Music Hall June 11 on CBS at 8 p.m., tape-delayed on the West Coast.

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