Kevin Spacey needs a "Shrink"

The two-time Oscar winner talks about his move away from Hollywood and his new role as a pothead Dr. Phil type

Published July 23, 2009 10:23AM (EDT)

Kevin Spacey in "Shrink."
Kevin Spacey in "Shrink."

Roadside Attractions/Jihan Abdalla

Kevin Spacey in "Shrink."

One way of looking at Kevin Spacey's film-acting career is that most of it happened in another century and he has moved on. A two-time Oscar winner in the '90s -- for best supporting actor in "The Usual Suspects" and best actor in "American Beauty" -- Spacey has literally and figuratively left Hollywood behind, devoting most of his energies to directing the Old Vic Theatre in London, where he has lived since 2003.

As Spacey has told various interviewers, he didn't see how his movie career could possibly top what he had already accomplished, and he was tired of living in hotel rooms and making three or four films a year. From his days at Chatsworth High School in Los Angeles (where he played Captain von Trapp opposite Mare Winningham's Maria in "The Sound of Music"), theater was his first love. In the same year when he won his Academy Award for "American Beauty," he also won a Laurence Olivier Award for his role in the London-Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's play "The Iceman Cometh." (Truthfully, it might be the most memorable stage performance I've ever seen.) In retrospect, it looks as if two roads lay before him at that moment and he chose the one less traveled. So it is that the man once viewed as the greatest American film actor of his generation was recently ranked at No. 10 on the Daily Telegraph's list of "the 100 most powerful people in British culture."

It's also possible that Spacey returned to the boards because he could see his Hollywood future stretching out before him: a middle-aged character actor, Oscars and all, who was too ambiguous for leading-man roles and was always likeliest to be asked to play a con man, a salesman, a stalker or some other double-edged dude with a secret. In some ways that was a result of Spacey's powerful acting technique -- he leads you astray with suggestion and misdirection, hinting at an inner life that is never fully revealed -- and he also contributed to it with his famous refusal to discuss his personal life. I knew better than to ask Spacey personal questions when I met him for coffee in a resort-hotel atrium during the Sundance Film Festival last January (and I wouldn't have been that interested in the answers anyway).

Spacey has kept one oar, or maybe half an oar, in film acting, and his latest role is a dilly, playing the depressed pothead celebrity psychiatrist Henry Carter in "Shrink," the debut feature from young director Jonas Pate. A likable Los Angeles-made indie with overtones of "Six Feet Under," "Half Nelson" and "Crash," "Shrink" offers a roster of wonderfully eccentric characterizations, shoehorned into a dramatic structure that's just a little too formulaic. Playing a character who could easily become caricature -- the high-level shrink whose life comes apart in the wake of personal calamity -- Spacey puts on a veritable clinic on how to deliver profound emotion without histrionics. The tremendous scene he has with an uncredited Robin Williams (as a sex-addict patient) should be required viewing for every acting student in the world. (You can check out the "Shrink" trailer at the bottom of this page.)

Carter's only tethers to reality, in his deepening sinsemilla haze, are a mistrustful African-American girl named Jemma (terrific newcomer Keke Palmer), whom he's taken as a do-gooder pro bono case, and a slackerish former patient named Jeremy (Mark Webber, an actor I always enjoy). Screenwriter Thomas Moffett crafts crisp, funny dialogue, but to my taste he's way too eager to bounce these characters off each other in a series of increasingly melodramatic "Crash"-style coincidences, rather than allowing their stories to play out in more laid-back fashion. Still, "Shrink" is a debut well worth catching, loaded with an oddball supporting cast -- Saffron Burrows, Jack Huston, Robert Loggia, Griffin Dunne and, so help me, Gore Vidal -- and depicting a cross section of L.A. society not often seen on screen.

In addition to voicing the robot who is Sam Rockwell's only companion (sort of) in Duncan Jones' sci-fi cult success "Moon," Spacey has several new films in the pipeline. He will costar with George Clooney and Ewan McGregor in "The Men Who Stare at Goats," supposedly an Iraq-war film with a paranormal twist -- don't ask me! -- and will play ill-fated Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a dark-edged Spacey character if ever there was one, in George Hickenlooper's upcoming "Casino Jack."

In person beside the incongruous indoor pool in Park City, Spacey was not dark or mysterious in the least, but crisp, polite, soft-spoken and utterly professional.

Kevin, you play a psychiatrist in the film, and I guess he's a distinctive, 21st-century breed of psychiatrist. Talk about this guy a bit.

I suppose you can put him in the same category as the Dr. Phils and these kinds of characters of the world. Thank God, he doesn't have a television show. He's become quite well known, quite quoted, popular, sells lots and lots of books. We meet him at a point of his own personal crisis and tragedy, and the film is about can he a) help himself and b) help any of his patients. But he's certainly far more screwed up than most of his patients, as it turns out.

The movie is about how the lives of eight or so people intersect because of what he does. In particular, one young girl who is given to him as a pro-bono client by his father, who is also a therapist, played by Robert Loggia. He resists, and this young girl doesn't want to go to therapy. Yet when they're brought together somehow they manage to break through, both to each other and to themselves. So the film is about how ultimately this girl Jemma, played by Keke Palmer, ends up being the best thing for him to get to the next step of his life.

She's really wonderful in the film, I thought. Was it fun to work with a young actor who has that much talent?

She was great. She's just a firecracker and she's fun to be with, we laughed a lot. We had a sort of ongoing contest on who could crack each other up more at the end of a scene. We'd have these really serious scenes and then one of us would try to do something to crack the other up, to sort of keep the tension light. I think she's remarkably talented. Her instincts are really admirable and she trusts what she can do. I think Jonas [Pate] did a really great job in shaping her.

It's always such a challenge in an ensemble film to give equal weight to developing each characterization. Dallas Roberts, Mark Webber, Jack Huston and Robin Williams also play important roles in the film. They're all archetypal figures that we have come to know and either love or loathe in the world of Hollywood.

I assume that one of the things that attracted you to this project was that idea, getting to do this ensemble work with so many different actors and characters.

Yes. That, and it also is not about the side of Los Angeles that we see so often, which is so completely shallow and uninteresting, at least to me. The glamour and all that stuff that is, in a way, an appendage to the work that people in that town try to dedicate themselves to. People get caught up in that world and I think that this is a deeper look at the turmoil and the problems that every human being goes through no matter what their position or fame or wealth, and tries to get underneath that into some really genuine emotional landscape.

I suppose that's similar to the journey that your character takes. He's gotten caught up in being not just a psychiatrist for celebrities in some cases, but also in his own right a celebrity psychiatrist. In addition to suffering a personal tragedy, has he also lost sight of  ...

I think he gets to a point where he thinks he can't do any good for anybody, including himself. And then he begins what one only could call a rather unhealthy regime of self-medication.

There's an awful lot of pot smoke in this film.

Indeed there is.

With all this marijuana intake and all the sleeping in places that aren't his actual bed, I was thinking that this guy probably isn't smelling that great.

Oh, no, he showers. He's not a bum. He definitely cleans himself up, but he does get messy. No doubt he gets messy.

One of the things they talk about in acting class is the "obstacle" that a character faces. A psychiatrist who is himself going through a profound depression, that's a pretty big obstacle to deal with. On one hand, that's a great challenge, and on the other, how do you make that into something fresh instead of a cliché?

Look, clichés are clichés because they're true. It's just how you approach them and how you ultimately explore them. Clichés that are badly done become, "Oh, that's a cliché," because it's obvious. But it isn't obvious if it's trying to explore different territory or come at something from a slight different angle. Last night I saw the movie for the first time with an audience. I was very excited by the reaction that the audience had to the humor of the film, to its tone.

When they're laughing at things that aren't jokes, but are character revelations, then I'm very excited. That to me means they really are following the story, they really are following these characters. They're laughing out of recognition and not just out of, "Oh that was a funny joke." You just never know. Until you get something in front of an audience, that's the moment that something really does get birthed.

As you said, Robin Williams is a small part in this movie. He plays one of your clients, a Hollywood director who's having some issues with sex addiction or maybe with alcoholism. To me, watching you and Robin work together was one of the real joys of this movie. You could put that scene on the wall in an acting class, as an example of how to do this job.

What was important to me about that scene -- and Robin was really willing to go there -- was that his character is ironic, his character says funny things, makes jokes. So there's a certain side of his character that's the Robin Williams you expect and the Robin Williams that you enjoy. I also felt it was hugely important that Carter slap him down and say, "Cut it out." Throughout that scene you see Carter, through his reactions to this fun and games, to the inability of Robin's character to talk honestly about what he's going through. I think that was an interesting way to go, that I actually do stop him from doing that sort of stuff. In a way, Robin gets to go somewhere new. That was a great scene, which sort of evolved in the day that we shot it.

After two Academy Awards and so many leading and supporting performances in so many films, you must get shown a ton of scripts. How would you describe your approach to finding the right role in the right film?

I first would have to disagree with you. I don't get shown a ton of stuff and that's a myth, that anyone who wins an award can get any movie going. That just isn't true. Partly what you're offered is what you're available to do and partly what you're offered is what they don't offer to somebody else first. The myth that one can do whatever they want or that you can pick and choose your projects is actually exaggerated. You pick and choose your projects that you're offered and that you're available to do.

Over the last six years my full-time job has been running the Old Vic Theatre in London. I have not been available to do anything I might have wanted to do because my first responsibility is there. But with respect to what I do, for me, does it offer me an opportunity to work with people I admire? To go somewhere maybe I haven't gone, to experience something that will be new for me? And in some cases it's just, hey, this is a really, really good money gig and I'm gonna go do this for a couple of weeks, but, you know, it's not where my passion is. I can exist in both worlds and still look at myself in the morning.

Does it help you psychically, to have that theater job in London? Is that something that roots you in your life, especially if you take film roles for the money?

I can only tell you that it's the best decision I've made in my life, and it changed my life in all the ways I wanted it to change my life. After 12 years primarily focusing on the film world -- and it going better than I ever could have imagined -- I didn't want to spend 10 years doing the same thing, so I just decided to, in a way, flip it. I was sneaking plays in before. Now I'm sneaking in movies.

"Shrink" opens July 24 in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release beginning July 31.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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