Kevin Spacey (AP/Jeremy Whelehan)

"It's nice to be in control": Kevin Spacey is not tired of playing antiheroes

The actor talks Shakespeare, Netflix and why his mom would be shocked that so many of his characters are villains


Daniel D'Addario
May 3, 2014 3:00AM (UTC)

"House of Cards" fans: Prepare to see a whole new side of Kevin Spacey. Though he's still speaking to the camera in his new project, his character, a mild-mannered actor named "Kevin Spacey," is far from evil.

Spacey both appears in and executive-produced "Now: In the Wings on a World Stage," a documentary set to be self-released on May 2. The film depicts his world tour with "Richard III," a production that took Spacey from London to Istanbul to Doha to Brooklyn. It's a continuation of Spacey's move away from traditional movie stardom since winning his second Oscar in 2000: He has served as the creative director of London's Old Vic theater and was the first major star to appear in a streaming-only TV series, with his Emmy-nominated "House of Cards."

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Sure, his "House of Cards" character, Frank Underwood, has a touch (or more) of the Shakespearean schemer about him. But doesn't Spacey miss the Bard's work when he's taking on any other -- dare we say lesser -- writer's work? And is he tired of playing antiheroes? Spoiler alert: He's not.

Do you think you’re easy to work with?

I hope so. You know, I’ve been doing theater all of my life, and in the last 10 years I’ve done almost a play every year. And we’ve had incredible experiences and great times, so yeah, I don’t think I’m difficult to work with.

What makes for a good colleague?

I think what makes for a good colleague is just respect. The ability to be able to have discussions and even have disagreements that are about the work. I mean, some of the most passionate conversations that I can have are with writers or directors or other actors about how we’re approaching something, or how we’re trying to do something, or how we’re trying to achieve it, always in the process of serving the writing. And I always think when you try to serve the writer, you’re a lot better off, than when you’re trying to serve yourself.

When you’re doing a project that isn’t Shakespeare, does it feel like a comedown?

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No, absolutely not. Like, for example, working on "House of Cards" with the brilliant playwright Beau Willimon, an extraordinary writer, and a great team of writers. I mean, some of the material is incredible. I don’t think you can spend your time in life making lots of comparisons. You know Eugene O’Neill is as valuable and important a playwright as Shakespeare is; he just hasn’t been around as long.

Do you think the constant comparison between "House of Cards" and Shakespeare is apt in light of how people consume it? Shakespeare was the popular art of its day.

Well, people may not know that "House of Cards" is actually based on Shakespeare, that Francis Underwood is based on Richard III. That’s why the direct address happens, that’s why the themes and the tones are quite Shakespearean in terms of the examination of the nature of power. And we’ve certainly been incredibly delighted that the series has become popular and the fans have really embraced it, not just in the United States, but all over the world. It’s been beyond our wildest dreams. So, Shakespeare was a very popular playwright at the time he was alive, and because that writing was way ahead of its time, and he understood the human condition probably more than any writer who has come along, his works have sustained, and can even sustain really bad productions. There's bad Shakespeare all over the place, but his plays are lasting. They survive.

Do you think the theater world is doing anything in particular to make itself accessible to young people?

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When I started at the Old Vic more than a decade ago, that’s exactly what I did. I created a scheme in which we have a thousand-seat theater, and every single night and every performance, we have 100 seats that we set aside for kids under 25. So we had about 80-something-thousand young people come see our productions. We’ve made it very accessible to our neighborhood, to the people who live within the community of the Old Vic. And in every city that we went to with "Richard III," we’ve always had student tickets as well.

And I think that it is to some degree a shame that Broadway has become something of an exclusive club, and that theater owners do not provide for student seats for the next generation. I think it’s a mistake because ultimately, how do you build a new audience? You either force yourself to always have a major star in a production, or you’re not going to have a new audience. So I think that it’s something that we need to pay attention to. But I do think theaters can do it, you can make theater exciting and accessible and inviting. But it might cost you something in order to do it. But I think in the end, it’s worth the cost.

On that note, when you’re in a theater production, do you ever see yourself as having been stunt-cast in some sense? It might be hard for people to forget your persona and previous roles.

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Look, I think it’s no different than it is for any actor worth their salt. You walk into the theater and you see someone you might know from the movies, and you immediately remember their movies, but if they’ve done their job and the play is good and they’re giving a good performance, then in about ten or fifteen minutes you forget all that and you enter the world of that play. And I’ve always found that to be true. In the first few minutes someone might be identifying you from other things but that goes away easily.

Now that you've had such success with Netflix, and are still doing a play a year, do you find yourself less interested in doing movies? 

Well, it’s an incredibly exciting time. I think there’s this amazing thing that’s happening. On the one hand, there's a kind of remarkable, very exciting creativity, particularly, I have to say, in television. If you look over the last 15 years, incredibly brave, courageous programming. You remember television that used to be, which was the idea that all the characters in a TV series had to be likable, and they had to be good at their jobs. And you didn’t want to offend anybody. Well those days are gone. And audiences have proved they want complex characters that are antiheroes, multiple story lines, and arcs of themes and plots. And so while that has been incredibly fertile ground for storytellers and actors and writers and directors to move into as the motion picture industry has decided to focus more on comic book characters and tent-pole films, that character-driven drama has moved to television without question.

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But also, at the same time as this creativity is happening, and people are discovering new ways in which to get their own work out there and self-produce things and self-distribute things, there’s also this incredible, amazing evolution in technology. So creativity and technology happen to be meeting at exactly the same moment, so it seems like a perfect moment for someone like me to go, hey, I want to self-release this film because I believe in it, and I think it really has a wider appeal than maybe sometimes the industry will allow for something like this, because it tends to undervalue films like this, and put them in a certain niche. And so, for me, it’s a whole new experience of putting something out there on my own.

Do you ever hanker to play the nice guy, the good guy? 

Well, I look at my career and I go, "'L.A. Confidential,' 'American Beauty,' 'K-Pax,' 'Beyond the Sea,' 'Darrow.'" I can count as many films on my hand in which I didn’t play villainous characters, but those are the characters that people seem to focus on or like me in. I can’t really do anything about that. In the theater I rarely play -- I mean, Richard III is probably the first villainous character I’ve ever played in the theater. In the theater, I play all kinds of different things. So I don’t pigeonhole myself, and I don’t think of myself that way. It just happens to be what the impression is. My mother would find it hilarious, because all we ever did was laugh. So the fact that I’ve become this Machiavellian character, she would have found hilarious.

Do you have any plans to self-release projects in the future?

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Definitely. And maybe not just films, maybe there’s other things as well. I'm definitely looking at this new paradigm, this new world. It’s just thrilling to be able to be in control, and not sort of, you know, hand something over and cross your fingers and hope whoever you’re giving it to is going to do it right. That’s very often the case when you’re making a movie and it’s sold at a festival, and you don’t know whether it’s going to get a good release and you sit around and go, gosh, if they had jumped on that at that moment, the movie would have done better. So it’s nice to be in control.


Daniel D'Addario

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