Published in WSJ Magazine
"If there was one play that we really, really didn't want to f— up, this was it." Kevin Spacey curses a lot, which is especially startling since we are walking through the stately public gardens of Greystone Mansion, the English Gothic–style estate in Beverly Hills.
We're having about as British a day as you can have in Los Angeles, starting with breakfast at the London Hotel. Spacey likes to stay there because the hotel offers free calls to London, where he lives and works his day job as artistic director of the storied Old Vic Theatre.
Spacey, who is strolling along in gray Converse All Stars, is headed out tonight to Avilés, Spain, a tiny northern port town, the next stop on the global tour of the play in question, "Richard III."
"The expectations were so high," he explains. It was, after all, the first time he would be working with director Sam Mendes since both won Oscars for "American Beauty." The production is also part of the duo's ambitious Bridge Project, in which a play debuts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) or the Old Vic, takes an epic world tour to places like Hong Kong, Sydney and Greece. Richard the III lands in New York on January 10 at BAM, a co-producer of the project.
A central question for any actor who plays Richard is how to play the character's disability. Ian McKellen sported a withered hand, while Antony Sher transformed himself into a complete spider. Spacey opts for the traditional hump and a twisted left leg, with a brace outside his clothes to make it look spindly. He wants to get the audience's sympathy before turning on them. "I wanted to be uncomfortable," he says. "I wanted the audience to be like, 'Oh God, that must hurt.'"
Spacey had a revelation while visiting soldiers who had lost limbs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "The soldiers really helped me think about Richard in a different way," he says. "For every single one of them it's about how they overcome it, how they want to get back to their unit." He applied that same drive to Richard. "He has to have that attitude, which is that 'you can call me every f— name in the book, and it doesn't matter because I'm going to get there.'"
Spacey spoke to actors who had played the role in the past and complained about its physical toll. "'I threw my neck out, my shoulder, my leg, I f— up my back,'" he recalls them saying. "Everyone talked about how physically they f— themselves up completely, and I was like, well, s—, they were only doing a run for 12 or 15 weeks or whatever. I'm going to be doing 10 months."
So he quit smoking and drinking. He worked with a physiotherapist, who advised him to distribute his weight toward a cane and his other leg. Still, "at the end of the day Kevin is a boy from New Jersey," Mendes says. "He didn't grow up watching Shakespeare, and he finds himself in England, the heart of Shakespeare country, having only done one major Shakespeare role before. He's at the same theater—rehearsing in the same room, even—where [Laurence] Olivier did his most famous role, which is, guess what, Richard III.
"There were some days in previews when the words weren't there," Mendes continues. "He just made them up—like a line, not a lot. He thought, 'I don't know what I'm supposed to say, but I'm not going to stop.' The willpower behind that is enormous."
In the role, Spacey is always charging ahead, his head pointed forward, wielding it as a weapon. His aggressiveness makes for an unexpected "Richard III," one that's speedy, funny, sexy. When Lady Anne spits at him, his response, "Why dost thou spit at me?" is usually played as a "how dare you," but Spacey says it with a lilt that conveys he's strangely turned on. "It gets a huge laugh because it's a totally unexpected response," he says. To make the play entertaining for contemporary audiences, Spacey and Mendes streamlined the script and included flourishes, like battle drums and live video projected onto screens.
Among the many raves, Michael Billington, the Guardian's critic, wrote that, "When the history of Spacey's Old Vic regime is written, I suspect it will be his Richard...that will be most vividly remembered."
The Arab Spring provided a serendipitous topicality to Shakespeare's tale of a dictator's downfall. Even before it happened, Spacey looked at photos of Gadhafi to inspire one of his epaulet-heavy military costumes.
Mendes was shocked when he first heard his friend was taking over the Old Vic, in 2003. "To him I said, 'Terrific,' but privately I thought, 'You're never going to make it work,'" Mendes recalls. "The Old Vic has been a poisoned chalice for 40 years. He managed to overcome a very rocky first couple of years that I thought would do him in."
Spacey's most infamous early flop was "Resurrection Blues," the last play by Arthur Miller, directed by an ailing Robert Altman. Spacey has a standard response: "You can Google this s—," he says. "You look at theatrical beginnings in Great Britain, and nobody has been welcomed. Nobody." Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre, Peter Hall, even Olivier—all of the legendary artistic directors had detractors. A Hollywood carpetbagger didn't stand a chance.
Before Spacey, the Old Vic had been a booking house but didn't have a real company. It still operates in this middle ground between nonprofit and commercial producer. The theater takes no government subsidy, but it funds typical nonprofit projects like education and artist development programs.
At the Old Vic, Spacey showed the same aggressive mentality he brought to "Richard III." "He's not reticent in doing the things that English artistic directors, myself included, were unwilling to do," Mendes says. "He is completely unabashed about raising money. He has single-handedly—and I really do mean single-handedly—kept the theater open."
"He's like Bill Clinton," Mendes adds. "He makes people listen."
Spacey says he eventually figured out how to program the Old Vic, that a 1,000-seat house required epic emotions that a play like "Resurrection Blues" didn't have. He also opened up a new space for smaller productions, in the old Victorian tunnels underneath Waterloo Station. His biggest legacy, he feels, will be the Old Vic New Voices program, which nurtures new talent. A project called Platform, for instance, told the story of real-life Londoners and starred ex–crack addicts and a 74-year-old former hospital social worker.
We're walking through one of the outdoor arches under the Greystone mansion, which reminds Spacey of the Cotswolds, where he rented a house during the summer. He admits that living in London has left him out of touch with Hollywood. "I'm constantly saying, 'They want to offer the part to so-and-so? Who's that?' I literally don't know who anybody is."
Luckily, he has Dana Brunetti, his former assistant and now president of his production company, Trigger Street, to tell him. "There was a period of time where Dana hated England, hated the Old Vic," Spacey says. "I kind of tricked him." He lured Brunetti from New York to L.A. to take over the company, "then I left, and he had to learn how to swim in this town."
"We didn't get along for a while," recalls Brunetti, who considers Spacey his best friend. "He's on the other side of the world and completely unreachable. As much as I hated him for it at the time, it was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Brunetti didn't know how to be a producer but learned fast. He built Trigger Street into a success, eventually earning an Oscar nomination for "The Social Network." Now, among other projects, he is shepherding an upcoming film starring Tom Hanks about Capt. Richard Phillips, the hero who was kidnapped and held hostage by Somali pirates in 2009.
Spacey gives Brunetti free rein to pursue films that interest him and enters the picture only when necessary. When Hollywood was salivating over the rights to Phillips's story, Brunetti bought a ticket to see the captain in Vermont. He called Spacey the day before and said, "Can you do me a favor?" Spacey met Brunetti in New York, and they flew to Vermont to have dinner with the captain and his wife. Spacey pulled out his famous impersonations of Jack Lemmon and Johnny Carson and charmed his way to a green light.
"Kevin can plow through scripts, plow through plays, do conference calls, do everything he's doing at the Old Vic, do everything I need him to do," Brunetti says, "and then he'll do a three-hour play, go to a fund-raiser afterward, meet somebody for drinks, walk his dog and go to bed—and wake up, walk his dog, go jogging, read three scripts. It's like, 'How the hell do you do this?'"
So it's not surprising that, on top of everything else, Spacey is about to star in a television show. Not a miniseries—26 episodes. "House of Cards" is an American adaptation of the British series about a manipulative political official under Margaret Thatcher—and it's based on "Richard III." The show, with a pilot directed by David Fincher and written by Beau Willimon—whose play "Farragut North" became the film "The Ides of March"—will be the first major series to debut solely on Netflix, allowing for complete creative freedom, with minimal notes from television executives.
The innovative approach is fitting. If there's a unified field theory of Kevin Spacey, it's that he's always one jump ahead of everyone else. Whether it's changing a line reading from scary to sexy or leaving Hollywood stardom to take over a leaky old theater on London's South Bank, Spacey has always seemed to take a sly pleasure in keeping people guessing.
The highlight of the tour so far was performing in Greece at Epidaurus, an ancient outdoor amphitheater outside of Athens. Spacey first felt pangs of jealousy of the actors who performed in "The Winter's Tale" there as part of the Bridge Project in 2009. "There was a moment when I remember going, 'I have to play this stage or I will not have a complete life,'" he says.
In July, he performed "Richard" in front of 14,000 audience members who shelled out, during a Greek economic crisis, to sit and watch Shakespeare for three hours straight without an intermission. "There's no way to get 14,000 people down to the bathrooms in less than two hours, so they just gotta f— stay there and watch the whole thing," Spacey says. "The curtain call that followed," he says, "is as close to knowing what it's like to be Mick Jagger as I'll ever get."
"I've never seen anyone sweat so much," Mendes recalls. "It sounds absurdly theatrical, but it was genuinely moving. I think," Mendes adds with a laugh, "it even took him by surprise."