Kevin Spacey’s father wrote “how to” manuals. It wasn’t his dream job, but it put food on the table. He was a straight-laced, by the book kind of guy, and like countless straight-laced, by the book fathers before him, he discouraged his young son from entering show business, insisting he get a degree instead. Any “how to” manual on parenting would deem this sound, conservative advice, the type that saves a kid from a lifetime of barista aprons and disappointment.
And then, shortly after he died, Spacey and the family discovered his father’s secret creative side, in the form of an epic 16-volume novel the late technical writer had clandestinely written and stashed away.
“My dad never thought it was good enough,” Spacey tells me, “so he didn’t really share it with us.”
It’s a story that, once you’ve met the younger Spacey, makes a lot of sense. Like father, like son. Almost.
Obviously, Kevin Spacey didn’t listen to his dad’s advice. He went on to study acting, and to pursue a career in show business. Needless to say, with two Oscars and a Golden Globe under his belt, the man has done alright for himself. He’s been as successful as any technical writer’s son could have ever hoped for. Not that he sees it that way. “There are very few times I’ve thought my work was good enough,” he says, echoing his father’s refrain. “Even if it’s been deemed successful.”
Unlike his father, Spacey doesn’t follow the instructions. Plot twists have long been his signature, his professional bread and butter. The Keyser Soze reveal in The Usual Suspects, the surprise head in a box in Se7en, that thing — spoiler alert — that happens to Zoe Barnes in season two of House of Cards. Or, hell, that thing that happens with Meechum. But he catches us unawares in real life, too.
At 55, Spacey has veered pretty far off the predictable Academy Award winner’s trajectory. After nabbing the Best Actor statue for American Beauty in 1999 — four years after winning Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects — he could have set up shop as a leading man and enjoyed a fruitful Jack Nicholson-esque middle age. Instead, he pulled way back, largely ducking out of the movie game. For the past 10 years, he’s spent most of his time in London, resurrecting the Old Vic, a historic theatre that had fallen into disrepair, as its artistic director. The decade-long commitment, which finally wraps up this year, has left him little time for onscreen projects, save for that game-changing Netflix show, of course.
If Hollywood made “how to” manuals for acting careers, they’d look nothing like this.
“It was either that I was going to spend the next 10 years doing exactly the same thing, trying to keep making movie after movie after movie,” he says. “Quite frankly, in a lot of cases, I’ve witnessed actors get to a certain point, reach that groove and start showing up and playing the same role again and again and again. I really wanted a different kind of challenge. I also wanted to become a better actor.”
“There were a number of people in the film world who thought I was fucking crazy.”
Which makes sense. Not only because Hollywood is so fickle that when you’re on top, it seems nuts to risk being forgotten. But, also, crazy because Spacey saying he wants to become a better actor is like Deep Blue saying it wants to become a better chess player.
To be fair, Spacey’s perfectionist streak has paid dividends. Last winter, he won the Golden Globe — his first after eight nominations — for best actor in a TV series, thanks to his gripping portrayal of crooked congressman-turned-president Frank Underwood on House of Cards. Still, he ended his acceptance speech with familiar words: “I just want to be better, but this is very encouraging.”
In that speech, Spacey was channeling the late director Stanley Kramer, an old friend who, it turns out, inspired his treacherous climb towards perfection. Spacey recalls visiting Kramer on his deathbed back in 2000. After praising the venerated filmmaker’s work, Kramer took his hand and said, “That means so much to me. I just wish my films could have been better.” That hit Spacey, who’d just snagged his Oscar for American Beauty, pretty hard.
“I remember walking out of the room and leaning against the wall of the hospital. I thought, ‘That’s extraordinary, that you can be 82 years old, you can have won 10 Oscars, you can have been at the top of your profession, you can have directed actors to some of the greatest performances on film — and it still wasn’t good enough,’” he says. “It’s important that we don’t settle. We’re in a constant journey of discovery and exploration and trying things. So I always want to be better.”
By now, you might be questioning whether Spacey’s perfectionism is genuine. Is this all just an elaborate humblebrag? A way of boosting his personal brand while washing it down with a chaser of faux self-criticism? Or, is he manufacturing humility to relieve pressure?
After spending a decade refining his skills in theatrical turns as Shakespearean anti-heroes (Richard III) and pioneering lawyers (Clarence Darrow), he’s noticeably improved — or at least more seasoned, more mature. You can see it in his handful of recent onscreen performances. Like his eerily humanistic (and, okay, offscreen) voice acting as a spacecraft robot in 2009’s Moon. Or his emotionally complex turn as a trading manager in 2011’s Margin Call. And, of course, his instantly iconic portrayal of a Machiavellian politician, wherein he shifts from seductively charming to vengefully murderous all with the glint of an eye. “I don’t think I would’ve been ready for Francis Underwood a decade ago,” he says.
With House of Cards, now in its third season, Spacey’s off-the-map journey continues. He’s the de facto leader of a pop-cultural revolution: the face of the first landmark, Emmy-nominated TV series to appear solely online. He also happened to give anti-tech network execs the definitive wakeup call at the Edinburgh International Television Festival a couple of years ago. His impassioned keynote speech — in which he predicted the death of appointment television at the hands of Netflix — went viral, making him the poster boy for digital content.
“Everyone for many, many years, has talked about how fucking crazy the pilot system is, but nobody was willing to do anything to change it,” he says. “The audience wants to be in control and we’re giving them that control.”
By releasing entire seasons at once, House of Cards gives Spacey control, too. He gets to play the narrative long game rather than chopping scripts and sequences into cliffhanger-baited bits, letting him develop Underwood at his own pace. It’s a luxury he’s learned to enjoy performing at the Old Vic, and one he feels actors just can’t experience in film.
“I’m frustrated by the fact that in the movie world, no matter how good you may be in a movie, you’ll never be any better,” he says. “But in a play, I can be better. I can be better next Tuesday. I can be better two weeks from now.”
When Spacey finally leaves the Old Vic this fall, his phone might literally explode from the seismic wave of texts he’ll get from movie execs. In middle age, he’s reached a second prime of his career, his name as hot as it was just before he left for London. Once again, he’s free to have any leading role he desires. The expectations are high; his nerves, presumably, shot.
He has, in fact, already signed on for two films. Both comedies. In one, he’ll play Richard Nixon, back when the former US president first met Elvis Presley. (If his Nixon impression is even half as good as the one he does of his buddy Bill Clinton, he’ll do just fine.) And, in the other, he’ll play a man trapped in a cat’s body. No, really.
“You know, I love doing things that are unexpected,” he says. “Mostly for me. I love doing things that suddenly make a left turn when everyone’s expecting you to keep going straight ahead.”
What everyone’s expecting Spacey to do, of course, is, take some damn Oscar-bait. The fact that he hasn’t, to some, might seem like he’s afraid. The likelier explanation, though, is that he’s hungry. He could take another brooding leading role, but at this point in his career, he’s craving greater tests of thespian strength. It’s evolution by way of dissatisfaction. It’s Frank Underwood-level striving, without the malice. Also, it’s the mark of a true artist.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “now people don’t think I’m fucking crazy.”
It’s impossible, as people who aren’t Kevin Spacey, to know if Kevin Spacey will ever be satisfied — in fact, it’s a safe bet that Spacey himself doesn’t know. But he will admit to feeling that emotion — or something like it — at least once in his life. It happened in 1991, when his parents visited him backstage after his Tony-winning performance in Broadway hit Lost in Yonkers. “I was leaning up against a wall and there was a whole group of people in the centre of the room chatting. My dad leaned over, looked at me and said, ‘So…this acting thing seems to be working out.’”
He laughs. “I said, ‘Yeah dad, it’s going okay.’”