The Oscar winner takes his theatrical talents to another (comedic) level in his latest dominant performance—as superlobbyist Jack Abramoff.
It’s difficult to think of an actor who conjures up notions of theatricality more effectively than Kevin Spacey. That is, it’s difficult to think of one who conjures those notions up without having said notions blow up in his face. “Over-acting” or “chewing the scenery” is a pitfall that all actors must work to avoid, but in roles that contain an implicitly histrionic nature, it’s an especially inviting peril. Spacey, however, seems to navigate such roles with consistent aplomb and grace. It doesn’t come as much of a shock—Spacey got his start in theater, and has been on semi-hiatus from Hollywood since 2003 due to his role as creative director at London’sOld Vic Theatre. In Casino Jack, the first fully Spacey-driven film in some time, Spacey taps in to his manic theatrical energy without ever striking a false note.
Indeed, Spacey’s performance is clearly the film’s standout element. Casino Jack—sadly the last film from the recently deceased George Hickenlooper (Factory Girl)—is 2010’s second film to follow the uber-dramatic career path of D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who rode all the way to the top of the lucrative industry’s peak before crashing way, way down. The movie-quoting, weightlifting Abramoff, who dreams of starting his own Orthodox Jewish private school, is a character both utterly deranged and incredibly sharp; Spacey, to his credit, manages to play the political villain with enough nuance to evoke a portrait of a man who isn’t entirely malicious. I had the chance to sit down with Spacey recently, at a roundtable conversation at the Park Regency Hotel.
Q: This seems like it was a really fun role. Did you feel like you were doing a service to the American public by playing it?
Kevin Spacey: Oh God, I’m not that pretentious. [laughs] I was very fortunate that George Hickenlooper, our sadly departed director, and I had a real interest in the political landscape in this country. He came from a long line of politicians—his cousin won the governorship [of Colorado] on election night last month. So we were both incredibly frustrated by what’s happened in our political system, which is that the power, money and influence is so persuasive and invasive.
So in a way, while Abramoff—while he’s an incredibly colorful character and is very fun to try to understand, because there are so many contradictions there—from his perspective, he was living in a culture where this kind of stuff was going on all the time. And yeah, he did it bigger and louder and better and made more money than anyone else, but it was an environment. As I started to do the research and look for the clues—what’s real, what’s false—and plus, having the opportunity to meet the man himself—you wonder if maybe, in his own mind, what he was doing, the ends justified his means. And then you think about the attitude of, “Well, throwing him under the bus, sending this bad man to jail means we’ve cleaned up the lobbying industry.” Then we go through an election where more money is spent than at any other time in our history.
Director George Hickenlooper Q: How did you find yourself attracted to the comedy in the film, in the script? It’s a very comic character.
Kevin Spacey: Taking a lesson from a film I did for HBO a few years ago, called Recount—I’m sure when people heard we were going to do a movie about an election, or when people hear you’re making a movie about a Washington lobbyist, you can hear the yawning start across the country. When you put things in the context of how they actually happen, what you discover is that this shit is inherently funny. Because people are making such outrageous choices, or being so ridiculous, or making choices that you literally think, “I can’t believe that actually happened.” There are things that—you can’t write this shit. It’s funny.
In the case of Recount, when Sydney Pollack got sick and couldn’t direct, and he suggested Jay Roach, I thought, what a really great idea, because Jay is not necessarily the director you would’ve thought of for that film, but what he brought—because he’s so skilled in comedy—is that he wasn’t afraid to underscore those aspects of human behavior. The movie became far more entertaining and funnier than I think anyone could’ve imagined it would’ve been. George kept saying, “I don’t want to make a boring movie about Washington, I want to make Goodfellas in D.C.!”
Kevin Spacey and Kelly Preston Q: Did you meet with Abramoff before you started shooting? What’d you get out of that meeting?
Kevin Spacey: He was a source—he wasn’t THE source, but he was A source. George had met him four times, on his own, and at the first meeting Jack told George not to make the movie, basically. But once he realized George was going to make the movie, Jack realized it’d be smarter to participate and talk than not.
I made a decision that I wasn’t going to do any research until I met him. It was very helpful, very illuminating. He was being completely honest with me. He may have had his own agenda, but he knew I was going to be able to vet a lot of what he said. Then I went to D.C. and spent a bunch of time meeting his team, people who knew him, people who hated him. Then I looked at everything that had been written.
So you then try to balance—wow, he’s the devil incarnate, the greediest motherfucker—and then other people who talk about him so glowingly, how charming he was—and then you’ve got him. So you try to go, “Okay, wow, not all of this fits.” And then you start to appreciate that in a lot of these cases, it’s never as black and white as it’s played.
Q: What was Jack’s reaction that you were playing him in the film?
Kevin Spacey: He was deeply disappointed that it wasn’t George Clooney. Or, I think he told me his second choice was Brad Pitt. But he had to live with what he got.
Q: Has he seen it?
Kevin Spacey: I don’t know if he’s seen it. His sons have seen it, they were at the AFI screening in LA last month. I think they felt like it was fair, that we turned him into a human being. We humanized someone who had been pretty dehumanized. And that’s probably the reason he didn’t want the movie to be made, because he thought, “Fuck, now they’re going to throw me under the train as opposed to just the bus.”
But I’m not that kind of actor. I like films where an audience is—even if people have made up their own minds about him—I like that in the course of the movie, people are going, I like him, I don’t like him. I like this, I don’t like that. Some scenes—I mean, the hypocrisy of John McCain pointing his finger at him at the roundtable scene, considering how much money he’d taken—what’s funny about those Senate hearings is, they’re just a dog-and-pony show, the Senators don’t have any power. They can’t prosecute someone. But there were many people behind that desk who had taken checks from Abramoff.
Kevin Spacey and Jon Lovitz Q: It’s such a theatrical performance, obviously—the guy is obsessed with movies—how did you prepare for the performance in terms of balancing the tone?
Kevin Spacey: Well, the thing about tone is, it’s not in your hands, it’s in the hands of the director and the editor. I really trusted George, I gave him a lot of options, and ultimately the director shapes the performance by what takes he chooses. You don’t get to play the whole part; you’re doing little strips.
It’s not like when you do a play, how you control everything. And frankly, sometimes you see a cut of a movie and you go, “Why did they choose all the wrong takes?”