American actor and MO Fan Kevin Spacey has a special place in the hearts of London theatre-goers. He revived The Old Vic and is a passionate supporter of young talent. Here, the Oscar-winning star reveals to Alex Gorton why he prefers the stage to the film set
Interview by Alex Gorton
Photography by Mary McCartney and Alastair Muir
Oscar-winning actor turned artistic director of London’s revered Old Vic theatre Kevin Spacey is one of the most celebrated actors working today. He began his career on stage in New York and seamlessly transitioned into movies, balancing screen-stealing performances in such films as The Usual Suspects, LA Confidential and American Beauty with stage work across the world. Following a highly acclaimed role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at the Almeida Theatre, London, he became artistic director of The Old Vic, where last year he won plaudits for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Staged in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the play reunited Spacey with Sam Mendes, who directed him in American Beauty, a venture which won them both Oscars. With only three years left before Spacey leaves The Old Vic, he is busy working on bringing yet more vibrant pieces of theatre to the stage, as well as establishing a cultural foundation and concentrating on his commitments to film.
What first drew you to acting?
I was fascinated by the exposure I got to theatre as a young kid, as my family were very much into theatre-going and watching movies. Being a somewhat shy kid, my way of finding a way through that shyness was to see if acting in school plays was a good idea. It turned out to be all right.
You started your career in the theatre in New York. Is the stage where your heart lies?
Theatre has always been my primary allegiance. Although I love movies, in terms of a lifestyle and a process, they are not an organic experience, and the theatre is. Working on movies is very rarely about feeling that you are part of a company. It’s a slightly more isolating experience, because in most movies you don’t even work with the other actors. You might have no scenes with them whatsoever, or if you have a few scenes, then you shoot all of those in one week, generally without much rehearsal. Therefore the notion of being in a company and creating a family, which you’re able to achieve in a theatre, just doesn’t really exist in cinema.
How did your involvement with The Old Vic come about?
I came to London in 1998 to do a production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at the Almeida Theatre, which was a great success. Everyone involved wanted to carry it on, but there was another play due to be staged, so if we were going to continue we had to move somewhere and, ultimately, we moved to The Old Vic. We played there for 16 weeks in the spring and summer of 1998, and I promptly fell in love with the place. I’d been there as an audience member many, many times, but I’d never performed on that stage. It’s also an extraordinary building with a remarkable history. Over the next year and a half, I joined a committee to help find a new artistic director for The Old Vic, but one day it dawned on me that it was the job I wanted. So here I am, more than a decade later.
Has the involvement with one theatre changed your perspective on work?
I think it has completely changed my perspective. There is something to be said about a place becoming your home. I’ve done nine plays on The Old Vic stage since I began. You get to know a space and you become familiar with it in so many different circumstances and in so many different kinds of plays with the families of each company that you’re working with. I think that my experience will inform the rest of my life.
Sam Mendes said that you were born to play Richard III. Is that something you feel?
I don’t know what that means, other than he thinks that it’s a part I should play. I don’t sit around saying, ‘I have to play this, I have to play that.’ I’ve never been like that. I tend to be attracted to things that challenge me or to things that directors want to see me do or try. I would never, for example, have thought to play Richard II [in 2005], but Trevor Nunn wanted me to do it. He had never directed it and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a good enough reason, it means that we both have the first experience of doing Richard II together.’ I don’t wander around thinking, ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that,’ it just sort of falls rather naturally.
Richard III was part of The Bridge Project, a three-year transatlantic partnership between The Old Vic, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Neal Street Productions. How did the collaboration come about?
It all started with the first call I made to Sam Mendes when I started at The Old Vic. He was just ending his 10-year artistic directorship of the Donmar and I thought if anybody can, first of all, talk me out of it, it will be Sam and, second, give me advice, it will be Sam. I also wanted to see if he would come to The Old Vic and do something. So we began a lengthy conversation over a number of years and the more we talked, the less satisfied we both were with the idea that he would come and direct me in a play and that would be it.
Sam realised we were missing something incredibly obvious. He said, ‘I’m a British director living in New York, directing plays and doing movies; you’re an American actor, now artistic director, living in London. There is an exchange and a strength that we should look into.’ What I didn’t know was that at the same time that I was wooing Sam, so was executive producer Joe Melillo at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Sam realised that the Harvey Theater in Brooklyn and The Old Vic are similar in terms of size and we thought, what if we collaborated? What if we did something more than just Sam and I being British and American – what if we create a company that is British and American?
Do you have plans to do something similar in the future?
It’s been a fantastic experiment and has worked incredibly well. With respect to whether it continues, one has to realise that Sam has done nothing for the past four years but direct five productions for The Bridge Project, so it’s been a tremendous commitment on his part. And he’s now making the James Bond movie and I wish him all the best in the world. If we decide at some point that we want to revive the idea, we will.
You have talked about the need for public subsidy of the arts. Can you explain this a little more?
From the beginning of time, the greatest writers, architects, theatre impresarios, opera writers, etc, were commissioned by tsars or princes or leaders. Governments have always taken a stance – at least the most advanced governments have – that the arts are sacred to a nation’s spirit. They should be supportive, so the public, and not just those who can afford it, can enjoy the creativity of the arts and culture in their nation.
Why is culture important?
We all have the opportunity to read an extraordinary book, or listen to a remarkable piece of music, or discover an enriching piece of poetry, or look at a painting that moves us and allows us to be inventive, creative and imaginative. All those things add to us learning about ourselves, how we treat each other, and how we negotiate life.
The theatre has always been my primary allegiance
You set up the Kevin Spacey Foundation – what inspired you?
I was thinking about how I’m going to leave The Old Vic in 2015 and about all the work and the programmes that we’ve started. Our Old Vic New Voices programme supports emerging talent and we now have more than 3,000 members of that group – young actors, directors, writers and producers. We’ve supported, for example, a writer with their first play on at the Royal Court, an actor who just got a lead in a big mini-series for the BBC, and someone who has done a play with Helen Mirren. We’re not just developing work and talent for our theatre, but also for the industry.
It dawned on me that when I leave The Old Vic, I am no longer going to have the venue, but I don’t want to stop doing that work. So creating this foundation allows me to do that. The first thing we did was to sponsor the entire educational package that went alongside our world tour of Richard III; we called it Richard’s Rampage.
Where did your desire to do all this stem from?
The desire has all stemmed from an extraordinary relationship that I had when I was young with the actor Jack Lemmon, who was the greatest mentor I could have hoped for. Jack had this wonderful saying that we’ve sort of adopted as our own, which was that if you’ve done well in the business you wanted to do well in, then it’s your obligation to spend a good portion of your time sending the elevator back down. So that’s why the symbol of the foundation is the button you push in the elevator. It’s kind of what we’re doing.
You have lived in London for some years. What do you love about the city?
First of all, it’s very easy to love where you live if you love what you’re doing. And I absolutely love what I’m doing. But I think that London has become the cultural capital of Europe and there’s no doubt that it’s a vibrant and diverse place. I also love that it’s a walking city. Whether it’s Paris, Chicago, New York or London, there’s a value in being able to have a relationship with where you start out and where you end up. Architecturally, it’s beautiful and obviously there’s so much history. It’s an extraordinary feeling to be living in this city and to be part of a place like The Old Vic.
You also travel a lot for work. Is it just a necessary part of what you do?
I don’t necessarily enjoy the travel when it’s a press junket tour and you’re going from city to city to do talk shows and all that. It does get a bit exhausting. But travelling to have experiences, travelling to make a movie somewhere, or travelling as we did with Richard III to 10 or 11 cities around the world, that kind of experience is remarkable. There’s a huge bonding aspect of what it does for a company when you all go to a place and have this experience together. So the chance to meet a new group of people or to create a new family is an incredible part of this business.
Why did you become a Fan of Mandarin Oriental?
I became a Fan after a wonderful stay at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, which is one of my favourite hotels in the world. I was also delighted by the support Mandarin Oriental gave to the Kevin Spacey Foundation, which supports young actors, writers, directors and producers, as I believe in the importance of ‘sending the elevator back down’.