Keeping his cards close to his chest

Kevin Spacey has won two Academy Awards and has an acting CV spanning 25 years. For all that, House of Cards may be the role of his career, says Ed Power. He meets the actor in London.

Keeping his cards close to his chest

KEVIN SPACEY has travelled to the dark side with chilling regularity. In Seven, he was the calm, crazed killer who sent Brad Pitt Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box.

He won an Oscar for playing a criminal mastermind in disguise in The Usual Suspects, was a convincing Lex Luther in the otherwise disastrous Superman remake. He even played a twee riff on Dublin gangland figure Martin Cahill in Ordinary Decent Criminal.

Spacey’s latest character may be his most despicable yet. As ruthlessly devious politician Francis Underwood his turn in noir-ish Washington DC romp House of Cards ratchets moustache-twirling to vertigo-inducing heights.

Scheming, two faced, unfaithful, bullying, sadistic — as viewers of House of Cards’ first season will attest, these are among Underwood’s more endearing traits.

Walking in the shoes of such a monster sounds taxing, but Spacey doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t regard Underwood — or any of the villains he has played — as necessarily “evil”. They’re people, trying to get through life like the rest of us.

“My role as an actor is to serve the writing,” he tells me. “I do not put myself in a position where I judge the characters. I make no moral judgement about the person I am playing, no matter what they do or how dark it might be. It is not my job to wear on my sleeve my opinion of a person. “It is my job to play the part and let others make the judgement. I don’t take the perspective of framing characters in black and white ways.

He leans in, to emphasise his point.

“This character is bad, this character is evil, this character is a hero — while those are understandable and simplistic ways to describe a human being or character they aren’t for me ‘active’. I can’t walk on a set and play ‘bad’ or play ‘evil’. Those are not active words. I can only play intention — what someone is attempting to accomplish and why they are doing it. Some of which is revealed some of which isn’t [on House of Cards]. I think that is part of the fun.

“Does Underwood think he is a good guy? You are asking me to speak for a character who is fictional. I have walked in the shoes of many characters. It is not my responsibility to take a position on them. One has to be quite careful. “We are talking about a fictional show with a fictional character and comparing it to real life. It’s not real.”

Spacey, 54, has a reputation for prickliness and a deep aversion to glad-handling. Certainly he does not suffer fools and is guarded about his private life.

Face to face he is something of a whirlwind — self contained but with the possibility of an outburst, or a sharp put-down, always near.

We are meeting at a hotel in London where he has been courting the press all day. I catch a glimpse of his TV schedule that morning — he was due to give more than 15 on camera interviews over the course of a few hours.

Apparently one inquisitor, from Germany, asked if he ever planned on making a sequel to Dances With Wolves.

After a morning of relentless chat, will he have anything left to say?

Actually, Spacey fairly bursts into the room, hard-nosed but not without swagger.

He is more tanned than you expect (in House of Cards he is always shot in half light, so that he has a pallor of a corpse). The suit is clubby and casual, the shirt unbuttoned at the neck. He isn’t laid back exactly — there’s a steeliness in the gaze that you’d hate to test — but, still, it’s a reasonable distance from the journalist-devouring monster you may have anticipated.

He grows animated only once, in response to a question about his own political views. Barack Obama has spoken admiringly about House of Cards, pointing out that, in contrast to real life American politicians, Francis Underwood knows how to get things done (in season one he pushes an education bill through Congress against the odds). Critics have wondered if, past the skulduggery and the back-stabbing, House of Cards may have profound things to say about the American political system and its inability to move beyond ideological squabbling.

As executive producer, is Spacey putting his own opinions out there? The actor is, after all, close to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“Nobody gives a shit what an actor thinks about politics,” he says, stabbing the air with his finger.

“Trust me. You are asking me to take a perspective on Francis. It’s smartest that I shut my mouth and play him as best I can.”

Spacey has two Academy Awards and an acting CV spanning 25 years. For all that, House of Cards may be the role of his career. Produced in association with streaming service Netflix, the show was initially regarded as a novelty — the first major series to debut on an internet platform rather than through a traditional network.

It quickly became a sensation, with Spacey nominated for an Emmy for best actor and co-star Robin Wright, who plays his Lady Macbeth-esque wife Claire, winning a Golden Globe. It is fair say that the return of House of Cards yesterday constitutes one of the TV events of the year.

For Spacey it is also an opportunity to job the memory of a public which may have started to forget. Ten years ago, he was a huge movie star, American Beauty establishing him as the great character actor of his generation. He could have had any part he wanted (except, it seems, a Woody Allen movie — it is a continued frustration that Allen has not cast him).

Rather than chase further glory, however, he stepped back, taking up a decade-long managerial position at the Old Vic theatre in London. He didn’t want to chase fame for its own sake, he explained at the time. He got into acting because he wanted to live an interesting life. He intended to keep doing that.

“I was very ambitious for about 10 years and then I was like, ‘OK, that went better than I could have hoped’, and that’s when I decided to change my focus and moved to London,” he said at the time. “I thought, well, that [winning two Oscars] was awesome, now what? Am I going to spend the next 20 years trying to top myself ? Trying to stay on the lists, trying to be that guy? I was like, no, I’ve done it, now I want to do something else.”

Spacey has not become a complete hermit and there have been occasional high profile parts — in 2006’s Superman Returns and the slight frat comedy Horrible Bosses, from 2011, for instance. With his tenure at the Old Vic soon to end, however, House of Cards represents a far weightier commitment. In addition to starring, Spacey is an executive producer and, together with fellow producer David Fincher (who directed Spacey in Seven), was instrumental in persuading Netflix to bankroll the $100m production. Though set in the swampy underdark of DC politics he believes the show has universal resonances, that the themes it wrestles with — power, lust, betrayal — are as old as literature.

“Shakespeare was writing about this stuff,” he says. “With House of Cards, we were interested in how dark it could get. We were not afraid of that and frankly it doesn’t seem to not put anyone off these characters — these people who aren’t ‘winning’, aren’t ‘heroes’ — who are in a sense, anti-heroes.”

A generation ago, it is doubtful an actor of Spacey’s calibre would stoop to television. Then, the relationship between TV and movies has changed a great deal in that period. It is no longer clear which is the more prestigious medium.

“Let me tell you a story,” he says. “This really had an impact on me.

“In 1990 Jack Lemmon invited me to see the great director David Lean receive a lifetime achievement award. It was in Beverly Hills and all the bigwigs, all the studio guys, were there.

“In his acceptance speech he pleaded with the studio heads, the money men, to support young talent and trailblazers in film. He was worried about the business.

“If we continue as we are going, he said, we’ll lose all the talent to television. Eight years later The Sopranos debuted and would forever change the face of television.

“For the past 15 years we have lived through what I call the third golden age of television.

“We have had such remarkable programmes — show-runners and writers are making all these remarkable anti-heroes.

“Characters on television no longer have to fall into the old cookie-cutter — they don’t have to be likeable, good at their jobs, great with their kids.

“The people who want to make character-driven dramas are all working in television now.”

House of Cards is now available on Netflix

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