Kevin Spacey shares the acting secrets behind House of Cards

Kevin Spacey tells Ed Power we shouldn’t be in such a rush to judge his House of Cards character

KEVIN SPACEY walks into the room wearing a crisp, navy suit and an implacable expression.

It feels like I’m in the presence of Frank Underwood, the ruthless politician he plays in House of Cards.

Like Underwood, Spacey does not smile. He is serious, almost severe.

The air-conditioning remains off, but the temperature dips a little. His voice has Underwood’s cadences, the clipped sentences and matter-of-fact bluntness.

Hollywood dazzle is not abundant as he sets a vast Starbucks take-out cup on the table.

For all that their body language is similar, Spacey does not identify with Underwood, a ruthless manipulator who, as series of three of House of Cards begins, has crowbarred his way into the American presidency.

Nor does Spacey buy into the idea of Underwood as arch villain (though Underwood’s misdeeds, which include, but are not limited to, murder, intimidation and urinating on his father’s headstone, are plenty villainous).

“Several great acting teachers and mentors of mine have told me that it is incredibly important that I not judge a character,” Spacey says.

“Just play them and let the audience decide. Characters don’t think of themselves in [black-and-white terms].”

He learns towards me, his gaze narrowing.

“You don’t think of yourself as a villain, right? And you don’t think of yourself as a saint. That is exactly how it is with characters. ‘He’s a villain, he’s a saint, he’s a good guy, he’s a bad guy’. We categorise these very complex characters. That isn’t how characters see themselves.”

Spacey wasn’t intimidated by playing the president of America. And he did not obsessively research the part.

President Underwood isn’t based on any real-life commanders-in-chief — certainly not Spacey’s friend, Bill Clinton.

Viewers may catch flashes of well-known politicians in the portrayal — if so, none of it was conscious on Spacey’s part.

“I remember I was playing Richard II at the Old Vic,” he says.

“I was saying to [director] Trevor Nunn — ‘How do I behave like the king?’ He said, ‘It’s not about you behaving like the king. It’s about how everyone else reacts to you’.

“I take that into the Oval Office. I don’t have to be presidential. I am the president. It’s about how everyone else reacts. That is what makes it work. You don’t have to put on some air — to be presidential-esque.”

He has said that television is home to the most exciting drama today (certainly, it is quite a while since Spacey, an Oscar best actor winner for American Beauty, in 1999, was in a major movie).

He isn’t being self-serving when he says that players such as Netflix have pushed the envelope, taking risks and going places conventional television would have never dared venture.

“Some of the best TV being done now is from the streaming world. If you go back to ’98, HBO went… ‘Why not a show about an overweight mob boss who suffers from anxiety attacks?’ [a reference to The Sopranos].

“Networks were willing to go against the received wisdom that everyone has to be likeable, everyone has to be good at their jobs.

“The rise of the anti-hero, in what I call the third golden age of television, has been exciting to watch.”

He isn’t much fussed about the assertion that Netflix and its ilk are driven by cold, hard triangulation rather than creative impulse.

It has been reported that it green-lit House of Cards after its number-crunchers established that a significant tranche of viewers enjoyed Kevin Spacey movies, David Fincher movies (the director executive produces and has set the aesthetic tone) and the original BBC version of House of Cards, from 1990.

Spacey shrugs: “I’m not sure how that is very different from, say, in 1955 a studio saying that if people like Spencer Tracy movies and people like Katherine Hepburn movies… why not put them in a movie together? I don’t think that is damaging to the process of being an actor.”

The actor was born Kevin Spacey Fowler in 1959, the son of a secretary mother and technical-writer father. His spent his early childhood in New Jersey, but attended school in Los Angeles.

It was at Chatsworth High School, in LA’s San Fernando Valley, that he discovered acting, playing the lead in a production of The Sound Of Music.

He initially pursued a career in comedy, on the LA stand-up circuit. Spacey subsequently attended the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, studying drama.

His first professional appearance, on stage, was as a spear carrier in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1.

However, his major breakthrough was in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, opposite Jack Lemmon, who became a mentor of sorts.

Spacey’s early forays on screen were rather low-rent. He played an arms dealer in cop show, Wise Guy — the first of many times he would, with visible relish, don the mantle of villain.

Spacey’s break-out movie was Glengarry Glen Ross, a four-hander also starring Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Al Pacino.

But it was as underdog criminal, Verbal Kint, in The Usual Suspects, that he became a household name.

Four years later, he won an Oscar for portraying a downtrodden everyman in American Beauty.

House of Cards is relentlessly cynical. Underwood is clearly unspeakably awful — however, he is just one knave among many.

Perhaps that is why the show is so popular within the entertainment industry — the endless jousting for power will doubtless chime with many in Hollywood.

In view of all that, it’s strange to hear Spacey say that the atmosphere on set in jokey and upbeat. He elaborates that, with so much intensity on screen, mucking about between scenes is the cast’s way of unwinding.

“There are a lot of laughs,” he says. “We spent about 65% of the time laughing. If you are doing a show that is intense and dramatic, you want a mechanism by which you can have a good time and be silly.”

  • House of Cards season three is on Netflix now


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