Despite the fact that two-time Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey [The Usual Suspects and American Beauty] has been missing from the screen for a few years, he has been very busy living in London, as the Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre Company.
In his return to the cinema in Casino Jack, Spacey portrays real life Washington lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who with his business partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), made deals with some of the world’s most powerful men, with the goal of creating a personal empire of wealth and influence. But when they enlist a mob-connected friend, Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz) to help with one of their illegal schemes, they find themselves entrenched in a world of mafia assassins, murder and a scandal that made worldwide headlines.
I spoke with Kevin Spacey last week, while he was on a quick trip to Los Angeles from London, to promote the movie.
Do you think we’ve gotten better at spotting these types of scandals before they get as bad as they do?
You don’t think the last election proved that more money was spent in the last election than any election in the history of this country? Of course it’s going on. It’s very convenient to throw a guy like Jack Abramoff in jail and wave your finger at him and say he’s the worst man that ever lived, and pretend you’ve cleaned up the industry, but they haven’t.
It’s corrupt. And as long as it’s about money it will stay corrupt. As long as politicians have to spend their time raising money for television ads it will be corrupt.
Was being savvy about politics what interested you in playing this role?
What really attracted me to the film was [writer/director] George [Hickenlooper, who recently died]. I always admired George. I thought his documentary about Apocalypse Now was the best behind-the-scenes film [ever].
When George came to London I had a lot of questions because when this story broke I was already living in London. We had a mutual fascination with politics and a frustration at the process.
The thing I’ll always remember most about George was his insatiable giggle which quite often happened off camera. I would be like, ‘Would you stop giggling?’
Were you able to meet and speak with Jack Abramoff?
I knew who Abramoff was, and that he was notorious, but I didn’t have an opinion. Then when George said, ‘I think we’re going to be able to meet him in prison,’ I thought, ‘Great, I think I’m not going to do any research. I think I’m going to wait, because I don’t think I want to meet him with lots of other opinions in my head.’
I just wanted to meet him to see what he was like and unearth what emotionally was happening with him. That was a very helpful day, he was incredibly open, he may well have had his own agenda in wanting to say things in certain ways, but I also knew I was going to be sourcing other people, and I did.
I went up to Washington and spent a couple of days with his lobbying team, people that knew him very well, his friends, people that loved him, people that hated him, people that wanted him dead and then I started looking at all the commentary and the news stuff. Being an actor is like being a detective, you’ve now got all these clues, some of which are true, some of which are myths, and some of which are false. He was far more complex, and the stories are far greyer than black and white.
What was Jack’s reaction that you were playing him?
He was very disappointed it wasn’t George Clooney. Brad Pitt was his second choice!
How has your experience in England running the Old Vic changed your life?
It has absolutely changed my life. The reason I made the decision is I got to the point at the end of 1999 where I had literally been spending about 10 or 12 years with blinders on.
I wanted to see if I could carve out a film career, and it went pretty well. I thought, ‘Now what?’ I was very reluctant to follow the same dream for another 10 years. I didn’t want to end up being an actor that is fighting to be on all those lists and in all those movies. I felt like I’d done that.
I wanted something else, but I didn’t know what it was until it was staring me in the face, which was the Old Vic. I suddenly felt, ‘Man, I could now take all this incredible personal achievement and success that has happened to me and put it towards something else.’ So we built this company from the ground up.
Along the way what I discovered was that when you put your effort into a company, and do something that’s bigger than you, it completely changes and shifts your focus and it’s been the most satisfying, challenging, difficult, brilliant experience of my life.