Both Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes won Academy Awards, respectively for Best Actor and Best Director, for American Beauty. In their new movie NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage, which opens on May 9th, their process of putting on Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Old Vic and taking it on a world tour to such cities as Epidaurus, Beijing and Doha, is magnificently documented.
Kevin Spacey talked with us about his new film and his hit Netflix series, House of Cards.
When you decided to do Richard III and take it around the world, at what point did the idea of doing a documentary come into play?
[Sam Mendes] and I started talking in the first season, after I went to Epidaurus (Greece) to watch Simon Russell Beale do A Winter’s Tale. I was like, ‘Whatever we do we have to bring it to this theatre.’ Then I said, ‘Maybe there’s a way we can capture this experience.’
It’s probably been about 35 years since a theatre company has gone around the world and done this kind of tour. It just isn’t done anymore because it’s cost prohibited. It wasn’t until the middle of the second season that Sam and I decided on Richard III.
It was this unique combination of British and American actors coming together to do classic work, but we didn’t quite know how to do [the documentary]. I was quite reluctant to say what it was going to be, it tells you in editing. So I was like, ‘Just f-king capture it!’
We started in the rehearsal room and Sam was incredibly generous, as were all the actors, to let the cameras in and film that process as we went along.
After dreaming about playing there, what was it like doing the play in Epidaurus?
Because you can’t get 14,000 people down to the bathrooms in less than two hours there was no intermission, we did it straight through. I remember I was backstage and the green light goes on, and I scurried across the stage and sat down in the chair and the lights came up and I [gasped].
Sam said to me after that performance, ‘Oh my god, it was the most terrifying thing to watch you for the first half hour, because you were breathing for four people.’ I looked up and it was like a human wall of people, it went as far as you could see.
Why is the movie called NOW?
We call it ‘Now‘ not only because it is the first word of the first sentence of Richard III (‘Now is the winter of our discontent’), but also because this film puts you in the present tense, into the live moment onstage and on the journey alongside us.
You’ve worked with Sam Mendes on film and on stage. Does he change the way he works with actors in the different mediums?
No, it all is just the same. I don’t think there’s film acting and stage acting. I think there’s just good acting and bad acting. And what was great about Sam when we first worked together, even though American Beauty was his first film, he took the best of theatre and applied it to making the movie.
So we rehearsed it for two weeks like a play, with the entire cast. We taped all the sets out on this big soundstage and we rehearsed every single scene, so by the time we got to the set we knew what we were doing.
He’s also one of those rare directors who not only gives you a great direction, but they know when to give you that direction.
There were times when I was doing something for weeks in a particular way, and in the third preview Sam would go, ‘I think tonight try it this way. I don’t think the way you’ve been doing it is right.’
And I’d go, ‘Why didn’t you f-king tell me that six weeks ago?’ [He said], ‘Because you wouldn’t have been able to take the note six weeks ago, but now you can. Now you understand more than you did then.’ So it’s about a director watching how actors are developing, shifting and changing and when they are ready for a note, he just brilliantly knows when to give it to you.
Do you think you could have played Francis Underwood in House of Cards if you hadn’t played Richard III?
Michael Dobbs based the character of Francis on Richard III. That’s why direct address (to the viewers) exists in House of Cards. I know a lot of people think Ferris Bueller created direct address, but he didn’t. It was a guy named William Shakespeare and he invented it in this play.
That’s why for me it was such an amazing circumstance that I closed this play in March of 2012, and on April 28th I started shooting House of Cards. I cannot tell you what that meant for me in terms of how I approached House of Cards. I don’t think I could have done House of Cards if I hadn’t spent the last ten years doing theatre.
Kevin was asked what attracts him to characters like Richard III and Francis Underwood? Click here for his answer.
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