In movies for the long haul

Actor: Kevin Spacey says he works hard to stay connected to real people so the characters he plays on the screen are believable and his films will endure.

October 04, 1999|By Jay Carr | Jay Carr,BOSTON GLOBE

It isn't true that life begins at 40, at least not for Kevin Spacey. Professionally speaking, Spacey, who turned 40 in July, has been surfing a jet stream since 1995, when he imprinted himself on our collective consciousness as the most unusual of "The Usual Suspects."

He gave Hollywood its archetypal crazed movie exec in "Swimming With Sharks," turned slightly more lethal as the manipulative serial killer in the Stygian "Seven," and seemed to surprise even himself as a smooth cop working both sides of the street, then rediscovering his idealism, in "L.A. Confidential." Spacey's performances always start in his eyes, bright with sentience and intelligence, often mocking, tantalizing audiences with the message that he knows something they don't know and want to.

In his new film, "American Beauty," Spacey's very funny, very sad role seems custom-made, although he swears it was all in the script except for a very small bit of on-site fine-tuning. As Lester Burnham, a suburbanite dancing on the wilder shores of what everyone around him sees as a midlife crisis but he sees as a reprieve, Spacey plays a dropout taking verbal potshots at an empty suburban lifestyle with deadly accuracy.

Lester drives his tightly wound wife (Annette Bening) around the bend and doesn't endear himself to his angry teen-age daughter when he lusts after the latter's blond cheerleader girlfriend. He starts pumping iron to impress her after blowing off his job and spending a huge chunk of his severance package on a red sports car.

The marriage between persona and material here is, in short, ideal. It's the kind of performance Oscars were invented for, but although it taps into his flair for irony, Spacey says one of the reasons he wanted the role was for the chance it gave him to move away from playing string pullers and take a crack at a guy in free fall.

"I was trying to move away from darker manipulative characters who are 10 steps ahead of everybody else," he says. "I wanted to play characters that are much more vulnerable, much more personal to me, living moment to moment.

"I had tried from `L.A. Confidential' on to do roles that were on more shifting ground, playing characters that weren't necessarily evil or manipulative or villainous. So I was walking toward this direction anyway," he adds. "Lester's like a lot of men who hate their job, hate their boss, have no real relationship with their wife and nothing in common with their children. He's kinda going through the motions. And I think anyone going through that recognizes that they have to break out of that, sort of move forward and change, shake it up.

"That feeling of being trapped and needing to escape leads to something quite beautiful and peaceful and harmonious. I don't think he perceives the things he does as self-destructive. I think he perceives it as a reaching into himself for something that has gotten lost along the way."

Spacey laughs when he is told that first-time film director and acclaimed stager of the Broadway revival of "Cabaret" Sam Mendes described Spacey as having built his character from the inside out. "I'd say it was from the outside in," Spacey says. "I trained for about four months before we started. Then we trained every day on the set. And ate right. I just had to be in the best shape possible [to look convincingly buff]. A lot of the preparation was the body work, the physical work. Then I had to do the schlumpy version of Lester. I had to collapse him very slowly, almost command the fall."

It helped, Spacey says, that he and Bening and Mendes come from the world of the stage and, in a departure from the schedule followed by most Hollywood films, rehearsed for several weeks before shooting, worked out back stories and (to break the tension in this darkly funny film) laughed a lot between takes. "We were laughing about 17 hours a day," Spacey says. "I thought we'd never get through the dinner-table argument because we couldn't stop laughing."

The trick now, as Spacey sees it, is not to let success cut him off from the things that got him where he is. "It can be like a kind of death," Spacey says. For many people who become successful, the houses move further up the hills, and walls around the houses become taller. But if you're an actor or an artist, you need to stay in touch. One of the reasons I moved to New York is that you cannot get away from reality there unless you stay in your apartment all the time."

Spacey says he has to be vigilant about the kinds of roles he takes on. "Look, I put myself quite carefully in these large ensemble films for really the last seven years [partly because] I wasn't really interested in having a movie on my shoulders. Whether you are playing a leading role or a featured role, it makes no difference to me. It's just about the story and about doing something that will catch on with audiences. I want to make a movie that will last for years."

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