‘Absolutely no photos,’ says a man with a clipboard and headset before disappearing around a corner, leaving us to continue waiting for one of the world’s most respected actors. We wouldn’t mind, but if Kevin Spacey is worried about being photographed, why is he next door doing a TV interview? Then he appears, looking casual in a blue shirt and cream trousers, with a flat cap, glasses and an oversized watch on his wrist. Essentially, not the kind of man who worries about photos. ‘How are you finding the Middle East?’ we ask as he settles himself into the chair. We’re meeting in Doha, at the second Tribeca Film Festival. ‘Very cool,’ is the reply. Just two words, yet his voice booms. Even without effort he commands our attention.
Always memorable, often edgy and scary, Spacey’s performances – from smooth criminal Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects and warped serial killer John Doe in Seven to midlife crisis sufferer Lester Burnham in American Beauty – have won him two Oscars, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and even a CBE for services to drama from the Queen of England. He writes, directs, produces and, since 2003, is artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre in London, where he currently resides.
The kind of person you would choose as a mentor, Spacey is in Qatar to host a series of workshops for aspiring actors at the film festival. But that’s not all. There is also a screening of his new film, Casino Jack, in which he plays former US lobbyist and businessman Jack Abramoff – a man from the Bush era convicted in 2006 of fraud, conspiracy, tax evasion and trading expensive gifts for political favours. Like many of the other characters Spacey has played, is this another villain? ‘I suppose I can only explain it in the sense that even if a character does really horrible things, they don’t think they’re doing horrible things,’ he reasons. ‘People often say, “Oh, you love to play villains,” but I don’t judge a character – I’m just playing a person who makes choices and who does things. One of the great things about being an actor is that when you’re forced to be in someone else’s shoes, it’s very difficult to be prejudiced. When you’ve lived someone else’s experience, you have empathy for them, because you’re no longer judging them with misinformation.’
Misinformed or otherwise, there is a lot of information about Jack Abramoff and his actions in the public domain. When something is based on true events, does that create a level of expectation, and how does that affect the job of an actor? ‘In the case of Jack Abramoff, other than to people who sort of follow politics, nobody knows who he is, and he never even gave interviews,’ says Spacey. ‘Whereas for Dennis Quaid, who plays President Clinton [in upcoming film The Special Relationship], you have certain expectations. But when you’re playing somebody nobody knows, then your parameters are pretty wide, and what you’re really trying to do is get some motivation and insight into his behaviour.’
To help Spacey with this process, he had a face-to-face meeting with Abramoff himself – in prison. The actor, however, is reluctant to discuss what transpired. ‘It was a private meeting, and I don’t really want to expose that, but I will say that I found him incredibly charming and very funny. I hadn’t done that much research about him because I wanted to wait until I met him before I started reading what other people had to say. I came away with a really conflicting, confused feeling – you have who he is as a person, you have what was said about him, and then there are the facts. Part of the job of being an actor is acting like a detective,’ he explains. ‘We’re given clues, and we have to unearth what those clues mean. Some say he is the worst human being on earth, and he was making a lot of money, but he was also giving a lot away to people who needed it. He was trying to start a school, which we depict in the film. So you begin to understand that things aren’t always black and white.’
While Spacey hopes that maybe the film humanises Abramoff, he doesn’t think it will make a stand against corruption in the US government – a stand he could perhaps quite easily make, given his émigré London residency, and the fact that his work takes him far and wide. ‘I’m in the process now of scheduling a tour of the world with Richard III, which I’m doing with Sam Mendes directing,’ he reveals. ‘One of the things I want to do without question is bring it to this region. I don’t know yet where we’ll actually go, because you have to weigh up theatres, technicians, things like that. Alongside the play I want to bring with us an educational ethos, working with emerging talent. I don’t want to go to each city and say, “Look at me, I’m doing a play.” I want to create an excitement about theatre, particularly in places where it isn’t really on the map like it is in London or New York.’
While the characters he usually plays are of a questionable disposition, Spacey’s love of acting in all its forms, and the desire to educate others, means the man himself couldn’t be more decent – even if he won’t let us take his photo. Casino Jack will be released in UAE cinemas in January. Keep an eye on Time Out Dubai for our review.
Which are the actors, which are the politicians?
Spacey did it on-screen, these guys did it off.
Arnold Schwarzenegger The former Terminator gave up his acting career to become the Governator of California in 2003.
Ronald Reagan Once the president of the Screen Actors Guild, he later became president of America.
Charlton Heston As president of America’s National Rifle Association, Heston pushed for increased firearm rights.
Clint Eastwood Became mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California (population 4,000) for one term in 1986.