We bring to a close our coverage of Friday’s “Superman Returns” Junket in Los Angeles with actor Kevin Spacey. Before we get to that, have you checked out the rest of our coverage already? If not, here are some links to all our other interviews and a review of the film:
With that out of the way, we turn our attention to Spacey, who gives a memorable turn as Lex Luthor in the film. Spacey was relaxed and very funny during the interview, sharing with us stories of what it’s like to play such an iconic villain like Lex Luthor, how it all fit into his Old Vic Theater schedule as well as how he tormented actor Brandon Routh on the set. In fact, we’ll let him tell you that story himself as we’ve got the audio for you to listen to. Worth checking out. Editor’s Note: this interview does contain some spoilers.
Obviously it’s best to play the villain in these things, right? They’re the most fun.
You know, I had a blast. It’s such an iconic part.
So how do you turn an iconic character into your own and not make him Gene Hackman-ish?
Don’t watch Gene Hackman.
First rule. Trust your director, which I do implicitly. In a sense, when Bryan first started talking to me about it – about a year before I got offered the part – he always said that it was going to be darker, it’s going to be bitter, it’s going to be a Lex out for revenge. I took the role on before I read the script, and when I started to read the script I saw exactly what they were doing in terms of shaping the storyline and the character. Then on set there was a lot of honing, and discussions about what line was exactly right. What helps this, what makes that funny. It was just a complete blast. When you have the experience I had with Bryan ten years ago [Editor’s note: “The Usual Suspects,” for which Spacey won an Academy Award], he’s the same man that he was then. It was like a day hadn’t gone by with us. We just have a language. It gives you such confidence as an actor to work with a director who is so absolutely clear about what his vision is, and what a scene should be about, and how to approach it. You just try to give him as many different colors as possible, then hopefully he cuts it together in a way that’s good.
You’re also involved in the Old Vic Theater in London.
I am full-time involved in the Old Vic.
Was it hard to balance those duties with doing this big movie?
No, not at all. The balance for me – last year I was on stage 41 weeks in 3 different plays, and I made Superman for 6 weeks. The balance for me is exactly right.
You say you were on the Superman set for six weeks. How hard is that for you as an actor to do that? To get all that work done in such a short period of time?
I love it. That’s actually the best way to do it. The worst way to do it is when you’re on a movie for thre or four months and you have 20 days where you don’t work, or 10 days where you don’t work. What was great about this experience was that Bryan had arranged the schedule because of my commitment to the Vic. I took a six-week leave from “The Philladelphia Story,” and another director took over the role because I wasn’t playing the lead, and Bryan said to me, “I’m going to work you like a dog, and I’m going to work you up until the last moment.” And he did, because I was due back on stage. We had sold tickets, so I had to get on that plane. He worked me until 8:45 on a Friday night, and I was on a 10:15 plane back to London, then I was on stage the next night.
What play was that?
We were doing “Philadelphia Story.”
Oh you went back to do more?
Yeah, I went back to do more “Phildelphia Story,” but this time with a wig because… I had no hair.
Is it true that Bryan mentioned Superman to you on the set of “The Usual Suspects?” I thought I read once that he had mentioned it to you even back then.
He might have. If he did I don’t recall it. What I do know is that we had some kind of conversation when I went in to meet Tim Burton ten or eleven years ago, when Tim was going to do it. Apparently, Tim wanted me for the Lex Luthor part. But it was an entirely different script. I never read the script, but apparently an entirely different scenario. I think it was Nick Cage.
Yeah, “Superman Reborn.”
Anyway, that didn’t get made.
I remember we had a conversation then about it. I think it’s then that I remember Bryan saying “Oh, what an incredible thing that would be.” He was always such a huge fan of the genre of the comic book, and I had such respect for that. In a way I think it’s great. They all approached it with a certain reverence for the Donner films, a complete respect for the fanbase, and although I haven’t seen the film, I think that it probably has an enormous feeling of homage to that style.
What’re your feelings on Superman? Were you a fan growing up?
You know, as a kid I was more into model cars and rockets and stuff. I wasn’t a comic book reader. I just never was into it that way. I remember when the TV series was in reruns, the original series. I remember when the first Donner film came out. We all went down to the Westwood theater and we were going to see Brando. We were all actors in drama class, and were like, “Let’s go see Brando! He’s gonna be in Superman!”
Do you see this as a classic kind of a role, like an Iago?
Yeah, and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I didn’t want to watch the Donner films again. I’d just played Richard II at the Old Vic, and there are film performances and recordings of Gielgud doing Richard II and I just absolutely avoided them because you have to approach it in your own way. In the same way that we love to see actors take on similar parts. How many actors have played Hamlet? How many actors have played Richard III? That’s part of the joy, is to see how a different actor will approach something. So I just kind of avoided it. But yeah, it’s absolutely iconic, and a lot of fun, and I always hoped that the performance in the movie would have as much humor as I think that kind of role offers.
What has having the Old Vic experience re-taught you about film acting, if at all?
I think that there’s no doubt in my mind that I have to credit the theater experiences that I’ve had. What I’ve learned from working in theater, and continue to learn in theater, in terms of how I’m able to bring that to film. In the theater, not just in the course of rehearsal, but night after night after night, the ritual of getting up, you learn about arc. You learn about telling a story over two and a half hours. If you haven’t had that experience, I think it’s much harder in a film situation to figure out how to create an arc in a very crazy shooting schedule. The honest truth is, and to some degree the frustration as an actor in movies, is that you never get to play the whole part. You never play the whole part. You play this and that, and that, and that. It’s what theater trains you and teaches you about how to give a performance. When you walk on a film set, when you’re working on a script – if I was able to play this part, obviously being directed by somebody I trust as much as Bryan, how do you create it so that when they cut it all together it’s going to have an arc to it? I mean sometimes, look – how many movies do we go to and we see actors who must’ve shown up on that day, and must have thought that they had the right energy, and they must’ve thought that it was all going well, but when they cut it together it’s like a flat line. They’re playing the same thing in every single scene. The same kind of energy, whether it’s anger or whatever. In the theater you learn through what it’s like to stand in front of an audience. They’re going to tell you very quickly whether you’re holding them or whether you’re not holding them. Whether they’re absolutely attentive and following the story and it’s clear, or whether it’s not. I’ve always believed that the work I’ve done in the theater has had a huge effect on what I’ve done in film.
Is there an iconic stage role that you’re yearning to play and trying to persuade the Old Vic to do?
Well the good thing is, I don’t have to persuade anybody.
I have to persuade myself.
Who do you want to play then?
There’s a lot of parts in theater. There’s a lot of Shakespeare I’d like to do. Richard II was an extraordinary experience because it’s not produced all that often.
Are you old enough to do Lear yet, do you think?
[Kevin makes a face]
No. I think maybe when I’m 80.
You don’t even want to?
God no. No. You know why? I’m not a good enough actor to play Lear. I think you need age.
McKellan’s doing it though.
Yeah, McKellan’s doing it with Trevor [Nunn]. In a year’s time. To have my first major Shakespearean part be directed by Trevor Nunn in what was an extraordinary production was just an incredible modern take on that play. He did so many things with that text that I think made it very, very clear. There’s a lot of Shakespeare, there’s a lot of Mollier, there’s a lot of new work that we’re developing that I’d like to do. I’m reluctant to say which because I’ll read nine stories in the London press that I’ve announced I’m doing Richard III and I’m not. The truth is that there are endless amounts of work to do, and I’m there for another 8 years.
Yeah, I’m in a ten year contract.
Are you enjoying the London press?
I’m enjoying my role as Artistic Director of the Old Vic very well.
What was your reaction when you first saw Brandon in the suit?
There’s Superman. Actually, when I first arrived on the set in Sydney they were shooting. I came over to the set to visit Bryan and Brandon was walking out of the Daily Planet dressed as Superman, and I just went “Oh fuck. There’s Superman.”
Is it true you tormented him on the set?
I did torment him.
What kind of things did you do?
You know when you’re on movie sets, they give you a golf cart so you can drive around in the golf cart to get from one stage to the other. I had my golf cart kind of suped-up. I had Kryptonite stripes put on the side, and I had a big Superman logo on the front with an X through it. It was called the Super-Buster. Then we tied a Superman doll on the back with a chain, so I just dragged it around.
So, on rainy days it was just a mess. By the end of the shoot it was just a little ball, a mess with a cape. Then I had a bullhorn, and I used to scream through the bullhorn “Superman must die!”
I remember driving back from the stage and Brandon was coming out of his trailer and he hadn’t seen this yet. “Superman must die!”
How did he react?
“Oh shit,. I’m screwed.”
Have they told you to set aside certain months in 2007 for the sequel?
No. I think they’re going to wait and see how this one does, then make a decision from there.
How would you like Lex to get off the island?
I think he eats his way off.
Where do you take the character next as an actor?
I don’t know. The good news is that I don’t have to think about that. The good news is that if it’s Bryan and the writers, I have absolute faith. The truth is that they may well have already thought about the life of it after this. If they have, they haven’t revealed any secrets to me. When you’re fortunate enough to have a director like Bryan and writers like that, you just sort of put yourself in their hands and say “Hey guys, what do you want me to do?”
Do you ever improvise at all?
Yeah, there’s some improvisation that goes on. I couldn’t pinpoint – because I haven’t seen the movie yet – what survived. There’s times where you’re throwing stuff in, and times where Bryan will say, “Just try something.” And weird things just happen. When the camera’s rolling, something just comes to you. Because everyone was so specific and wanted to make sure that we took care of story and character, there wasn’t a whole lot of it going on, but we certainly had fun.
How does your work at the Old Vic impact on your movie career? Do you just kind of play it by ear and figure out schedules and stuff?
The truth is that my full time commitment, no matter where I am, is to the Old Vic. If a movie comes along that works within the preexisting schedule at the Old Vic – if we’ve announced a play and announced a slot that we’re doing a play, then I’m committed. Movies come second.
Is there anything movie-wise that you’re thinking about doing at this point?
I’m going to make a film in the fall, while I’m doing “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” in London, with Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti. Paul Giamatti’s playing Santa Claus, and Vince Vaughn is playing his brother who’s never gotten any credit. I play an efficiency expert who comes to the North Pole. It’s called “Joe Claus.”
So you’re busy playing really realistic movies, then?
Yeah. This is my realistic phase. But then I’m making a film that I’m producing with Sony. It’s the true story of the MIT card counters who learned the art of card counting at 21 [called “Bringing Down The House,” based on the book by Ben Mezrich.]. Robert Luketic is directing that. I’ll make that at the beginning of next year. I play the teacher that teaches them how to card count.
The scene where you scream out “Wrong!” How many takes did you do on that?
I suspect that that was probably an afternoon of yelling. But we also did it very quietly. You always have to try to not end up giving a director only one choice in editing. Sometimes you end up in editing and you think, “Oh God, did he ever not do it that way?”
And what’s your next play?
“A Moon for the Misbegotten” is the next play. We just announced this morning that Eve Best, who won the Olivier for “Hedda Gabler” is going to play Josie. And this will again be directed by Howard Davies, who directed “The Iceman Cometh.”
Any chance of doing any directing yourself in the near future?
Not for a while. I just happen to know what I’m doing over the next three years in the theater. It does not afford me the year-long time that you need to direct a film, but perhaps after that.
Are you having a good time in London?
I’m loving it. Loving it.
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