Casino Jack opens today in limited release, a chronicle of the rise and rapid fall of Washington, D.C. superlobbyist Jack Abramoff under a wave of scandal and criminal wrongdoing. When news of his and his colleages’ misdeeds broke a number of years back, Abramoff was made an example of by the media, cast as the worst of our government’s money-obsessed political insiders. In his final film, late director George Hickenlooper offers a much more even-handed portrait, even a sympathetic one.
Kevin Spacey delivers a career-high performance, managing to find the heart of a complex subject amidst the mess that has been made of Abramoff’s public image. In many ways that complexity was a big part of the role’s appeal, the actor told Spinoff Online in an interview yesterday.
Describing Abramoff as a “colorful character,” Spacey appreciated how many layers needed to be peeled back as he prepared for the role. “[He] was really fun to try to understand because there were so many contradictions to who he was, his beliefs, his extraordinary faith, his devotion to his family, and yet [there were also] a series of missteps and misjudgments and things that ultimately got him into a lot of trouble,” he explained.
It all comes down to which point of view is telling the story, and getting into Abramoff’s frame of mind was essential for Spacey in understanding the role. “Maybe from his perspective he was living in a culture where this kind of stuff was going on all the time,” he said. “Yeah, he did it bigger and louder and better and made more money than anybody else, but he was in an environment.”
In order to gain proper perspective, Spacey consumed as much information about Abramoff as he could: news reports and opinion pieces, conversations with friends, colleagues and enemies, photos and other media—all of it crucial. Before any of that was Abramoff himself who, after meeting with Hickenlooper several times, agreed to sit down for an hours-long chat with Spacey and the director.
“I made a decision that I wasn't going to do any research until I met him,” the actor explained. “I decided I didn't want to read other people's opinions of him or commentary or any of that. I thought, 'Well I have an opportunity to meet the man without all that being in my head, I'm just going to meet the man.' He may have had his own agenda and he may have had reasons for saying things the way he said them, but I also knew I was going to vet a lot of other people and I was going to find out if what he said squared with the facts, and also just the way people thought about him.”
Spacey continued, “So you're trying to balance [the media portrayal that] he's the Devil incarnate, he's the worst human being that ever walked the face of the Earth, the greediest motherfucker. And then you've got other people that talk about him so glowingly, people that knew him very [well], people who talked about how charming he was. And then you've got him. That's when you start to appreciate, I think, that in a lot of these cases it's never as black and white as it's played. It's always far more gray, far more complex.”
The portrayal of Abramoff in Casino Jack is more than just strong, it’s hilarious. Really, the whole movie tips heavily toward comedy. Spacey, who has plenty of experience working with politically slanted stories, says that this is merely the nature of the beast. “I suppose taking a lesson from a film I did a few years ago for HBO called Recount, I'm pretty sure when people heard we were going to make a movie about an election, or when people hear you're going to make a movie about a Washington lobbyist, you can hear the yawning start across the country.”
“But when you put things in the context of how they actually happened -- and we did a lot of vetting and a lot of sourcing and a lot of work on Recount -- and ultimately what we ended up discovering is this shit is inherently funny,” he continued. “I mean, because people are making such outrageous choices or being so ridiculous or making choices where you literally go, 'I cannot believe that actually happened or this personality behaved in this way.' You can't write this shit. So it's funny.”
That the movie hits its tone squarely is all Hickenlooper’s doing. He had a clear idea of what he wanted from the very beginning, and he pushed for that both on the set and in the editing bay. “George kept saying, literally from the first time that we talked, he was like 'I don't want to make a boring movie about Washington! I wanna make fuckin' Goodfellas in D.C.!' And so that in a way became his own mantra,” Spacey explained.
“The thing about tone is it's not in your hands. It's completely in the hands of the editor and the director. If you trust the director, and I trusted George, we worked so well together. Because I trusted George, I am more apt to be able to take chances when we're shooting a scene,” he continued. “The film kind of builds in its insanity, and in a sense I was quite conscious of trying to play things and give George enough choices so that if he wanted to take an elevated lift, he'd have that performance where it got really crazy.”
“Crazy” is definitely where things end up (spoilers ahead). Abramoff is brought forth for a Senate hearing towards the end of the film as his crimes come to the surface. The scene features an angry outburst from Abramoff in which he calls out the Congressman questioning his actions as hypocrites, so willing to crucify the wrongdoings of one lobbyist when they themselves have all accepted questionable contributions at one time or another. After the tirade plays out we learn that it was a daydream sequence; the real hearing plays out as it did in reality, with Abramoff repeatedly invoking his Fifth Amendment rights.
As it turns out, the inspiration for the entertaining break from reality came from Abramoff himself. “He said to George and I, and this was hours into our talk with him, that if he had known he was going to go to jail -- he never believed he was going to jail -- he would've never taken the 5th [Amendment right to not incriminate yourself] in front of the Senate,” Spacey revealed. “George and I were driving away from the prison that day going, 'What would that scene be like?'”
Now the movie is here and Abramoff is freshly released from prison – an early release, with roughly half of his time served – as of the first week of December. Spacey isn’t sure if he’s seen the film yet, but Abramoff’s sons have. “They were very enthusiastic about the film and felt that even those parts that were probably painful for them to watch, that it was fair and... we humanized somebody who had been pretty dehumanized,” Spacey said. “And I think that was probably the reason he didn't want the movie to be made anyway, because he thought, 'Fuck, they're just going to throw me under now a train as opposed to just a bus.'”
“I'm not that kind of actor,” he continued. “Also, I like films where audiences, even if people have made up their own minds about him -- and frankly, I don't think that many people know who [Abramoff] is outside of the Beltway -- but even if you'd gone in [with those preconceptions], I like that over the course of the movie people, against their better instincts, are going, 'I like him, I don't. I like that, but I didn't like that.' That is what's fun about playing a character like this: you allow the audience to be the people who ultimately make a judgment about how things went down.”