All I could say to Kevin Spacey during our interview was, “I am so grateful.” Amazing actors of both the stage and screen are rare. What’s more rare is an amazing actor who takes time out of his busy day to share some of his expertise with you. Throughout his stellar career, Spacey has proven over and over again that he is one of the most talented actors of our time. But I think that it’s in this interview where he truly proves his talent as a teacher and mentor. Talking with the two-time Oscar winner (and Tony winner!) felt like the master class of a lifetime. He shares many poignant anecdotes and pieces of advice that will help any and all aspiring performers. In this interview, we are lucky enough to learn just how Spacey played, and continues to play, his cards right to create memorable and dynamic characters for the stage and screen.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
KS: The truth is, I think I knew from the time I was about eight, that I wanted to be an actor. Really, quite frankly, one of the reasons was I could make my mother laugh. I used to do lots of voices and impressions and just be silly, generally. When I could make my mother laugh, that was the greatest sound I could ever hear.
Then, I watched a lot of actors and went to a lot of theater—my parents really exposed me to all
kinds of culture, plays, and books. So I think that it almost got ingrained in me that it was an idea of something really amazing I thought I could pursue. Then I got into a drama class when I was in the 8th grade and by the time I was 15 I had done a whole bunch of plays, participated in workshops, and done Shakespeare festivals—all kinds of really great programs that they had in the school system where I grew up in California, at the time. I think that by the time I was 15 I knew that I was an actor. It was no longer that I had the desire to be an actor but that I was an actor. And then, I thought, well maybe I can pursue this.
You’ve said that Jack Lemmon encouraged you to pursue acting. What was it like as a kid to get encouragement from someone you (and the world) respected so much?
Well, I mean for me, I was a really, really shy kid; even though I liked acting and wanted to be an actor I was really shy. So it meant so much to me to find myself at a workshop that Jack Lemmon was running and have him be so incredibly encouraging towards me. I guess—and maybe this is true for any young person—that there are times when an adult or somebody you admire or someone in the position of authority can say just the right words to you, just the right thing at a moment when you need to hear it. It can fill you with the kind of confidence that maybe you never had before. That was certainly in my case with Jack Lemmon.
And then, of course, I took his advice and I went to New York and studied to be an actor. Then about five years later, I auditioned to be in a play with him and to play his son. He was the one who ultimately chose me to play the role and there were a lot of very well known actors who had gone up and auditioned for it—I then got the chance to work with, my idol. So we spent a year doing A Long Day’s Journey into Night together, Eugene O’Neill’s great play. And then we ended up doing three films together and he ended up becoming very, very much like a father figure to me.
Do you think you would have taken the leap of faith without hearing those perfect words at the perfect time?
Well I was very fortunate because I also had some incredible teachers, and mentors, and even some incredible students who really gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. I think all of that had a cumulative effect of giving me just the right set of tools to be able to believe that I could maybe make a career for myself in the theater.
You studied at Juilliard for a few years, what training did the school provide you with?
Juilliard was an incredible school—it is an incredible school. The kind of training that you get there, the kind of understanding that you finally start to grasp, is that being an actor in the theater is not unlike being an athlete. You have to have a certain talkative energy, commitment, and vocal ability, an ability to stretch and change your voice, maneuver your body, and do all kinds of things that, frankly, a film actor doesn’t have to have. But in the theater, there is a certain requirement that a place like Juilliard teaches you. It’s not about getting up and giving one performance or getting up and giving one great performance. It’s about getting up eight times a week, 12 weeks in a row, every single night, and always being there, always being alive, always being ready. Being able to adjust, and change, and shift, and move. That’s the remarkable thing about the theater, it’s happening only once before an audience’s eyes and the actor is completely in control of that experience—where as in film, you’re not in control at all. That’s why theater is really the actor’s medium and film is the director’s medium.
So the things I learned at Juilliard were so much about stamina—learning how to sustain something and keep something going for a very long period of time, which is what you’re asked to do when you do a long run of a play.
After high school you tried stand-up comedy. How has that experience helped inform your performing today? (Besides being able to do spot on impressions.)
Well I mean, as I said, I always loved doing impressions and that was a large part of the stand-up comedy I did. I think it’s probably one of the hardest jobs in the world for an entertainer because there is nothingbetween you and the audience besides the microphone—it is a very naked place to find yourself. When it works, when you see great stand-up comedians do their work, it’s just an extraordinary thing to watch. Of course when it doesn’t work, it’s all so incredibly debilitating. [laughs] And very difficult.
I learned a lot. In many ways it’s such a tightrope act, you know? It’s like walking on a tightrope and feeling like you’re going to fall off. I think for a performer it’s a great way to learn about yourself, and about your strengths and weaknesses
Kevin doing impressions on Inside the Actors Studio
Do you think the stand-up comedy helped you when you played Richard III and now when you play Francis [Underwood] and you do the soliloquies, directly addressing the audience/camera?
Not so much—basically because they are two very different types of mediums and experiences. Stand-up comedy is very different. What I think it gives you, in a general sense, is a kind of confidence. If you can get through that, if you can get through to an audience that you don’t know and try to make them laugh and if it works it is a really incredible feeling. I think that adds to a cumulative effect over years of time of being able to go out there and know that you can face any situation, that you can get over any situation and any kind of nerves that you might be feeling. It’s always nerve-wracking when you have to stand in front of an audience, no matter what you have to do.
What do you like about getting to address audiences directly and giving them an inside look into what characters are thinking?
I think that the direct address is a really, really interesting form. Obviously, we didn’t invent it; it goes back to Ferris Bueller that did it so brilliantly. In terms of where it came from and why it’s such an incredibly useful tool is that really, Shakespeare invented the direct address. With characters like Richard III, it’s a very different idea than what we would call a monologue. Hamlet does monologues. And monologues are usually done to the whole audience; you don’t pick out certain audience members and look in their eyes. You’re kind of giving it to the room.
A direct address is exactly that, you are looking right into the eyes of individual audience members and making them your co-conspirators. So adapting that into a film situation is a little different in that you aren’t looking at people, you’re looking down the barrel of a lens, you’re looking into a camera. What I’ve tried to do to make that work for me instead of thinking about all of the people I might be talking to, I just kind of pretend that I’m talking to my best friend.
You’ve worked a lot with David Fincher who is notorious for doing tons of takes of each scene, which is kind of the antithesis of theater when you have that one moment.
Yeah, you know, sometimes I think that there’s a little bit too much made about David Fincher’s many, many takes. The truth is that it kind of balances out with the ways other directors work.
For example, lets say you’re shooting a scene. Every time you move the camera to a different angle, we call it a “set up.” So while David Fincher might shoot many, many takes, he doesn’t do that many set ups—he knows exactly what he wants to shoot and he knows exactly how he wants to cut a scene—he’s already cut it in his head. There are other directors who do many, many, many, many, set ups. (Like where David might do six set ups, another director might do 13 set ups.) Where the balance works out is that when you do 13 set ups you don’t have a chance to do that many takes, you don’t do that many performances in a row. You might do two takes, or three takes and then they have to move the camera again because there are so many set ups to do, where as David is very efficient. He’ll do six set ups and many takes. So you get many more opportunities to perfect and get a performance better in the course of a day than you do with a director who does more set ups.
For you, how does the process of finding a character differ between a play and a movie or TV?
Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily different; I would say that one, I think, is more organic than the other and that would be theater. When you work on a film it is very rare that you have the whole company together on a single day. Let’s say that in House of Cards the actor who plays the President [Michel Gill] he might have five scenes in a particular episode but we’ll take 20 days to shoot two episodes together. So let’s say that he’s got five scenes and he’s going to work maybe seven days, but those days wouldn’t be consecutive and all the other days I’m working with other actors in different scenes. You’d rarely bring the company together and you’d rarely feel that “company feeling.”
Whereas, in the theater, everybody comes everyday all day long, you are a company. You work for six weeks before you start to make performances in front of audiences. Whereas when you’re making a film or television show the process is accelerated very quickly—you have to make decisions very fast, you have to make decisions about how you’re going to play a scene. You might be able to camera block it a little bit but then you have to start shooting. So sometimes you’re hoping that you guess right. [laughs] That you have the right advice from your director, that you’re attacking the scene in the right way. The thing I always try to remember, and this is just true: no matter how good you might be in a movie, you’ll never be any better. And in the theater, I can be better next week than I was tonight, I can be better in two weeks, I can be better in three weeks. It’s not like you do a performance and you keep doing it the same every single night. The only thing I can compare it to is that it’s like if I got up every night and played tennis eight nights a week. Yes the rules are the same, but it’s a different game every time you’re out on that court, and that’s exactly what being in the theater’s like.
You’ve equated being an actor to being like a detective. When you are involved in multiple aspects of a project—like if you’re producing it, directing it—and acting in it as well, how does your “detective work” become easier, if at all?
It’s not because it’s always a different situation and you’re always faced with: “Alright, what clues are real clues?” You know, like if another character says something about your character, you have to assess if that opinion is a real one, whether it’s not a real one, whether that actually describes what that character is like, or that’s just someone’s opinion and it’s biased. You’re always looking for what are the true clues and what are the non-true clues in order to figure out how you’re going to build the character that you’re playing. And it’s always different because the writing is different, the circumstances are different, and obviously the fellow actors you’re playing against are different. So it’s always sort of new each time out.
How has it been to be involved with such a new form of entertainment, which is the web-television series, and have it be so successful?
Well, I mean, look, I’ve always felt that this is the direction that things were going to go in in terms of how people were going to get their entertainment. It didn’t surprise me and it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of companies have now followed in the model of producing their own original content. And it’s been incredibly exciting to be apart of something that really feels like a shift in the paradigm and to have audiences respond so positively to the series. For us, it’s just been this wonderful result. For us, it tells us that people think that what we’re doing is good and that’s the greatest feeling in the world.
On top of all of your acting success, too, it’s so incredible all you do for aspiring performing artists! You’ve been able to “send the elevator down” to use your own words through your foundation and your production company. How did you come up with these platforms to help aspiring performers?
It obviously goes back to the fact that it happened for me and I always think it’s incredibly important, no matter how much success one has in one’s life, that you never forget where you came from and you never forget how generous people were to you. I think that it’s because Jack Lemmon had this philosophy that he passed onto me that I feel an obligation to be able to do for others in many ways what happened for me. It meant so much to me to have people like Joe Papp and Jack Lemmon and others in my life who really, as I said, gave me confidence and filled me with a sense that I could actually have a career. So I feel very blessed to be in a position now where I can “send that elevator back down.” It’s an incredibly inspiring feeling to work with kids in workshops—not just kids who want to be actors, just with people helping them learn about their own self-esteem, and how to collaborate, and how to present themselves. It’s what I think you’re supposed to do when you become successful and I’ve had more success than I could have possibly dreamed of. I love doing it and it means a lot to me and I will continue doing it for all of time.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors and people who want to work in the entertainment industry in general?
Well my advice is that you’ve always got to work hard and you’ve got to know why you want to be a part of it. Hopefully you’re not driven too much by wanting to be famous and wanting to be rich and all the things a lot of people go into this business for the wrong reasons. But I think that once you get your priorities straight, once you sort of figure out how deep the place is from which your life flows. If your ambition is an ambition that is not incredibly selfish, then I think that studying hard and trying to put yourself in situations where you can learn and get opportunities and not wait for things to come to you but to start to generate your own stuff. You know, now, in so many ways because of the Internet, there’s no barrier to entry anymore in the entertainment business. People are being discovered all the time on all kinds of YouTubes and videos in which people are expressing themselves and getting the word out about themselves. I think it’s fantastic. It’s really up to us in the industry to make sure we pay attention to the work that’s out there because there are some incredible, really talented young people out there.
What’s something you learned early on in your career that you still live by today?
I think that I was very lucky to learn that when I’m playing a central role in something, it is not just a leading role—it’s a leadership role—and that I have a great deal to do with creating an environment where people can do their best work. That’s very important to me, to be a part of that environment and making it a place where people feel comfortable. ♦