Following an astonishing run in the '90s that encompassed Se7en, L.A. Confidential, Glengarry Glen Ross and The Usual Suspects — and culminated with his Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty at the turn of the millennium — Kevin Spacey was commonly hailed as the best actor of his generation. Then the theatre scene diverted his focus and he immigrated to the UK to take the reins at London's prestigious Old Vic theatre, which he's been running for the past five years (he's currently appearing there alongside Jeff Goldblum in a production of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow).
But Spacey still adores movies and his production company Trigger Street is releasing their biggest project yet, 21, about a gang of geeky M.I.T. math geniuses who learn how to card-count while playing blackjack so they can fleece Las Vegas casinos for millions. Based on a true story, Spacey plays a (fictional) professor who mentors and bankrolls 21's gambling brainiacs.
Ensconced in London's chic Soho Hotel, Spacey is sitting on an overstuffed sofa with his black wire-haired terrier, Minnie, who jumps up to greet us before Spacey shakes our hand. As Minnie lays back down beside her owner, the 48-year-old actor says, “You're such a good interview dog,” and prepares to talk 21, winning the Oscar and why he's happier now than at any other point in his career.
Your company Trigger Street developed 21 and you're a producer on the film. What was the appeal for you?
I just always thought that this was a ripe story for a film. As long as 15 years ago, I started to hear rumors from friends in Boston, that there were maybe these kids from MIT who went to Vegas and were making money. But it was like an urban myth — I could never figure out whether it was real or not and no one would go on the record. Then about five years ago, my business partner who runs Trigger Street was walking down the street in New York and he saw Wired magazine where the cover article was, “The True Story Of The MIT Kids Who Took Vegas For Millions,” which had been written by Ben Mezrich. Subsequently we discovered his book [Bringing Down The House] and we brought Ben to Los Angeles and strong-armed him into giving us the rights. This being our first big studio film as a production company, I wanted to try to do something that would be entertaining and bring the people in. I hope it's a crowd-pleaser.
It certainly amps up the fantasy-fulfilment side of Las Vegas...
Everybody has that fantasy of going to Vegas and winning a pot of gold. It's also the classic underdog story. It always reminded me a bit of Risky Business. It's about a young person who suddenly finds a way to make a lot of money in an unconventional way and then corruption and greed and all the stuff that comes with that is thrown at him. It's about how a young person eventually decides what kind of a person he wants to be.
Were you always going to play the Machiavellian professor who bankrolls the students?
That really only started to get on the boil once the screenplay was written and I actually saw what it could be, because he's not based on anybody real. It wasn't until I saw the screenplay that I thought, “Yeah, sure, if this works out and I'm available, it could be fun.”
Did you meet the real MIT students involved in the scam?
We took research trips to Vegas with the guys from the MIT team. They're very unassuming guys and you can sort of understand why they were under the radar and nobody really noticed what they were doing. We've obviously gussied it up in the film and made it more dramatic, but they'll sit around and tell you, “Oh yeah, that night we made $450,000 at one table and then we went over to that casino and made another $250,000,” and you're just like, “Are you kidding me?” Several of them were consultants on the film itself and Jeff Ma — the basis for the Ben character — has a little cameo as one of the dealers.
Were you showing you how it was done in the Vegas casinos?
They're not allowed to play but they were allowed to stand behind us while we played. Every time Jeff Ma wanted me to up my bet, he would sort of nudge my chair. And I won every single hand. It was great.
Is shooting a film in Sin City as much fun as it seems like it would be?
No, it's just work. You're going to work every day; you're not partying. I didn't gamble the entire time I was there shooting the movie. I like Vegas in two- or three-day stretches. To be there almost six weeks is a long time and so I did a lot of things that were off the Strip — played a lot of tennis and that sort of stuff. With the hours you work on a movie, no matter where you are, you just got to get your sleep and make sure that you're prepared to work every day. So it wasn't like a party. I think it was for some of the young kids because they hadn't been to Vegas before and they were on a movie and I think a lot of them went out and lost their shirt. I'm sure Josh Gad [who plays Miles Connoly] was drinking every night.
How involved were you in casting the younger actors?
As much as any other producer on the film. Ultimately, it was [director] Robert Luketic's decision. But to the degree of having discussions and saying, “I don't think that person's right” or “that person looks good,” yeah, I was involved.
Jim Sturgess is an interesting choice for the starring role, in particular because he's British...
Yeah, playing the typical American! All of us on the creative side felt that we wanted whoever played that role to be primarily unknown. I wasn't interested in having a big name in that role; I thought that would have been a mistake. That way an audience can root for somebody who they have no preconceived ideas about. It turned out that he had just done Across The Universe for Sony, so they introduced us to Jim. We saw that movie, he did a number of screentests and ultimately Robert said, “He's the guy I want.”
Is it coincidence that you keep starring with Kate Bosworth, who's also in 21?
I know everybody thinks that somehow I've been the person insisting on Kate being in movies [with me] — I had nothing to do with her being in Superman, I had very little to do with her being in this except to say, “Yeah, I think she's great.” And frankly it's kind of nice because very often in film experiences you work with somebody you enjoy, who you get along with, and then you never work with them again. So it's just a happy circumstance that we find ourselves doing it for a third time.
As you've got older and added other dimensions to your career — setting up Trigger Street, running the Old Vic — can film acting still invigorate you in the way it did, say, a decade ago?
If it's a good part and if I'm working with people who I think have a good story to tell, yeah, absolutely. I mean, look, I have nothing to apologize for in wanting to make movies every now and then that are just fun or [offer me] the ability to make some money because I'm living my life in London making no money running a theatre. If anybody thinks I'm here making money, they're wrong. So I'm trying to balance doing interesting work in film but my priority has shifted. I spent 12 years focused on having a film career; I just frankly didn't want to spend my time doing that anymore. I wanted to dedicate myself to something that was bigger than my personal career, outside of my own ambitions, and that's what I've been doing and I'm incredibly satisfied doing it. I know a lot of people look at it like I walked away from something but you have to look at it from my point of view, which is I walked towards something. I love movies — if it weren't for movies, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing with the Old Vic. But I was no longer interested in that whole game — and I'm not now.
After that amazing run you had in the mid '90s with Se7en, The Usual Suspects and L.A. Confidential, was American Beauty a deliberate attempt to break free of villain characters?
It's so easy for people to pigeonhole and it's so easy for people to say, “That's all a person does.” I wanted to work toward doing other kinds of parts and I was able to do that. It was such an extraordinary story and such a great screenplay and an incredible experience.
As confident as you felt with the screenplay, was there a point where you felt it had the potential to be a great film?
It's different in theatre where, when you start to rehearse a play, you can actually have a moment where you go, “Wow, this is actually coming together.” You can never know in a film experience because it's not an actor's medium, it's a director's medium. Sometimes you go and see movies and you think, “Boy, they really fucked it up — I think we made a better movie than they've cut.” But unless you're in some kind of productorial position, you're just an actor-for-hire. So I never know. I didn't know on The Usual Suspects, I didn't know on Se7en, I didn't know on L.A. Confidential — until I saw the film and then said, “Oh wow, we really told the story we set out to tell and it's beautifully evoked on screen.”
Was winning the Best Actor Oscar a moment where you thought, “It really can't get any better than this”?
It was the pinnacle of a remarkable journey on that particular movie and, for me, the pinnacle of a 10, 12-year focus on trying to carve a film career out. And it was pretty much right afterwards that I asked myself, “Alright, now it's gone better than I could have hoped — what am I supposed to do now?” I mean, what do you do with that? Do you just go keep making movies, making money, trying to be on top? I thought, “No, I don't want that anymore, I want something else.” That's why I decided to come to London and start this new theatre company. It's been the most satisfying journey I could have taken. I know some people don't get it but I'm happier than I've ever been.
Have there been any opportunities to work with Sam Mendes on another project, either on stage or in film?
We are doing a project that we've been developing for the last seven years. Sam and I and Joe Melillo, who runs the Brooklyn Academy of Music, have announced the first transatlantic theatre company to ever be created called The Bridge Project, in which Sam, starting in 2009, will direct two classic plays every year for the next three seasons. They'll start at BAM, play 12 weeks at BAM, play 12 weeks at the Old Vic, and then go on to one or two other cities.
What can you tell us about Recount?
It's a film we've made with HBO. It is, I think, the real, accurate account of what happened in Florida in those 36 days in 2000 — that battle between Gore and Bush for the presidency. We've really set out to get the story right. It's been vetted by all the people on both sides, the Bush lawyers, the Gore lawyers; the four main writers who wrote books about the 2000 election were consultants. It's a very balanced film and I think that maybe at the end of the day it will show that the electoral process in the United States is not equipped to handle margins of victory so small or margins of error so big. Because it could happen again.
Are you looking forward to working with Bryan Singer again on the next Superman?
If it happens!
He's announced that he's doing it. Hasn't he spoken to you?
I'm contractually obligated to do a second movie, if they make it. But so far no one's told me if we're making it, so... I'll be there if they call and say, “Come on down.” But definitely, it would be great fun to work with him again. Aside from the fact that it was my first big tentpole Hollywood movie, he's just a genius and it was a pleasure to be a part of it.