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InDepth InterView Exclusive: Kevin Spacey Talks New RICHARD III Documentary NOW, Plus HOUSE OF CARDS, Future Musical? & More

Last night I had the particular privilege of discussing the intricacies and intrigue of William Shakespeare's legendary history play RICHARD III with one of the greatest actors of our age and a true patron of the arts - two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey. Discussing the finer points of his characterization of the famed hunchback antihero, Spacey paints a vivid portrait of his experiences in re-teaming with his AMERICAN BEAUTY collaborator, director Sam Mendes, on bringing a truly 21st century take on the classic play to the stage - and then bringing the production all the way from the hallowed ground of Spacey's own self-curated Old Vic in London, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City to a whirlwind worldwide tour spanning the globe. NOW, a compelling new documentary following the project from rehearsal through to opening night and ensuing world tour is set to be released next month and is highlighted by the fly-on-the-wall intimacy and access it provides viewers to the world of Spacey's RICHARD III, as well as offering copious performance footage of Spacey and company in action onstage. Additionally, Spacey and I address and analyze the undeniable connections between RICHARD III and his super-successful Netflix dramatic series HOUSE OF CARDS, touching upon not only the dramatic parallels, but the fortunate and unusual sequence of events that made the entire endeavor possible in the first place. After all, Frank Underwood is the modern Richard III in many ways - bloodlust, ambition, ego, humor and darkness included; but, also, the humanity, too. Plus, Spacey expresses his enthusiasm for starting work on Season Three of the series now that they have been granted Maryland filming tax incentives once again, which was holding up production until now. Besides all of that, Spacey also clues us in on his future endeavors of interest, mentioning his spate of recent musical performances and his potential desire to pursue a musical role once again sometime soon following his acclaimed turn as Bobby Darin in musical biopic BEYOND THE SEA. FOLLIES, perhaps?! A wide-ranging conversation with a stage and screen mega-star like none other awaits in today's special spotlight.

More information on Kevin Spacey in the new NOW documentary is available at the official site here.

He Is He

PC: Congratulations on this week's news of Maryland offering the tax breaks to allow you to film HOUSE OF CARDS Season Three!

KS: I never had any doubt.

PC: We've come full-circle today, considering I have featured your co-stars Haydn Gwynne, Maureen Anderman and Gemma Jones in a BAM RICHARD III spotlight series way back in 2012 (available here, here and here).

KS: Oh, great, great, great!

PC: Have you kept in touch?

KS: Well, as a matter of fact, it was fantastic having everybody be able to come in for the premiere of NOW last week - it was great seeing everybody again at that.

PC: Is it a bit out-of-body for you in any way looking back on work you did a few years ago now byway of this documentary?

KS: Well, we finished our last performance... I think it was March 4, 2012. To have captured a lot of it and the process of going through it for all of us was invaluable. You know, at the risk of having it all sound a bit self-congratulatory, it was one of the great experiences I've ever had, doing this.

PC: Your passion for the role came through throughout. Was Richard III a bucket list character for you giving how well it seemingly fits you?

KS: No, actually not. You see, I am an actor of a different breed, I guess - I don't covet parts and I don't dream of playing roles; it's just not something I do. I have basically found myself really motivated to do certain plays because directors want to direct me in them.

PC: How interesting.

KS: It's true. I find myself more often agreeing to... you know, Howard Davies says to me, "I want you to do ICEMAN COMETH. I want to direct you in that." Or, saying, "I want to direct you in A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN." Or, Trevor Nunn saying to me, "Why don't we do RICHARD II?" And, you know, that would have never been a play that I would have thought to do, but I always find myself very much enjoying putting myself in the hands of a director. With Sam, there were a lot of discussions...

PC: And you had an established rapport already, of course, from collaborating on AMERICAN BEAUTY.

KS: Of course. And, let me tell you, there were a lot of plays on the table that we could have chosen to do in the fifth and final slot of the Bridge Project. I mean, these discussions went on, literally, for years!

PC: You had time to give it a lot of thought and make your choices wisely.

KS: We did. And, there were no quick visions of anything in any way. But, ultimately, Sam really felt that at the end of the day that RICHARD III was what he wanted to direct me in.

PC: Ian McKellen and I have discussed his Richard III in this very column (available here), so I'm curious to know if you saw his famous film in preparation for taking on RICHARD III?

KS: Yes. Honestly, I think I've seen every Richard that I could possibly see - except for Simon Russell Beale, whose production I didn't get to see, unfortunately. Simon Callow and Ian McKellen, though - absolutely. And, since you asked, I'll tell you that they were very generous in the conversations that I had with them about it - and, frankly, a little bit helpful, too.

PC: How so?

KS: Because they both sort of said to me - especially Simon - "Be careful." You see, he had hurt himself physically doing the role - he had made quite a remarkable choice about how he was going to portray the cripple aspect of Richard. So, that's why I chose very carefully about what I was going to do physically so that I didn't hurt myself over the ten months doing the play.

PC: You brought a modern air of glamor and celebrity to the role, as well - the sunglasses and that stunning tailored uniform. Could you tell me about those choices and why you made them?

KS: Well, we basically looked at a lot of photographs of [Muammar] Gaddafi and he is almost always wearing sunglasses...

PC: Indeed! How on the nose, as it were.

KS: Right! In fact, we based that entire costume on him - I even called it my "Daf" look. [Laughs.]

PC: How apropos.

KS: But, as we were beginning the production, it just so happened that the Arab Spring erupted. And, Sam and I were both quite determined that the imagery that we were using throughout the play - the use of video and the kinds of ways in which we tried to make the play accessible and modern and current and alive and in this moment - led us to making certain decisions like that, so that audiences were seeing our show and seeing images that they had already seen at some point on the news channels or they were going home after the performance was over and watching them on their news channels. So, it's sort of a testament to the fact that even this 450-year-old play can still teach us... [Pause.] how little we've learned and also how much we've learned.

PC: Sam also virtually reinvented the characterization of Gemma Jones's role in the show, as well, as sort of a spectre and oracle - intoning the future that this present taking place in the play will eventually bring because of what is happening in front of us.

KS: That's interesting you say that. As you know, that role is usually a very small role, but Sam had this idea that she was this, like, soothsayer, and he had her, in a sense, haunting me and everyone through the evening - making predictions; seeing into the future and knowing exactly what would happen to Richard. And, I found that sort of interesting - Gemma was so brilliant and she gave such a great performance, too. It's really hard for me to understand how Olivier could see fit to cut that entire role out of his film version.

PC: And Elizabeth is cut completely out of McKellen's film!

KS: I know! The women have not been given a good break in the films of RICHARD III.

PC: How bizarre.

KS: We were very, very happy that all of the roles were so well-served by this production, though - especially the women. I mean, for example, I think that Haydn probably thought that her role would be severely cut or barely there - as it is in many cases - so when she went to read Sam's version she was probably fully expecting to turn the play down. But, then, it was like, "Oh, sh*t! These women are incredibly powerful and the real center of the play. It's not just a man's world." And, ultimately, that was what led Haydn to accepting the play, even though she didn't think she wanted to do the tour.

PC: This adaptation is almost the complete text - at least 70% or so.

KS: Yeah - it is.

PC: Did you have any hand in the adaptation or certain moments you wanted to ensure were going to be kept?

KS: Actually not. You see, Pat, there are two areas that I don't touch - one of them is the adaptation; and, the other is casting.

PC: No doubt wise choices - or a lack of choices, as the case may be.

KS: I am a big believer in trusting the directors that I hire and that's exactly what I have done since my tenure at the Old Vic began [as artistic director]. You know, there are occasional times where you have a leading role and you know who is going to play that or you have somebody in mind you might think be right and you might suggest that or something like that to a director, but I never put my finger in that pie. I believe it's very important that a director never feel like one hand is tied behind their back.

PC: An ideal example of perfect casting recently at the Old Vic would undoubtedly be Seth Numrich in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH opposite Kim Cattrall. Did you have a hand in his casting?

KS: Oh, well, that was a delightful circumstance. In fact, again, it was an example of the benefits of doing lots of workshops with emerging talents like I try to do as much as I can. I first saw Seth in a workshop that I did at Juilliard in 2007 - he was still a student. And, I knew then that he was going to work and then immediately after he got out of Juilliard he started working!

PC: You predicted it!

KS: I knew it. I remember I saw him work with Al Pacino right after he got out of school and then WAR HORSE came along right after that - and she ended up being the director of SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH [Marianne Elliott]. So, I am extremely happy that we were able to bring him over to London and he was fantastic in the production.

PC: You were famously mentored by Jack Lemmon and you have continued that tradition - Nathan Darrow, for instance, worked with you on RICHARD III and now plays Meechum on HOUSE OF CARDS.

KS: That's right. And, also, Jeremy Bobb, was in RICHARD III and was also in the first season of HOUSE OF CARDS, as well. But, yeah, you're right - I am just a big believer in that that's what we're supposed to do. You know, you get to a certain place and you want to pass on the knowledge. I know when I look back at my own career, it's not just Jack Lemmon who helped me - it's Joe Papp and Alan Pakula and Al Pacino; and, my drama teacher in high school, too! It goes back to when I was very young and people took me under their wing and gave me a shot and a chance when nobody else wanted to and changed my life in doing so. So, it's hugely important to me that I pick up that mantle and do exactly the same for others.

PC: Did it seem somehow fated for HOUSE OF CARDS to happen when you became involved with it shortly after finishing the RICHARD III experience? Obviously, RICHARD III is a very heavy influence.

KS: Well, actually, I think the timing worked out so that I knew I was going to do HOUSE OF CARDS before I started on RICHARD III.

PC: What was the exact sequence of events as you remember them?

KS: When Sam and I announced the Bridge Project, we did not announce that I would be doing RICHARD III - basically because I didn't want to shadow the first two years. So, we said I would be doing the Bridge Project at some point, but we didn't announce what play I was going to do - and that's because, frankly, we didn't know until the middle of the second year of the Bridge Project. Then, I think we announced RICHARD III only six or seven months before we started rehearsals. By that point, I had already been shooting THE SOCIAL NETWORK, which I executive-produced. Did you know that?

PC: Of course.

KS: When I was on set doing THE SOCIAL NETWORK with David Fincher, my associate producer, Dana Brunetti, had already suggested the idea of him and I working together again and had discussed it. And, then, Fincher and I started talking about it and we became aware of the fact the rights for the British series HOUSE OF CARDS were available and Fincher hadn't seen it, but I had seen it - so, he went off to watch it and I went off to re-watch it.

PC: What a pleasurable opportunity!

KS: It was. So, after that, we came back together and we both thought that it would translate rather well to the United States and we then went off and did other projects. I think in terms of timing, we made the deal with Netflix and I knew it was coming before RICHARD III, though. So, in a weird way, it was fortuitous and kind of brilliant that I was able to have this experience of playing this character that Francis Underwood is based on before I started shooting HOUSE OF CARDS and actually playing him. But, chronologically, it was reversed.

PC: SPOILER ALERT! The final scene of the second season is so electrifying - and that final shot is simply unforgettable; especially how you punch the desk, wearing the ring. Can you take me through arriving at that moment and how RICHARD III informs it?

KS: It was very interesting. The development of that scene in particular was a very interesting series of conversations with Beau [Willimon] and lots of discussions for a long period of time about, you know, what happens in that room. Since we had made the decision that he would go into that room on his own, I knew that I wanted to do something that was not about him questioning how he had gotten there, but, in a sense, was in some way symbolic of the fact that he was ready to get to work. That was such a clever invention of Beau's - the tapping of the ring. You know, we have to be really careful about what we say in this conversation, Pat!


KS: Exactly! Exactly. As you probably know, though, Beau wrote that in the original season about the ring, and, ultimately, it was explained in the first season why he does that gesture and makes that move - tapping the ring. So, I knew that the audience would know what that was and what it meant, and, it was fantastic to be able to have a scene with that kind of impact take place without a word being spoken.

PC: Robin Wright as Claire Underwood is a Lady MacBeth in the making if there ever were one. Have you two ever discussed doing MACBETH someday?

KS: Well, for me, personally, I don't like MACBETH as a play...

PC: Too bloody? Too dark?

KS: It's just not a role I would ever want to play. I really don't feel anything for it, you know?

PC: Did you consider playing Leontes in the Bridge Project production that kicked off the series, THE WINTER'S TALE? You seem such a great fit for that role.

KS: No, I didn't, actually. I absolutely knew that I wasn't going to do the first two years - and, when we decided we were going to do that play, we already knew Simon was going to play that role. But, as I said, I am not somebody who covets parts anyway - I don't sit around with a bucket list thinking, "Oh, here's my bucket list! I have to do these." I am just not driven that way.

PC: HORRIBLE BOSSES, RICHARD III and HOUSE OF CARDS in roughly a year's time certainly shows your versatility.

KS: [Laughs.] Look, it's fun to mix it up and the most fun that I find is when you do things that are unexpected and different kinds of challenges. I mean, I feel so blessed to have had so many alleys to walk down and roads to walk - it's just been a blast.

PC: Did you ever consider continuing the RICHARD III tour or re-teaming everyone to mount it again down the line - maybe on Broadway?

KS: Well, we had lots of discussions about that, constantly - even discussions that were ongoing while we were on tour, actually; I was trying to get to India and I was trying to get to Moscow, particularly. There were a number of other cities that I wanted to try to get to, but it became incredibly cost-prohibitive and very difficult to negotiate terms in certain countries.

PC: Which is more than logistically understandable.

KS: Plus, twelve cities... [Laughs.] that's enough, I think!

PC: Such amazing venues, as well. Did you have a favorite? The Greek amphitheatre must have been totally mind-blowing.

KS: Yes. There's no doubt that Epidaurus was, for all of us, such a unique and such an extraordinary place to find ourselves on a stage where it, really, all began. The sense of continuity and the sense of being a part of something so much bigger than yourself was pretty, pretty amazing.

PC: History continuing on, just with a new cast.

KS: I have to say, though, that - in all honesty - playing Richard III on the Old Vic stage, where Laurence Olivier and so many others had played the role before and this place which had become my home, was, for me, the best theater of all out of the many we were fortunate enough to play in around the world.

PC: "The ancient stones", as Elizabeth says in RICHARD III, reside in the Old Vic for you.

KS: Absolutely.

PC: Last question: when will we get to hear you sing again? Have you considered doing another musical - onstage or onscreen?

KS: Well, here's a couple things for you about that, Pat! First of all, I recently did a concert down in Miami for the Adrienne Arsht Center For The Performing Arts last month. Then, I did a concert at Macao to launch Best Buddies, which is Anthony Shriver's great charity. And, more recently, just a few weeks ago, I opened the Rainforest Concert with Sting and James Taylor - doing "Well, Did You Evah?" from HIGH SOCIETY!

PC: Cole Porter?! No way!

KS: Way. It was great, great fun. Then, at Carnegie Hall, all by myself - solo - with a huge orchestra, I sang "That's Life", the great old Frank Sinatra tune, too.

PC: Incredible.

KS: So, to answer your question: I am doing more singing these days and I am enjoying it very much, so I hope to do more.

PC: What a Ben in FOLLIES you will be! We can dream, right?!

KS: [Laughs.]

PC: Thank you so much for this today, Kevin. You're an icon.

KS: Thank you, Pat. Thanks for doing this - I much appreciate it. Bye bye, buddy.

View the trailer for NOW starring Kevin Spacey as Richard III below.

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)