Kevin Spacey was recently in Manhattan for a mad round of publicity for his new film Casino Jack, based on the rise and fall of rightwing Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was sentenced to prison in 2006 after pleading guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials, which also included the bilking of Native-American tribal casinos for $85 million. Abramoff was released on December 4 from the halfway house to which he was paroled after serving three-and-a-half years of his six-year sentence. The film, opening on December 17, has turned out to be a coda to the man's incarceration.
People have different reasons for the way they live their lives. You cannot put everyone's reasons in the same box.
It has also, sadly, turned out to be the coda for its director's career. George Hickenlooper, who was only 47 years old, unexpectedly died on October 30, and Spacey was determined to carve out some space in his busy schedule as artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre Company not so much to hype yet another of his films, but instead to pay homage to director Hickenlooper, whose own carefully considered cockeyed take on the world is reflected in both the film and Spacey's characterization. With Hickenlooper often giggling behind the camera as he choreographed unexpected comedic rhythms in the Washington lobbyist's wastrel swagger, Spacey aces Abramoff, coupling his ease and bravery as an actor to produce yet another bravura performance. Just yesterday that performance was recognized with a nomination for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture/Comedy or Musical.
I met Spacey at the London Hotel and we reminisced about our roster of teachers at The Juilliard School of Drama—I was class of 1975, he attended from 1979-1981—and how innocence and ambition were such a heady mix in those hallways back then. We also bonded over our appreciation for Kenneth Tynan. The collection of the late critic's diary entries, edited by John Lahr, has been my subway reading lately and I had placed it on the table where we were seated. "He's one of my favorite people ever," said Spacey, so I pointed out to him a passage that took place at the Old Vic, where Tynan served as literary manager for the British Royal National Theatre under the artistic directorship of Sir Laurence Olivier before the company moved to its current home on London's South Bank. I thought Spacey would silently read it and perhaps knowingly grin. Instead he gave me a private performance, reading aloud in his plumiest put-on voice as he captured the rather lurid delight that a libertine and wordsmith of Tynan's tireless caliber had to have felt at the sound of his own.
KEVIN SPACEY (Reading from Tynan's entry of January 15, 1972): "What is the best theatrical impromptu I've ever heard? Probably John Gielgud's during the dress rehearsal of Peter Brook's production of Seneca's Oedipus at the Vic. Irene Worth as Jocasta had to pretend to impale herself vaginally on a large wooden sword fixed point upwards on the stage. To do this she went through a lot of protracted squatting motions, with appropriately agonized expressions. At the dress rehearsal she stopped in mid-squat and, shading her eyes, peered out into the auditorium. 'Peter,' she said, plaintively. 'The last time I did this it was much larger and it was on a plinth.' 'Plinth Charles?' said John G. 'Or Plinth Philip?'"
KEVIN SESSUMS: I guess we should be careful since last month "Plinth Charles," on behalf of the queen, awarded you the CBE at Clarence House for your services to drama. But is such fun still being had at your iteration of the Old Vic?
It is. The thing that is so great about my having gone there is that people from the public send me old programs, old books, old photographs. So I've been able to read a lot of its particular history. As an example, the artistic director back in 1957 saw this young actress in drama school and thought she was pretty special—much, I might add, to the shock of the rest of the company—but he pulls her into the company anyway. He even put her onstage as Juliet. Her name: Judi Dench.
And yet it wasn't always so hoity-toity. When it was founded in 1818 it was a "minor" theatre instead of a "patent" one so no serious drama could be performed there. It wasn't until one of your predecessors, George Davidge, hired Edmund Kean in 1824 to do six Shakespeare plays in six nights that its course was set—though Kean, at one of his curtain calls, is reported to have said, "I have never acted to such a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes as I see before me." Which brings us full circle: The same thing could have been said by Abramoff at the end of Casino Jack when he is railing in his "fantasy soliloquy" at the Senate panel before him.
One of the reasons we did that scene in that way is that when we met Abramoff in prison—George Hickenlooper and I—he told us that if he had known he was going to jail he would have never taken the Fifth at that Senate hearing. So George and I drove away from prison that day wondering what would that scene have been like if he had really spoken his mind. What I liked about it on two fronts was that it was another way into his psychology and into telling the story in a more humorous and entertaining way, but also it underscored the hypocrisy of many of the senators sitting on that panel who had taken money from Abramoff or, in the case of John McCain, had been being paid through contributions by competing Native-American tribal casinos to do the very thing that Abramoff was doing.
You're so busy with the Old Vic now, a film role has to be quite special to draw you to it these days. Why Abramoff?
For my first five or six seasons there, the Old Vic came first. I did not have the time to go away and play a central role in a movie. So with the exception of HBO's Recount I have not played a central role in a film since Beyond the Sea. But now we are running like a well-oiled machine. I have an extraordinary staff and I believe in delegating. So that's partly it—I have more time now. And the second reason was George was the director.
What most people don't know is that I was cast in this film on Facebook, which, my being an executive producer on The Social Network is a bit ironic. George had written on his Facebook page that I would be a good candidate to play Abramoff. And then someone contacted my producing partner, Dana Brunetti, and asked him if he had seen this thing that George had written on Facebook. So Dana "poked" George on Facebook and they began talking. Then George and I got on the phone and had a couple of conversations and he ended up coming over to London and we walked around for a whole day going to pubs and talking about the film. It was his enthusiasm and his understanding of the issues and our shared love of politics and his determination to do something that would be entertaining and not dull and to be able to work with this man who I think made the definitive behind-the-scenes documentary about filmmaking in Hearts of Darkness—all that combined to make me want to do the movie.
At first you're not sure if you're supposed to be laughing at some of the scenes. It catches you off-guard.
But these kinds of stories based on real events—like Recount and now Casino Jack—are filled with characters that are so larger than life and the decisions and judgments are so outrageous and the excesses even more outrageous when money and power and influence become such an integral part of the political process. All of that is so crazy that it is inherently funny. You couldn't fucking write this shit. It's far more funny because it is real. We're not making this stuff up. This shit happened.
You're a political animal yourself. You're a good friend of the Clintons.
I've been intrigued by politics my whole life. And, yes, I am very close to the Clintons. I was a Hillary person until I was an Obama person. And she was a Hillary person too until she was an Obama one, evidently.
Will the new Tory/Liberal government in England and its austerity measures affect the budget of the Old Vic?
Interesting you should bring that up…I decided I would try and see if I could make an economic model by which we could run a major British theatrical institution without any public funds. Because what I was afraid of is that if I relied on public subsidies then a new government at some point would be formed and they are going to make arts cuts. So guess what? A new government was formed and they announced 30 percent arts cuts over the next few years and it doesn't affect us at all. Yet since I spend about 70 percent of my time fundraising I do have a certain sense of what it is like to be a lobbyist. Maybe that's what drew me to Abramoff.
May I talk to you man-to-man? We can go off the record for this if you want.
You're conducting this interview so you can stay on the record if you wish. I don't mind.
OK, but at any point you want to go off-the-record let me know. Casino Jack has a tribal motif running through it. There is Abramoff's taking advantage of the Native-American tribes and playing them off each other. There is the tribe of lobbyists in D.C., which is itself a tribal town. And there is his deep identification as a Jew that almost takes on tribal aspects in its religiosity. As I sat in the screening watching all these tribal narrative streams blend together I began to feel compelled to put this to you. We gay men have always proudly claimed you as a member of our tribe, and yet you don't proudly claim us back. Why?
Look, I might have lived in England for the last several years but I'm still an American citizen and I have not given up my right to privacy.
But that's where we differ. I don't think being gay is a private matter. Heterosexuals don't consider their heterosexuality itself a private matter. I'm not asking you what goes on behind a locked door anymore than I would ask a heterosexual. I'm not asking if you're a top or bottom. That's none of my business.
Let's enlarge the subject even more. I think what we have seen in terms of gay teenagers committing suicide because of bullying is anguishing. I think young people, if they are feeling like they are confused, need to know that there are people to talk to and that there are places they can go and not feel alone. But I feel that they have just as many rights as I do to not be bullied. And I don't understand people who say, "Well, this is a terrible thing that is happening to this young person whose life is being exposed," and then turn around and do it to another person. People have different reasons for the way they live their lives. You cannot put everyone's reasons in the same box. It's just a line I've never crossed and never will.
Well, I don't equate my discussing this with you as bullying you. You are an accomplished grown man, not a fearful teenager. But would you do one of those "It Gets Better" videos? I think that would be great if you did one of those.
Yeah. Absolutely. I'd do one of those. But why is it in this country that kids might think it's OK to bully and make fun of somebody? I'll tell you why, because what do they see in the media happening all the time? In the media they seem to think that's OK So if we stop using sexuality as a weapon against people maybe everyone will eventually get cool with it.
But I'm not attacking you. I don't see sexuality as a weapon. I see it as a gift. Look, I know that being an actor—and all the emotion and sexuality and longing that is projected onto you in a role by an audience—complicates the issue in that you have to take into account their required complicity in the very essence of your art. No performance is complete until their belief is a part of it. But I stopped being an actor after I left Juilliard because I couldn't live a lie to enable myself to pretend. That was too much of a double whammy.
I don't live a lie. You have to understand that people who choose not to discuss their personal lives are not living a lie. That is a presumption that people jump to.
There are lies of omission. But I have never heard that you are at all hypocritical in your daily life with your close friends and family. You've admitted you're a political animal so you have to understand the social significance of your being more open when discussing this. But you've been great to keep this all on the record. I appreciate that. That speaks to your innate integrity.
Look, at the end of the day people have to respect people's differences. I am different than some people would like me to be. I just don't buy into that the personal can be political. I just think that's horseshit. No one's personal life is in the public interest. It's gossip, bottom line. End of story. Now some people feed that. They'll go to the trendy restaurants where all the photographers are and then bitch about being famous. But if you don't want to feed that and you want your life to be based around what your work is then it ends there. Your saying that you are gay and that is how you walk about in the world and it has nothing to do with your true private life is a good distinction for you to draw. But it's not such a good distinction for other people. Personally, I don't really think that distinction exits. Look, I think finally this is a very important issue to be discussed. I do. Mainly because of how sad it is that young people in this country—and even around the world where they don't have the freedoms and rights we do—are being subjected to the kinds of abuse they are being subjected to. That's what is shameful.
OK. Enough. Let's call a truce and, yes, get back to your life's work. A part of it has been centered on Eugene O'Neill plays. Jack Lemmon became your mentor when he played James Tyrone in the production of Long Day's Journey Into Night in which you played Jamie. Your Hickey in The Iceman Cometh has become legendary and most recently you played Jim Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Not since Jason Robards has there been an actor so attuned to O'Neill. Those plays have given us still more stunning proof of your protean talent as an actor. Why are you so adept at O'Neill? Few are.
I don't know. I didn't come from an alcoholic family. We were never drunk and screaming at each other. Maybe there is something in those plays that helps you recognize in those characters the goodness that they could have had. The career that James Tyrone could have had. And because he's self-aware it makes him tragic but it also makes him likable. The life that Mary Tyrone could have had. The life that Jamie could have had. O'Neill—like Williams in this regard—is just one of those playwrights that nothing came between his heart and his pen. Or really the pencil in O'Neill's case. It is what I admire about all great writing, that ability to expose everything, both the good and the bad.
But, unlike O'Neill's characters, you are certainly leading the life that you were meant to lead.
I am so leading the life that I want and wanted and dreamed of as a kid. I'm trying very hard not to abuse it or take advantage of it. I feel so grateful to be doing what I do and in the way that I'm doing it. I am lucky in that my mother a long time ago when I was very young said to me, "If you are lucky enough to have a dream come true in your life, make sure you have another dream." So now I am working on what is my next dream after the Old Vic.
Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on the Mountain will be published by St. Martins Press.