THERE'S A SET of Hollywood actors who, with their charisma, charm and impeccable manners, you can easily picture moving from the fluffy world of Tinseltown to the hallowed halls of Congress. Members of this clique, such as George Clooney or Sean Penn, are able to straddle the worlds of entertainment and activism with aplomb, often eliciting rumours about impending runs for office that never actually materialise.
Kevin Spacey, the two-time Academy Award winner who rose to stardom in the 1995 crime thriller The Usual Suspects, belongs to this lineage of thespians: a no-nonsense talent who focuses on his craft without paying attention to the hubbub surrounding celebrity culture or providing fodder for the tabloids. Spacey is at home acting in blockbusters such as Superman Returns, which allow him to finance smaller, independent projects, as well as onstage in a Shakespearean drama such as Richard III (he has also been artistic director of The Old Vic in London since 2003).
It was Spacey's most recent foray into the world of scripted series that cemented his role as a guy not afraid to take risks. When streaming website Netflix decided to compete in the big leagues of production companies with its first serial drama, naysayers dismissed the undertaking as a doomed project from a new-media upstart. But from the moment House of Cards, the political drama starring Spacey, was released, it took the entertainment world by storm, sending shivers down the backs of Hollywood moguls with its innovative distrib-ution approach.
The sleekly produced show, which gives dramas by long-established channels like HBO a run for their money, turned the old model of showing series in weekly instalments on a pre-set schedule completely on its head. Netflix releases each season in its entirety, letting viewers binge on all of it at once or watch it at their convenience. Whether companies like Netflix or Amazon, which also plans to produce its own content, will dethrone the Hollywood studios is a matter of speculation, but there's no doubt that House of Cards has become the poster child for a big shift in the entertainment world.
On a recent visit to Macau to take part in an evening gala organised to raise funds for the charity Best Buddies, which supports mentorship and friendship programmes for people with intellectual disabilities, Spacey, who serves as ambassador to the charity, sat down for a predinner chat.
You've brought many theatre productions to Asia. Can you tell us more about that?
I had an incredible time when I came to China. To me, tremendously exciting things are happening in terms of China beginning to open itself up a bit more. There are times that you can do things culturally, but you can't do politically. What has been very exciting to watch over the last few years is how also the film industry is shifting and moving, not just with the financing, but I think that new ideas and new storytelling areo; going to come out of Asia, and also Silicon Valley; those are the two places where I think that it's shifting over the next decade. So it's been incredibly exciting for me to be a part of bringing theatre here, but I also did a film [Inseparable] here, in Guangzhou, with Daniel Wu. It made me the first Western actor ever to star in a fully financed Chinese film. I actually had to speak a little bit of Mandarin. I think that there's just something going on that's quite exciting. When I was in Beijing I went to the 798 district; it was fantastic, there was a lot of expression and freedom about that expression that it seemed that the government was completely willing to let this artistic thing happen as long as people aren't pointing fingers to what it's supposed to mean. My point is that they seemed to be open to allowing both an artist and the viewer to interpret anything they want, so it's a very interesting thing to see a little bit of openness and a little bit of allowing things to happen.
You mentioned a shift in the production of films to Silicon Valley. What about the groundbreaking model of House of Cards?
It's been very exciting to be a part of this shift, and to me it sort of signals a couple of facts: one, the audiences love to be in control, they love being able to decide how they're going to let their entertainment fall at their feet, in a sense that they can treat it like a book, pick it up when they want to pick it up, put it down when they want to put it down. Two, I think it's showing that we've learned the lesson the music industry didn't learn: if you get them what they want, when they want it, at a reasonable price, in the format they want it in, they will probably buy it and not steal it. This new model will take a bite out of piracy; it doesn't mean people won't steal, some people will steal, but I think it will help, and so I think that in many ways it shows the audience just doesn't care about what platform it's on; they just want to be in contact, they just want things to be good.
Would you agree that most good storytelling is coming from TV now rather than cinema?
I would tell you that in 1990 I sat at a table at the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award tribute to Sir David Lean, who directed Lawrence of Arabia. He spent his entire acceptance speech giving a warning to Hollywood. He said, I don't mind that you want to make parts 1,2,3,4 and sequels, but I'm very nervous about the film business now because you're not supporting emerging, trailblazing filmmakers of the future, and if you don't, we're going to lose it all to television. He said this in 1990, and nobody paid any attention. And it was only eight years later that The Sopranos debuted on HBO and forever changed the landscape. So look, it makes sense to me that as the film industry has focused more on the blockbusters, the ground has moved to television, and so storytellers and producers and writers and directors have gone over to where character-driven drama is being given an extraordinary platform.
Let's talk about your career. you've often been typecast as the villain. Why do you think that is?
The funny thing is that I never played a villain other than Richard III in the theatre. I've played all kinds of comedies and all kinds of roles in film as well, but it certainly does seem that some of the ones that stick with people are those roles. I don't think it's me; I think that people just dig those roles.
You also seem to be relatively private and low-key compared with other celebrities.
I don't look at the temporal or the fashionable necessarily; I look at people who will stand the test of time, people who are doing great work, who are interested in challenging themselves, challenging their audiences, people like Cate Blanchett, Edward Norton, Sean Penn; they've had very long careers and there are lots of people who sort of come and go.
I also know that mentorship played a big role in your career and you were very close to Jack Lemmon.
I got to be a part of an education programme when I was growing up because there was money in arts and schools and workshops and professional productions, and I got to meet people. And Jack Lemmon was running a workshop when I was 13 and he put his hand on my shoulder when I finished a scene, and said that I should go to New York to study to be an actor – that I was born an actor and was meant to do it. For me, as a shy 13-year-old, to have an idol of mine tell me that I can do it, it was really a life-changing moment. It was just the brilliance of life in the way you can never expect how things will turn out, that 13 years later I would end up playing his son in a Broadway production of Long Day's Journey into Night, and he became an incredible friend, and the most important mentor in my life. We ended up doing three films together, including Glengarry Glen Ross, so the length of time Jack was in my life was a strong influence on my own foundation, which I base very much on his philosophy. He had this wonderful phrase, which is that if you've done well in the business you wanted to do well in, then it's your obligation to spend a portion of time to send the elevator back down, so my foundation's logo is the button you push to send the elevator up and down.
Is that why you decided to work with Best Buddies, which supports mentorship programmes?
I've been an ambassador for Best Buddies for over a decade. I think I did the first thing with Anthony and Maria Shriver back in 1997. We did an event recently in Washington, DC with a bunch of kids. It's not just about seeing somebody who has challenges, because when you give them a little encouragement, when you guide them a little bit, when you just help them along, and you suddenly see in the young kids' faces that wonderful thing of suddenly realising they have something they didn't know they had; that they're capable of things they didn't know they were capable of, they learn about collaboration, about self-esteem, and they're able to stand up for themselves and express themselves; it's an extraordinary thing. I think that clearly Anthony and the whole Kennedy family and the Shriver family have a lifetime of extraordinary public service, so I'm very happy that Best Buddies is launching here in Macau.