Q&A: Kevin Spacey on Richard III, the Old Vic and Jack Lemmon

Originally published on May 8, 2014 (Cineplex)

American Beauty’s Kevin Spacey and director Sam Mendes reunite and go on the road in NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage, a documentary dedicated to the experience of being an actor during their staging of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

After winning his second Oscar, Spacey chose theatre as his calling and became the Artistic Director of the Old Vic, one of London’s oldest theatres. He has since stayed in London, producing (and sometimes directing or starring) in productions that have included "Speed-the-Plow," starring Jeff Goldblum; "Complicit," starring Richard Dreyfuss; and "Resurrection Blues," directed by Robert Altman.

His most recent endeavour at the Old Vic is The Bridge Project, a three-year project conceived by the American Beauty pair that brought together collaborators from both sides of the Atlantic in order to produce live theatre.

In NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage, Spacey, Mendes, and their barnstorming troupe of half-British, half-American actors are captured on and off stage as they travel across three continents for the 198 performances of their “Richard III.”

CINEPLEX: What led you to your collaboration with Sam Mendes and The Bridge Project?

Kevin Spacey (Photo)KEVIN SPACEY: Well, it really kind of weirdly started in the year 2000 when I had made the decision to move to London. I knew I was gonna do it in a couple year’s time. I called Sam to tell him I was thinking of doing this because he had run the Donmar Theatre in London for nearly ten years at that point. I thought if anyone could talk me out of it as an idea it would probably be Sam. But I also thought that I wanted to try to get him to the Old Vic and we could do something together. So, that began what ended up being a series of conversations that lasted over years of time, and emails, and breakfasts, and lunches.

I think about in 2005, Sam and I had lunch in New York. He said to me, "There’s something about whatever we do when we come back together that I want to have embraced, this rather unique thing that we’re in," and I said, "Well, what do you mean?" He said, "Well you’re an American actor living in London running one of the most iconic theatres in the world and I’m a British director living in New York directing plays and doing films. There’s something about that bridge […] that I want to find a way to embrace."

What I didn’t know was that he was, at the same time, having conversations with Joe Melillo, who runs the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Joe wanted him to come do plays at BAM.

Ultimately, that’s how and why The Bridge Project was born; the notion of bringing together half of a cast that was British, half of a cast that was American, and coming together and doing classic work and seeing if it didn’t turn out to be s**t. [laughs]

Kevin Spacey (Photo)CINEPLEX: Why did you choose "Richard III"?

KS: There were a lot of choices on the table. Sam and I spent two seasons talking about what we could do and there were many ideas, and many ideas that we would have paired plays with. "Richard III" was always on the table as one of those.

Ultimately, it was really Sam’s decision. I go with my director. So, Sam wanted to do it. He wanted the big, barnstorming, epic production of it. He thought it was a great part for me and, that was what we ended up doing.

CINEPLEX: There were 198 performances in the run of your "Richard III." How did you keep the play fresh each night?

KS: Well, you met that cast! [pause] And that’s what it’s about. It’s about what it is for all of us to get up – not just me. I was the leading character, but I had a group of nineteen actors who helped me keep it fresh, because they were keeping it fresh. They were working on a different part of their game every night.

Then you add the act of being watched in different cities, in different environments, in different countries, in different languages. It would be almost impossible for it not to be fresh over that period of time.

CINEPLEX: What led you to create a documentary about the theatre production and this group of people?

KS: The notion of wanting to capture something about The Bridge Project actually started when Sam Mendes and I were sitting next to each other in the Epidaurus Theatre in the first season. I was watching Simon Russell Beale do "The Winter’s Tale" in that incredible theatre. I was like, first of all, whatever we do, we have to come here and play this theatre because this is just insane. Then we had a long discussion that night.

The wheels of it didn’t start to really move forward until Jeremy Whelan, who is the director, and I started having conversations […] He felt this was something worth capturing. And then, […] in a very, very fast and quick series of decisions, decided to do it. I decided to hire Jeremy to do it because he had been an assistant director on seven productions at the Old Vic. So, he had already been sort of a company member, and I felt much better than hiring some documentary film crew that nobody sort of knows. But he was able to integrate himself and almost become like a member of our company. People forgot that that there were cameras there.

CINEPLEX: Is Now in part your explanation as to why you left Hollywood for the Old Vic?

KS: No. [pause] I mean: It’s such a myth that I left Hollywood, or that I even lived in f**king Hollywood in the first place. [laughs]

No, I made a decision that I wanted to walk toward something, not away from something. That I was interested in doing something that was more of a company rather than an individual. I had been driven individually for a long time, and it had gone better than I could have hoped. But this was not a contest, and this was not a “f**k you” to anybody.

Kevin Spacey (Photo)I love theatre. I loved theatre my whole life. I was ready to run a company, and it was the best decision I could have ever made. I didn’t stop making movies. I just made the decision that I wasn’t going to make any movies that took me away from the Old Vic for more than eight weeks.

The first time I went away from the Old Vic for more than eight weeks was in our ninth season when I started shooting "House of Cards." That’s the first job that I’ve taken that’s taken me away longer than eight weeks.

CINEPLEX: You’re self-distributing the film. Were you inspired by the unconventional Netflix release of "House of Cards"?

KS: I certainly think that’s part of it, but I also think that the industry tends to undervalue films like this.

I did this lecture last year at the Edinburgh Television Festival called the MacTaggart Lecture, which I talked a lot about new platforms and new ways in which people are self-producing and self-releasing. I felt – just, at the end of the day, I decided to walk the walk. So, I’m giving it a shot.

Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot (Photo)CINEPLEX: You were recently honoured at the Museum of the Moving Image, where you mentioned that Jack Lemmon was an influence on your work at the Old Vic. Can you tell me more about that?

KS: Well, Jack Lemmon was an influence on my life, not just my work at the Old Vic. I met him when I was thirteen-years-old. He put his hand on my shoulder, and gave me his sort of blessing as an actor, said that I was a born actor and that I should go to New York and I should study. I then ended up having the chance to work with him on a Broadway play, which we did for about a year, and then we did three films together.

He was my friend, and my mentor and my father figure, and there really isn’t a day that goes by where Jack isn’t in my mind or my heart, and he was one of the kindest and most influential people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He’s a huge influence.

CINEPLEX: Do you have a favourite Jack Lemmon movie?

KS: Oh, my god. [laughs] They keep changing! But I’ll just say Some Like It Hot for the hell of it because if people haven’t seen that one they oughta go out and see it.