Living his dream

Living his dream

On a roll

Living his dream

Kevin Spacey was alternately pacing like a panther and beaming like a proud parent at the back of a Juilliard classroom one recent Thursday morning. At the front of the lecture hall, students from the school’s drama division, where he had once studied, were getting up one by one to perform short monologues while he watched and offered his feedback.

He asked one young actor to play a scene from Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot as if he were talking to someone he’d met on the subway; another to slow down her lines from Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and not get swallowed up in its Southern accent. Spacey’s eyes lit up when one student gave her rendition of a renowned speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, after the title character is presented with a disdainful gift of tennis balls.

“I have such a task for you,” Spacey said with a quiet, carnivorous glee. Then he instructed her to play the scene again as if she were competing in a tennis match. Psyching her up for a second, more energetic delivery, he told her: “You’re going to win this battle. You’re going to send them home in shame.”

With some conviction

When he is not teaching seminars like this one, Spacey, 57, the Academy and Tony Award-winning actor, can be a fearsome competitor in his own work, making unexpected choices and committing to them steadfastly. Now in his fifth season as the detestable President Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards, Spacey will revisit a nobler role in Clarence Darrow, a one-man show about the crusading civil-rights lawyer. Having previously starred in this David W Rintels play at the Old Vic Theater in London, he brought it to the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York on June 15 and 16.

He appears as a crime boss in Edgar Wright’s action caper Baby Driver. And on June 11, he of all people, followed in the footsteps of entertainers like James Corden, Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris when he hosted the Tony Awards. Better known for the steely confidence he exudes — in his performances, and at intimidatingly close range, in conversation later that morning at a Juilliard office — Spacey has embraced his status as an unlikely Tonys’s master of ceremonies. “They didn’t want me in the first place,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. “It’s all uphill for me, from the moment the show starts.”

But from the stories he shared on this visit to Juilliard, where Spacey trained from 1979 to 1981 but did not graduate, he came across more consistently as an actor who, even as a young man, possessed singular skill and the conviction it would take him places, before his résumé caught up. Long after following his high school friend Val Kilmer here, Spacey still slips into seamless impersonations of beloved instructors like his mentor, Marian Seldes, and the fearsome voice teacher Elizabeth Smith (who once told him his voice sounded like the end of a frayed rope).

Spacey can also still vividly recall the disagreement he had with Michael Langham, then the director of Juilliard’s drama division, that prompted him to withdraw from the school. Having been reprimanded for focusing too much on his acting classes, and not enough on the history of theatre, Spacey recalled, “I said, ‘For two years, you’ve been teaching us how to carve out what’s important — how to emphasise, how to underscore. And now you’re telling me I can’t do that in my life?’”
He added: “I went, ‘I think we should call it a day.’”

At the time, Spacey had no job waiting for him; no agent, no prospects. But, he said: “I never lost faith that I was going to make it at some point. That kind of blind — very often, unsupported — faith.” A Broadway career soon followed: By 1986, he was performing in Long Day’s Journey Into Night with his idol Jack Lemmon, and in 1991 he won a Tony for Lost in Yonkers. Next came the movies, and Oscars for The Usual Suspects (1995) and American Beauty (1999).

A certain imperiousness seems to unite Spacey’s best-known roles, up through the dastardly Underwood on House of Cards, whose depraved schemes have outpaced real-life politics by at least a few years. (As Spacey said he joked to the show’s creator, Beau Willimon, “Since things seem to be happening that we’re doing, why don’t we write a bunch of episodes where, like, $500 million gets put into the arts budget?”)

On a new stage

That sense of sureness can make it seem like Spacey does not want or need direction. Thea Sharrock, his director on Clarence Darrow, says that he does but must be approached with self-assurance matching his own. Spacey, who has admired Clarence Darrow since he saw Henry Fonda perform it in 1974, said he was inspired to bring the play to Arthur Ashe Stadium about two years ago after attending an opening-night concert for the U.S. Open.

“The stage was not lit like a tennis match — it was lit like a concert,” he recalled. “I thought, drama happens on that court all the time, but it’s not used for anything other than tennis. I wonder if it could be.” The play was presented in the round, and Spacey said he was hopeful it would draw 5,000 to 10,000 people a night. Spacey relishes the moments when he can interact spontaneously with audience members nearest the stage — “You see the terror,” he said — and said video cameras and big-screen TVs would help him reach those further back in the stadium.

Spacey was largely mum about how he planned to approach the Tonys, except to say: “It’s an opportunity to have a really good time. I don’t think the whole show should be about the host.” The show’s producers, Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, said in an interview that Spacey was, by no means, a last-ditch choice.

“It’s a pretty small pool that you’re fishing in, for people who can pull this off,” Kirshner said. “He can sing, he can dance, he’s got talents he’ll show off that maybe people don’t know he has.” (He did croon pop standards in Beyond the Sea, his biographical film about Bobby Darin, and sang ‘New York State of Mind’ with Billy Joel at a Madison Square Garden concert in April.)

Spacey cited the example set by Johnny Carson, both as a frequent host of the Oscars and in his longtime role on The Tonight Show. “His job was to entertain those 500 people sitting in that audience,” he said. “And that’s my job, to entertain those 6,000 people at the venue. If they have a great time, I believe it will translate.”

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