Tired of playing ''Seven''-like maniacs, he convinced Hollywood he was ready for some moral ambiguity

By Josh Wolk
Updated October 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Wyatt Counts/Outline

Kevin Spacey’s performance in ”American Beauty” is already stirring up Oscar talk, which especially pleases the 40-year-old actor because it’s a nuanced role he’d never have been offered back in 1995, when ”The Usual Suspects” and ”Seven” first brought him stardom playing purely evil men. Sure, his new character blackmails his boss and seduces a high school cheerleader. But he’s also emotionally vulnerable: He’s pained that his daughter hates him, and he pleads with his materialistic wife to rediscover their old, spontaneous life. ”I’ve made a gradual shift towards playing characters that aren’t villainous or manipulative or dark in obvious ways,” says Spacey. ”Rather, their moral ground is shifting, and you don’t know what to think about them.”

After Spacey won an Oscar for ”Suspects,” scripts came pouring in that featured nothing but nefarious mustache-twirling villains. He knew he needed to make a change, and starting with 1997’s ”L.A. Confidential” he began choosing roles that offered increasing moral ambiguity. ”I decided it would take four or five years to get to a place where I could say [to Hollywood], ‘Look guys, I can go other places,”’ he says.

And ”American Beauty” marks his latest step onto, if not higher ground, then certainly muddier. ”I couldn’t have done this role after ‘Suspects,”’ he says. ”I don’t think an audience would have gone there, and certainly the industry wouldn’t have gone there. Because this business loves to have you the way they discovered you, and they don’t want to let go of that idea.”

Relax, this doesn’t mean he’ll be grabbing goodie-goodie roles away from Robin Williams anytime soon. Spacey recently finished shooting ”An Ordinary Decent Criminal,” the true story of Martin Cahill (portrayed last year in ”The General”), who was one of Ireland’s most violent crime bosses, yet beloved among the working class for his generosity and quick wit. A gun AND a joke: Meet the kinder, gentler Spacey.

American Beauty

  • Movie
  • R
  • 121 minutes
  • Sam Mendes