Being bad has been very good to the Oscar winner, who reminisces about a career full of complex characters

By Chris Nashawaty
February 01, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

During his three decades on stage and screen, Kevin Spacey has played a lot of villains. But Francis Underwood may be his nastiest piece of business yet. The soulless center of David Fincher’s new Netflix series, House of Cards (available for streaming Feb. 1), Underwood is a seemingly genteel South Carolina congressman who’s passed over for secretary of state and plots a chesslike game of political payback with the help of his Machiavellian wife (Robin Wright) and a hungry young Beltway journalist (Kate Mara). ”I think people just like me evil for some reason,” says the 53-year-old actor. ”They want me to be a son of a bitch.” Spacey has been so good at being bad that we often overlook how many different kinds of characters he can play. That’s why we asked the two-time Oscar winner to reflect on some of his most memorable performances.

Heartburn (1986)

Little-known fact: One of Spacey’s earliest roles was in a high school production of The Sound of Music, playing Captain von Trapp to Mare Winningham’s Maria. But his first break on the big screen was as a creepy subway stalker in this Mike Nichols drama.

”I was understudying the Harvey Keitel and Ron Silver parts in Mike Nichols’ play Hurlyburly. About a month after I finished, Mr. Nichols called and said, ‘What are you doing this summer?’ And I said, ‘Let me check my imaginary calendar.’ He said, ‘I’m doing this film, and there’s this part I think you’re right for. It’s this film I’m doing with Meryl and Jack.’ I’m thinking, ‘Okay, that would be Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Yeah, I think I’m free.’ That scene in the subway where I wink at Meryl was shot on my 26th or 27th birthday. I was so terrified that I couldn’t blink, but hey, I got my SAG card.”

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin…and Kevin Spacey? He may have been the least famous face in the cast of this profane, powerhouse David Mamet adaptation, but Spacey proved that he belonged in their company.

”Mr. Pacino came to see me in Lost in Yonkers on Broadway. And before I knew it, I was asked if I could come to a read-through of Glengarry at his office. That film is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. It was like showing up on Arthur Ashe court every day and you’re going to play Lendl, then Murray, then Sampras. Pacino had this scene where he rips me a new a–hole, and he started to go off script and say what a loser I was. When we got to the end, I was like, ‘What the hell was that?’ And he said, ‘I just wanted to give you a little more to get you where you needed to get.’ Extraordinary.”

Swimming with Sharks (1995)

George Huang’s indie about a sadistic movie-studio exec named Buddy Ackerman who terrorizes his assistant (Frank Whaley) gave Spacey his juiciest role yet as a barking big-screen bastard.

”There are stories that I based Buddy on Scott Rudin and Joel Silver. But I didn’t know either of them at that point in my career. I just based it on what was on the page. There’s a story that when Harvey Weinstein was at his worst, his assistants would stick a tape of Swimming With Sharks into his VCR. The reason it’s fun to play characters like that is because that’s not what you’re like in real life. Seriously, I was just acting, if people can believe it.”

Se7en (1995)

David Fincher’s sin-soaked serial-killer blockbuster starred Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box. But it was Spacey’s unbilled appearance late in the film that packed the film’s biggest surprise.

”I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’ve just shot Outbreak, Swimming With Sharks, and The Usual Suspects. All of these films are going to come out before this. And if any of those films do well and I break out in any kind of way, people are going to be waiting for me to show up. They’re gonna know.’ So I made an argument to New Line that I thought it was in the best interest of the film that I not be billed and I not be on posters. They thought I was crazy. But I’m glad it worked out because when people watched the movie two things happened: Oh my God, there he is! And who’s that playing him?”

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Bryan Singer’s brain-scrambling thriller posed the question ”Who is Keyser Söze?” But all audiences wanted to know walking out of the theater was What the hell just happened? Spacey won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Verbal Kint, the meek, physically challenged thief at the heart of the decade’s smartest whodunit.

”I didn’t get it the first time I read it. I was like, What?! I saw it a couple of times in the theater, and you felt this hush. People ask me, ‘What’s the most exciting thing about doing theater? Is it the applause? The laughter?’ No, it’s the silence. It’s when you know you have a thousand people on the edge of their seat and they are breathing or not breathing because of something that just happened. That’s the feeling in the movie theater when that reveal in The Usual Suspects happened. I didn’t expect to win the Oscar. So it was an incredibly moving thing to have happen because my mother was still alive and to have her there — it was a moment I’ll never forget.”

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Curtis Hanson’s Oscar-winning noir intertwined the stories of three Los Angeles vice cops: Russell Crowe’s bare-knuckle brute, Guy Pearce’s ambitious golden boy, and Spacey’s corrupt Jack Vincennes. It was also the first time Spacey discovered he had some clout.

”Curtis Hanson had been trying to cast me in his movies for about five years. But the studios and financiers wouldn’t let him because I was a nobody. I remember when I got nominated for The Usual Suspects, Curtis called and said, ‘I don’t think they can say no now.’ It was a great feeling. I’m enormously proud that I was able to have a death scene that people still remember.”

American Beauty (1999)

Spacey won his second Oscar playing Lester Burnham, a depressed suburban husband and father in the midst of a midlife crisis, which includes an obsession with his daughter’s best friend.

”I knew Sam Mendes from his work in the theater in London, and I knew I wanted to be in whatever he was going to do as his first film. I was so surprised that I was offered the role. I know it’s been the source of some jealousy from Tom Hanks, but then again, Tom Hanks has gotten parts that I haven’t got. I remember after winning the Academy Award, I called Jack Lemmon from backstage because I dedicated my Oscar to him. He said, ‘You son of a bitch, I won my first Oscar in 1950-something and I didn’t win the second one till 1973!’ I don’t know if I’ve ever said this before, but Jack gave me the gold cuff links he wore the night he won the Oscar for Save the Tiger. He said, ‘You wear these tonight for good luck.’ It worked.”

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Spacey’s biopic about ”Mack the Knife” crooner Bobby Darin was a labor of love, not only because he had to muster the courage to sing on screen but also because as the film’s director he struggled for years to get it made.

”Bobby Darin’s story spoke to me because of what he had to overcome. His career lasted only 13 years, and in that time he kept shifting and challenging himself. There was some criticism that I was older than Darin. I never quite understood that. People accept that someone can fly around buildings like a spider, but not an actor who’s a few years older than the character they’re playing?”

Horrible Bosses (2011)

If you ask Spacey what his biggest regret is, it’s not doing more comedy. He got the chance here, torturing Jason Bateman as a smarmy sadist not unlike a certain boss from Swimming With Sharks.

”How could they not cast me after some of the films I’ve done? In some ways it felt like I was getting a chance to do a little Buddy Ackerman again — only in a totally funny context. It was really difficult not to giggle through most of the scenes. I wish they’d offer me more comedies. In real life, people are always like, ‘Hey, you’re really funny!’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, good, why don’t you cast me as a funny person?”’

House of Cards (2013)

For Netflix’s new original series, Spacey reteams with Se7en director David Fincher to play one of his most calculating baddies yet.

”When I was producing The Social Network with David, we started talking about working together again as actor and director. I was also doing Richard III, where you get to directly address the audience, something Ian Richardson, the star of the BBC version of House of Cards, did. And we do it too. It feels like a deliciously naughty secret that you’re sharing with the viewer.”

American Beauty

  • Movie
  • R
  • 121 minutes
  • Sam Mendes