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Friday, May 2, 2014

Kevin Spacey Brings Shakespeare To The World

Kevin Spacey is known for his work in film, for example, his Oscar-winning roles in “American Beauty” and “The Usual Suspects,” and for the Netflix TV series “House of Cards.”

But he also has a deep-seated love of theater. Spacey has served as the artistic director of British theater company Bristol Old Vic for the past decade.

A new documentary, “Now: In the Wings on a World Stage,” highlights that love. The film is showing in theaters and is available on cable, on demand, beginning today.

“Now” follows the Bridge Company, which Spacey formed with Sam Mendes, director of “American Beauty,” and Joseph Melillo, executive director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as they tour the world with their production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

Spacey speaks to Here & Now’s Robin Young about what it was like to perform the title role, and the similarities between Richard III and Frank Underwood, the character he plays in “House of Cards,” which is also based on “Richard III.”

Interview Highlights: Kevin Spacey

On Richard III as a character

Kevin Spacey as Richard, Duke of Gloucester during a performance of "Richard III" in Epidaurus, Greece as part of the Bridge Project tour. (Jeremy Whelehan)

Kevin Spacey as Richard, Duke of Gloucester during a performance of “Richard III” in
Epidaurus, Greece as part of the Bridge Project tour. (Jeremy Whelehan)

“He’s certainly one of the most iconic of Shakespeare’s villainous characters. And I suppose now that I’ve had the chance to play it, I can understand why actors have been so drawn to it, because there is a bit of the actor in Richard III. And for audiences that may not realize that the character I play on ‘House of Cards,’ Francis Underwood, was in fact based on Richard III when Michael Dobbs wrote the original book and they did the original British series. That’s why, for example, when I break the fourth wall in ‘House of Cards,’ that’s something that we call ‘direct address.’ And while there may be people out there who think that direct address was invented by Ferris Bueller, it actually was invented by Shakespeare. And so it was just sort of remarkably fortuitous that I had just finished the run of our 10 months and over 200 performances as Richard III when I started shooting the first season on ‘House of Cards.’”

On Richard III and Frank Underwood in ‘House of Cards’

“The characters have certain similarities. I think that one of the things I would say about both of them are they have this uncanny ability to predict the way that people are going to respond and react to things, and that allows both of them as figures, sort of toiling their way through a political world, to be able to be about 16 chess moves ahead.”

On bringing together British and American actors in ‘Richard III’

The "Richard III" Company on a boat cruise on the Bosphorus whilst on tour in Istanbul, Turkey. (Jeremy Whelehan)

The “Richard III” company on a boat cruise on the Bosphorus whilst on tour in Istanbul, Turkey. (Jeremy Whelehan)

“There was an afternoon a number of years after I’d begun at the Old Vic, where Sam and I had lunch in New York and Sam said to me, ‘We’re missing something that’s right in front of us and that I think has to be a part of whatever it is we do together.’ And I said ‘what?’ He goes, ‘I’m a British director, living in New York, directing plays and doing films. You’re an American actor, living in London, running one of the most important theaters in the world. There is something about that — that bridge between our cultures — that you and I are making even stronger by being where we are and doing what we’re doing, that I want whatever we do to have some aspect of that.’ And that is where the idea of the Bridge project was born. The whole exercise was: it doesn’t matter where you’re from and it doesn’t matter how you sound, you can make Shakespeare come alive.”

On famous people like him acting in plays

“Our job is to get them into the seat, and once they’re in that seat, in 15 minutes they usually forget that they know you from this or that. And they start to accept that you are this character in this play and they go into this world. And by the end of the evening, you hope, if you’ve done your job, that you’ve just planted a seed for a young person to love the living theater.”

On whether the other actors were starstruck by him

“Eventually everybody gets over that. I mean, yeah, that might have been true in the first few days of rehearsal, but I am a company man. I have always been a company man. I will die a company man. And that’s why I don’t want to be in a star dressing room where I’m isolated. The movies do that enough to actors. We don’t need that in the theater.”

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. Quick, think of your favorite cutthroat, ruthless character. Perhaps Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood in the Netflix series "House of Cards" comes to mind. Well, he's got nothing on Kevin Spacey's Richard III, and as we'll hear, they are connected. Kevin Spacey has a longstanding love of the theater. He's been artistic director of Britain's Old Vic for 10 years. And in 2009, he and "American Beauty" director Sam Mendes formed the company of English and American actors called the Bridge Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOW: IN THE WINGS ON A WORLD STAGE")

YOUNG: They toured the world with Shakespeare's "Richard III" in 2011.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There was this feeling among some of the Americans that, well, you know, the British have grown up with Shakespeare, so, you know, you've got it in your blood. So you're going to be - you know, you'll just be better at it, you are better at it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's like a big sort of stigma, I think, for Americans doing classical plays that you - it feels like they've got some angle on it that we don't have, or they - or that there even is a they or an us. It's like so absurd.

YOUNG: Well, now those who didn't get to see this company of actors come together in Greece or Beijing or Doha can see the new documentary "Now: In the Wings on a World Stage" and watch Kevin Spacey develop his character, the hunchbacked and lame Richard who murders his way to the throne in England.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOW: IN THE WINGS ON A WORLD STAGE")

KEVIN SPACEY: What would it be like if you were born that way, if you had heard everyone call you every name in the book, if you had in your blood ambition and royalty? How long would it take you to overcome those disabilities that people made fun of? How long would it take you to turn those into strengths and not weaknesses?

YOUNG: Kevin Spacey in the new documentary "Now," ruminating on his role, Richard III. The film is in theaters and available On Demand today, and Kevin Spacey joins us from Washington to talk about it. Welcome.

SPACEY: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: I was explaining to somebody Richard III, and it's sort of like as I was watching it. It's kind of a "Despicable Me" for the Shakespeare set.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: How would you describe this character?

SPACEY: Well, he's certainly one of the most iconic of all of Shakespeare's villainous characters. And I suppose now that I've had the chance to play it, I can understand why actors have been so drawn to it because there is a bit of the actor in Richard III. And for audiences that may not realize that the character I play on "House of Cards," Francis Underwood, was in fact based on Richard III.

That's why, for example, when I break the fourth wall in "House of Cards," that's something that we call direct address, and while there may be people out there who think that direct address was invented by Ferris Bueller, it actually was invented by Shakespeare.

(LAUGHTER)

SPACEY: And so it was just sort of remarkably fortuitous that I had just finished the run of our 10 months and over 200 performances as Richard III when I started shooting the first season on "House of Cards" So the characters are - have certain similarities. I think that one of the things I would say about both of them are they have this uncanny ability to predict the way that people are going to respond and react to things.

And that allows both of them as figures, sort of toiling their way through a political world, to be able to be about 16 chess moves ahead.

YOUNG: Yeah. I was wondering which role infused the other. And so you're saying you did Richard III first, and so that infuses Frank Underwood, as it infused his very creation by the writer. And just to elaborate a little on that idea of breaking down the fourth wall, your Richard III will murder somebody or strong-arm a woman and then turn to the audience and almost kind of have a who me? Describe more of that relationship that both Richard III and maybe Frank Underwood have with the audience.

SPACEY: Well, it's a very unique, very intimate relationship. The difference, of course, is that on "House of Cards" I'm just looking down the barrel of a lens. But in the theater, I was genuinely looking into the eyes of audiences across three continents in 12 cities around the world.

And what that taught me was this remarkable relationship that you build with an audience, where they are your co-conspirators. And let me tell you something: They loved it. There's a kind of naughty glee on their faces, and a kind of, like, wow, I can't believe I'm getting this inside information from him.

YOUNG: And talk about your relationship with the company. You had the British actors and the American actors. It was really a lot of fun. It was sort of like a - there's a little bit of a whiff of the Sharks and the Jets as they kind of circled each other in the beginning. You know, and we heard them say, the Brits saying, well, they think we do this better, and the Americans saying they think we think they do this better. What was that like, and why did you do that, to bring two groups together?

SPACEY: What happened was there was an afternoon a number of years after I'd begun at the Old Vic, where Sam and I had lunch in New York, and Sam said to me we're missing something that's right in front of us and that I think has to be a part of whatever it is we do together. And I said, what?

He goes, well, I'm a British director, living in New York, directing plays and doing films. You're an American actor, living in London, running one of the most important theaters in the world. There is something about that, that bridge between our cultures that you and I are making even stronger by being where we are and doing what we're doing, that I want whatever we do to have some aspect of that.

And that is where the idea of the Bridge Project was born. The whole exercise was: it doesn't matter where you're from and it doesn't matter how you sound, you can make Shakespeare come alive.

YOUNG: Yeah, and then just the theaters that you got to be in, the Epidaurus in Greece, this carved-out-of-rock amphitheater, where - I mean, it's huge, and yet there's no amplification, do I understand that, on the stage. It was the way the amphitheater was built, the sound carries.

SPACEY: That's correct. It is a 14,000-seat theater, the biggest theater I've ever played, and, yes, an audience can hear - the human voice just carries, and it's the most extraordinary environment to work in. And as Sam says in the course of the documentary, it's the only time in his entire career when he walked into Epidaurus, he wished he was an actor.

YOUNG: Yeah. Just a couple of questions about just the things we get to see. It's such a fly-on-the-wall experience. At one point you hand out angel cards.

SPACEY: Yeah, we do that every night, whatever play I'm doing in London, the last decade. And the game for us is that you pick out a word, and whatever word is on that card, you have to infuse your performance that night with that word.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, we see the scene where you're handing them out, and you're talking at that point about how you don't like to be in the star dressing room, you're kind of sticking your head in, like, hi guys, to talk to the company.

SPACEY: I mean, I literally never am in a star dressing room. I share a dressing room with the other actors.

YOUNG: And yet you are Kevin Spacey. I mean, the kind...

SPACEY: Yeah, well, eventually you know what? I hope people forget that. You know, when people come to see a play, it's a little bit like Bryan Cranston was just talking last week about he's doing this wonderful play on Broadway, where he plays LBJ. He says, you know, there's a lot of young people that are coming to the theater for the first time, and why are they coming? They're coming because they loved "Breaking Bad."

But I don't care why they come, and neither do. Our job is to get them into the seat, and once they're in that seat in 15 minutes they usually forget that they know you from this or that. And they start to accept that you are this character in this play, and they go into this world. And by the end of the evening, you hope, if you've done your job, that you've just planted a seed for a young person to love the living theater.

YOUNG: Well, and I was talking about the company.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Not even the audience. You know, I was talking about the company kind of, you know, at one point saying, well, I'm in awe of him. And you are the - you're not just Kevin Spacey who has had this acting life.

SPACEY: Yeah, but eventually everybody gets over that. You know, I mean, yeah, that might have been true in the first few days of rehearsal, but I am a company man. I have always been a company man. I will die a company man. And that's why I don't want to be in a star dressing room where I'm isolated. The movies do that enough to actors. We don't need that in the theater.

YOUNG: Well, Kevin Spacey, should our paths cross, I will now not only be thinking of your role in the "House of Cards," most recent, but also of this extraordinary Richard III. And you know what? I will not turn my back on you because I'll be afraid you're going to kill me.

(LAUGHTER)

SPACEY: No, I am not anything like the characters I play. I'm just an actor.

YOUNG: Actor Kevin Spacey, his new film is "Now: In the Wings on a World Stage." Thanks so much.

SPACEY: Thank you very much. Have a great day.

YOUNG: And Sacha, I promise you, you see this movie, you will not turn your back on Kevin Spacey. He will kill you.

SACHA PFEIFFER. HOST: He really is a talent.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young.

HOST: And I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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