Kevin Spacey Plays His 'Cards' Right
by tracey neithercott
Kevin Spacey can do ruthless like no one else. Faraway eyes. A crooked grin. A soft voice spewing cutting words—and a trove of diabolical actions. He has created these mannerisms for his scoundrels, antiheroes, and monsters of the silver screen, and he has won scores of fans with convincing portrayals—a crime boss, a comic-book villain, a serial killer—in blockbusters and award-winning films over a storied 30-year career. These days Spacey is digging into the depths of darkness once again to bring us another menacing character: an ambitious, conniving congressman in Netflix’s hot new miniseries House of Cards.
An adaptation from a British television drama of the same name, with executive producer and Se7en director David Fincher on board, the show casts Spacey as Rep. Francis “Frank” J. Underwood—a Democrat from South Carolina and the House Majority Whip—and Robin Wright as Claire Underwood, Frank’s wife. The timing of the project’s release, which premiered February 1, could not have been better according to Spacey, who also serves as executive producer of the series.
“It’s very interesting that this series started about a month after the last Congress ended its session, which was the least productive Congress in the history of the United States,” Spacey says. “It’s going to be interesting for audiences to look at a fictional congressional whip in a fictional administration who is, yes, ruthless and, yes, perhaps diabolical. But he’s effective.”
Spacey hopes House of Cards viewers will consider the current machinations in Congress as they watch the show’s political figures forsake their principles in exchange for power and influence in Washington. Are flexible ethics necessary for change? Are we indeed entrenched in an era in which both parties believe in political victory at any price? The show’s tagline—“Bad, for a greater good”—suggests that, at least in this fictionalized version of the Capitol, the answer is yes.
Yet, as Spacey points out, some former political leaders were effective not because of constant pivoting, but for laserlike focus and interminable tenacity. He cites former president Lyndon B. Johnson as a real-life example. “People are going, ‘Yeah, he was ruthless. Yeah, he was a bastard. Yeah, he was an unbelievably tough negotiator and in your face.’ But he… passed three civil rights bills in a very short presidency.”
Politics became a point of interest for Spacey decades ago. He’s been involved one way or another since the ’70s, stuffing envelopes for Jimmy Carter and campaigning for Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton when each ran for president. But playing Frank Underwood is about as close as Spacey would like to come to a run for office, or even a role in bureaucracy. “I’m a person who likes to set a goal and then achieve it. I like to get things done,” he says. “I would never walk into a profession where I’d [know] I was going to be frustrated for the rest of my life.”
How close to reality the show comes is up for debate, but it’s not hard to imagine there’s some truth to the dialogue and plot lines. “We were in the middle of filming House of Cards during a presidential election,” Spacey explains. “I’d often get back to the hotel and turn on the TV, and think to myself, ‘Our story lines aren’t that crazy.’”
A Player and a Dealer
In his role as Underwood, Spacey’s so persuasive that it’s hard to merge the image of his character killing a dog in the very first scene of Cards with the actor who, at the moment, is speaking from London, where he is knee-deep in the renovation of the Old Vic, a historic theater in the city’s Waterloo district.
And the same man who playfully impersonates Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, and Katharine Hepburn has been known to snip at audience members whose phones interrupt his theater performances. Says Fincher of Spacey, “He’s an incredibly gifted improviser. He’s very witty, very dry. Oftentimes you don’t realize you’re the butt of a joke by Kevin, and then you’re like, ‘Oh yeah. I get it.’” It all begs the question: Who is Kevin Spacey?
Born in South Orange, New Jersey, and raised in a suburb of Los Angeles, Spacey, the youngest of three children, took to the stage from an early age. He proved leading-man material in high school, where he acted alongside classmates Val Kilmer and Mare Whinningham, then headed to Juilliard for college, leaving after two years to pursue theater in New York City.
His big break came in 1986 when he was cast opposite Jack Lemmon in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. The experience cemented a friendship between Spacey and Lemmon that lasted until Lemmon’s death in 2001. “He was the most important mentor in my life,” Spacey reflects. “He taught me a great deal about being a company member, a great deal about leadership, and a great deal about how to handle success. There isn’t a day that goes by when Jack Lemmon isn’t influencing me in some way.”
His career picked up steam as the ’90s got underway. He won a Tony for his featured role in Lost in Yonkers (he would earn another nomination, this time for Leading Actor, for his role in a 1999 production of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh) and joined Lemmon in the acclaimed film Glengarry Glen Ross. But it wasn’t until 1995 that Spacey became a household name. His portrayal of Roger “Verbal” Kint in The Usual Suspects won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and his turn as John Doe in Se7en proved Spacey a master at crafting complex villains.
“I’m drawn to human beings that are as complicated as I think human beings are,” he says. Complicated like Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential, Jim Williams in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Lester Burnham in 1999’s American Beauty. His layered portrayal of Burnham won him an Oscar, this time for Best Actor.
Though Spacey has done more than two dozen films since American Beauty, his primary focus has been the theater realm—specifically, the Old Vic. A decade ago, Spacey committed to restoring the 195-year-old venue to its former glory, joining the Old Vic Theatre Company as artistic director, a full-time job he is planning to hold for another two years.
There, he transformed into Richard III, a performance he repeated around the world for nearly a year before touching down in Baltimore in 2012 to film the first two episodes of House of Cards. The play, Spacey says, was good practice for his portrayal of Underwood, a character loosely based on Shakespeare’s dark, tragic king.
“What I took from the experience of doing the play was an understanding of the relationship between the audience and the character,” Spacey explains. “I was breaking the fourth wall and looking into the eyes of audiences all over the world. That’s been very helpful to me in playing the direct address in House of Cards, because in that case, I’m just looking at the barrel of a lens.” Fincher recognizes Spacey’s successful technique. “He’s so specific about inflection. He’s so specific about what the words are indicating,” he says.
Underwood’s asides to viewers are part of the show’s charm. With a twitch of the mouth or a quick glance, Spacey skillfully turns viewers into coconspirators and softens Underwood’s hard edges. And that’s what Spacey does best: He creates empathy for a character that a lesser actor might have turned into a one-dimensional villain. “I’ve always found that it’s been in my interest to not judge the characters I play but just to play them,” he says. “It’s a better experience for an audience to come halfway, to be able to make up their own minds about how they feel about a character.” Fincher wanted Spacey for the role at the outset. “We had talked numerous times before [Spacey received the script], and we thought, ‘If we don’t get him, what will we do?’” he says. “Nobody had a good answer.”
So far it seems that audiences are eager to figure out just what Underwood is all about. At press time, House of Cards was the most-watched show on Netflix. Relying upon the series’ strength of story and anticipating an avid fan base, the company released Cards’s 13 commercial-free episodes all at once—at no extra charge—to subscribers. “I’ve been hearing a lot of people have been bingeing and watching the whole season [at one time],” Spacey says. “That’s just really exciting that people are responding to it. That’s what we set out to achieve.”
Netflix’s gutsy move was made possible by a solid six months of filming in Baltimore, during which time Spacey familiarized himself with the city and surrounding towns such as Annapolis. “Baltimore’s got incredible diners. Baltimore’s got great music, great parks, great tennis playing,” he says. “It’s sometimes gotten a bad rap, [but] people haven’t really discovered it.”
This spring, he’s headed back to Charm City to film the second season of House of Cards. He’ll be shooting another 13 episodes that Netflix will again release at one time—a tactic that Spacey believes adds to the show’s game changer status. “It’s a real opportunity for the film and television industry to learn the lesson the music industry didn’t learn,” he says. “Give the audience what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll buy it.”
Photography by Andrew Eccles; Styling by Johanna Argan; Grooming by Tania McComas
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.