Kevin Spacey: Power, Controversy, Betrayal, Truth & Love in Film and Life | Lex Fridman Podcast #432

Kevin Spacey: Power, Controversy, Betrayal, Truth & Love in Film and Life | Lex Fridman Podcast #432

Introduction (00:00:00)

  • Kevin Spacey is a two-time Oscar-winning actor known for his haunting performances of characters who often embody the dark side of human nature.
  • 7 years ago, he was cut from House of Cards and canceled by Hollywood after Anthony Rapp made an allegation of sexual abuse in 1986.
  • Kevin was acquitted in all civil and criminal trials that followed and has never been found guilty nor liable in the court of law.
  • Lex Fridman aims to explore Kevin's life's work, story, and thoughts honestly and fully, respecting due process and speaking honestly, even when faced with criticism.
  • The goal is to understand human beings at their best and worst, leading to more compassion and wisdom.

Seven (00:02:44)

  • Kevin Spacey initially didn't get the part of John Doe, the serial killer in the movie Seven.
  • He was called back after the actor who was hired was fired and started shooting two days later.
  • Kevin felt it would be better if he didn't take billing in the film to keep the reveal of his character a surprise.
  • New Line Cinema initially resisted this idea, but David Fincher supported it, and a compromise was reached where Kevin received the first credit at the end of the movie.

David Fincher (00:06:24)

  • Kevin Spacey and David Fincher shaved their heads on the day of shooting for the movie "Se7en."
  • The ending scene of "Se7en" is considered one of the greatest in film history, with Spacey's calm and subtle performance contrasting with Brad Pitt's strong performance.
  • David Fincher's directing style involves pushing actors to deliver genuine performances by repeatedly asking them to do it again without giving specific instructions.
  • Tragedy often occurs when people operate without enough information, as seen in the movie's complicated ending where nobody wins.
  • Jack Nicholson shared an anecdote about working with George Cukor on a film, highlighting the difficulty of achieving the right level of subtlety in acting.

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman (00:14:16)

  • Kevin Spacey discusses the acting performances of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in the movie 'Seven'.
  • He praises Brad Pitt's ability to convey complex emotions through subtle facial expressions and gestures.
  • Kevin Spacey mentions rehearsing with Brad Pitt the night before filming an intense scene and being impressed by his emotional range.
  • He describes the scene as a culmination of the character's manipulative nature and ultimate success.
  • Kevin Spacey talks about David Fincher's reputation for doing numerous takes during filming.
  • Fincher averages 25 to 65 takes per scene, significantly more than most directors who usually do less than 10.
  • Fincher uses a stopwatch to time scenes and sometimes asks actors to speed up or slow down their delivery.
  • Kevin Spacey explains that Fincher dislikes indulgence and wants actors to speak naturally, avoiding dramatic pauses.
  • He compares Fincher's approach to that of other directors like Sam Mendes and Trevor Nunn, who help actors refine their performances.
  • Kevin Spacey mentions David Fincher's comment about him being "lucky" to work with directors who help him trim and edit his acting.

Acting (00:19:46)

  • Kevin Spacey differentiates between being an actor, who dramatizes a text, and a performer, who captivates the audience.
  • Spacey's acting philosophy revolves around serving the writing, creating believable characters, and evoking genuine audience reactions.
  • He draws inspiration from iconic performers like Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Heath Ledger, who brought authenticity to their roles.
  • Spacey aims to create characters that feel real and resonate with the audience, regardless of their moral alignment.
  • His creative process involves working backward from the desired audience experience to ensure emotional resonance.
  • Spacey emphasizes the importance of self-questioning and collaboration to gain deeper insights into a subject or role.

Improve (00:28:10)

  • Improvisation in rehearsal rooms helps actors explore scenes and discover new character traits.
  • Theater allows actors to improve their performances over time as they grow in their roles and respond to different audiences.
  • Unlike movies, theater requires daily collaboration and rehearsal, fostering a strong sense of community among the cast.
  • Kevin Spacey believes that good acting is good acting regardless of the medium.
  • Theater actors need a particular kind of energy and stamina to perform seven times a week.
  • In film, actors don't need the same level of stamina but must be aware that the camera captures everything.
  • Theater requires actors to become the character more intensely because they can't take breaks.

Al Pacino (00:36:54)

  • Al Pacino believes in serving the writing and doing the words the writer wrote.
  • Improv can be valuable in film when a director says to go off book and see what happens.
  • Pacino gave Spacey an intense scene in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross by going off book and talking about him, which Spacey reacted to.
  • Pacino is the reason Spacey got the movie Glengarry Glen Ross.
  • A dresser named Laura who worked with both Spacey and Pacino told Pacino to come and see Spacey in the play Lost in Yonkers.

Jack Lemmon (00:40:38)

  • Kevin Spacey's role in "Glengarry Glen Ross" came about after Al Pacino saw him in a play and recommended him for the part.
  • The film featured an impressive ensemble cast, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, and Jonathan Pryce.
  • Spacey and Jack Lemmon had a strong working relationship, having collaborated on several projects prior to "Glengarry Glen Ross."
  • Spacey met Jack Lemmon at a young age during a drama workshop and received encouragement from him to pursue acting as a career.
  • Years later, Spacey auditioned for and won the role of Jamie in the Broadway production of "Long Day's Journey into Night," which starred Jack Lemmon.
  • Kevin Spacey emphasizes the power of encouragement and how Jack Lemon's words of praise had a profound impact on his life and career.
  • Spacey admires Jack Lemon's ability to spread sunshine and bring joy to others, which he believes is the key to his greatness as an actor.

American Beauty (00:49:55)

  • Sam Mendes, a first-time film director, incorporated theatrical elements into the filming of "American Beauty."
  • Kevin Spacey portrayed Lester's character transformation through different hairpieces, costumes, and makeup, drawing inspiration from Jack Lemmon's performance in "The Apartment."
  • Spacey believes in finding humor in dramatic roles, as it reflects how people cope with life's challenges, especially in difficult situations like war zones.
  • "American Beauty" explores self-discovery and the struggle to maintain authenticity in a materialistic society, while also emphasizing the importance of honest portrayals of young people in films.
  • Spacey praises Annette Bening's performance in the movie and expresses regret that she didn't win an Oscar for her role.
  • The original script included a trial at the beginning and end, but director Sam Mendes decided to remove it during editing.
  • The flying sequences and narration were done spontaneously, as Mendes preferred a more natural performance over a polished one.
  • The theme of beauty in the film extends beyond roses and the female body, focusing on finding beauty in the ordinary aspects of life.
  • The movie encourages viewers to take the time to appreciate the beauty in life and confronts the theme of mortality.

Mortality (01:10:04)

  • Kevin Spacey discusses his thoughts on mortality and the fear of death.
  • He mentions that at his lowest point, he was scared of death and feared there was no way out or answer.
  • He contrasts this with the character Lester Burnham from the film "American Beauty," who, despite facing the same fear, seemed liberated and accepted everything, finding beauty in the opportunity to reinvent himself.
  • Kevin Spacey reflects on the wisdom of his friend Dick Van Dyke, who at 98 years old, says he would have taken better care of himself if he had known he would live this long.
  • Kevin Spacey expresses his desire to resolve things in his life and reach a point where he can feel fulfilled and at peace, even if he doesn't achieve it all in his lifetime.

Power, Controversy, Betrayal, Truth & Love in Film and Life (00:00:00)

  • Kevin Spacey discusses various aspects of his life and career, including his rise to fame, the controversies he has faced, and his personal experiences.
  • He reflects on the power of film and storytelling, and how they can impact society and individuals.
  • Kevin Spacey emphasizes the importance of truth and authenticity in storytelling, and how they can help people connect with each other and understand different perspectives.
  • He also discusses the role of love and compassion in life and how they can help overcome challenges and bring people together.

Allegations (01:12:52)

  • Kevin Spacey faced sexual misconduct allegations in 2017, resulting in his cancellation in the entertainment industry.
  • Despite being acquitted in criminal and civil trials, Spacey acknowledges inappropriate behavior, including excessive flirting and crossing boundaries, but denies allegations of sexual assault or misconduct.
  • Spacey recognizes the power dynamics in the entertainment industry and emphasizes the importance of ensuring that no one feels pressured or punished for not reciprocating romantic or sexual advances.
  • While admitting to mistakes and inappropriate behaviors, Spacey clarifies that some accusations against him are false and acknowledges the difficulty in discerning genuine friendships from those with ulterior motives.
  • Despite public backlash and being "canceled," Spacey believes there is a quieter majority in the industry who still support him and expresses remorse for the emotional hurt he may have caused.
  • Spacey discusses the challenges of keeping his sexuality a secret for most of his life and regrets the way he came out publicly, acknowledging that it was not the best way to handle the situation.
  • Spacey laments the lack of courage among many in the industry to speak up publicly in his defense due to fear of being "canceled."

House of Cards (01:30:50)

  • Kevin Spacey drew inspiration from his performance as Richard III in Shakespeare's play when portraying Frank Underwood in "House of Cards."
  • Spacey used the technique of "direct address," looking directly into the camera and imagining he was talking to his best friend, to create intimacy and conspiracy with the audience.
  • He often cut dialogue, believing the audience could understand the character's thoughts and emotions without explicit words.
  • Spacey discussed the challenges of playing Richard III, including the character's constant presence on stage and the lack of breaks.
  • He highlighted the humorous aspects of Frank Underwood and the importance of accents in shaping a character.
  • Spacey worked closely with David Fincher to establish the consistent style of "House of Cards" but had to push back against Netflix's increasing creative involvement.
  • He recalled an instance where Al Pacino almost got fired from "The Godfather" until they filmed the scene where he kills the police commissioner.
  • Spacey considers "The Godfather" one of the greatest films of all time but acknowledges that his opinion can change over time as he appreciates different movies at different times.

Jack Nicholson (01:49:25)

  • Kevin Spacey mentions Jack Nicholson's incredible acting, particularly his ability to portray deeply flawed characters without shame.
  • Spacey shares a story told to him by a sound man, Dennis Maitlin, about Nicholson's drug use during the filming of "Missouri Breaks".
  • Maitlin was surprised to find an eighth of cocaine fall out of Nicholson's pants while he was mic'ing him up for a scene.
  • Nicholson's reaction was to exclaim, "Haven't worn these pants since Missouri Breaks, man!"
  • Spacey expresses his admiration for Nicholson's unapologetic nature and his talent as an actor.

Mike Nichols (01:52:27)

  • Kevin Spacey auditioned for Mike Nichols' play, "The Real Thing," and later became the "pinch hitter" for the play "Hurly Burley," learning all the male parts.
  • After leaving "Hurly Burley," Spacey was cast in the film "Heartburn," starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.
  • On his birthday, Spacey filmed his first scene in "Heartburn" and received assistance from Nichols to wink at Meryl Streep.
  • During filming, Spacey observed Jack Nicholson's makeup routine and gained valuable insights.
  • Kevin Spacey achieved great success in his acting career, earning $50,000 per day, while Christopher Walken was also a prominent actor during that time.

Christopher Walken (01:58:01)

  • Kevin Spacey started his career as a dancer before becoming an actor.
  • Spacey's unique style is evident in his diverse roles, from mobsters to soft-spoken characters.
  • In House of Cards, Frank Underwood's betrayal by President Walker suggests a pattern of disloyalty in his life.
  • Spacey believes his characters are driven by their ability to predict human behavior and manipulate others, with power being an afterthought.
  • Spacey approaches his roles without judgment, allowing him to fully embody complex characters with different moral systems.
  • Playing characters with diverse moral compasses has taught Spacey empathy and a deeper understanding of human nature.

Father (02:05:08)

  • Kevin Spacey discusses the shifting nature of good and evil throughout a person's life, reflecting on his upbringing and the transformation of his father from a patriotic soldier to a white supremacist.
  • Spacey describes the challenges he faced as a young boy, including the fear of bringing friends home due to his father's racist views, and finds solace in theater and extracurricular activities as an escape.
  • He grapples with reconciling the man his father was in the army with the man he became, questioning his mother's role in enabling his father's behavior and wondering if the love and attention he received from his parents was conditional based on his success.
  • Spacey emphasizes the importance of choosing love over hate and expresses uncertainty about whether his father ever expressed love towards him.
  • He shares a personal anecdote about a psychological experiment involving parents suddenly stopping their interactions with their baby, which resonates with his own childhood experiences and highlights his desperate attempts to regain his parents' attention.

Future (02:14:00)

  • Kevin Spacey discusses the realism of the political drama series "House of Cards" and how some politicians have different opinions on its accuracy.
  • He suggests interviewing more world leaders and politicians to gain a better understanding of the political landscape.
  • Spacey advises on interviewing Frank Underwood, a character in "House of Cards," by asking him to look into the camera and speak honestly.
  • He expresses excitement about the future and his desire to be challenged and inspired by new roles.
  • Kevin Spacey reflects on his acting career and states that he believes his best performance is yet to come.
  • He emphasizes the importance of forgiveness and redemption, drawing parallels to the entertainment industry and society's treatment of individuals.
  • Spacey expresses hope that the fear surrounding him will subside and common sense will prevail, allowing him to potentially deliver another Oscar-worthy performance.
  • The podcast concludes with a quote from Merill Streep about acting and finding similarities in apparent differences.

Overwhelmed by Endless Content?