New Direction

Oscar-winning bad guy Kevin Spacey tries a new role--director

Kevin Spacey sits in his Four Seasons hotel room to talk about his first experience as a director, about the two years he spent navigating Albino Alligator through the treacherous waters of Hollywood. He does so with passion and patience; he is easygoing, casual in a denim shirt and brown slacks and tennis shoes, smooth with a smile and an explanation. There are many shades to Kevin Spacey--surely no one could play all those psychos and con artists and evildoers without a darker streak--but today he is gracious and talkative, eager to speak about a film in which he doesn't appear.

"It's so mind-boggling sometimes what I've learned about moviemaking and the magic of it and how you can create something out of very little," he says. Spacey had been looking for a story for a couple of years, searching for something easy enough to tackle his first time out--but complex enough to keep his interest. After all, he offers (not necessarily as an apology), "I didn't go to film school, I didn't do a short movie, so I didn't really have anything to show for myself that I had any ability to do this or that anybody should risk giving their money to me to do this."

In October 1994, he came across novice screenwriter Christian Forte's script about three petty thieves--Dova (Matt Dillon), Milo (Gary Sinise), and Law (Bill Fichtner)--who botch a robbery, accidentally kill a few law enforcement officers, and take refuge in an after-hours New Orleans bar. They wind up holding hostage the patrons and employees (including Faye Dunaway, Viggo Mortensen, John Spencer, and M. Emmet Walsh) and fighting off the hostages, the cops, and finally one another. Absurdly underpinning the plot is the fact that the ATF agents surrounding the bar initially aren't even looking for them.

Spacey at first rejected the script as too futile; Forte managed to kill off every single character by story's end. Then he found himself thinking about the film's central premise--essentially, How low will a person sink to survive?--and set up a meeting, during which he convinced Forte to rewrite the script.

"I essentially posed the question [to Forte]: 'You set up in the script, in what we call the Albino Alligator speech that Law does, you set up that an albino alligator is a single sacrifice for deliberate gain--not nine sacrifices, a single sacrifice. What happens when you put that parameter on it?'" Spacey recalls. "Then the movie doesn't become about whether people live or die, which didn't really interest me. It becomes a movie about what people are willing to live with, and that was an interesting notion. I thought that was compelling."

Although Spacey insists he would never have acted in Albino Alligator, it is indeed an appropriate choice for him as filmmaker. After all, throughout his career he's leaned toward roles that corrupt our sense of what's right and wrong; whenever he shows up on-screen, you never know if he's going to kill (Seven) or be killed (Outbreak), and you never know whether to root for him or wish him plague and pestilence. He has been the surprise ending and the soft middle, perverting our notion of what it means to like a screen character (and who didn't feel sympathy for Verbal Kint?). He has become one of America's best actors because he can play both exasperated husband and psycho killer with the exact same grin. Good guy, bad guy--what's the difference any more?

A lot of what has been written about Spacey over the years tends to link him to the seedy, wretched assholes he portrays on-screen--the sister-fucking, drug-snorting Mel Profitt from the TV series Wiseguy; the wife-swapping Eddy Otis from Consenting Adults; the is-he-or-isn't-he? Verbal from The Usual Suspects; the savage John Doe in Seven; the charmingly nasty Hollywood boss Buddy Ackerman from Swimming with Sharks. Writers and fans (especially those who skulk around the obsessively comprehensive Spacey Web site) have tried to guess at the mystery behind the scar on his right cheek, probed into a personal life he keeps well guarded, prodded him with questions about why he portrays jerks and scumbags. And Spacey has shrugged them off, gotten angry, dealt.

He possesses a resume of small, forgotten parts in negligible, vanished films (Iron Will, A Show of Force, Dad, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil among their shoddy ranks) along with enormous, indelible roles in modest art-house hits and the occasional breakthrough blockbuster. He has inhabited the snakeskin so easily, so marvelously, that even when he takes on the role of the morally ambiguous--such as District Attorney Rufus Buckley in the overwrought John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill, in which he's trying to put away a man who murdered two men in public, which is what the D.A.'s supposed to do--he still manages to come off as the Bad Guy.

Of course, playing the Bad Guy--or the Morally Ambivalent Guy--is what made Spacey an Oscar winner for The Usual Suspects, what made the 37-year-old a movie star. And he knows people will perhaps expect more from his directorial debut because of his baggage. This isn't Kevin Bacon and the soapy Losing Chase or Kevin Costner and the epic Dances with Wolves, but somewhere in between on the Acting Kevins Who Direct scale--a modest production attempting to tell an immense story about the unpredictability and desperation of the human condition, one filled with internal and external violence.

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