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.
"There are and will be expectations about what the movie is going to 'deliver' because of what I've done as an actor," he says. "And I can never do anything about those expectations. They are completely different things, but fair or not, they're there, and you can't do anything about it. And they're certainly going to be there for critics, which is why we tried hard to concentrate on the performances and telling the story. I wanted to direct this movie in a way that at a certain point, you just forgot who was directing it."
Spacey began his acting career on the New York stage, appearing in Long Day's Journey into Night, Ghosts, Playland, and Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, for which he won a Tony. And Alligator--which was, for the most part, filmed in sequence--could well have been a play itself, most of its action taking place in a perfectly preserved Prohibition-era New Orleans speakeasy decorated with tough-guy film posters and lit like...well, a movie set. Likewise, Spacey's best films and best performances have all taken place in cramped spaces: The Ref unfolded in a single home, his scenes in Glengarry Glen Ross were confined to a dingy office, his scenes with Chazz Palminteri in The Usual Suspects never moved outside Palminteri's police office.
Indeed, Spacey's finest cinematic moment came in The Ref, Ted Demme's 1994 film about a thief (Denis Leary) who is forced, out of desperation, to take a family (including Spacey and Judy Davis) hostage on Christmas Eve. Spacey portrayed the harried, misunderstood middle-class American male who's emasculated by his mother and half loathed by his wife. Spacey was brilliantly funny, angry, desperate, compassionate--the Everyman who has finally had enough and boils over, who tells his mother to "shut the fuck up" and tells his wife he ain't the loser fuckup she's convinced he has become.
Albino Alligator is almost like The Ref turned upside down, a hostage situation in which characters reveal themselves--their fears, their hostility, their compassion, their everything and then some--over the course of two hours. There is, of course, a major difference: Where The Ref was a thick-with-words comedy dotted with dramatic moments, Albino Alligator uses sporadic humor and tense silences to open up a situation everyone knows will end in bloody disaster. (In fact, Spacey says with a laugh, "Denis [Leary] has never forgiven me for not casting him as Dova.")
"The big difference to me between theater and film is how the experience unfolds to the audience," he explains. "You go to a play and you sit in seat 106H; you are seeing the play from a certain angle, and that play unfolds to you how you want it to unfold because you have the decision to look where you want to look....In a movie, you don't make those choices. Every single image that you see has been chosen for you. And yet when we take the best of theater and look at the early days of movies, where plays and novels were where we got most of our work from, and you look at Hitchcock and Huston and Scorsese, it's so much about words. It's so much about the way we use words, how we identify each other through dialogue.
"What interests me now as a director is how images can be just as strong and just as potent and how you can say something with no words....Words are really important to me because it always started with the writer, being introduced to writers when I was young, [but] I think you learn to appreciate silence in the theater. Or at least I have, because of the directors I have worked with. I've learned how powerful silence can be."
To prepare for his directorial debut, Spacey sought the council of many other directors--"a lot of directors," he says, grinning--and actors who took their place behind the camera. He called Sidney Lumet, whom he had never met, about 12 Angry Men and learned how Lumet literally closed the walls in on his cast during the filming. Lumet told Spacey how he shot the film in order and had the jury-room walls set on wheels so that during filming he could move them in to give the piece its claustrophobic feel. Spacey also spent a few days on the set of Jodie Foster's similarly playlike Home for the Holidays, observing yet another actor-turned-director at work.
"I've also spent a lot of time on film sets," he says, "just asking a lot of questions and writing down things and going for drinks at"--here, his voice takes on an inexplicable, almost Bostonian accent--"da bah with the cinematographers, saying, 'Ya know, dat scene you did today, you were lighting from behind. Why were ya doin' dat?' After a while, I discovered that if you could even in a peripheral way understand what a director was trying to accomplish in a particular scene or an image and then you went and saw the finished film, you could very often determine whether or not their idea had translated."
Spacey plans to direct again; his "education," as he puts it, has just begun. And though he will still work primarily as an actor--he has just finished shooting L.A. Confidential, scheduled to be released this fall, and there is talk he will take the Henry Fonda role in a remake of 12 Angry Men--Spacey does indeed show potential as a director. He has begun working on another project, and there's always the chance he will turn one of his late father's recently discovered stories into a script. "It's too early to say," he says of that particular subject. But for now, he wrestles with the impending response to Albino Alligator--awaiting the critical reaction, aware he may not be treated so kindly as a director as he has been as an actor.
"The flaws in the movie will be pointed out to me very soon, I'm sure," he says, shrugging. "And the flaws that I'm aware of exist, and I'll take whatever criticism comes my way because it's my first movie. But what I'm most proud is that it has a life, ya know? The fact that at the end of this movie people have different responses to it is just great. Any response is fine to me. I've had people stand up and say they hated it, and that's fine. OK. At least you feel something.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.