Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey in Superman Returns.
Last year, Kevin Spacey was on stage at the Old Vic Theater in London in three different plays, and in front of the cameras in Australia for six weeks to film the part of Lex Luthor in Superman Returns (June 28, Warner Bros.).
After ten years of working on movies and occasionally squeezing in stage work, Spacey says he is now happy to have committed ten years to working on stage and occasionally squeezing in movies. The Old Vic’s newest Creative Director recently found the time to hold court at the Los Angeles press day for Superman Returns.
Q: Based on your work with director Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects and Superman Returns, did you see in him a clear evolution as a filmmaker?
A: He is the same guy he was ten years ago. Bryan remains to this day one of a handful of directors I’ve worked with who is so specific about the way he sees something. Whether it’s a character or a scene, he is able to make it so clear to you what he’s going for and why he’s going for it. I accepted this movie without having seen a script, because I completely trust Bryan. And for me, the huge advantage and bonus is that I think I’m a better actor when I’m directed… than when I’m not. When I have to cover someone else’s inability, I don’t think I’m as good. I love it when a director can just carve me and say, ‘No, that’s not right. Don’t do that.’
Q: As a film actor, with experience on stage, how did you approach the nuances of Lex Luthor?
A: There’s no question that Lex Luthor is big and iconic, almost a theatrical character. And there are times when you think, ‘Was that a little over the top? Can they see the mugging from a helicopter?’ The smart thing about Bryan is that he always makes sure he gets different variations. It’s only in the editing that you start to shape the performance, based on multiple takes and multiple angles. And all of that plays a part in how a character will develop, which is why at the end of the day, movies are not an actor’s medium. They’re a director’s medium.
Q: How did you work to bring a level of humanity to such a villain?
A: I understand from the viewer’s point of view why they easily categorize roles as “villains” and so on. But as an actor, you just don’t do that, even if you’re playing Iago in Othello. You don’t go, “Oh, now I’m going to twist my mustache.” From the perspective of what you’re trying to do in a performance, you are trying to humanize a character. I’m always trying to avoid the stereotype, and if that come through, then part of that may be me, but I’ll bet an even bigger part of it is Bryan and the editors.
Q: Do you spend a lot of time preparing those character nuances, or do you just sort of knock it out on set?
A: I think that my work in the theater has turned out to be very fortunate for the work I’ve done in the movies -- you understand more about story arc as well as character arc. The experience of being able to get up every day in rehearsal, or every night in performance, and play a full character from A-to-Z in only two and a half hours, informs you when you walk onto a film set how to approach it. For film, you’ve got this crazy schedule. You’re never shooting in sequence; you’re meeting the person playing opposite you two seconds before you shoot; you rarely get rehearsal. I’ve learned in a sense how to prepare for those little things that will help tell the story.
Q: Brandon Routh as Superman is a relative newcomer. Did he need any support from you during the making of the film?
A: No. I always thought that the role of Superman should be played by an almost total unknown. Because I remember when I met Tim Burton about 11 years ago, he was going to make the movie and at that time, they were talking about famous actors [like Nicolas Cage] playing the role. It’s a little bit like when Bryan was doing The Usual Suspects and was offered more money in the budget if he’d recast me with a famous actor. And Bryan would say, “No, the actor who plays Verbal can’t be well-known, you cannot have an established persona’ And I’ve always felt the same thing about the role of Superman. Brandon is a very good actor. But in terms of the wise old actor giving the young newbie some advice, no… He’s going to do fine.
Q: Do you recall seeing the original Superman film?
A: I was in theater then, and I remember all of us were very excited that Marlon Brando was going to be in that movie. And we all wondered what the heck that hair was about! I remember we all came down to L.A.’s Westwood Village and saw it on a Friday night on the opening weekend, and we just loved it! I had seen Christopher Reeve in a play that he did at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater with Katharine Hepburn called A Matter of Gravity, which is the play that the producers saw him in, which led to his screen test for Superman. So I kind of knew who he was. Nobody else did.
Q: Did you deliberately try not to duplicate Gene Hackman’s performance as Lex Luthor in the original Superman movies?
A: Well I didn't re-watch the original films [Superman, Superman II]. I figured Bryan was going to take care of that, completely, because he does so admire them, and he has such respect for the genre. But the thing he kept saying was, “this is going to be a much darker, a much more bitter, a much more revenge-seeking Lex Luthor than we've seen before.’ I had just done Shakespeare’s Richard II in London, and there are certainly videotaped and audiotape versions available of other actors doing Richard II. But I deliberately avoided listening or watching them, because if something is really good in a performance, I think you can’t help but try and steal it.
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