The Alien World Of Kevin Spacey
Two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey has that uncanny ability to hide behind every screen portrayal, that we rarely get a repeat of a Spacey performance. His latest film, K-Pax, gives us a greater insight into his diversity as an actor. In the film, Spacey plays a mysterious man, Prot, who may or not be from outer space and the planet K-Pax. Largely set in a mental hospital in urban New York, sceptical psychiatrist Jeff Bridges tries to unravel the truth. Mr. Spacey recently talked to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.
NOTE: If you are not familiar with the book or the details of this story, major spoilers are included in the first part of this interview. These were unavoidable due to the specific nature of Mr. Spacey's responses to my questions.
Did you and Jeff Bridges ever compare notes about playing aliens?
I kid Jeff to this moment that he now has the Karen Allen part. In the beginning of rehearsals we had a lot of talk about all the movies that have been done that deal with this subject including Starman, partly because we talked about tone. Some movies that deal with the idea of an alien subject they're very, comedically broad. In the case of (Starman) Jeff was playing a character that's embodying a human's body. So it was almost like he didn't know how to move and it was all mechanical and was an incredible physical performance. In our movie, we wanted Prot to be eccentric on a certain level but we didn't want it to go so far or be so broad in terms of its comedy that the film couldn't make the turn it has to make about an hour and forty-five minutes into the movie. So it had to FEEL real. We did discuss that film and his performance. And in what we were trying to do in this movie in terms of finding the right tone.
It's clearly important for the audience to believe that Prot was an alien. How important was it for you, as an actor, to also believe in that reality?
It's a funny thing but I do have an absolute and complete belief in both stories because I had to. In order for the ambiguity to work for an audience I had to put the movie on two separate tracks: I had to have an absolutely complete story for Prot: who he was, how long he's been on earth, what his planet was like, what was he doing on earth, what he's writing in that book. All of that had to be absolutely real to me, and was. I also had to have a complete back-story, an absolute life for Robert Porter. The two of those ideas had to be able to co-exist so that they both could be possible.
How did you do it?
That's the trick! That took some doing because there was a lot more in the book that was descriptive about the planet that was very helpful to me. There was more about Robert Porter that was ALSO helpful to me. From that you make decisions and offshoots about how do I make these things co-exist. So if this is true and completely true, then this can also be completely true and the two can co-exist and you don't have a conflict where suddenly you're in the middle of shooting a movie and go, Wait a minute. If I'm this, how can that be? You find yourself really screwed because then you can't commit in your head and heart to this idea. It's then a question of: If you're able to successfully navigate that in your preparation, then you take these two ideas and hand them to the director, and you put yourself in the hands of a skilled director who's able to balance and negotiate the mystery for the audience of how the evidence stacks up on this side. I can't do that. My job as the actor is to give the audience both possibilities and try to convincingly play both possibilities, and let him be the person who's balancing it. I trust his direction. In particular, the scenes that were the most dangerous were the hypnosis scenes because there was something about making the choice to revert to a childlike voice several different versions of that, to the attitude that the young Robert Porter had, sort of an arrogant sort of thing. What most interested me about those sessions were, and I had a lot discussions with a psychiatrist and people who are experts at hypnosis who were working with us, usually when you put somebody under hypnosis, if they are a delusional character or if they're suffering from some sort of anxiety or multiple personality, you get to the core person. What fascinated me about all of those sessions was he never ceases being Prot. He was always Prot. That, to me, is what allowed us to get through those sessions with a certain trajectory because even though he took on the personality of another person and talked about this other person, he was never not Prot. Always from K-PAX. If they'd gotten to Robert Porter, then I think the movie would have been over because then it would have been saying, He's pretending to be this other person.
Was the book also ambiguous?
The book went into a lot more detail, which was helpful to track both sides of the story. Gene's written a follow up called The Return of Prot.
Did you study tapes of people under hypnosis?
I looked at a number of tapes and had a lot of discussion with a number of our consultants about what the process is like and what have your experiences been, have you seen anything like this. I went to a lot of mental facilities and met patients and the first question I would ask the staff was, Is there anybody here who thinks they're from outer space? They'd say, Oh, yeah. Like 12 or 13 people.
Did you talk to any of them?
Yeah. They have tin foil on their buttons and on their ears because you get better reception.
Do you believe there's life on other planets?
Sure. I do. There must be. When you just think about how much life there is on earth. I don't think there are little green men but I do believe that we can't be the only thriving intelligent life in the universe. It's too vast.
Do you think any of them have come here?
I believe that on many occasions I've worked with them.
What about the observations Prot makes about humanity, especially in the light of recent events?
If they are, we didn't intend it to be. What will happen and what is happening. I can drive down a street and hear a song I've heard a million times and suddenly the lyrics take on a meaning that they didn't have before Sept. 11. What I like most about the way Prot looks at the world is that he just accepts people as they are. He doesn't look at them as patients or statistics. We tend to in this country and in this world think, THERE'S a politician, THERE'S a sports star. There's an actor. There's a journalist. The human being part of that equation very often gets.. it's dismissive. Prot just accepts people and asks them incredibly logical questions. Sometimes it's the person who's the most logical who we call crazy.
You performed Mind Games at a recent benefit. Do you plan to pursue singing?
That was an incredible evening and I wanted to do something that would be surprising and uplifting because New York really needed something. We all felt what was originally intended as a celebration of John Lennon on what would have been his 61st birthday. The fact that he was taken from us on the streets of NY, and that he was a New Yorker just seemed right that we expand the evening to be a benefit. They taught me that song on Saturday and like a madman I walked out there and sang in front of Yoko.
What did she say to you?
She was very pleased. She was incredibly kind because that song meant a lot to her because it wasn't a hit for John and she says John always says that it should have been.
You were the breakout guy at this benefit.
It probably was the surprise of it. I've been singing my whole life. When I started out in theatre, I did more musicals than anything else. It's always been a part of my life and slowly I'm getting to a place where music is important to me. I don't envision myself going on the road, necessarily.
Unless you're really going to do it and stop acting and commit yourself to it. First of all, the music world is going to say, oh, does he need more? He's not happy with what he's got. From a musical context, it would be right. That will show its face at the right time.
Have you thought about doing musical theatre?
Over the years I looked at musicals and wanted to find one that's original. I've been offered things that have been revivals. But I want to do something that's brand new.
Your bio says you were kicked out of school and mentions this tree house incident.
This is the first thing you learn: if you say it once, it gets repeated and then it actually expands. I read things that I was a bad kid and I was this terror.
How much of this is exaggerated and how much is true?
A lot of it is exaggerated. I did get kicked out of military school because I got into a fight. I wasn't happy in military school. It was after that that this guidance counselor recommended that I go into theatre. I had a lot of energy. I was 13 years old and immediately found the theatre. I wasn't a bad kid like getting arrested.
The tree house thing's not true?
It's not true. I must have said something about my sister had a little thing in the back yard. We knocked it down and it turned into we burned down a tree house. At a certain point I decided I'm not going to respond to those things. There's a whole industry that has nothing to do with you. The most interesting one recently was I met the family of Spencer Tracy and they said to me, Is it true that you changed your name because of Spencer Tracy. You (combined) Spencer with Tracey and made Spacey? I said, I read that on the internet too. It's actually in bios in the internet on certain sites. Nothing could be further from the truth. My great grandfather's name was Spacey. It's a Welsh name. It's my middle name and I've been using it my whole life.
You're seen as eccentric?
Maybe that's the way you view me. But I don't know if everybody views me that way.
Who were your mentors?
When I was 14 years old I met Jack Lemmon for the first time. I went to this seminar and he signed an autograph for me, which I still have to this day. I stood next to him and asked him questions about being an actor. He talked to me for like 15 minutes and told what I ought to do: go to New York and study. He was so warm and encouraging and 11 years later I got an audition for a play that he was starring in. I ended up working with him for a full year doing that play and we ended up doing 4 things together. He became sort of a second father to me, particularly when my father passed away. You don't need any lesson in the world about how to treat other human beings or about professionalism then to be in the presence of Jack Lemmon.
What can you say about your Shipping News character?
I read the book about six years ago and thought it was an incredible story. At the time, it was a John Travolta film and then it was a Billy Bob Thornton film. I waited and tracked it and made strategic phone calls along the way: It worked out that it was worth the wait. It was a great character to play. He's such a strange pathetic guy in the beginning. It's just so sad. Very gradually. Lasse [Hallstrom] has done an extraordinary job of allowing the story to unfold like an onion. It's unlike anything I've ever done. There's not a cynical, visceral, ironic bone in his body. He's just trying to get through the day and be a good father. He's not trying to do anything. Usually a character has an arc.
You have to tell me about eating those peeled bananas in K-Pax.
It always was in the script that Prot ate every ounce of produce. He thought all of it was good. The scene was always written that way. When it came to shoot the scene, they made some fake bananas. They just looked wrong. I knew on film they wouldn't work, so I said to the prop guys just go to the store and get bananas and wash them and let's do it.
What do they taste like?
It's bitter and I had to eat a lot of them. It was an amazing potassium high.
K-PAX opens nationally on Friday. October 26th.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.