June 9, 2006: “Superman Returns” Press Junket

Roundtable Interview with Kevin Spacey

Lex Press: Brilliant performance. Wonderful work. You're obviously the best to play the villain in these things.

Kevin: You know, I had a blast. It's such an iconic part

Press: So how do you turn an iconic character into your own and not make him Gene Hackman-ish?

Kevin: Don't watch Gene Hackman.

Press: (laughter)

Kevin: First rule, trust your director, and I do, implicitly. And in a sense, you know, when Bryan first started talking to me about it, about a year before I actually got offered it, he always said it's going to be darker, it's going to be bitter, it's going to be Lex out for revenge... and so I took the role on before I'd read a script. And then when I started to see the script, I saw exactly what they were doing in terms of shaping the storyline and the character. And then on the set there was a lot of, sort of, honing and discussions about what line is exactly right, what helps this, what makes that funny, and it was just a complete blast. But when you have the experience I had with Bryan ten years ago, and he's the same man that he was then, and it was like a day hadn't gone by with us, we just have a language and it's just... it gives you such confidence as an actor to work with a director so absolutely clear about what his vision is and what a scene should be about and how to approach it. And then, you know, you try to just give him as many different colors as possible. And then hopefully he cuts it together in a way that...

Press: You're also involved in the Old Vic?

Kevin: I am full-time involved in the Old Vic.

Press: Is it hard to balance those duties with taking on this big movie?

Kevin: No, not at all. I mean, the balance for me... last year I was on stage forty-one weeks in three different plays, and I made Superman for six weeks. The balance for me is exactly right.

Press: (laughter) You talked about only being on the Superman set for six weeks. How hard is that for you as an actor, to get all that work done so quickly?

Kevin: I love it! That's actually the best way to do it. The worst way to do it is when you're on a movie for three or four months and you have twenty days where you don't work, ten days where you don't work... what was great about this experience was Bryan had arranged the schedule because of my commitments at the Vic. I took a six week leave from The Philadelphia Story, another actor took over my role because I wasn't playing the lead, and Bryan said to me, "I'm going to work you like a dog, and I'm going to work you right up to the last moment." And he did, because I was due back on stage, I mean, we'd sold tickets, you know? So I had to get on that plane. He worked me until 8:45 on a Friday night and I was on a 10:15 plane back to London and I was on stage the next night.

Press: What play was that?

Kevin: The Philadelphia Story. Yeah, I went back to do more of The Philadelphia Story, but this time with a wig, because... I had no hair.

Press: (laughter) Is it true that Bryan mentioned Superman to you on the set of The Usual Suspects? I thought I read once that he had mentioned it even back then as a dream project.

Parker Posey Kevin: I mean, he might have, but if he did I don't recall it. What I do know is that we had some kind of conversation when I went in to meet Tim Burton, ten or eleven years ago, when Tim was going to do it. And apparently Tim wanted me to play the Lex Luthor part, but it was and entirely... I never read a script, it was apparently an entirely different scenario and I think it was Nic Cage. Anyway... that didn't get made. (laughter) And I remember we had a conversation then about it, and I think it was then that I remember Bryan saying I would have... what an incredible thing that would be and I... he was always such a huge fan of the genre and the comic book and has such respect for it. And I think, in a way, it's great because I think that they all approached it with a certain reverence for the Donner films, a complete respect for the fanbase, and I think, although I haven't seen the film, I think that it probably has a feeling of enormous homage to that style.

Press: Were you a Superman fan growing up?

Kevin: As a kid I was into model cars and rockets and stuff, I wasn't a comic book reader, so I just never was into it that way. I mean, I remember when the... I have a vague memory of the TV series in reruns, the original series... and then I remember when the first Donner film came out and we all went down to the Westwood theater on a Friday night and we were gonna see Brando... because we were all actors, you know, in drama class, were like "Let's go see Brando! How cool, he's in Superman!"

Press: Lex is a classic kind of villain, kind of like Iago.

Kevin: Yeah. Yeah, and I think that's probably one of the reasons why I didn't want to watch the Donner films again. Because I just played Richard II at the Old Vic and there are film performances and recordings of Richard II and I absolutely avoided them because you have to approach it in your own way, in the same way that we love to see actors take on similar parts. How many actors have played Hamlet? How many actors have played Richard III? That's part of the joy, is to see how a different actor will approach something and so I just kind of avoided it. But yeah, it's absolutely iconic and a lot of fun and I always hoped that the performance in the movie would have as much humor as I think that kind of role offers.

Press: What has the Old Vic experience taught you, or re-taught you, about film acting? What have you learned from that?

Kevin: Well I think that... you know, there's no doubt in my mind that I have to credit all of the theater experiences I've had. What I've learned from working in the theater, and continue to learn from working in the theater in terms of how I'm able to bring that to film... because in the theater, you know not just in the course of rehearsal but night after night after night the ritual of getting up (on stage). You learn about arc. You learn about telling a story over two and a half hours. And if you haven't had that experience, I think it's much harder in a film situation to figure out how to create an arc in a very crazy shooting schedule. The honest truth is, and to some degree the frustration as an actor in movies, is you never get to play the whole part. You never play the whole part. (Kevin mimes pulling small objects out of the air) You play this, and that, and that, and that, and that, and that and somebody (Kevin spots the 36" Superman Returns figure)... what the f#@k is that?

Press: (laughter, then someone hands Kevin a Superman Returns Lex Luthor action figure) That's you.

Kevin: Oh my god. That's actually the first time... well no, actually I've seen a prototype. I've seen a different one than this.

Press: Is that your first action figure?

Kevin: (In a deep, serious voice) This is my first action figure! (laughter) No, no... I have a Richard II action figure, what am I talking about? Anyway, the point is that it is what theater trains you and teaches you about how to give a performance, so that when you walk on a film set, when you're working on a script, I'm always thinking, "How am I going to make this..." If I was able to play this part, you know, obviously being directed by somebody who I trust as much as Bryan, but how do you create it so that when they cut it all together it's going to have an arc to it? I mean, sometimes, look, how many movies do we go to and we see actors who must have shown up on that day and they must have thought that they had the right energy and they must have thought that it was all going well, and they cut it together and it's like a flat line? They're playing the same thing in every single scene. The same kind of energy whether it's anger or whether... whatever. But in the theater you learn through what it's like to stand in front of an audience because they're going to tell you, very quickly, whether you're holding them or whether you're not holding them. Whether they are absolutely attentive and following the story and it's clear, or whether they're not. And I absolutely have always believed that the work that I've been able to do in the theater has had a huge effect on the work I've done in film.

Press: Is there a role, an iconic stage role that you'd like to play? That you're trying to persuade the Old Vic to...

Kevin: Well the good thing is I don't have to persuade anybody. I could persuade myself!

Press: (laughter) Who do you want to play, then?

Kevin: I mean, there's a lot of parts in theater. There's an enormous amount of Shakespeare that I'd like to do. Richard II was an extraordinary experience because it's not produced all that often.

Press: Are you old enough to do Lear yet, do you think?

Kevin: (Kevin silently mouths "No! I don't think so!) I think maybe when I'm 80.

Press: You don't even want to?

Kevin: No. God no. Because you know what? I'm not a good enough actor to play Lear now. I think you need age. But to have really my first Shakespearean part be directed by Trevor Nunn in what was an extraordinary production... just and incredible, modern take on that play and he did so many things with the text that I think made it very, very clear. There's a lot of Shakespeare, there's a lot of Mollier, there's a lot of new work that we're developing that I'd like to do. I'm reluctant to say which because I'll read nine stories in the London press that I've announced I'm doing Richard III, and I'm not. So, the truth is there are endless amounts of work to do and I'm there for another eight years...

Parker Posey Press: Eight years?

Kevin: Yeah, I made a ten year commitment.

Press: Are you enjoying the London press?

Kevin: (Kevin sighs) (laughter) I'm enjoying my role as the artistic director very, very much.

Press: What was your first reaction when you saw Brandon in the suit?

Kevin: There's Superman. Yeah, actually, when I first arrived on the set in Sydney they were shooting and I came over to the set to visit Bryan and Brandon was walking out of the Daily Planet dressed as Superman and I went, "Oh, f#@k, there's Superman!"

Press: Is it true you tormented him on the set a little?

Kevin: I did torment him!

Press: (laughter) What kind of things did you do to him?

Kevin: You know, when you're on movie sets, the give you a golf cart so you can drive around to get from one stage to the other, so I had my golf cart kind of suped-up. I had Kryptonite stripes put on the side (laughter) and I had a big Superman logo on the front with an "X" through it. And it was called the "Superbuster". And then we tied a Superman doll on the back with a chain, so I just dragged it around. So like in rainy days it was... by the end of the shoot it was just this f@#%ing ball of mess. With a little cape. And I had a bullhorn and I used to scream through the bullhorn, "Superman must die!" (laughter) I remember, when I was driving back from the stage and Brandon was coming out of his trailer and he hadn't seen this yet, "Superman must die!" (Kevin mimes the Superman doll flopping around on the ground behind his golf cart) (lots more laughter) He was like, "Oh f#@k, I'm so screwed."

Press: Have they told you to set aside certain months in 2007 for the sequel?

Kevin: No, I think they're probably going to wait until they see how this one does and then make a decision about where they're going to go with it.

Press: How do you think Lex gets off the island?

Kevin: I think he eats his way off. (laughter)

Press: Where do you take the character next, as an actor?

Kevin: The good news is I don't have to think about that. The good news is that if it's Bryan and the writers who worked on this I have absolute faith that they will... I mean the truth is they may well have already thought about the life of it after this, but if they have they haven't revealed any secrets to me. When you're fortunate enough to have a director like Bryan and writers like that you just sort of put yourself in their hands and say, "Hey guys, whatever you want me to do."

Press: Do you ever improvise at all?

Kevin: Yeah, there's certainly some improvisation that goes on. I have no idea, I couldn't pinpoint because I haven't seen the movie yet, what survived. But yeah, there's times where you're sort of throwing stuff in and there's times where Bryan will say just try something and where things just happen and the camera's just rolling and you just try something. Something comes to you. But because everyone was so specific and wanted to make sure that we took care of the character and story and stuff there wasn't a whole lot of it going on, but we certainly had a lot of fun.

Press: How does your Old Vic appointment impact your movie career and do you just play it by ear and figure out schedules?

Kevin: The truth is my full time commitment, no matter where I am, is to the Old Vic. And if a movie comes along that happens to work within a pre-existing schedule at the Old Vic... if weve announced a play and we've announced a slot that we're doing a play, then I'm committed. Movies come second.

Parker Posey Press: Is there anything movie-wise that you're thinking about doing?

Kevin: I'm going to make a film in the fall while I'm doing Moon for Misbegotten in London with Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti, in which Paul Giamatti is playing Santa Claus and Vince Vaughn's playing his brother who's never gotten any credit, and I play an efficiency expert who comes to the north pole.

Press: (laughter) You're doing really realistic movies then...

Kevin: Yeah. This is my "realistic period". (more laughter) And it's called Joe Claus. And then I'm making a film that I'm producing with Sony, that's the true story of the MIT card counters, who learn the art of card counting at "21", and Robert Luketic is directing that. So I'll make that at the beginning of next year. I play the teacher that teaches them how to card count.

Press: The scene where you scream at Lois Lane and say "WRONG!"... how many takes did you do on that?

Kevin: I suspect that that was probably an afternoon of yelling. But we also did it very quietly. You always try to not end up giving a director only one choice in editing. Because sometimes you get in editing and you think, "Oh god, did he ever NOT do it that way?"

Press: Moon for Misbegotten is the next play?

Kevin: Moon for Misbegotten is the next play. We just announced this morning that Eve Best, who won the Olivier last year for Hedda Gabler will play Josie, and this will again be directed by Howard Davies, who directed Iceman Cometh.

Press: And chance of, in the future, directing again?

Kevin: Not for a while. I just happen to know what I'm doing over the next three years in theater, and it does not afford me the year-long time that you need to direct a film. But perhaps after that.

Press: You're having a great time in London?

Kevin: I'm loving it. I am loving it.

Press: Is there a toy now that you would have loved to have had when you were a little kid?

Kevin: Well, probably an Xbox. They didn't really have them then, did they? We had just videocassettes. Thank you guys!