In acting circles, Kevin Spacey is known as a chameleon, smoothly switching from evil incarnate as the killer in Seven to bon vivant as the detective in L.A. Confidential to his current role in The Life of David Gale. This time out, he plays a college philosophy teacher and ardent anti-death penalty advocate who, through some turns of coincidence, finds himself accused of murder and on death row.
Yet in the bigger picture, Spacey goes a lot further than being a Renaissance man of an actor. He started on the stage in high school, moved into stand-up comedy, was a Gong Show reject, attended and dropped out of Julliard, studied and worked with Joe Papp, was a hit on Broadway and in London's West End, jumped to the movies and nabbed a couple of Oscars that go nicely with his Tony, directed the film Albino Alligator, made a swinging recording of That Old Black Magic, started his own production company and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Traversing the country to promote the Alan Parker-directed The Life of David Gale, Spacey, 43, is game to chat up any subject, but makes sure to give that film a proud push. It features both the kind of character and situation he likes best -- the kind that's far from black and white.
"I adore films that give an audience an opportunity to participate," he says. "And in particular, in a film like this, where the crime he is accused of committing, you don't see. So you have no idea in the course of the film if he's guilty or innocent. I think the film operates, in a sense, like a cat-and-mouse game, where we hope there are shifting points of view and fluid feelings about him as a character."
When he first got the script, Spacey had some questions and concerns about the character he was to play, and about the situations the character was going to be caught up in.
"So I got on the phone with [Alan] Parker," he recalls. "He started talking to me about his ideas for the film and what he wanted from it and how he had been working on it. And once he laid out what his intentions were, I read it again. Ultimately I found David Gale such an interesting character because he's so deeply flawed, he does make mistakes and has these weaknesses."
Another reason David Gale is interesting is because even though his story could have been torn right out of today's headlines, and the film's title suggests realism, he's fictional.
Spacey giggles at the reactions he's come across.
"Most people who talk to me about the film end up saying, 'Well, I went on the Internet and tried to find out who David Gale was,' or, 'Oh yeah, I know who David Gale is.' In a way, I like that it's a fictional character, because it's such a powerful and surprising story. And its central issue is so polarizing that I wonder if it was a true story, and we all knew the events in the film, would we invest ourselves as much as I hope an audience allows themselves to with these characters."
The film is a thriller, complete with a ticking clock scenario in which a life hangs in the balance. That part provides the entertainment value. But it's also extremely issue-oriented, with different characters presenting both sides of the death penalty argument. Spacey made the decision early on not to talk about his own feelings on the subject because he wants people to see the movie and develop their own opinions, with no help from him.
But he will say that he was concerned about the message being delivered.
"I ultimately embraced the idea that what was actually a strength in this film, something I may have read as a weakness at first, was the fact that it's not a clean message. It's messy and complicated and it doesn't just go down one road."
Neither, in fact, has Spacey, particularly in recent years. Working regularly in film since the early '90s, toiling away in both hits (American Beauty) and misses (The Negotiator), and escaping to the stage whenever possible (much of 1998 and '99 was taken up playing Hickey in a four-hour production of The Iceman Cometh), he has also found time to get his production company rolling.
"I'm really having a good time because I took the last year off," he says. "I finished David Gale in November of 2001, and I haven't taken an acting assignment since. I've been focusing on getting back in touch with my life, my friends, my family -- with a little bit of travel and a whole lot of work at Trigger Street Productions. We've been working on producing a number of movies."
One film the company will start producing soon is an adaptation of the book Bringing Down the House, not to be confused with the upcoming Steve Martin film of the same title.
"That's a great true story," he says excitedly. "It's about a group of MIT students who were taught the art of card counting at blackjack. They used to strap hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash on their bodies and fly to Las Vegas on weekends. And they brought down Vegas. They made millions of dollars.
"If we get all the projects that we want to do off the ground," he adds, "we'll be a very busy company next year. So although I've had a relaxed, easy time this year, I've been busy. I'm actually looking forward to going back to acting so I can get some sleep."