Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is on top form in David Fincher’s new political drama – whose story, he says, is no crazier than real-life politics
Kevin Spacey is attempting to articulate his creative priorities when, midsentence, he pauses and launches into an old Hollywood anecdote. Leaning forwards across the table, Spacey tells how, while shooting the 1964 film version of The Night of the Iguana in Mexico, its director, John Huston, one night had dinner with Tennessee Williams, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner.
“And there was a game they were playing, where everyone went around the table and, using only one word, had to describe what was the most important thing about life,” says Spacey, dropping his voice.
“So as they went around, someone said ‘beauty’ and someone said ‘health’ and someone said ‘family’ and someone said ‘love’ and someone said ‘money’. And it got around to John Huston, and he said, ‘Interest. To stay interested.’ And I’m still interested. I’m still really interested in the whole thing that we call life, and this incredible exploration I get to do to as an actor, director and producer. It gets me out of bed every day.”
As well as illustrating his point, the story encapsulates some of Spacey’s other defining characteristics, displaying his deep awareness of actorly lore while deflecting attention from the personal sphere. And in his neatly judged delivery – slyly drawing the outsider into his confidence to tell a larger truth – the Oscar-winning actor displays the same deft touch that underpins his latest role.
As Representative Francis Underwood, a powerful and manipulative US congressman coolly plotting vengeance against the president who has denied him a coveted prize, Spacey turns in a compelling lead performance that drives the new television drama House of Cards. Adapted from the British series of the same name, from 1990, House of Cards is no solo showcase, however. Other cast members deliver riveting turns, most obviously Robin Wright as Underwood’s calculatingly assertive wife, Claire, but also Corey Stoll as a hedonistic congressman, Michael Kelly as a ruthless aide and Kate Mara as a pushy young reporter.
The team behind the camera is even more impressive. The idea to reboot the BBC series came from David Fincher, director of such modern screen classics as Seven, Fight Club and The Social Network. After recruiting the playwright Beau Willimon, who wrote the 2011 political thriller The Ides of March, as the series screenwriter, Fincher contacted Spacey, who had acted for him in Seven and been executive producer of The Social Network.
The result is a gripping drama of intrigue, betrayal and naked ambition, its portrayal of a graspingly cynical political class spiked by a pitch-black sense of humour. But while the show’s impact is testament to the quality of assembled talent, Spacey remains its charismatic centre.
That one of Hollywood’s most famous stars of recent times should be fronting an entire television drama series seems unprecedented, after all. But, for Spacey, House of Cards fits into the pattern set by recent work such as his 2008 TV film Recount, on the contested Bush-Gore election, and his 2010 feature Casino Jack, about lobbying in Washington DC.