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.
“I’m drawn to very modern stories about things we are grappling with now. I’m curious about exploring and unearthing that stuff, and allowing audiences to figure out how they feel about it. I try very hard not to lead people down the path of what I want them to think.”
Freedom and space
House of Cards is just the latest reminder of what a prestigious, and exciting, medium television has become in the wake of The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. In contrast to what Fincher calls the thrillcentric world of celluloid, TV drama allows a freedom and space that attracted A-list figures like himself and Spacey.
“In television you have the time to allow characters to evolve,” says Fincher. “I liked the fact that we were going to see things about them that were completely morally reprehensible but we would get to see another facet of them. And it’s unfortunate that that now seems to be the purview of television almost exclusively, but for that reason we were looking to play in this particular sandbox.”
It differs from other small-screen ventures in one important aspect. House of Cards was funded by the online streaming service Netflix, which is to post all 13 episodes at the same time, thus allowing subscribers instant access to the entire run. It is a potentially game-changing move, appealing to audiences that increasingly consume TV drama in box-set-size chunks.
“It seems to me this is the opportunity for the film and television industry to learn the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn,” says Spacey. “Give the audience what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll buy it; they won’t steal it.”
But the chief attraction of the series format is Spacey’s lead performace. Despite being diabolical in character, Underwood cuts a mesmerising figure, not least in his brutal ability to get things done in the logjammed political arena.
“It’s that moral conundrum of bad for a greater good,” says Spacey. “Is what he’s doing completely self-motivated or is there something else that’s going on? I used to come home at night after shooting every day during the presidential election and I’d watch the news and think to myself, Our storylines aren’t that crazy, because this is f***ing crazy.”
Despite the DC setting, House of Cards is less concerned with the intricacies of US politics than with the machinations and motivations of those who wield power: unsurprising, given that it is based on the BBC series starring the late Ian Richardson as the ruthless MP Francis Urquhart. The new version pays homage to the original by recycling a memorable trope, the lead character’s knowing asides to the audience, which Fincher describes as “the notion that Machiavelli is going to take you under his wing and show you how it works”.
A fan of the original since seeing it the 1990s, Spacey relishes repeating some of Urqhuart’s most famous lines, such as: “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment,” but his performance is no pastiche. It draws on other influences, most notably his lengthy stint playing Richard III on stage.
“For the direct address, it was particularly helpful to have done the play,” he says, fixing his gaze over the table, “and then to understand how to play it down the barrel of a lens, having had the experience of actually looking into people’s eyes all over the world and watching how they loved being co-conspirators.”
That Spacey should have spent much of 2011 touring theatres across the world is emblematic of the course he has charted in recent times. Back in the 1990s he was one of the biggest names in film, winning Academy Awards for his performances in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty.
“For about 12 years I was in all honesty very focused, like with blinders on, carving out a film career for myself. Then, at the end of 1999, American Beauty had come out and I was like, ‘Well, that went better than I could have hoped. Now what?’ And that’s literally when I knew that I didn’t want to pursue the same dream.”
He took offbeat film roles, such as in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Dublin crime comedy Ordinary Decent Criminal, but for Spacey the turning point was when he became artistic director of the Old Vic theatre, in London.
“That’s been my focus pretty much for the past decade, and it’s the best decision I ever made. It allowed me distance not just from my own country but from my own career. And I think I’m a better person for it. I hope I’m a better actor. I know I’m a better company man.”
Spacey also seems more at ease in the public glare than before. Where once he was a regular target for media speculation about his private life, particularly his sexuality, now he has learned “the value of being in the position I found myself in”, happy to use his celebrity to raise funds for the Old Vic.
“With respect to being known, Jack Lemmon, who was my mentor, probably put it in perspective. He said, ‘Even if it’s the 25th time someone stops you in the street to sign your name, you gotta remember it’s the first time for them.’ If you keep it in that kind of perspective, the pros outweigh the cons.
“I do believe there is a way to manage things so that you have a life that is as real and genuine as it can possibly be, in the midst of a lot of things that happen outside of your life that people think have to do with your life. They’re not the internal experience you’re having.”
Whatever else, Spacey’s pride in House of Cards is palpable. Along with a company of trusted collaborators, he has produced a television series that ranks alongside his best movie work. In more ways than one, Spacey is still an interested party.
“We don’t know if it will be a big thud heard around the world or it’ll have some kind of impact,” he says. “But, whatever happens, I do think it’s worth telling.”
House of Cards is on Netflix from Friday