“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