Kevin Spacey, a world-class actor who has conquered stage, screen, and Netflix, is placing another feather in his cap: he’s about to self-release “NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage,” a documentary that thrillingly chronicles the worldwide production of William Shakespeare‘s “Richard III,” mounted by Spacey and his “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes. When you watch the documentary, it’s hard to not be taken aback by the sheer size of the production, from the dozens of actors to the massive sets (and the truly jaw-dropping venues that they got to play all around the world). We were lucky enough to chat with Spacey about reteaming with Mendes, where the project came from, when they decided to make it a documentary, the connection between “Richard III” and “House of Cards” and whether or not he’s talked to Jesse Eisenberg about playing Lex Luthor.
First, some background: By the time this crazy “Richard III” production came to be, Spacey had been an artistic director for the legendary Old Vic theater in London, a gig that he had signed on to for a whopping ten years. So his day job was, very much, tending to the theater. “Richard III” came out of something called The Bridge Project, described as a “trans-Atlantic repertory venture,” which Spacey describes here in some detail (it came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the beginning of 2012).
It’s another fascinating left turn for an actor whose career is made almost entirely of fascinating left turns. (Keep in mind he took on the job directly after winning an Oscar for “American Beauty.”) But as Spacey describes his experience with the Old Vic and “Richard III,” all the way up through self-distributing the movie, these are just things that happen. There is no grand architecture to the decisions. They just happen.
Your decision to become the artist director for the Old Vic for ten years must have been a huge decision. And it’s one that’s dealt with very quickly in the documentary.
Sure, I guess the only reason it had been glossed over was I felt like that story had been told a thousand times. And I didn’t want to have the film be about that. But to answer your question, it really happened by accident and it was all a big surprise. Ultimately, I had been spending about ten, eleven years really focusing on a film career, and towards the tail end of that, in about 1998, I had decided to go to London and do a production of “The Iceman Cometh,” which turned out to be very successful. Then we all decided we wanted to continue doing it, because it was such a great experience. So we ended up moving that production to the Old Vic. And I fell in love with the Old Vic. I had been asked by the people who had just bought the Old Vic for a trust if I would go on the committee to find an artistic director. And I didn’t really know that much about the Old Vic besides its illustrious history. But over the course of the next year I started to learn more about it and I started to have a couple of meetings about it and at the end of 1999, when I was back in London for the launch of “American Beauty” at the London Film Festival, that was where an epiphany evening struck me where at the very moment when I was beginning to feel like everything I had set out for myself as a goal over those last 11 years, in terms of building a film career, had gone better than I could have ever possibly hoped.
And now what? was my question. What am I supposed to do now? Do the next 10 years doing the same thing? Did I want to be one of those guys who you see who get to a certain point and then they start showing up and doing lots of movies they probably shouldn’t do and making shitloads of money? I thought: no, I don’t want to do it again. I’ve done it. And I don’t think I need to top myself. Here’s this incredible theater, which needs someone to take it over, and it seemed that it was what I wanted to do my whole life—run a theater. It was staring me in the face and all I had to do was open my fucking eyes. And I did.
Running a theater and mounting a giant world tour are pretty different things. Can you talk about what it was like assembling the team for this?
Well, you have to understand that by the time we took on the Bridge Project, which was five productions over three-and-a-half years, all directed by Sam Mendes, all of which toured the world … By that point we were eight seasons in. We had a remarkable company, an incredible staff, and our co-producers in the Brooklyn Academy of Music and all of our partners in the sister theaters were involved. It’s a monstrous undertaking traveling around the world with four sets, twenty actors … We had to have four sets because one set had to be ready in the city we were at and another was traveling to the next city and one set had to be dismantled from the city we had just been to. So there was a set, always traveling. And all of the props and all of the costumes. It was, without question, a massive undertaking. I think it comes down to money and availability. To get an actor to commit to a 10-month experience is not an easy thing to do when you’re competing with television and films and the fact that actors like to make money like anybody else. It was the commitment not only of the company but of Sam Mendes, to direct these five productions over three-and-a-half years is pretty remarkable. But by the time we started that process we were well-oiled as a company and had done many, many productions, some of which came to Broadway and some that played other places as well.
Can you talk about re-teaming with Sam Mendes? How did that come about?
It came about, weirdly, almost as soon as I made the decision to come to the Old Vic. This was December of 1999 when I made the decision and I think I called Sam in January of 2000. I said, “Look, I know you’re about to leave the Donmar after ten years, but I’m about to sign on to the Vic for the next ten years.” I thought a number of things: a) if somebody was going to talk me out of it, it’d be Sam. Like “Don’t do this, you’re insane.” And b) I called him because he was one of the first directors I wanted to talk to about coming and doing something that could bring us back together at the Old Vic. So this began a series of conversations and dinners and emails that literally started in 2000. Because Sam, at the time, was like, “Look, I’m about to leave the Donmar and go back to New York and make some movies for a while and do some plays but I’m not quite ready to come back to London yet. But let’s keep talking.” But what I didn’t know was that around the same time, Joe Melillo, who is the head of BAM, was starting to talk to Sam about doing something at BAM.
And maybe about four years after these conversations began, Sam and I met for lunch in New York and he said to me, “We’re missing something. It’s literally staring us in the face and we can’t see it.” I said, “What?” He said, “I’m a British director, living in New York, doing plays and doing movies. You’re an American actor, living in London, doing plays and doing movies. There’s something to that. Whatever we do together, we have to embrace that idea. There’s something about the bridge from our two cultures that we could highlight and underscore and give ourselves an incredible challenge.” What became of that was, instead of housing himself at the Old Vic or housing himself at BAM, we came up with the notion, and it was really Sam’s notion, or bringing together 50% American actors, 50% British actors, allowing the Old Vic and BAM to be its home, and touring the world. And proving that it doesn’t matter where you come from or how you sound, you can make Shakespeare come alive.
So that’s literally how the whole thing started. And I think it’s true. And whether it was in the first year, the number of actors that joined that first year, or the second year, all the extraordinary actors that came on like Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke—we set out to prove, and did prove that you can make classic works come to life when you mix American and British actors.
And when did the idea of the documentary come about?
Well Sam and I had always talked about, early on in the first year or two, even before we announced or even decided that we wanted to do “Richard III,” that we wanted to find a way to document this but we didn’t know how and didn’t know what that meant. And then as we were having those discussions and talking to my producers at the Old Vic, Jeremy Whelan, who is an old friend and former assistant, came to me and said, “Hey, I think you should document this.” So it seemed like everybody was thinking in the same way. So ultimately I decided to step up and finance it myself and own it, and here we are now and I’m self-releasing it.
How did you come to the decision to release it yourself?
I had definitely been doing it for a while and had been watching how a number of people over the last few years had been self-distributing their own things and shaping it up. And I felt like, knowing the world that we live in and knowing how the industry may undervalue certain things and knowing how difficult it is to get documentaries seen or even get a great release, I just ultimately wasn’t willing to take my film in my hand and go to some film festival and make a really lousy deal at a restaurant somewhere and watch the film not get the release that I wanted it to. So I figured I’d retain ownership and release it myself.
What’s funny about watching this documentary after “House of Cards” is watching Richard III talk to the audience, where you can’t help but think of Frank Underwood.
[laughs] Well that just goes to prove that we didn’t invent direct address. Beau Willimon didn’t, I didn’t, Michael Dobbs didn’t, the British series didn’t, Shakespeare did. Even though for some people, they think Ferris Bueller did. But it was Shakespeare.
Did you get to bring any of your Richard III over into “House of Cards?”
Well they are … even though there is no doubt and it’s been discussed extensively, Frank Underwood, in his original incarnation in Great Britain, was entirely based on Richard III. And that’s why the direct address exists in “House of Cards,” because Michael Dobbs took it from Shakespeare. So there are definitely certain parallels and certain things—they’re both stories about the nature of power, et cetera. But they are two different characters. But I was very grateful for being able to do direct address directly into the eyes of audiences around the world. Because now I’m looking down the barrel of a lens and it’s not as intimate and I don’t get the reaction back. But boy did I learn a lot from looking in people’s faces.
You worked with David Fincher on “House of Cards” and were a producer on “The Social Network” and obviously starred in “Se7en.” Just like this project was a complete departure from your previous work with Mendes. When you reteam with someone are you looking for something that’s completely different?
Yeah, it’s sort of awesome, on “House of Cards,” to reteam with Jamie Foley, who gave me one of my first significant film roles in “Glengarry Glen Ross” or Joel Schumacher, who gave me one of my first jobs when I was just starting out in “A Time to Kill” or John Coles, who directed me in something for PBS 20-something years ago or Fincher, obviously we had a pretty extraordinary experience doing “Se7en.” And we were on the set of “The Social Network” and we started talking about wanting to work together again as an actor and director as opposed to producer and director and then a little later on he came to me and said that he heard the rights to the British “House of Cards” was available and asked me if it was a series I knew. I said yes I did, but he had never seen it, so he went off to watch it, I went off to re-watch it, and we came back together and said, “Yeah I think this would translate to the U.S. really well.” And before you knew it Beau Willimon was hired and a script was written and we pitched it to all the networks and lo and behold we end up at Netflix. It’s been a complete joy to reunite with people in different ways with different kinds of projects that require different disciplines from us. And I’ve had a blast. It’s just really nice to work with people you’re very familiar with and are very comfortable with so when they push you in different directions, you’ll actually go there.
Are you going to needle Fincher to come back and direct something in season 3?
I’m certainly going to try.
Richard III is a character that has been portrayed by countless actors. And there’s a role that you’ve portrayed that have been inhabited by a few—Lex Luthor. You worked with Jesse on ‘Social Network.’ Have you spoken at all about it?
No. I haven’t spoken to him at all about it. I was asked about it and I thought he was a great choice—he’s an extraordinarily great actor and he’s going to make it his own. I have no doubt about that.
“NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage” will be available starting May 2nd. Click here for more information.