It’s easy to assume that a documentary financed and self-released by Kevin Spacey will be a vanity project. Especially the Tribeca Film Festival world premiere “NOW in the Wings on a World Stage,” now streaming, which follows the head of the Old Vic around the world as he stars in 200 performances of Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”
But the documentary, which Spacey and rookie director Jeremy Whelehan (his former associate producer on “Beyond the Sea” and Old Vic assistant director) have been tinkering with for two years, is worth waiting for. Sure, Spacey comes off well as the tireless star boss who takes his company on a scenic yacht trip off the coast of Australia during their Sydney tour. Would he have done that if he wasn’t filming for posterity? Well, it makes for a great scene.
The doc takes a behind-the-scenes look at how a unique company of 20 actors, half American and half British, all speaking their native English, workshopped and mounted “Richard III.” And it shows the changes in the production as they took the show from its opening at the Old Vic to the huge ancient Greek amphitheater Epidaurus, where they had three days to figure out how to play to 14,000 people, and then returned to finish up the London run before going on a whirlwind world tour –something that hasn’t been done on this scale since the glory days of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre–including stunning modern stages in Sydney, Doha and Beijing, as well as venerable theaters in Istanbul, Spain, Naples, and San Francisco—winding up at BAM in Brooklyn.
In 2003, Kevin Spacey, who has won two acting Oscars (“American Beauty” and “The Usual Suspects”) took a remarkable career turn, moving to London as artistic director of the Old Vic. Spacey was inspired, watching clips at a Mike Nichols AFI tribute of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Carnal Knowledge,” to pursue high caliber filmmaking and theater. Like many actors these days, Spacey took his career into his own hands via his own production company, Trigger Street, which is run by producer Dana Brunetti, who developed and produced (with Michael De Luca and Scott Rudin) both Ben Mezrich and David Fincher’s Oscar-winning “The Social Network” and Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, which was nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture.
For the last decade, Spacey has worked around his Old Vic duties. He recognized early on that much of the best writing these days is in television, and signed on with Fincher and showrunner Beau Willimon (whose play “Farragut North” became the George Clooney film “The Ides of March”) for Netflix’s American remake of the Brit political intrigue “House of Cards,” which was inspired by “Richard III.” The Emmy-winning hit series, which boasts 26 episodes available for binge-watching via Netflix and has been greenlit for a third season (Willimon just started writing the next 13 episodes), launched a web series boom on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, among others. (My interview with Willimon is here; we’re doing a Tribeca panel moderated by John Hockenberry, “Stories by Numbers,” with David Simon and Nate Silver on April 24th.)
Now Spacey is merging the film and theater worlds with “NOW in the Wings on the World Stage,” an unwieldy title that does describe the 90-minute film. He called me on the phone from Washington, D.C. He’s excited about reuniting with his company at the world premiere in Tribeca next week, as well as all the projects coming up at the Old Vic: “Other Cities” starring Martha Plimpton and Sinead Cusack in late May, his own one man show as attorney Clarence Darrow in June, a revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in the summer, and “Electra” starring Kristin Scott Thomas in the fall, all to be mounted in their new theater in the round.
Anne Thompson: How much Richard III is in Frank Underwood?
Kevin Spacey: The truth is Frank wouldn’t exist without Richard III. I mean that literally. Michael Dobbs wrote the book and the original TV show in Britain based on Richard’s direct address. I didn’t invent that: Shakespeare invented that whole idea of making the audience a co-conspirator, bringing you in on his ideas and plans. The experience I had doing that in front of audiences, looking into the eyes of people around the world as I brought them in was a huge thing to learn, before I started shooting “House of Cards.” It’s different than Frank Underwood looking down the barrel of the camera lens. It’s naughty fun looking into the eyes of people around the globe.
You seem to have been rather prescient about where entertainment is going, as the Hollywood studios narrow their focus and flocks of actors turn to theater and longform entertainment.
If I go back to when I took “Wise Guys,” that series was almost a precursor to what has happened. I was doing a miniseries within a maxiseries, after seven episodes they killed me off. I was able to create an interesting character and a dynamic relationship. Eight or nine years ago we were talking about the fact that one of these companies– YouTube, Yahoo, Hulu, Amazon or Netflix– would want to be in the business of producing content, would want to compete to get in that game. It didn’t surprise me that one company stood up and took the brave, bold, risky choice of greenlighting 26 episodes without a pilot. It made complete sense to me. That I happened to be involved in it was a bit of a surprise. What hasn’t surprised me is that audiences, as we found starting with box sets, want control, to decide how they watch it. Appointment viewing is slowly being put slightly behind. A new era has begun, which is an exciting place to be. For us it was incredible fun, it never felt episodic, it felt like we were doing a really long movie.
Where did this ambitious Bridge Project come from?
Over a whole bunch of years I was paying attention to the different ways people are trying to reach out to new audiences, to give them experiences in the theater that they haven’t had. I have long sought how to bring people new chances to come to New York and London and the great cities across the U.S. that have remarkable theaters in them. There’s National Theatre Live, the Met Opera in movie theaters, and some online things as well. But it struck me in conversations with Sam Mendes about coming to the Old Vic that the whole notion of the Bridge project–the idea of taking a company of actors around the world, on that scale– hasn’t happened for 40 years, when the National Theater would go on an extended tour to 30 cities from London to Sydney.
Maybe this was an opportunity to answer some of those questions I get from people who stop me on the street and write letters, asking, “isn’t theater boring, doing the same thing every night?” People who aren’t theater lovers, maybe never had the opportunity to go. So much energy and effort goes into our Old Vic programs to bring Broadway students to come to see the theater at a reasonable price. We have a policy to have 100 seats available every night for under $25. Over the past decade 80,000 people have seen our productions this way and the seed gets planted that you can have an experience at the theater that is affordable, accessible and interesting.
Here was a unique opportunity to try to capture what it’s like to do theatre and go around the world with a company.
It must be prohibitively expensive. Who footed the cost?
One of the reasons it’s so expensive is the number of people. Credit is due for allowing us to be able to take this experienced troupe of actors, technicians and sets with us around the world. Sam Mendes and I pitched the idea to Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, just before the whole financial world crashed, of a three-year project with five productions with “Richard III” as the final installment. Each of those went around world, with the likes of Sinead Cusack, Ethan Hawke and Simon Russell Beale in “The Cherry Orchard” and “Tempest” etc. After the crash we were waiting for them to call and say they’d made a terrible mistake and pull out, but they never did. They were our main title sponsor in every city, where the theaters were our partners, put in an amount of money to bring us to each place. That’s how we managed to make it work, with sponsors in the cities. We somehow managed to cobble it all together, and we did very well. While it was expensive, somehow all those partners managed to do something nearly impossible.
Why does everyone, British and American, use a different English accent? Did you try to meet in the middle?
Everyone in the production spoke exactly the way they speak. No one is putting on an accent. Sam and I set out with the entire Bridge project to prove that it doesn’t matter where you come from or how you sound– American, Brit or anywhere– you can still make it come alive. I started this idea when we were talking about doing something together at the Old Vic, which spawned a series of conversations and lunches, dinners, and emails over a period of years, since 2000. “Come to the Old Vic.” Naturally we wanted to do something. One day he took me to lunch in New York and said, “Something is right in front of us that we’re not looking at it. I’m a British director living in New York directing plays and you’re an American actor doing plays and films in London. There’s something about where you and I are in our lives that is an interesting bridge between our two cultures.”
A British director directed “American Beauty,” an important film about American life, and it didn’t matter. What only mattered was everyone’s sensibility. What could we do that would embrace that bridge? I didn’t realize that at the same time, Joe Melillo was having conversations about him coming to BAM to direct plays there. Mendes was reluctant to move to one place to start a theater company. This allowed him more freedom, after running the Donmar. We had the idea of merging these two things, with 50% Brits and 50% Americans doing classic work, and tour around, with BAM and Old Vic as its home.
There’s no question it was an interesting journey for our company, which took the opposite route of all the other companies. They had rehearsed at BAM and opened in New York and went on tour and then came back to the Old Vic. We opened at the Old Vic and in the middle we went to Epidaurus for three performances and came back and finished, then went on the tour and ended up at BAM. So it was a slightly different experience for us, documented in the film. It was unique and interesting being able to play Epidaurus, an extraordinary 14,000 seat amphitheater. It had an effect on all of us as a company going to that ancient space. It took all three performances to figure out how to play there, it was so gigantic, it took time to learn where your voice needed to be and how big and how much you could be subtle in that environment. Those performances effected us when we went back to the Old Vic.
The gods came with us. All the different venues and theaters, some were acoustically brilliant, some terrible. By the time we got to San Francisco after Naples and and Avila, Spain, we had added 11 minutes to the show. I had to get tough in San Francisco, I remember meeting with the whole company and telling them to take eight minutes off the show. They have to pay attention to the running time. Every actor was getting longer, getting more indulgent when going for the laughter. The running time is very revealing of where a play is.
You are in 22 out of 24 scenes in the play, which you carry along with the company, as the boss, along with everything else you do. You must have been exhausted, especially with the demands of the role.
It could have been exhausting. It was certainly demanding. But it was also enthralling and energizing, because I was taking good care of myself. I spent a lot of time figuring out what I was doing physically so I would not hurt myself. When you are working on a raked stage, from the sitting audience it looks like it goes straight up. It’s raised so that we are sloped down toward you. It’s not flat, it goes upward, two or three inches higher than the audience, we’re raised up. The whole stage is built that way so that the actors are always off-balance. I chose to do things physically by putting my weight on one toe. I was in balance on that stage, I was playing a cripple with no physical toll. I was figuring out what to do so it didn’t kill me.
There was lot on the shoulder of the actor playing Richard, but it’s a remarkable company, I am so supported. We got through and shared an incredible experience together. Everyone in the company made great friends, we truly did become a family; that sensibility came through in the film. I am fortunate throughout my sometimes spinning plates in the air at the same time that I’m running a theater in London and a film company and in LA acting, that I have a remarkable staff who bring on incredible people to help who are good at what they do, and make sure I am where I need to be and hopefully be prepared.
Who came up with the idea of the doc, and who paid for it?
Jeremy Whelehan who is an assistant director at the Old Vic and my associate producer on “Beyond the Sea,” came to me saying this was a great opportunity. It seemed like a lot of people were thinking the same thing at the thing same time: “Let’s document this.”
I financed it and we’re self-releasing the movie with no one else involved. It seems to me it’s right, it goes along with my disruptive attitude about a lot of things. I wanted to start to see, as we’ve been seeing people doing all these self-distributions, whether it’s Louis CK, what we’ve done with Netflix and “House of Cards,” a lot of people are self-producing and promoting and putting out their own work. This was a personal thing for me. I simply wasn’t willing go hat in hand for a dog shitty deal for a DVD release.
Were you in the editing room?
Jeremy and I had great time together editing the film. During the period of time we were shooting “House of Cards” he came to Baltimore and spent 11 weeks editing what is now the final film. We had a good close relationship.
Where did that Bunny video come from?
I had the bunny short made, after I saw the one they did on “Caddyshack” on YouTube: “Oh, that would be great, to do a bunny video of my life.”