Kevin Spacey: The man, the myth, the screen legend

Jean Ellen Gismervik

Trying to interview Kevin Spacey is a bit like watching a movie. There are no commercial breaks, so you better just get comfortable and hope you don’t have to go to the bathroom. Spacey has a way of letting his sentences run on full of passionate ideas and mature wisdom, easily making room for a four-syllable word or dirty joke here and there. So although he answers questions for nearly 45 minutes, you soon realize that the questions will have to count since there will be few. And then you sit back and take it all in because it’s Kevin Spacey, and just like that … he’s gone.

On politics:

There’s a sort of agnostic behavior as far as [the death penalty] goes. You can viscerally say, “I’m for it or against it,” but when you start breaking it down, and that’s particularly true about a lot of things that people take positions about, it’s more complicated. I’ll give you an example. I recently went to Africa and I learned a lot when I was there — and then you look at polls that are taken in the United States. So you ask the American people, “Do you think we should give more money to Africa?” and the overwhelming response is, “Absolutely not, we give too much.” But then when you break it down and ask, “Well do you actually know how much we give to Africa?” “Well, no. How much is it?” And then you sort of give off statistics, and then it’s like “That doesn’t seem like, a lot,” and yeah, it’s not. And you realize the pharmaceutical companies that have the medication that could stop transference from mother to child aren’t giving it. That’s a little like if China had the cure for the bubonic plague and didn’t give it. How would history view China? How will history view us?

On celebrity:

There’s a young filmmaker and we’ve rallied around this person because we believe in what they want to do and the sacrifices that they’ve made against all the roadblocks that come in between an idea and the actual execution of it — particularly with someone who hasn’t proven themselves yet. But you know, when I’m sitting in a screening room and I’m watching dailies with a first-time filmmaker … the satisfaction of feeling not only about what we’re doing in terms of trying to help somebody but also helping them learn how to function within the business. Because no matter how talented you are, negotiating yourself through the waters of the movie industry or the theatre industry is very hard. Especially if you have virtually no experience, you just have an idea … Most of the great filmmakers were mavericks within a system and they learned how to manipulate the system in order to make the movies they wanted to make.

On jerkoffs:

I work in a world where collaboration is the only thing that makes it work and you have to learn to work with people and I really like people. I also think, you know that old adage, it must be lonely at the top? Well it must be even lonelier if you’re a real jerkoff.

On following your heart:

It’s very hard when you’re young because you don’t know what you want to do, you only know as it presents itself to you, but having some kind of shape of what you don’t want to do at least gives you a place to begin. I meet a lot of people who are just ambitious. Oh, they just want it and they want it now, but very often you’re not ready for it when you’re young. I feel very fortunate that I didn’t take off when I was in my 20s, as I saw a lot of my friends do because I got a chance to learn and to watch. You know I don’t really have any pearls of wisdom about it. I think the most important thing is to follow your heart. And don’t worry about all the things you can’t control, because you can’t control them, so why worry about it?

On the memory that has stuck with him the most:

It would be Rwanda. There was a remarkable day in Rwanda. We got there very late in the middle of the night like 4 o’clock in the morning. We slept for only two hours and then got up and went to the AIDS hospital first and then toured through it, met patients and the children and this remarkable woman who ran it. And then we went to a memorial that they have built that they haven’t completed and they still have open because there are 260,000 remains in the memorial and families are still bringing the remains of their dead. And it’s hard for us to go … we hear things like World War II and Vietnam. This was eight years ago, this horrible genocide, and we didn’t do enough about it. And the president was in office so it’s a huge issue for him and in fact he is the only president who’s ever visited South Africa while in office. So we went to this memorial and it was a very strange experience because unlike our queasiness with death, they actually put on displays of skulls and bones of the dead, so you walk into this place underground and there’s just hundreds of skulls … And this group of young boys sang for us and then these dancers came out and it was the first time, they told us, in eight years that the two sides of the tribes came together. And that afternoon, that day going into the sunset was just remarkable. And, for example, a woman who was a Hutu had adopted the children of two parents who had been killed in the massacre of the Tutsi’s and was raising them. So you have these examples, and we’re still trying to get over Pearl Harbor.

On making a difference:

There are facts [about AIDS] that we just don’t know. Most people assume that the highest rate of AIDS infection is in Africa, but it’s not, it’s in the Caribbean countries. That’s our front door. And it’s in the former Soviet Republic countries, which is Europe and Britain’s back door. Not that we’re complacent as much as we used to be, but there is this complacency in our country that these things will never have anything to do with us, but we felt that about terrorism.