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The usual suspect

Need to add an undercurrent of cold-blooded menace to your thriller? Step forward Kevin Spacey... Until now. Ryan Gilbey meets the actor-turned- director whose latest role is, well, someone you'd like to take home and cuddle
A quick lesson in how to be Kevin Spacey. Stroll into a room with your eyes hidden behind sunglasses, and the peak of your baseball cap yanked down over your brow. When your assistant politely inquires whether you had a good night's sleep, hiss "No" without looking at her. Inspect the spluttering coffee percolator. Scoff at it. Inspect the spluttering journalist. Scoff at him. Offer a deep, dark "Hmm, hello" in a voice that suggests a mixture of Leslie Phillips and Shere Khan. Then spend the next hour insisting that you are nothing like the characters you play on screen, and act surprised when the journalist seems reluctant to believe you. Sprinkle with blistering sarcasm and sardonic pauses to taste. Bring to the boil.

Kevin Spacey is my favourite American actor, and I'm not just saying that because he could find out where I live. Remember that moment in the film of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, when you watched him demolishing the last vestiges of hope and dignity left in the salesman played by Jack Lemmon, and you thanked your lucky stars that you didn't have a boss that cruel? Or that point near the end of Seven when you thought it couldn't get any more terrifying, and then Spacey was revealed to be the sadistic genius behind the film's string of sickeningly nasty murders, and you thought: oh yes it can. It was the most unsettling portrait of evil since Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, and if Spacey's emaciated face didn't surface in your nightmares, it can only be because you screwed your eyes tight shut whenever he was on screen.

If that was the case, then you can rest easy with the arrival of his new film Albino Alligator. Because he isn't in it.

"Like everybody, what I really wanted to do was direct," he purrs, giving the line a wary lilt to indicate that he's mocking himself, and every other actor who has ever muttered those time-honoured words. "At the time of making Albino Alligator, I'd only been playing substantial roles in films for a few years, and most of that time it was as the hero's best friend or something. What it provided me with was the luxury of time on a film set. Instead of spending endless hours in my trailer doing [raises his eyebrow] whatever it is that people do in trailers, I was out on the set asking questions, taking cinematographers out to dinner, almost using that environment as my film school. Because I didn't go to film school, or make a short, I had to just sit down and say to people, `Hi, would you like to give me $5m to make a feature?'"

What people may not be aware of is that Spacey had precious little fame to trade with at that point. The two films that introduced him to a wider audience, Seven and The Usual Suspects, were yet to be released, and the Oscar that he would win for his performance in the latter hadn't even dried in its mould yet. Perhaps this dictated the relative modesty of Albino Alligator, which mostly takes place in one bar, after hours, where three inept criminals (headed by Matt Dillon) hold a barmaid (Faye Dunaway) and various customers hostage while the police presence builds in the streets outside.

It's a low-key affair, and unmistakably an actor's film, which is just a polite way of saying that there's a lot of dialogue and close-ups but that it builds the tension very efficiently. But there's no escaping the feeling that we've been here before.

I ask how he avoided the trap of remaking Dog Day Afternoon.

"Well," he sighs, "first you make a conscious decision not to watch Dog Day Afternoon." He allows himself a little chuckle at that. Then he realises that the coffee percolator is still gurgling away in the corner of the room. By the look on his face, I'd guess that it's about to end up gurgling outside on the pavement.

"Isn't that the most annoying sound you've ever heard?" he asks. "That coffee had better be fucking good." He wanders over to it.

"There's actually nothing coming out," he mutters in disbelief. When his assistant returns, he has had time to stew. "Could you get us some coffee that we can drink rather than listen to? When we have a lunch-break, we'll figure out that machine. It'll be fun. Thanks."

He returns to me, and I entertain the vague suspicion that his publicists are duty-bound to contrive at least one incident per interview that is guaranteed to rile him in order for every journalist to be granted a display of the Sultan of Sarcasm at his finest.

"But your point about Albino Alligator is well taken," he continues. "There is a certain familiarity to the setting, to the characters. The trick is to cast actors who engineer little shifts, take you places you didn't expect, suggest something you didn't think was there."

I wonder if he is aware that he's describing himself. One of the things that makes watching him such a disorientating and delightful experience is that he never allows you a sure footing. He can be effete yet prone to flashes of brutishness. He can seem impossibly aloof, and then surprise you with a burst of babbling enthusiasm. That's why directors such as David Fincher (Seven) and Bryen Singer (The Usual Suspects) have used him to deliver the big pay-offs, the killer punchlines, in their films. He has become something of a rent-a-bitch too, his vicious streak surfacing in parts as diverse as the squirming, spiteful husband in the underrated Hostile Hostages, the wily prosecutor in the otherwise wretched A Time to Kill, or a fine, slippery Buckingham in Al Pacino's Looking for Richard. But does this persona he has cultivated bear any resemblance to the real Kevin Spacey?

"The common assumption is that because I play very complex characters, and have found an opportunity to bring to those roles a level of ambiguity or mystery, that I'm complex. That I'm ambiguous. People can't imagine that I'm an actor. That I'm not complex. That I wish I was complex. I really do. I look back at other actors like Mitchum, Tracy, Henry Fonda, and I think: I wish I was that distinct. Those guys had a distinction that I will never even get close to. Which is one of the reasons why I'm able to do what I do as an actor. And that's when I play a character - and I know this from audiences - it's the character that emerges, not me. I find distinction in the parts I play. And the sarcasm? Well, that's just irony with style, you know."

He giggles to himself, and flashes me an endearing, imploring glance that seems to say: you will quote that, won't you?

"But I am so far from that sort of character. It's all about understanding the world that the writer has created. If you can get behind the style, and understand where the writer is coming from, it's much easier to improvise. If you've been trained. And I have been."

Crisp pause. Eyebrow shifts into raised position.

"I am, actually, housetrained."

You must concede, though, that there's a strong link between the roles you've chosen. Common characteristics like fierce ambition or intimidating intelligence.

"Yes, it's true that I've been on this kind of exploration over the past few years. I've been finding parts that examine what people are willing to do to get what they want. Now I'm on another journey. I'm taking steps in a new direction. In LA Confidential, I play a character who starts out a little shady but the great twist for me is that the guy has a conscience. I want to play characters who are more vulnerable - who are actually affected by other people in the room. There's something about the cold, calculating, manipulative figures I've been playing previous to this. Those characters do nothing but defend their own position throughout the whole film. They could be in a room alone, talking to themselves."

You can see the progression in Spacey's style when you watch him sauntering across in LA Confidential, a masterful adaptation of James Ellroy's novel about crime and celebrities. He plays Jack Vincennes, a vain detective who savours his job marginally less than the weekly sniff of fame he gets from being technical advisor to a high-rating TV cop show. "I try to change myself physically for each part I play," he tells me. "As Jack, I do this suave thing - almost dancing. I watched a lot of Dean Martin movies as preparation."

It's heartening to find an actor so eager to steer his career into uncharted waters. LA Confidential all but buries the abrasive persona to which audiences have become accustomed. It may be the first movie in which you actually want to take him home and cuddle him - how's that for radical? Perhaps that's why the Prime Minister felt comfortable inviting Spacey into his home at his recent arts bash. And yet despite the professed new direction in Spacey's career, I still have difficulty picturing him discussing chord progressions with Noel Gallagher, or munching sausages on sticks with a Pet Shop Boy or two.

Spacey has also just finished playing an elderly Savannah resident involved in a murder case in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And early next year, he returns to London to appear in The Iceman Cometh at the Almeida, his first foray into theatre since before the movies stole him, when he prowled the boards for 15 years.

Trying to explain the way he views his profession, he invokes the words of Paul Bowles. "Bowles thought of himself as a spy. A secret agent. He said his job was to get information across the border. I very much feel that way as an actor. You can accomplish that task as long as you remain a spy. When you're uncovered, you can no longer move quite as stealthy, you can no longer dodge the radar. I've always chosen to let the work speak for itself. I like to stay in the shadows"

`Albino Alligator' opens 22 Aug; `LA Confidential' is scheduled for release on 31 Oct