Kevin Spacey: A private man caught in the public glare

The greatest trick Kevin Spacey could ever pull is convincing the world that he doesn't exist... Cathy Pryor tries talking to him about his least favourite subject ­ himself
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There are two good ways to annoy Kevin Spacey. One: call him a Hollywood star. You'd think he'd like that, but he doesn't. Every time he reads it in the media, he tells me, it irritates him. It's "inaccurate and not what I am. I'm an actor". The second, and more obvious, is to bang on about his personal life. This is something he's always worked hard to keep under wraps, but even saying that wearies him. "Why do you guys give a shit?" he says. He's always responded to questions on his sexuality by saying, in effect: "What difference does it make?" He's also said: "The less you know about me, the easier it is to convince you that I am that character on screen." In other words: "I'm an actor." And he doesn't see why journalists don't take that for an answer.

For a journalist, though, these are tricky issues. For starters, the word "star" seems to fit, certainly to film industry outsiders. Just to sum up: he has enjoyed a long and distinguished theatrical career, but is better known for his work in film, which has spanned two decades now. He's won two Oscars, one for The Usual Suspects (1995), in which he played master criminal Verbal Kint, and one for American Beauty (1999), in which he played bored suburban man Lester Burnham. (Though to my mind his performance as a serial killer in David Fincher's 1995 thriller Se7en sticks in the mind more than either). He's directed two films - Albino Alligator (1996) and Beyond the Sea (2004), which he also produced and co-wrote and in which he took the main role as the singer Bobby Darin (doing all his own singing). Though the clutch of truly outstanding films he's done is arguably small, no one questions his standing: he's been A-list for years.

And as for the second issue, his private life, that's tricky too. As it happens, I don't seize my copy of the paper each morning with trembling fingers hoping to find out, at last, the definitive answer to who Kevin Spacey ate dinner with last night. I agree with him. Who cares? It doesn't make any difference. And in any case he has given an answer: he told Playboy in 1999 that he's straight. (Though when it comes to Playboy, as Mandy Rice-Davies had it: "He would say that, wouldn't he?") The fact that he's never seen out on the town with women, however, means that this is not widely believed. Why not, though, since many actors who are gay and pretending otherwise are often seen out on the town with women? It's no guarantee either way. But the problem for a journalist, even one who, like me, finds other topics a lot more interesting, is that it's now almost impossible to write anything about him without mentioning all of this. To omit to say it would look stupid, unaware. The subject has taken on a life of its own.

On the day I speak to him, he's preparing to fly to the US the following day to produce an upcoming film, 21. He's also preparing to appear on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten, transferring from its successful run at the Old Vic theatre, of which he has been artistic director since 2003. The Old Vic is what he wants to discuss: specifically, the New Voices/24 Hours programme, which Spacey has introduced as a means of helping young people - actors, writers, directors and producers - gain experience of theatre.

As you might expect from a man frequently labelled "enigmatic", he's not where I expect him to be. I've been told to meet him at the Old Vic, only to find he's in his office instead, which is close by. In another mild surprise, this turns out to be small and shabby, with several people busy at various tasks. Spacey has a closed room in one corner, lit by a single lamp. He's neatly dressed in a shirt and tie which, coupled with the low lighting, gives him an oddly Forties look, like a private detective down on his luck. I point this out. He smiles slightly. "One of these days we'll get a better office," he says.

Spacey's run at the Old Vic hasn't been without its ups and downs. And yet the thing that he makes obvious at once is how much he still loves it - has loved it since he appeared there in The Iceman Cometh in 1998. You'd think its hallowed place in the English tradition - it was for many years run by the triumvirate of Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Burrell, and nurtured countless legends including John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Vivien Leigh - would be daunting. Not so, he says. "When you think about the kind of talent that's walked on that stage, you'd think it would be intimidating but it's the opposite. I think that's why actors love coming here. It's my home. I feel surrounded by its warmth, the embrace of its history."

In terms of box office, the plays he's mounted have done quite well, partly buoyed by his name. Critically speaking, though, he's only had two unequivocal hits - Richard II and Moon. And the media have questioned much of what he has done: his decision, for instance, to start his opening season in 2004 with Cloaca, a play by obscure Dutch playwright Maria Goos, rather than one of the classics. Moreover, last year's Resurrection Blues, written by Arthur Miller, directed by Robert Altman and starring Maximilian Schell, was a total flop, closing early and leaving the theatre without a production for five months. Has being artistic director, a role he's not taken on before, been hard?

"It's a challenging job but I love it, so 'hard' is not a word I'd use," he says. "I knew it would be challenging when I came in. I had to take a long, hard look at what had happened to this theatre since 1976, and make decisions that I knew I would come under criticism for. And we did. You know, they gave us a lot of stick. But they've given everybody stick. When you study, as I did, every theatrical beginning in this country, none of them have been greeted well. The Royal Shakespeare Company was a disaster, Peter Hall was a disaster, Richard Eyre was a disaster, Trevor Nunn was always a disaster. Olivier had his critics. Nobody liked Sam Wanamaker - 'what a silly idea to do the Globe!' So I knew that would probably come.

"You can't fault people for having a belief in what they think belongs on that stage, but I don't think people appreciated what we were fighting against. We were fighting against 30 years of this building no longer being a destination for audiences. There was no artistic director, there was no company here. So we had a lot of discussions about how to get people back in. And I reached the conclusion that if we did Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, we would appeal to a very narrow audience.

"So we chose work that we thought would be different, refreshing, that might appeal to a slightly different audience each time out. I always have said that we're going to get to the classics, but I don't think we can start there. And so, while there's been an impression out there that it's been some kind of disaster, or I keep reading about how our 'fortunes have turned around', we've done nine plays: six of them have been big hits, two didn't go down as well as we'd hoped and one really didn't go down well. But it's not an exact science. Every theatre experiences that."

He seems to make an oblique reference to "the one that really didn't go down well" in Extreme Theatre, a documentary about New Voices running on Artsworld this week, in which he says: "One of the tasks that any artistic director has is, you're trying to bring elements together that will work. The truth is that you could bring all the best talents in the world together and produce a big turkey." Was this a reference to Resurrection Blues, I ask. "Of course. Of course. Didn't work," he says, bluntly. Altman died last year: is it possible he wasn't at the top of his game? This seems to needle him. "We have enormous respect for Altman and we're glad that we did it, I don't regret having done it. I could name four, five plays that didn't go down well in the last two years in other theatres but you didn't read as many headlines about them as you did about us. All we ask for is that we're treated fairly."

Does he feel the critics haven't done that? "It's unfair to put them all together in one boat," he says. "They all have individual opinions. It's perfectly fine. I don't like the process of criticism because I think for all of them to come on one night is a mistake. As I've always said, though, sometimes they'll be with us, sometimes they won't."

Yet you get the feeling he wishes the media would pay more attention to some of the other things he is trying to accomplish, which includes the New Voices/24 Hours programme. First thought of in New York as a celebrity exercise, the Old Vic is using the 24 Hours concept to help young people learn more about collaboration and do some networking in the process. The idea is to produce a 10-minute play in 24 hours. The writers start at 10pm, finish their script at 5am, hand it to the director, who chooses and rehearses the cast, and the plays go on at 7pm. The result has worked so well that the Old Vic has made it a regular event. There's also ongoing support for the young people involved through the New Voices Club. In Extreme Theatre Spacey says: "When I was 13 years old in a programme very much like this one I met Jack Lemmon. And I got to know Jack very well, and he had a saying that I adopted, which was that if you've done well in your business it is your obligation to send the elevator back down, and that's what we're doing at the Old Vic."

Spacey himself was given quite a lot of encouragement in his acting ambitions when young. The youngest of three children, he was born on 26 July 1959 in South Orange, New Jersey, to Thomas and Kathleen Fowler (he later took his mother's maiden name, Spacey, as his acting name). The acting bug bit early through watching old movies, Spencer Tracy being his favourite: "Tracy just made it seem so completely goddamn effortless," he says. "That kind of acting is the kind I appreciate most, when you forget that you're watching someone act because you just think that you're watching a keyhole into behaviour."

His mother loved the theatre, he says, as well as the other arts. Was she an actress manqué, I ask. "No, though acting may well have been in her blood because she was one of the funniest people I've ever known," Spacey says. "She was madly hilarious right up until she passed - she died four years ago of a brain tumour, so for the last 11 months of her life I put my life on hold and took care of her. She was 71, but because she had Swedish blood, she always looked like she was in her 40s." Was she beautiful? I ask. "Mm hmm," he says, and nods. "My mother was sarcastic and delightful and trust me, quite remarkable."

And what about his father? "For a while he was a photographer, for a while he was a journalist, and then he wanted to be a novelist, and in fact spent most of his life trying to get published and it never happened," Spacey says. "So to make money - " At this point we're interrupted by the high yapping of a dog. "Is that your dog?" I ask. "That is Minnie. Have you not met Minnie?" He strides to the door and flings it open. "Is that any way to behave?" he shouts in a stentorian voice to the small black terrier cross outside. "Get over here, you beast!" He produces a toy and hurls it across the room. "What is that? What is that? Go get it!" Minnie barks hysterically and races after it. Spacey returns to his chair and resumes. "So he became, it's a really boring title, a technical procedure writer. If you built the Nasa rocket, my father would have written the manual to tell you how to do it." He rolls his eyes. "So he hated it. And he was unemployed a lot. And unhappy a lot. So it fell to my mother to be the breadwinner."

What was his father trying to get published, I ask? "Eventually, when he passed, in going through his office I found out what he was doing because he never let any of us read it - he never thought it was good enough," Spacey says. "He was writing a novel, the great novel. And it's 16 volumes, a monster." What was it about? "That would be telling. But some day, who knows, maybe it will find a life."

One of the reasons that Spacey is in the UK today is that his family were Anglophiles. "My mother was always in love with England. These were her Charles Dickens illustrations," he adds, indicating nine or so framed prints next to his desk. "And every great novel you could name coming out of England, my father had."

It wasn't a completely idyllic childhood, though: there was a small but well-publicised incident of arson where he set his sister's doll-house on fire. Spacey insists it was accidental and "funny at the time", but his parents didn't think so: they sent him off to military school. In short order he got kicked out for hitting another boy with a tyre. "I was defending myself!" he says, indignantly. What was the other boy doing? "Beating the shit out of me! So I fought back. And I got in trouble," he adds, sounding as if he still feels the unfairness of it ("fair" is a word he uses often). Military schools are probably not, on the whole, a good thing, I say. "I didn't care for it," he says. "But I'm grateful to it because it led me to guidance counselling, who suggested elective courses, and drama was one of them. And that very first class, it was like, 'Oh, this is great'."

Spacey did drama all the way through high school, realising early - in a performance of All My Sons when he was 10 - that "I could have an effect on an audience". He says how much it meant to him to meet Jack Lemmon during a school outing and ask his advice about acting, and then mimics Lemmon's voice perfectly, even his posture, tilting forward as if something eager and rapid-fire was about to blurt out of his mouth: "Steady! You go to school! If that's what you want to do you've got to study!" "What a magical man," Spacey adds. "Never let Hollywood glory go to his head except for a period in the 70s when he was drinking too much." It must be hard to resist Hollywood glory, I say. "We're all victims of our own hubris at times," Spacey says.

After school Spacey went to Juillard in New York and then ended up acting with Lemmon in A Long Day's Journey Into Night on stage. The play travelled to London. I ask him about something I've read about this time, which is that he was so fond of his dog that he brought it with him and then had to leave it in France because of quarantine laws, where he visited it every weekend. "My dog was staying with a girlfriend of mine in France," he says. "That dog's name was Slaight, then I had Legacy, now I have Minnie." At this point he goes to the door again and whistles for Minnie. (Minnie, by the way, is the dog Spacey was walking when his mobile phone was stolen in a park near his home at 4.30am in 2004, which sparked, yet again, rumours about his sexuality.) "Where are you?" he calls, before returning with the dog cradled in his arms like a baby. He croons to her, tenderly calling her a "rat". "I got her at Battersea Dog's Home nine years ago. Everyone adores her." He puts her down, saying to himself: "Makes you smile."

I toss up whether to pursue the "girlfriend" comment. Am I going to look stupid if I don't ask about her? I decide that I am and ask (this, I suspect, is half the reason why showbiz stories get endlessly repeated in the media). Spacey shakes his head, frowning. "Why do you guys give a shit?" he says, with an air of finality. I explain, politely, that I don't really. Trying to make light of it, I say, "Do you mind, then, if I start a rumour that you're in love with Judi Dench?" Spacey looks austere, but then says warmly enough, "That wouldn't be a rumour. I've said that publicly. She's naughty, she cheats at ping-pong, she's a giggler - I love to make her giggle." He smiles rather fondly, a private little smile, the same one, incidentally, that crossed his face when he talked about how funny his mother was.

Then he starts talking about the Old Vic again. "Having spent more than 15 years focussed entirely on my own personal career, I've got to a place where I no longer care about it. Coming here, starting this company, doing the work that I do, makes me feel like I'm taking my good fortune and putting it to use... Star turns don't interest me. There are ways in which you can make sure that even if people come to the theatre because they know an actor or actress, by the end they've forgotten that and they leave going 'Wow, what an amazing play'. The more that happens the more we are doing our job." This echoes something he says in Extreme Theatre: "If someone allows stardom to go to their head, it isolates an actor... [Acting] is about the collaborative experience."

There is a pattern here, dating back to his comments on Spencer Tracy, that the kind of acting he values is unobtrusive, where the actor vanishes behind his role. This may seem disingenuous in a profession of show-offs, but it does chime with Spacey's relentless refusal to say anything about his personal life. Though he's presumably an intensely private man - why refuse to tell me what a dead man's novel was about unless that man was himself private and Spacey understands that instinct and, out of loyalty, wants to go on shielding him? - he also believes in a serious concept of the actor, that acting is art. It's possible that celebrity culture, with its tittle-tattle about who's on with who, strikes him as vacuous.

And Spacey is not daft. If, say, he was gay and wanted to hide that purely and simply to protect his Hollywood career, wouldn't making efforts to look straight be the most obvious thing to do? But he hasn't particularly done that. He's maintained silence, even though he must know it only invites unwelcome speculation. His stubbornness surely suggests a kind of integrity.

Yet trying to control your own fame is a tricky business. On the one hand, it comes in handy at the Old Vic: it brings in audiences. On the other, it seems that now he's past 40, the age that most of us grow up, he wants to put some of the irritating demands of that fame aside and have the audiences focus on something else: the New Voices programme, for instance. Balancing the two must require constant vigilance. It may even be impossible. The paradox is summed up by his words as I leave: "Write about them. Not about me." But he knows that isn't going to happen.

Kevin Spacey features in the documentary 'Extreme Theatre' at 8pm on Tuesday on Artsworld