Kevin Spacey, the New Lex Luthor

Kevin Spacey stars as Lex Luthor in director Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Spacey and Singer previously teamed up for 1995’s “The Usual Suspect.” Superhero Hype! talked to the actor about the villain:

Q: Don’t you think Lex could make a lot more money just running a corporation?

Spacey: I’m sorry, I thought that was a question for George Bush.

Q: Why do you think Lex Luthor is evil and how did you prepare for the role?

Spacey: I guess Lex has always been a character really almost from the beginning who’s always been a capitalist. And for him, it’s always about land, it’s always been about land. I always loved in the script, in the writing, there’s that scene where he finally just sort of crystallizes his whole philosophy, which is I just want my cut. [laughs] Capitalism at its soul. I don’t know, it’s a hard question to answer, why doesn’t he, because then he wouldn’t be Lex Luthor, I guess. But I mean, in terms of analyzing the character, I really didn’t spend that much time doing it. I think I was so impressed with what the writers had been able to do in terms of developing the story of it, and also the fact that it is such a long period of time since we’ve had a Superman movie, that I was just delighted by the way in which I think that they wrote a story line that in many ways, I think, pays homage to the Donner films and certainly to the fan base, which I think to some degree what some people expect are one, and their Superman, but also because it’s Bryan. Bryan has always been so interested in character, and so interested in what motivates character, in whatever genre he’s been working in. But I was just delighted that the arc of it seemed to take some twists and turns that were that kind of thing you expect from Bryan. But it was also just so much fun, I mean, it was just a complete lark to play this part.

Q: Can you talk about working with Kate Bosworth again?

Spacey: Well it was great, and an entirely different circumstance. You know, it was very different to play a character that was as tough on her in this film, as opposed to as loving as their relationship was in ‘Beyond the Sea.’ I was very, very pleased when Bryan first – when Bryan saw ‘Beyond the Sea,’ and then he called me a couple of days later and said, ‘what was it like to work with Kate [Bosworth]’? I could talk endlessly about what a great experience it was, because she was – she really trusted me, and I said Bryan, it’s like in any case with an actor, if you can get them actually to trust you, they’ll go anywhere you want to go. And I said Kate is incredibly dedicated, I mean, she was always on time, she never held me up on that film, and we had very little time to shoot it. And I said I think she’s a very, very, very good actress, and I think that she’s been growing and she’s making good choices, and I think she’s terrific. And then he met her and the next thing I heard he called me and said I think I’m gonna make her Lois Lane, and I said yeah, that’s great.

Q: Are bad guys driven by ego, in your opinion?

Spacey: Oh, I think in Lex’s case, he just – I think there must be something about him that loves a challenge, and it’s that – you know, I think he says it at one point, a form of it, which is it’s mind over matter, it’s intelligence over brawn. But you know, when you play a character, you’re right, you don’t know – like you’d be playing Iago in Othello, you’re not thinking ‘oh, I’m playing this villain, this evil character,’ you’re trying to play what each scene is about and what the character’s trying to get. I think that it’s fun for an audience I think to be able to categorize. But as an actor I think you have to be quite careful about it, because otherwise you’ll just be twisting your mustache. And I had no hair to twist.

Q: What was it like to play bald?

Spacey: It’s the easiest job in the world, they’d just shave my head every day. I mean, it really is, they make it look better than it actually looks without make up. But yeah, it was the easiest thing in the world, and it’s actually kind of fun, because you can’t stop touching your head. Has anyone been bald here? It’s sort of weird, you can’t stop touching your head, and then this other thing happens, it takes about a week to get used to, is that it’s very hot. Because you know, when you put your hand on your head and you have hair, you don’t feel it, but suddenly when you have no hair, it’s like my head, am I sick? No, it’s just the heat of my hand on my head. No, it was easy, and I also think that Louise [Mingenbach] did a great job with the costumes, you know. Really made him – really took him sort of a step up, from I think the way that he’d been dressed in the past, in a sense, has grown up with time. He’s a smooth operator now.

Q: This is your first villain since “A Bug’s Life.” Did you intentionally stay away from them? Was it fun to be back?

Spacey: Well as I’ve said, you know, it’s a funny thing, because in any of the characters that I’ve played, going back to I’d even say ‘Swimming with Sharks,’ which a lot of people looked at as a very dark, very kind of villainous character. You just don’t think of them that way, so to me they’re just incredibly complex and interesting roles to play. And there was certainly a period of time where I felt that that was the way I was being thought of, and I was definitely not interested in being slotted in a particular category. I think that what happens if you allow that to happen, is that you start to be thought of that way, and then in terms of how directors think of you or how casting directors think of you, or studios think of you, or independent people think of you, ‘oh he’d be good in that part,’ as opposed to something that might be more challenging. So I definitely started to take a turn in different directions. I don’t know if it was after ‘Bug’s Life’ or not, but somewhere in that period, I wanted to start to in a sense just expand my own tools, and to keep waking up in the morning and not feeling like I was doing the same thing.

Q: Couldn’t you even start with “Wiseguy”?

Spacey: Yeah, but that was – God, again, that was such a fun character. You can’t poo poo a part if it’s really well done, I mean, obviously I tried to not play these kind of characters if I felt they were just versions of something else. After I did ‘Se7en’ I was offered a lot of scripts that were like really bad versions of ‘Se7en.’ And I didn’t do them, because I figured once you’ve done that, why do a lesser version? But you know, I also made a conscious choice in the last really probably five years, I made the decision at the end of ’99, and into 2000, that I was gonna shift the focus of my career back toward theatre. And even though I continued to work in film, my entire focus and my entire focus now, and my full time job, is running the Old Vic theatre. And so, I kind of just got to the place, whether it was playing the kind of characters you’re describing, or in a sense playing any characters, I mean, it was almost to me like after ‘American Beauty’ I felt well, this is about as good as it’s gonna get, so I’m not gonna spend the next ten years of my life trying to top myself, I’m gonna actually do something that I’ve always wanted to do, to start to play parts in the theatre that I’ve always wanted to play. And in a sense try to now do things that are bigger than myself. And for a long time, you’re working as an actor to succeed in a sense in a kind of singular career mode, and now I’m not interested in that at all anymore, I’m interested in something much different, and now the work I’m doing at the Old Vic is probably the most satisfying work that I do, because it’s about so many other people, and it’s about something so much bigger than just a singular career. And then in a sense I feel like I’m trying to take all the good fortune that’s happened for me, in film, and help theatre, because movies don’t need my help.

Q: Do you worry that Hollywood will forget you while you’re out of the loop, or do you not care?

Spacey: I must not care. Because truly, I have to say that, I’ve been living in London now a little more than three years, we’re eighteen months into our new company, and we’ve done eight plays, so we’re a very, very new company. And I’m happier than I’ve ever been, I’m more challenged than I’ve ever been, and you know while what gets attention is the plays we do, we’re also about social enterprise, and we’re also about social responsibility and we have a huge educational part of our program and an outreach program and a development of new and emerging talent, and all of that stuff is actually incredibly satisfying, to see how many people you can affect, and start to give confidence to and start to give them a sense of their own worth and what they can accomplish, because when people start to believe they can do things, whether they be actors or producers or playwrights or directors, that’s the first step to success, I think. And so, all of that work for me is so valuable. And if doing that means that I won’t be offered as many movies, or I’m not available to do movies, because my first priority is the theatre, so if a movie comes along and it fits within the theatre schedule, then I’ll consider doing it, but if it doesn’t then I won’t. This is what I was meant to do.

Q: Brandon’s going to the talk shows for the first time, do you have advice for him?

Spacey: Yeah, he should just take over Letterman. Don’t wait for the questions, just take it over. He loves that. I mean, look, there’s no advice you can give anybody about that sort of stuff. You just have to experience it, and through years of doing it, you start to learn how to sort of handle yourself in those situations. I mean, there’s no doubt that doing talk shows is a performance, it’s not an interview, it’s a performance. It is a talk show, they want you to be anecdotal, they want you to be funny, and they want you to set up lines for the host. It’s all pretty much shaped. And you’re either good at it and feel comfortable doing it, or you don’t. But it’s not a one on one New York Times interview.

Q: Is that across the board?

Spacey: Of talk shows? Well, some take themselves more serious than others. Some are out and out comedy programs. If you don’t go on and at least try to be amusing, then it sort of falls dead in the water. But yeah, those are like seven or eight minute segments, that they’re just moving very rapidly.

Q: Have you signed for a sequel to this?

Spacey: I think they’re probably gonna wait and see what happens,there’s certainly discussion about doing a second one, and I would love to do a second one, if Bryan is at the helm.

Q: Are you okay with being a cog in a massive production at the Vic, since you go away a lot?

Spacey: Well the truth is, is that no matter where I am, and no matter what I’m doing, I’m still the artistic director of the Old Vic, and every single day there’s work to do, and no matter where you are in the world, because of email and Blackberry’s, and phones and stuff, you’re in constant communication literally every day, I was never out of the loop.

Q: How did you feel playing a character made famous by someone else?

Spacey: I guess I kind of come at it from a perspective of how many actors have played Hamlet, or how many actors have played Iago. I think there is something great about audiences being able to see different actors do the same role, and come at it in a different way. I mean, I’ve seen countless productions of plays by different actors, and they’re different by virtue of the fact that it’s a different director, it’s a different time, sometimes you see a modern production of the play, so in my mind, in terms of these kind of parts, I feel the same way that I do about those kind of roles, which is that no single actor owns the part. We sort of rent it for a little while, and get a chance to explore it. And there’s been great actors that have played Lex Luthor in the past, and obviously great actors have played Superman.

Q: Did you concentrate on not doing a Hackman-like performance?

Spacey: I didn’t watch them, in terms of the respect for the Donner movies, I figured Bryan was gonna take care of that completely, because he does so admire it, and he has such respect for the genre. I mean, Bryan unlike me grew up loving the comic book and stuff, and I never was into that when I was a kid. But I sort of avoided seeing it, because in all the discussions I’ve had with Bryan – because also, I accepted the movie before I saw the script. And that’s because I trust Bryan completely. But he’d given me a sort of shape and idea, and the thing he kept saying was, this is going to be a much darker, a much more bitter, a much more seeking revenge Lex Luthor than we’ve seen before. And so I thought well, it’s probably best I don’t get another performance in my head, so I just kind of avoided seeing it.

Q: Do you think it may have affected your performance?:

Spacey: I think yeah, I mean, look, I just did Richard II in London, and there are film versions of Richard II, taped versions of other actors, or recordings of other actors, Gielgud’s famous Richard II. And I deliberately avoided listening or watching them, because I think you can’t help if something’s really good, you can’t help try to steal it, and I think I just – you just have to sort of say, I’m gonna trust the director, I’m gonna trust whatever my own instincts are about this and allow myself to be shaped by somebody who has a vision, and the thing that you’ve gotta know about Bryan, is that his vision is so absolutely clear. I mean, it makes working on a set with Bryan so enjoyable, because you always feel like you’re in safe hands, because he knows exactly what he wants. He practically – he’ll sit there and describe a scene for you, and he’s practically cutting it in his head, and then the music will be there, he’s already in the editing room, he already knows how he wants it to line up, so you feel as an actor, you don’t feel like you have a director who’s guessing or gonna shoot it from every conceivable angle and then figure it out in the editing room, he knows exactly what he’s trying to go for.

Q: What do you get out of stage work that you don’t get from film?

Spacey: I would have to say first of all, the ritual. There is something to coming to work every day, and working with the same people every day, for five or six or seven weeks of rehearsal, and then getting up every night and exploring what a play is about, and how deep it runs, and howdeep it runs within you. And there is something about making a family, it really is. After a sixteen week run of a play, or an eleven week run of a play, you come every night, you work with the same people every night,you’re always trying to attack it in a different way. Audiences are different every night. And I think that the journey that I take as an actor, and that I see my fellow actors take, from early previews to the closing night performance, is a pretty remarkable journey. How the experience enriches you, and I think what you learn about yourself and about a play. We just did Richard II again, we closed it last November, and then we remounted it about four weeks ago and took it to Germany to a play festival for a week of performances, and it was really incredible to have another shot at it, with sort of four months of all the work that we were doing when we closed still percolating, and being able to attack it again in a different way, with so many new cast members.

Q: How different was it to work with Bryan this time? Same guy?

Spacey: It is the same guy. It was like a day hadn’t gone by, for both of us. I mean, he had obviously more money and more tools at his disposal, and more toys to play with, but he’s the same guy he was ten years ago, and for us, it was a great joy, because it wasn’t just Bryan and me, but his cinematographer, costume designer, John Ottman the editor, and composer, so it felt like the family was coming back together.

Q: What’s next for you and the theatre?

Spacey: We’re gonna travel the show for a little bit.

Superman Returns flies into theaters on Wednesday, June 28th.

Source: Heather Newgen