Actor Kevin Spacey

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Two-time Oscar winner and Golden Globe nominee for his role in the feature Casino Jack discusses what it was like portraying lobbyist-turned-convicted felon Jack Abramoff.

A school counselor suggested drama as an alternative to Kevin Spacey's hellion conduct. Two Oscars and a Tony have since secured his place on Hollywood's A-list. He's won acclaim for his TV performances and is artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre Company, where he occasionally performs and directs. He also launched, which helps people get their ideas to Hollywood decision-makers. Spacey is the recipient of the '09 National Pell Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts. He's next up in the feature film Casino Jack.


Tavis: Thank you, sir. Always pleased to welcome Kevin Spacey to this program. The two-time Oscar winner is also a very successful producer and theater director. His latest film is called “Casino Jack.”
Kevin Spacey: “Casino Jack.” Thank you very much.
Tavis: Based on the real-life story of lobbyist –
Spacey: Jack Abramoff.
Tavis: Well, go ahead, keep going.
Spacey: Oh, and here, and here, a scene from “Casino Jack.”
Tavis: You’re trying to soft-sell; you’re trying to spin Jack Abramoff as a modern-day Robin Hood in that scene?
Spacey: Well, I think maybe in his own mind he was sort of the orthodox Robin Hood, yeah. Yeah, actually, that’s a very interesting point, because when I started doing research for the role, let’s face it – Abramoff was painted as the devil incarnate, the evilest – yeah, there’s the famous picture.
Tavis: Yup.
Spacey: The evilest, greediest man that ever walked the face of the Earth, except that when I then tried to find out okay, what did he do with all the money? Like, was there a Swiss chalet, was there a big boat, was there a jet, was there family vacation? No, he wasn’t even paying his mortgage.
So he was giving away a lot of the money and he was trying to do things that I think maybe in his mind justified some of the things that he and Mike Scanlon did that were not, as they would say, kosher.
Tavis: So having psychoanalyzed this guy, what do you make of that? Who gets himself seriously into that much trouble trying to do, as you might put it, that much good?
Spacey: Well, I’m not saying that he was trying to do that much good in terms of the lobbying industry. Obviously, lobbyists now, and I think still to this day, wield a tremendous amount of power and influence and money into our political campaigns, and I think it really damages the respect that people have for public service.
So with respect to what he was doing there, and he was obviously trying to influence and essentially do what he believed everyone was doing on K Street, which is selling access, which is selling – if you put in this bill in Congress or you vote in this particular way, my clients will give you a tremendous amount of money for your campaign.
Tavis: But if the end result is, for him, what I meant by doing this kind of good, the school, the stuff he talked about in the scene, if the end result is, if the end game is for him to do all of this thievery to build a school or some other kind gesture, who gets himself into that much trouble to end up being –
Spacey: Look, that’s what’s interesting about playing a character like this, is trying to figure out the complexities of it. Obviously it’s not black and white, as it was portrayed. But I also think on a certain level he was living in a culture in which this kind of thing was happening all over town.
So from his perspective, maybe he was doing it bigger and better and faster and louder and making more money than anybody else, but he wasn’t living in a different world than the world that I think still exists, because to some degree an argument can be made that they threw him under the bus in order to make it look like they cleaned up the lobbying industry. I think we just had an election where we saw that probably in record amounts (unintelligible).
Tavis: Yeah, didn’t quite work so well.
Spacey: Also, I should point out that was Jon Lovitz in that scene with me. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’re pretty good at that.
Spacey: Yes. Tavis Smiley. (Laughter)
Tavis: What is there to learn – I’m trying to put two questions together – what’s there to learn on the one hand and what’s the challenge for you in teaching us what we think we already know about a story that’s been covered in real life as much as this one has been covered?
Spacey: Well, maybe – I probably suspect for most people outside of the Beltway, or people who aren’t just absolute political junkies, most people don’t know who Jack Abramoff was or even what the story is.
Tavis: That’s fair. That’s fair.
Spacey: So, on the one hand you’ve got to approach it to try and not to make an insular film that’s only going to make any sense or be entertaining to people who happen to know the story. That’s number one. Number two is to try to find a way to portray someone who has been in many ways turned into a caricature into a real three-dimensional human being who makes good decisions and bad decisions.
You try to portray somebody who is not such a, “Oh, I’m going to play a villainous guy.” For us, and I have to say we recently quite sadly lost our director, George Hickenlooper, who passed away at the age of 47 last month, but George always had this mantra, was I don’t want to make a boring movie about D.C. I want to make “Goodfellas.”
He wanted to bring a kind of energy to the film and a lot of humor to the film, and one of the reasons that that was opened up for us was because he and I met Abramoff in prison before we started shooting, and we both discovered that this was a remarkably charming guy and very funny guy.
You could absolutely see why, at the peak of his power, he could own a room. He was one of the most successful if not the most successful Republican lobbyists in the history of D.C.
So you’re trying, I guess – to a certain degree I made a film about the 2000 election called “Recount” for HBO.
Tavis: I know it well.
Spacey: And you look at that movie and you tell people you’re making a movie about an election or about a lobbyist and you can hear the yawning across the country. But the choices that these characters make, the outrageousness of the situation, you can’t write this stuff. I think therefore it is inherently funny.
There’s some parts of it, you just – you laugh because you cannot believe that this stuff is really going down.
Tavis: If my research is correct –
Spacey: And it probably isn’t, but go ahead.
Tavis: You’ll correct me if I’m wrong about this.
Spacey: Yeah.
Tavis: In this meeting in prison that you and the director have with Mr. Abramoff, the story is that he tries to talk you guys out of doing the film.
Spacey: Well, by that point –
Tavis: Is that true?
Spacey: Actually, it’s true only that I wasn’t there for that particular one. When George Hickenlooper first sat down with Abramoff he apparently did spend a good portion (laughter) of the time trying to convince him not to make the movie. But then when he realized that we were going to make the movie, I think he probably decided it was better to talk to us and become a source – not the source, but to become a source.
For me it was very helpful because I was trying to figure out the emotional terrain, what he was going through. How do you get to a place where you make those kind of decisions and how did it affect his family and his relationships? It’s going to be very interesting to see, now that he’s out and he’s a free man, what he has to say about all of this.
Tavis: I’m not saying this to brownnose you, although I’m happy to do that if you want me to. (Laughs)
Spacey: Yeah, it’s a little early, but go ahead.
Tavis: Who doesn’t want a film made about him if Kevin Spacey is going to play you? Number one.
Spacey: Well, I think – no, I actually think he was disappointed that it wasn’t George Clooney. (Laughter)
Tavis: Okay. If Kevin Spacey is going to play you, who doesn’t want a movie made, number one. But even more seriously, if there is a complexity to your character and there’s more to you than the American public thinks they know about you, why would you not want a film out? That gives people a chance to see who you really are.
Spacey: Well, I suspect that because – you have to understand, from his perspective or his family’s perspective, this man went through years and years and years of being absolutely vilified, attacked, really unceremoniously thrown under not just a bus but a couple of trains.
So I think the suspicion was is that we were just going to set out to do a caricature and to fall in line with the kind of mythology that he built up. Actually, you showed that picture of that hat, the famous hat? What’s really funny about that is when you finally discover what that was all about.
First of all, he wore that hat all the time. Second of all, he didn’t wear that hat because he thought it made him look like Don Corleone. He wore that hat to hide his yarmulke because he always wore his yarmulke but he never wanted to put that in front of people in public.
That particular day it was raining, so that was the first hat he grabbed out of the closet and you sort of go, “Well, that’s an awfully bad choice.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Every time I see that picture it reminds me of Dukakis and the tank.
Spacey: That’s right. (Laughter)
Tavis: Just a bad, bad decision.
Spacey: Although getting in a tank is not exactly a – you know you’re getting into a tank.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, just a bad decision picture of Mr. Dukakis, but I digress. Since this movie – speaking of Dukakis and politics – did you come away – and you’re a pretty political guy – but did you come away with a different view about this process in Washington that lobbyists so control?
Spacey: It’s corrupt, and it’s filled with hypocrisy. We do a scene in the movie where Abramoff was dragged before the Senate hearing and in particular in front of John McCain, and the reason the scene ends up in the film – I won’t give it away, but the scene ends up in a certain way in the movie, and it ended up that way because Abramoff told me in prison that if he had known he was going to go to jail, which he did not think he was ever going to go to jail, that he wouldn’t have taken the Fifth.
So we decided to take that as an idea. What would that scene be like if he hadn’t taken the Fifth in front of the Senate? I suppose what it underscores is that here was McCain pointing fingers at this guy, here was all these other senators pointing fingers at this guy, when McCain himself had taken a lot of money from competing Indian casinos to do the very thing that Abramoff was trying to do.
The idea that these guys weren’t involved in that process, that these guys weren’t taking enormous amounts of money, and yet there they were, pointing their finger at him, I think that kind of a scene helps to illustrate the hypocrisy that’s going on in that town, and truly, if we’re going to leave cleaning up, either the campaign reform or the lobbying industry, to the politicians, nothing’s going to happen.
Tavis: So to your point, if Congress isn’t qualified to deal with this, if the White House really isn’t qualified to deal with it, how do we ever clean this mess up?
Spacey: Well, I made a suggestion a couple weeks ago that a lot of people attacked me for and said I was an idiot, and I obviously didn’t understand or hadn’t really thought it through, but just look at it from an all right, I don’t know all the complexities of it.
But what is the reason that all this money is being raised? What’s the single reason? It’s television. You have to buy television ads. That’s what it’s all about – raising the money to buy the television ads. Now, why don’t the networks run the television ads for nothing? Why don’t the networks use it as a public service for the citizens of this country?
Now, the question then becomes, all right, well, who then vets the ads? What’s interesting about political ads now is they don’t have to be true. They don’t have to be true. You can say something about a candidate that is absolutely not true. You can imply something, it goes out on the airwaves, and we may find out months and months later that it wasn’t true, or that we’ve got all these television shows keeping them honest and all, where they break this stuff down.
But why has – if you want to take the corruption out, take the money away. Now, obviously there’s complexities to that, but just as an idea, you go, “Well, why can’t we look at a way in which we can vet our candidates in an honest way and not have it be about having to raise so much money?”
Because that’s what happens now – someone gets elected and the next day they’re raising money for their next campaign instead of serving the people they’re supposed to be serving.
Tavis: I don’t know who called you an idiot; I would never do that, and I don’t think it’s an idiot suggestion at all. I think that the problem, though, is – and you’ve hit it on the head – there are two underlying factors to your suggestion that we have to accept.
One is that the television networks are actually interested in public service, in doing some public good, and I’m not so sure I believe that, quite frankly, and there’s no evidence of that. This Comcast-NBC merger, which I could talk about for hours, and we won’t, raises all kinds of questions about what really is in the public interest, number one.
But secondly, I don’t know that the American public, for as much as we complain about this, is really serious enough yet to really push back on this.
Spacey: Well, look, it’s easy to be cynical and it’s easy for people to throw up their hands and say, “Oh, there’s nothing we can do, and so that’s just the way it is,” and we kind of look at it from afar. But you can change things in this country, and when people get together as a country and as a people, we’ve seen enormous, extraordinary change happen.
So if people really want politics to get cleaned up, if they really want campaign reform, if they really want the ability for the lobbying industry to not have the kind of influence it has, then they have to get really angry enough and do something about it.
Tavis: There’s a small thing called money that the networks like to make, and you give away airtime, the money –
Spacey: They definitely don’t us even talking about this, by the way.
Tavis: Yeah, so in that case, we’ll just wrap this conversation now, and just remind you – forget all of that, just go see “Casino Jack,” starring Kevin Spacey. You won’t be disappointed. Kevin, always glad to have you on the program.
Spacey: Thank you, nice to see you.
Tavis: Good to see you, sir.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm