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Kevin Spacey on playing a politician who ‘gets stuff done,’ and cultivating new talent

“It's interesting to play a politician who gets stuff done,” says “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey. “Ignore the murdering and the conniving.” On the eve of a benefit performance with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in the nation’s capital, Jeffrey Brown sat down with Spacey to discuss his character Frank Underwood, his career in the theater and commitment to arts education.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: An acting great talks about cultivating emerging artists, playing Frank Underwood, and one of his unsung talents.

    Jeffrey Brown sat down with Kevin Spacey this week.

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    One heartbeat away from the presidency, and not a single vote cast in my name.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He is best known these days as Frank Underwood, the thoroughly manipulative, occasionally murderous congressman-turned-president in the Netflix series "House of Cards."

    But, on Monday night, there was Kevin Spacey, in the real Washington, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall at a benefit to raise money for the foundation he runs to promote the arts and foster young talent, showing a decidedly different side, singing.

    At rehearsal the day before, Spacey told me about this lesser-known passion of his.

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    I can't quite describe what it feels like when you're standing in front of a 49-piece orchestra and you're — there is nothing between you and an audience but a microphone. It's like strapping yourself to a locomotive. I love it. And it's only this year, when I have gotten back to it in concert form, that I realized how much I miss it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Kevin Spacey began his performing life in high school in the San Fernando Valley in California. After community college, he attended Juilliard, before joining the New York Shakespeare Festival. His first professional stage appearance was as a messenger in a 1981 production of "Henry IV."

    That started a versatile and varied career, on Broadway, including working with his idol Jack Lemmon and a Tony Award in 1991, in films like "The Usual Suspects," "Glengarry Glen Ross," "L.A. Confidential," and "American Beauty," for which he won the 2000 Oscar for best actor.

    Since 2003, Spacey has served as artistic director of The Old Vic theater company in London, acting, directing, helping to preserve the renowned theater. Now, he says, most important to him is working with young people around the world, introducing them to theater and, in some cases, giving them the opportunity to make it a career.

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    The power of theater, the power of acting, the power of the tools of the living theater, in terms of being able to help a young person stand up in front of a group of people, find a kind of self-confidence maybe they never thought they could have, an ability to collaborate with others, ability to communicate with others.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You see that happen?

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    Oh, I see it happen. And it's always interesting when I'm in a workshop, and I'm always looking for the shy kid in the corner, because that was "me" when I grew up, and I started doing these kinds of workshops.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. So you look around the room for, where is the "me"?

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    I'm always looking around the room for, where is the "me" of this room, and bring the focus onto them, and watch how that person in the corner who was either very afraid and in some cases terrified go in that three hours to a person who has a realization about something about themselves they didn't think possible.

    And I know, because that was me, I was that kid, that will be a moment they will always remember.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Explain the power of influence in your own life. And you have talked about meeting Jack Lemmon at age 13, right?

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It changed your life somehow. How exactly? I mean, what was the direct influence or impact?

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    Well, because for me at the time, I was a kid who, I didn't focus very well, I wasn't really all that academic.

    And a guidance counselor who was quite perceptive felt that I had an excessive amount of energy, and guided me toward some elective courses. And then a very perceptive drama teacher clearly saw that I had some potential, and then led me toward this workshop, where ultimately we had to get up and do scenes from a play in front of Jack Lemmon, who was running this workshop

    And at the end of that, he walked up to me. And, you know, this was a man who was like my idol. I grew up loving movies, and maybe secretly wanted to be an actor in somewhere in the back of my head, but was very shy. And to have Jack Lemmon walk up to you when you're 13 years old and put his hand on your shoulder and say, you are a born actor, you are meant to do this, you should go to New York and study, you are meant to do this, was such an extraordinary, you know, boost of confidence.

    And he had this belief, this philosophy that I have now adopted as my own, and is really the slogan for the foundation, which is that if you have been successful in the business you wanted to be successful in, its your obligation to spend a good portion of your time sending the elevator back down.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have written of an earlier time in your life. I don't know when it was, maybe 30s or something, where I think you — the term you used was wearing blinders, where you were just so focused on building a movie career.

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    I think that there was a period of time — and I would reckon it was about 12 years — where I was just determined to see if I could build a career for myself.

    And I think I have gone through a whole number of shifts and changes. That was good for that period of time. But then I got to the end of 1999, and I was like, well, "American Beauty" had just come out. And I was like, well, that went better than I could have hoped. Now what?

    And that's when I decided to shift my ambition, and my entire life, actually, and move to London and start a theater.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You used the word decision. Was it a conscious decision, that now it's time to do something else?

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    Yes. I was sort of like — you know, I mean, I know that at the time my agents and manager were probably, you know, rubbing their hands and thinking, oh, it's going to be a gravy train now.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You mean, after "American Beauty," you could have done a lot and made a lot of money.

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    Yes, could have just spent 10 years making a lot of money, and making a lot of movies. And I don't know. I just was like, I had seen that trap. I wanted something that would challenge my ambition in a different way and something that also was outside of my own ambition, that was bigger than me.

    And so starting a theater company — I had never run a theater before — was a big idea one that was about a company and not about my own individual desires.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I have to ask you, sitting here in Washington, about Frank Underwood, because, you know, you have created a character here that has — I don't know if it's defining of power politics nowadays, but certainly that's what a lot of people see. What do you see?

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    I have had the gamut of political leaders say to me, it's very cynical and it's not like that at all.

    And I have had others say to me, it's closer to the real thing than anyone would like to imagine.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really?

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    Yes. And I believe that's probably more true, I do have to say.

    I'm having the time of my life. I don't think that if I were ever to have imagined doing a television series, that I could have found a more perfect circumstance of incredible writing, incredible directing, a remarkable group of actors, and a story that is very interesting to tell at this moment, when there's very little happening in politics that is positive in terms of people getting things done.

    It's interesting to play a politician who gets stuff done.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You make that connection from the role you're playing to what you see going on?

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    I think it's why audiences have dug Francis Underwood, because he kicks ass.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That's it, you think, huh? He does get things done.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    Yes, he gets things done, if, you know, ignore the murdering and the conniving.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The context for the work you're doing now with young people of course is at a time where our culture seems to value less a lot of the arts, at least in education.

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    It's incredibly important for us to remember that creativity, that imagination, that how the arts move and touch us, it's the thing we talk about. It's the thing we share globally. It's one of the reasons why I love being able to go places around the world, and doing workshops, and whether it's in Singapore or Beijing or Abu Dhabi or Beirut or wherever it might be, where you can sometimes do things, say things, achieve things culturally that you cant politically.

    And those kind of barriers are really interesting to keep pushing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Kevin Spacey, thanks for talking to us.

  • KEVIN SPACEY:

    Thank you very much.

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