Biting the ballot

By Benji Wilson

Kevin Spacey is getting political with a TV drama about the Bush vs Gore election in 2000. He talks to Benji Wilson

With a potentially era-defining US election less than a month away, the timing of Recount, an HBO drama screening on Prime this week about the 2000 US presidential election that manages to turn 36 days of legal bog-hopping into a riveting thriller, couldn't be more pertinent.

Among the various obscure technical facts that were presented to a watching world from Florida in the 36 farcical days that followed the 2000 election was the fact that the plural of chad is ... chad.

Hanging chads, (oops - chad), swinging chad and pimpled chad laid siege to the lexicon as it became apparent that the fate of the free world would come down to a protracted legal slugfest and a faulty hole-punch.

At the centre of all this, among the more familiar names like James Baker, Warren Christopher and Bush and Gore themselves, was a man called Ron Klain.

Klain had been ousted as Gore's chief of staff in late 1999, but a year later he found himself as general counsel of Gore's recount committee. He was, therefore, in the eye of the storm.

It is a role that was made for Kevin Spacey, a specialist in everyman antiheroes with blank stares and roiling consciences - one of which, Lester Burnham in American Beauty, won him a Best Actor Oscar in 1999.

Spacey is a card-carrying Democrat and a friend of Bill Clinton, but he insists that Recount isn't just liberal tub-thumping. "The film was never a partisan view of a bunch of whining Democrats who got the election stolen from them," he says. "That I wouldn't have been interested in doing."

Instead, he saw a chance to get political cinema back into the mainstream.

"This is a film that probably couldn't have been done in 2003 or maybe 2004, 2005 or 2006. Now, eight years later, with some hindsight, I actually think it's the first lesson of the Bush years. You can understand how it happened, even though it's insane."

He may lament the eight years that have followed, but Spacey isn't losing any sleep.

"The film is particularly painful for some people to watch," he laughs. "They keep hoping for a different ending. The great thing for me as an actor is I get to play all that anger on screen. So I don't have to live with it."

There isn't much that rouses him to anger. The only time in our conversation where he approaches anything as undignified as snippiness is when we discuss Resurrection Blues.

This was the Arthur Miller play that Spacey, in his capacity as artistic director of London's Old Vic theatre, put on in April 2006, having lured Robert Altman from screen to stage to direct. In spite of a Hollywood cast, it received a critical mauling and was closed early. I ask him whether it hurt that no one turned up.

"First of all, that's a myth. The people did turn up. I only closed that show a week early and I closed a week early because it wasn't critically well-received and it wasn't selling in its final week. But the truth is, a lot of people saw that play.

"I'm glad we did it ... presenting Arthur Miller's last work with a great director was an important thing to do, as far as I'm concerned. Not everything you do will be responded to well."

Spacey, as this comment suggests, has come to accept that when he became artistic director of the Old Vic in 2003, he was headed for a kicking.

"Part of it is I'm an American, part of it is I'm a movie actor so I'm a bigger target and they're able to create headlines and stories with me that they couldn't with someone else."

On the one hand, his Hollywood cachet enabled him to attract talent and reinvigorate the Old Vic, "a building", he says, "that had for all intents and purposes become a booking house".

But in drumming up interest in his theatre company, he inevitably attracted media attention himself.

This wasn't only confined to some barbed reactions to his plays. In April 2004, the tabloids went to town when Spacey was "brutally mugged" walking his dog on Clapham Common at 4.30am.

He then admitted on the Today programme that he hadn't been mugged, but by that point the interest was focused on why he was out walking his dog at 4.30am.

Over time, Spacey says the red-top intrigue and the cynicism he describes as "Is he going to run with his tail between his legs back to Hollywood?" has faded. (He stresses that he never actually lived in Hollywood in the first place, "but nonetheless that's where the press thought 'they' go back to".)

Now, as the Old Vic brings Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests to the London stage for the first time in 34 years, Spacey feels vindicated.

"What I will say is that the British public never made me feel that they weren't willing to allow us to discover who we were as a company. For any critical comment that might be made in the media, I would get 500 letters from people saying 'stay the course'."

He has stayed the course, recently committing to a further six years at the Old Vic. For a man who could be on joke-money per movie, it's an admirable decision, and he says he has never had second thoughts.

"Absolutely never. There was nothing that was ever said [in the press] that made me not want to continue coming to work on behalf of this remarkable building every day."

If anything, his work at the Old Vic has placed his movie-making experience into sharp relief.

"The main difference between the [Old Vic] experience ... and making movies is that movies are very unorganic to make. They're put together and a year later you go and see them and you go, 'Wow that really worked out'; or, 'Wow, that really didn't'.

"Then they go off into cinemas and you don't see how it affects people. And also, in the movie business, no matter how good you might be in a movie, you'll never be any better.

"What you learn in the organic living experiment of coming to work every night and tackling a role in a play with a company from previews to 16 weeks later is a journey."

That may not go down so well with the producers of the follow-up to Superman Returns, who will be paying Spacey big bucks to reprise his role as Lex Luthor next year.

"Well, look. If I'm not producing, then I'm an actor for hire. It ends there. That doesn't mean you're not working with a director and other actors and a writer to make the best movie you can, but it's a temporal experience, you'll be together for a couple of weeks or months and then you're done."

So is there really nothing left in the cinema that excites him? He pauses. "Well, I keep waiting for Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese to call me ..."

LOWDOWN
Born: July 26, 1959, New Jersey
Key roles: Wiseguy (TV, 1988), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Swimming with Sharks (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995), Se7en (1995), A Time to Kill (1996), L. A. Confidential (1997), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), American Beauty (1999), K-Pax (2001), The Shipping News (2001), The Life of David Gale (2003), Beyond the Sea (2004), Superman Returns (2006)
Latest: Recount, screening Prime TV, Wednesday 8.30pm

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