When Kevin Spacey played a despicable boss in 1994's Swimming With Sharks he became known for being horrible on screen. He is, in fact, so adept at being slimy that following his best-supporting-actor Oscar-winning turn as the criminal Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, his name was left off the opening credits of Se7en, just in case it gave audiences any ideas.
While he frequently hams it up as villains, including Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, the 51-year-old rarely gets the chance to be funny.
Now in next month's Horrible Bosses, which in the US joins Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher as R-rated, box-office comedy bonanzas, he is vicious as Dave Harken. This power-hungry micro-manager is masterly at tormenting his ambitious employee, played by Jason Bateman.
You can almost understand the film's other two office drones (Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day) banding together with Bateman to kill their respective bosses, including a cocaine-snorting exec (Colin Farrell) and a sex-crazed dentist (Jennifer Aniston).
"The role has slight echoes of Swimming with Sharks, but it is also a rare chance for me to do a comedy because I love doing comedies," Spacey admits. "People think in their limited perspectives; I am always the evil guy or the complex guy. So it is a nice change. We had an absolutely hilarious time doing it. The thing is, you can't even give this guy the benefit of the doubt, or think for a minute that he's being tough in order to teach a lesson or encourage his employees.
There are no underlying strategies that might redeem him. He's just a bully, and a terrible, terrible person."
Since 2003 Spacey has been the artistic director of the Old Vic, one of London's oldest theatres. "I hope that my staff at the Old Vic would not call me a horrible boss," he muses, though he surely knows they wouldn't.
The New Jersey-born actor, director, screenwriter, producer, and sometime crooner, who studied at New York's prestigious Juilliard School, was invested as an honorary CBE last November by Prince Charles on behalf of the Queen, for services to drama in the UK.
He is currently performing on stage at the Old Vic in Richard III, the final season of Sam Mendes' The Bridge Project, which will travel around the world, including playing in Sydney in December, and finishing with a series of performances in New York, starting in January.
"It is one of the great iconic Shakespearean characters and was also quite daunting because it's the second-longest part in Shakespeare after Hamlet," he says.
Spacey has thrived at the Old Vic, and he says theatre is faring well in the US and the UK, despite the economic downturn.
"The single largest tourist attraction in the US is Broadway. The West End had higher numbers in box-office ticket sales than any other year in its history during the crisis. What does that say? To me that says that despite how tough it might be for people, they will save their money to go and have a shared experience because we need it and it is necessary."
Horrible Bosses is in cinemas from August 4. See giveaway p2.
-Herald on Sunday / ViewBy Helen Barlow