He’s one of Hollywood’s biggest acting talents, but Kevin Spacey’s love of the theatre runs deep – and now he’s hoping to bring that passion to the Middle East
A titan of both the big screen (he has two Oscars under his belt) and the small (his performance as Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood in Netflix’s runaway hit House of Cards has been universally acclaimed), it is to the theatre that Kevin Spacey returns time and time again.
“The movies are not my first priority,” he once said. “The theatre is.”
So much so that his latest project involves helping to foster a culture of the dramatic arts in the Middle East – launching the Middle Eastern strand of his ‘Home Grown’ theatre arts programme.
The initiative is run by The Kevin Spacey Foundation – which through scholarships and learning opportunities aims to give budding actors a leg-up in their careers – and the Middle East Theatre Academy, which the actor launched in the UAE three years ago.
I learn my lines, I show up and I try not to bump into the camera
“Our Home Grown project is aimed at encouraging people to develop material and work from their own culture and from their own citizens and develop that
work homegrown,” he says. “This is the first part of a series of Home Grown programmes that we are doing in the Middle East.”
The intensive, two-week course, open to 35 18- to 25-year-olds from 17 countries across the region, started on 10 January and culminated in a performance of Hassan Abdulrazzak’s Dhow Under the Sun at the Sharjah Institute for Theatrical Arts on 25 January.
Spacey cannot stress the significance of the ‘home grown’ philosophy enough. “What we are doing now is essentially a programme to encourage those in the region by their governments, arts programmes and writing and directing programmes to establish their own material, and to see that supporting and nurturing talents in their own region is really incredibly valuable.”
Spacey says he is excited by the task ahead and the wealth of opportunity in the region. “I’ve had some incredible experiences in my travels to the Middle East and to the Emirates in particular,” says the Oscar winner.
“We toured our production of Richard III in the Middle East and I have already done workshops in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and I want to continue to do that.”
The House of Cards star first teamed up with the Emirati businessman Badr Jafar in 2011 to launch the Middle East Theatre Academy, a non-profit organisation offering training and support to regional actors, writers, directors and producers.
“One of the things I wanted to do was come to the region and to work with emerging talents and organise educational programmes. I didn’t want to say: ‘Oh, look at me, I’m here doing a play.’ I wanted to create a sense of excitement about the theatre in places where it isn’t necessarily on the map.”
This educational remit is a natural extension of his current role. As Artistic Director of London’s Old Vic, a position from which he steps down later this year, he did a phenomenal job in restoring the fortunes of the 200-year-old venue and proving that a major British institution can be run without any public subsidy.
One of Hollywood’s more private personalities, Spacey, 55, is urbanely witty and talks articulately and passionately about his work while keeping his personal life very much under wraps. “There’s a public life and there’s a private life,” he says. “Everybody has a right to a private life, no matter what their profession.”
I wanted to create a sense of excitement about the theatre in places where it isn’t necessarily on the map
When I meet him, the actor is wearing a grey sweatshirt emblazoned with an American flag and the words ‘Underwood 2016’, a reference to Francis Underwood, the conniving politician he plays in the television series House of Cards.
“I enjoy the character very, very much,” he says. “It’s challenging, it’s invigorating, and it’s what I don’t know about Frank Underwood that is very interesting. I’m not the kind of actor who thinks because I’ve played the character for a couple of seasons I know everything about him and I can just show up and play him.”
He is currently filming the third season, in which Underwood is now President of the United States but, characteristically, Spacey will not divulge any hints about what will happen in the new series, which airs in early 2015.
He is, however, delighted at how the drama has been received. “I’ve been astounded at how people have responded to the show in lots of different ways and in lots of different places, and seemingly for different reasons, depending on what the politics are in their own countries.”
He claims to be particularly pleased with how the scripts unintentionally foresee real-life events.
“We’re not ripping stories from the headlines because we’re not that sort of show and we wouldn’t be interested in doing that,” he says. “But what has happened in the first two seasons is that the writers come up with a storyline, we shoot it and then it will actually happen. So it’s been very interesting to see how we address an idea, deal with a particular issue and then watch it happen.”
After 35 years in showbusiness Spacey is recognised wherever he goes but is uncomfortable with the word “celebrity” and downplays his film acting talents by paraphrasing Robert Mitchum: “I learn my lines, I show up and I try not to bump into the camera.”
Nevertheless, the star won Oscars for his supporting role in The Usual Suspects in 1996 and as best actor in American Beauty in 2000, and is one of America’s most respected and in-demand actors.
In between his movies, he continued to return to the theatre, appearing on the London stage for the first time in 1998 in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. His appointment five years later as the theatre’s Artistic Director held no terrors for him, although it initially met with mixed reactions. His first production, Cloaca, was not well received, although later plays in which he took to the stage himself, including The Philadelphia Story, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Richard II and Richard III garnered acclaim and, in some cases, rave reviews.
He continues to divide his talents between movies, television, the stage and now video games, providing the voice of Jonathan Irons in the enormously popular video game shoot-em-up Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
But however intense or light the role, Spacey is unabashedly non-method, remaining decidedly unaffected by the characters that he inhabits.
“I’m not someone who lives with the characters I play,” he says. “When I hang up the costume at the end of the night, the character stays with it. That’s always been the case with me. It’s pretend – I get paid to pretend.”