By Drew Taylor | The Playlist May 1, 2014 at 12:01PM
Kevin Spacey, a world-class actor who has conquered stage, screen, and Netflix, is placing another feather in his cap: he's about to self-release "NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage," a documentary that thrillingly chronicles the worldwide production of William Shakespeare's "Richard III," mounted by Spacey and his "American Beauty" director Sam Mendes. When you watch the documentary, it's hard to not be taken aback by the sheer size of the production, from the dozens of actors to the massive sets (and the truly jaw-dropping venues that they got to play all around the world). We were lucky enough to chat with Spacey about reteaming with Mendes, where the project came from, when they decided to make it a documentary, the connection between "Richard III" and "House of Cards" and whether or not he's talked to Jesse Eisenberg about playing Lex Luthor.
First, some background: By the time this crazy "Richard III" production came to be, Spacey had been an artistic director for the legendary Old Vic theater in London, a gig that he had signed on to for a whopping ten years. So his day job was, very much, tending to the theater. "Richard III" came out of something called The Bridge Project, described as a "trans-Atlantic repertory venture," which Spacey describes here in some detail (it came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the beginning of 2012).
It's another fascinating left turn for an actor whose career is made almost entirely of fascinating left turns. (Keep in mind he took on the job directly after winning an Oscar for "American Beauty.") But as Spacey describes his experience with the Old Vic and "Richard III," all the way up through self-distributing the movie, these are just things that happen. There is no grand architecture to the decisions. They just happen.
Your decision to become the artist director for the Old Vic for ten years must have been a huge decision. And it's one that's dealt with very quickly in the documentary.
Sure, I guess the only reason it had been glossed over was I felt like that story had been told a thousand times. And I didn't want to have the film be about that. But to answer your question, it really happened by accident and it was all a big surprise. Ultimately, I had been spending about ten, eleven years really focusing on a film career, and towards the tail end of that, in about 1998, I had decided to go to London and do a production of "The Iceman Cometh," which turned out to be very successful. Then we all decided we wanted to continue doing it, because it was such a great experience. So we ended up moving that production to the Old Vic. And I fell in love with the Old Vic. I had been asked by the people who had just bought the Old Vic for a trust if I would go on the committee to find an artistic director. And I didn't really know that much about the Old Vic besides its illustrious history. But over the course of the next year I started to learn more about it and I started to have a couple of meetings about it and at the end of 1999, when I was back in London for the launch of "American Beauty" at the London Film Festival, that was where an epiphany evening struck me where at the very moment when I was beginning to feel like everything I had set out for myself as a goal over those last 11 years, in terms of building a film career, had gone better than I could have ever possibly hoped.
And now what? was my question. What am I supposed to do now? Do the next 10 years doing the same thing? Did I want to be one of those guys who you see who get to a certain point and then they start showing up and doing lots of movies they probably shouldn't do and making shitloads of money? I thought: no, I don't want to do it again. I've done it. And I don't think I need to top myself. Here's this incredible theater, which needs someone to take it over, and it seemed that it was what I wanted to do my whole life—run a theater. It was staring me in the face and all I had to do was open my fucking eyes. And I did.
Running a theater and mounting a giant world tour are pretty different things. Can you talk about what it was like assembling the team for this?
Well, you have to understand that by the time we took on the Bridge Project, which was five productions over three-and-a-half years, all directed by Sam Mendes, all of which toured the world … By that point we were eight seasons in. We had a remarkable company, an incredible staff, and our co-producers in the Brooklyn Academy of Music and all of our partners in the sister theaters were involved. It's a monstrous undertaking traveling around the world with four sets, twenty actors … We had to have four sets because one set had to be ready in the city we were at and another was traveling to the next city and one set had to be dismantled from the city we had just been to. So there was a set, always traveling. And all of the props and all of the costumes. It was, without question, a massive undertaking. I think it comes down to money and availability. To get an actor to commit to a 10-month experience is not an easy thing to do when you're competing with television and films and the fact that actors like to make money like anybody else. It was the commitment not only of the company but of Sam Mendes, to direct these five productions over three-and-a-half years is pretty remarkable. But by the time we started that process we were well-oiled as a company and had done many, many productions, some of which came to Broadway and some that played other places as well.
Can you talk about re-teaming with Sam Mendes? How did that come about?
It came about, weirdly, almost as soon as I made the decision to come to the Old Vic. This was December of 1999 when I made the decision and I think I called Sam in January of 2000. I said, "Look, I know you're about to leave the Donmar after ten years, but I'm about to sign on to the Vic for the next ten years." I thought a number of things: a) if somebody was going to talk me out of it, it'd be Sam. Like "Don't do this, you're insane." And b) I called him because he was one of the first directors I wanted to talk to about coming and doing something that could bring us back together at the Old Vic. So this began a series of conversations and dinners and emails that literally started in 2000. Because Sam, at the time, was like, "Look, I'm about to leave the Donmar and go back to New York and make some movies for a while and do some plays but I'm not quite ready to come back to London yet. But let's keep talking." But what I didn't know was that around the same time, Joe Melillo, who is the head of BAM, was starting to talk to Sam about doing something at BAM.
And maybe about four years after these conversations began, Sam and I met for lunch in New York and he said to me, "We're missing something. It's literally staring us in the face and we can't see it." I said, "What?" He said, "I'm a British director, living in New York, doing plays and doing movies. You're an American actor, living in London, doing plays and doing movies. There's something to that. Whatever we do together, we have to embrace that idea. There's something about the bridge from our two cultures that we could highlight and underscore and give ourselves an incredible challenge." What became of that was, instead of housing himself at the Old Vic or housing himself at BAM, we came up with the notion, and it was really Sam's notion, or bringing together 50% American actors, 50% British actors, allowing the Old Vic and BAM to be its home, and touring the world. And proving that it doesn't matter where you come from or how you sound, you can make Shakespeare come alive.
So that's literally how the whole thing started. And I think it's true. And whether it was in the first year, the number of actors that joined that first year, or the second year, all the extraordinary actors that came on like Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke—we set out to prove, and did prove that you can make classic works come to life when you mix American and British actors.