'NOW in the Wings on a World Stage'
'NOW in the Wings on a World Stage'

It's easy to assume that a documentary financed and self-released by Kevin Spacey will be a vanity project. Especially the Tribeca Film Festival world premiere "NOW in the Wings on a World Stage," now streaming, which follows the head of the Old Vic around the world as he stars in 200 performances of Sam Mendes' Bridge Project production of Shakespeare's "Richard III."  

But the documentary, which Spacey and rookie director Jeremy Whelehan (his former associate producer on "Beyond the Sea" and Old Vic assistant director) have been tinkering with for two years, is worth waiting for. Sure, Spacey comes off well as the tireless star boss who takes his company on a scenic yacht trip off the coast of Australia during their Sydney tour. Would he have done that if he wasn't filming for posterity? Well, it makes for a great scene. 

Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes

The doc takes a behind-the-scenes look at how a unique company of 20 actors, half American and half British, all speaking their native English, workshopped and mounted "Richard III." And it shows the changes in the production as they took the show from its opening at the Old Vic to the huge ancient Greek amphitheater Epidaurus, where they had three days to figure out how to play to 14,000 people, and then returned to finish up the London run before going on a whirlwind world tour --something that hasn't been done on this scale since the glory days of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre--including stunning modern stages in Sydney, Doha and Beijing, as well as venerable theaters in Istanbul, Spain, Naples, and San Francisco---winding up at BAM in Brooklyn. 

In 2003, Kevin Spacey, who has won two acting Oscars ("American Beauty" and "The Usual Suspects") took a remarkable career turn, moving to London as artistic director of the Old Vic. Spacey was inspired, watching clips at a Mike Nichols AFI tribute of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Carnal Knowledge," to pursue high caliber filmmaking and theater. Like many actors these days, Spacey took his career into his own hands via his own production company, Trigger Street, which is run by producer Dana Brunetti, who developed and produced (with Michael De Luca and Scott Rudin) both Ben Mezrich and David Fincher's Oscar-winning "The Social Network" and Paul Greengrass's "Captain Phillips," starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, which was nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture. 

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in "House of Cards"
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in "House of Cards"

For the last decade, Spacey has worked around his Old Vic duties. He recognized early on that much of the best writing these days is in television, and signed on with Fincher and showrunner Beau Willimon (whose play "Farragut North" became the George Clooney film "The Ides of March") for Netflix's American remake of the Brit political intrigue "House of Cards," which was inspired by "Richard III." The Emmy-winning hit series, which boasts 26 episodes available for binge-watching via Netflix and has been greenlit for a third season (Willimon just started writing the next 13 episodes), launched a web series boom on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, among others. (My interview with Willimon is here; we're doing a Tribeca panel moderated by John Hockenberry, "Stories by Numbers," with David Simon and Nate Silver on April 24th.)

Now Spacey is merging the film and theater worlds with "NOW in the Wings on the World Stage," an unwieldy title that does describe the 90-minute film. He called me on the phone from Washington, D.C. He's excited about reuniting with his company at the world premiere in Tribeca next week, as well as all the projects coming up at the Old Vic: "Other Cities" starring Martha Plimpton and Sinead Cusack in late May, his own one man show as attorney Clarence Darrow in June, a revival of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" in the summer, and "Electra" starring Kristin Scott Thomas in the fall, all to be mounted in their new theater in the round. 

Anne Thompson: How much Richard III is in Frank Underwood? 

Kevin Spacey: The truth is Frank wouldn't exist without Richard III. I mean that literally. Michael Dobbs wrote the book and the original TV show in Britain based on Richard's direct address. I didn't invent that: Shakespeare invented that whole idea of making the audience a co-conspirator, bringing you in on his ideas and plans. The experience I had doing that in front of audiences, looking into the eyes of people around the world as I brought them in was a huge thing to learn, before I started shooting "House of Cards." It's different than Frank Underwood looking down the barrel of the camera lens. It's naughty fun looking into the eyes of people around the globe. 

You seem to have been rather prescient about where entertainment is going, as the Hollywood studios narrow their focus and flocks of actors turn to theater and longform entertainment. 

If I go back to when I took "Wise Guys," that series was almost a precursor to what has happened. I was doing a miniseries within a maxiseries, after seven episodes they killed me off. I was able to create an interesting character and a dynamic relationship. Eight or nine years ago we were talking about the fact that one of these companies-- YouTube, Yahoo, Hulu, Amazon or Netflix-- would want to be in the business of producing content, would want to compete to get in that game. It didn't surprise me that one company stood up and took the brave, bold, risky choice of greenlighting 26 episodes without a pilot. It made complete sense to me. That I happened to be involved in it was a bit of a surprise. What hasn't surprised me is that audiences, as we found starting with box sets, want control, to decide how they watch it. Appointment viewing is slowly being put slightly behind. A new era has begun, which is an exciting place to be. For us it was incredible fun, it never felt episodic, it felt like we were doing a really long movie.

Where did this ambitious Bridge Project come from?

Over a whole bunch of years I was paying attention to the different ways people are trying to reach out to new audiences, to give them experiences in the theater that they haven't had. I have long sought how to bring people new chances to come to New York and London and the great cities across the U.S. that have remarkable theaters in them. There's National Theatre Live, the Met Opera in movie theaters, and some online things as well. But it struck me in conversations with Sam Mendes about coming to the Old Vic that the whole notion of the Bridge project--the idea of taking a company of actors around the world, on that scale-- hasn't happened for 40 years, when the National Theater would go on an extended tour to 30 cities from London to Sydney. 

Maybe this was an opportunity to answer some of those questions I get from people who stop me on the street and write letters, asking, "isn't theater boring, doing the same thing every night?" People who aren't theater lovers, maybe never had the opportunity to go. So much energy and effort goes into our Old Vic programs to bring Broadway students to come to see the theater at a reasonable price. We have a policy to have 100 seats available every night for under $25. Over the past decade 80,000 people have seen our productions this way and the seed gets planted that you can have an experience at the theater that is affordable, accessible and interesting. 

Here was a unique opportunity to try to capture what it's like to do theatre and go around the world with a company.