Kevin Spacey talks playing Richard III, running Old Vic and more

Fans of Kevin Spacey’s performance as Francis Underwood in “House of Cards,” and there are lots of them, would do well to check out “Now: In the Wings on a World Stage,” a documentary opening in theaters and becoming available for download at the actor’s website (KevinSpacey.com) on Friday.

The film chronicles the 10 months in 2011 and ’12 that Spacey and a distinguished ensemble spent touring the world in a production of “Richard III.” in Spacey’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s meglomaniac hunchback king one can clearly see the origins of his dastardly politician.

amNewYork spoke with Spacey about playing Richard III as part of the Transatlantic theatrical Bridge Project, in which actors from London and BAM starred in joint productions, his experiences running London’s Old Vic and more.

When did the idea for filming the tour come about and what your impetus was for doing it?

Well it really sorta started in conversation with Sam Mendes in the first year of The Bridge Project because this is a three-and-a-half year experience where Sam directed five productions over three seasons. “Richard III” was the final installment. And we talked about the notion of wanting to somehow find a way to capture this experience. We didn’t quite know what that meant and I didn’t think it meant just capturing the play but having the opportunity to show an audience what it’s like to do a play. What it’s like to be a member of an acting company. What it’s like to go around the world and do classic work.

Fundamentally one of the magical things about theater is that it kinda happens in a bottle. You see a performance, it is what it is and then it’s gone. With a film like this and with the streaming of theater into movie theaters in general, do you feel like that’s changed at all?

Well, my sense is that, you know, a) the reason they called the film “Now” is because that it is in fact what theater is but it’s also the first word of the first sentence of the play, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” And I think that it’s been terrific to see how as technology continues to grow in so many new ways in which we can discover material are happening and new platforms are happening, it’s been terrific to see things like the National Theater Live or the New York City Opera that are filming and capturing live performances and then putting them out there in cinemas. People still have to get up and leave their house and go to a movie theater and pay 25 bucks to see something, but I do think that we’re heading closer and closer into a direction where more theater will be captured. More of it will be captured in a way that will be very dynamic and that it will become accessible to an audience I hope on the Internet itself. I mean there’s lots of people all over the world who never get the chance to come to London or New York. That I think is one of the reasons why we were sold out when we did “Richard III” all over the world in 12 cities across three continents, because people love theater and it’s very alive but they don’t get an opportunity to see it as much as they should. What I don’t want to have happen is that people only discover theater in those circumstances. We want people to discover theater in the theater, you know, and actually go and experience it because it is one of the most exciting things for an audience to experience is live theater. But I do think that we’re moving closer and closer toward new ways in which theater can be captured and I think that’s a good thing.

You’ve spoken before addressing the film and in interviews when you made the decision to go to the Old Vic, there was a lot of skepticism in general in Hollywood. Do you feel like that sentiment has lessened over the decade and in a more general sense, if you look at Broadway now, it’s pretty much filled with what you would call A-list Hollywood stars. Do you feel like there’s been a general shift there in terms of people in that sort of world recognizing the value of theater and going for it?

No, I have to say that the cynicism doesn’t surprise me and my job is not to respond to that but to show up to work every day and eventually people realize that I was still showing up to work every day. I would have to say I think that we kind of have very short memories or we don’t necessarily know our history but if you go back and I’m talking go back to the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s and ’60s, you will find some of the greatest actors that ever stepped onto a film screen were going back to the theater. Whether that was Jimmy Stewart or Jack Lemmon or Katharine Hepburn, actors who were born out of the theater, who learned their craft out in the theater, and who found success in film and television, many of whom never abandoned theater or used the theater as a stepping stone to film. Theater was a valuable part of their lives all the way through their careers. In fact, I remember seeing Henry Fonda’s last performance and it was not “On Golden Pond.” It was in a play in Connecticut called “Showdown at the Adobe Motel” and it was an amazing experience to watch him onstage. He would pass away about a year-and-a-half later. So theater for those of us who love it and it’s such a huge part of our lives it’s not that oh suddenly there’s A-list actors on Broadway. This has been going on for a very very long time.

What did you take from this production into “House of Cards?”

Well, I’ll give you an example which is what we call a direct address, and that’s when Francis looks at the audience, breaking the fourth wall and looking in the camera. I know a lot of people might think Ferris Bueller invented direct address but in fact it was Shakespeare and he invented it in “Richard III.” … All of that is from “Richard III” and for me having played this role, having gone around the world to all the places we went, and being able to look into the eyes of audiences, and see the glee and the kind of naughty thrill that they were getting from being included as Richard’s co-conspirator is so much in the forefront of my mind when I then went starting shooting “House of Cards” and I just had to look down the barrel of the lens. But that memory of all those faces and that relationship that I had with an audience around the world for those 12 months is so potent and has been so helpful for me in terms of how to play those direct addresses that I was very fortunate to have done it.

The passion for theater that you have is self-evident. Can you talk to me about what it is that maybe you get from doing film or TV that perhaps is something you don’t get from theater?

Well, I think film is an extraordinary medium. It is not the actor’s medium. It’s really the director and the editor’s medium. And one of the things that’s always sort of incredibly satisfying, exciting about doing film is that you do have to make decisions very very quickly because you have to film and you’ve got the money being spent and you’ve got to go go go. So you basically have time to camera block, figuring out how you’re going to move in a scene, where the cameras will go and then they have to go off and light it. It really is the fact that I view my job in a film experience is to try and give a director and an editor as many choices as I possibly can in terms of how the performance will shape itself out. The actor’s not in control of it…. Oftentimes, when I go to see a cut of a movie, it’s an incredible experience for me because I have no idea what takes they use, because I don’t remember them and sometimes I’m like, “Wow, I didn’t intend on it being that way but that’s sorta amazing that they shaped it in such a way that they’re able to create a character through the incredible skill of editing.”

So when you do a film with Sam Mendes or other directors who have theater experience is that a fundamentally different experience than a filmmaker who doesn’t have that?

Yes, it can be and I think that, you know, some of the best experiences that I’ve had are when directors who come from the theater use the best of theater and apply it to film. I mean that was certainly true in “American Beauty.” Sam rehearsed with us on a soundstage, the entire company, for two-and-half weeks before we started shooting. So we mapped these scenes out. We had all of the designs of what the sets were going to look like, where the locations were going to be. By the time we got to the sets, we were well rehearsed, we knew exactly what we were going to try to achieve and it made filming go that much easier, so I always admire it when a director will take the best of theater and apply it to film because the truth is everything I know about acting I’ve learned in theater.

You’re stepping down from the Old Vic next year. Do you have any sense of what you’re going to do?

I’m going to be happy to not run a building anymore and I’m going to be happy to focus, if we’re still doing “House of Cards,” that takes up a tremendous amount of my attention. But there’s a whole number of things that I probably want to try and do more. I want to do more singing; I love music. I’ll probably want to do a little more directing. But, as you say, it’s a ways away.

In terms of “House of Cards,” do you view this third season as kind of a final season or do you feel like there could be more ahead?

I think absolutely there could be more ahead. There’s no reason why Francis can’t become pope.

What sort of reaction have you gotten to this movie?

It’s been really fantastic. I got to see it the first time the other night at the premiere at Tribeca with an audience and that was really extraordinary, it was like 900 people, that was really incredible to feel what it was doing to an audience. I guess one of the things I was really pleased about was that a young actor walked up to me and said, “If I wasn’t an actor already, watching this movie would make me want to be one.” So I think it is a real celebration and a tribute to the acting process and to actors in general and I’m proudest I guess that you really get to know a bunch of journeyman actors and actresses who aren’t famous but who are really the lifeblood of the living theater.