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A conversation with Kevin Spacey

The Cavalier Daily sits down with the multitalented arts advocate after this year’s President’s Speaker for the Arts event

The University welcomed world-renowned entertainer Kevin Spacey to John Paul Jones Arena Saturday, in the second installment of the President’s Speaker for the Arts series.

See the gallery of photos here.

The sold-out event was preceded by performances from University dance students and selections from the University Singers’, in celebration of the University’s revitalized commitment to enriching arts initiatives and programs across a variety of creative outlets. The student performances were followed by words from Jody Kielbasa, vice provost for the arts, and University President Teresa Sullivan.

The speaker series underscores a “broad, multifaceted effort to make the University of Virginia a world-class center for the fine and performing arts,” Sullivan said.

Though Spacey does not have a direct tie to the University like the inaugural speaker of the series — “30 Rock” star and University alumna Tina Fey — his talk was littered with nuances of Cavalier life. He connected Sullivan’s challenged presidency to the “political lawn game” his character Frank Underwood practices so carefully in the Netflix series “House of Cards.” Numerous nods to Wahoo minutiae such as University housing, the student-painted Beta Bridge and the University’s rivalry with Virginia Tech grounded his advice and recollections in a world more familiar than the various corners of the entertainment industry he has inhabited.

“I remember college," Spacey said. "Actually, I never went to college."

Despite never graduating from Juilliard, Spacey structured his talk around five life lessons tailored for a college community, each revolving around vignettes from his career and an accompanying quote from “Cards,” which he delivered in Underwood’s unmistakable Southern drawl.

His stories ranged from earning an audition for a stage role alongside his idol, the late Jack Lemmon, to his mid-career decision to assume the role of artistic director at London’s Old Vic theater at a critical and commercial height in his film career.

Spacey asserted the importance of testing the limits of talent and ambition. Quoting Lemmon, Spacey stressed the importance of reciprocity.

“Send the elevator back down,” he said, “because there’s always someone a floor below.”

Spacey gives back to the community through the Kevin Spacey Foundation, which brings arts programs to young talents.

Spacey acknowledged the changing climate of media and entertainment, citing the Internet as a place where “the rules don’t matter.” The freedom and liberation such a technology has provided for young creative types has only amplified the power of taking risks.

“Don’t be afraid to shake things up, … be willing to try things and attack [them] in the wrong way," Spacey said. "You learn more from failing than you do from succeeding.”

Spacey’s illustrious career can be summarized with a combination of experimentation and a desire “to remain interested.” He said his greatest pleasure comes from “what [he doesn’t] know.”

In one of his final remarks to his audience, Spacey remained hopeful his best performances and contributions are “ahead, … not behind.”

The Cavalier Daily had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Spacey after this weekend’s meditation on the arts.

Arts & Entertainment: One of the strongest aspects of the University Arts community lies in its drama students and productions. You’ve had significant experience in film, but you began your career — and have since returned to a life — on stage. How would you describe your transition from stage to screen?

Kevin Spacey: For me, there really hasn’t been a transition. I’ve never looked at the theater as a stepping-stone to movies. There are some people who do — there are some people who have really wonderful careers in the theater and then they make it in movies and never come back — but that’s not me. I suppose that’s partly because I was influenced by people like Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon who continued to have a great love for the theater through their entire careers. A lot of people think that Henry Fonda’s last performance was in “On Golden Pond,” but it wasn’t. It was in a little play he did called “Showdown at the Adobe Motel” in Connecticut that I went [to] and saw twice.

For me, theater is a viable, important and hugely significant part of my life and I don’t really separate or look at it as a transition. What I could say is that I think that I have learned so much about the craft of acting and storytelling out of the theater. [It has] hugely influenced the way I approach creating a character in film. I am very grateful to the experiences I have had in theater because I think they have made me a better actor and helped me prepare for being on a film set, which is a very different environment. Theater is really organic and film is not organic at all. You just have to learn to work around those parameters.

A&E: It seems your roles in film are definitely theatric, to use an adjective. One role I can particularly view this way is your work on “The Usual Suspects,” where you play a character with cerebral palsy. Through the role, you brought an issue — disability — to a wider audience.

KS: I met with a couple of doctors who really helped me understand because I wanted [my portrayal] to be accurate. I got a lot of really cool letters from people who have [cerebral palsy] who felt like it was pretty accurate. I did cheat a little bit because I glued my hand and thumb together so it would stay. I remember [Usual Suspects director] Bryan Singer and I being in a restaurant one day and I was trying different walks and limps. I learned a lot about [cerebral palsy].

A&E: Let’s talk about “House of Cards.” In your talk you talk about the liberating power of the Internet. Do you think the entertainment industry should shift in this direction in regards to content delivery and distribution?

KS: I think there are a couple of things that are at play here. It didn’t surprise me that Netflix decided to get involved in the game of producing their own original content because if you look at all these companies that have made [billions] of dollars as portals for entertainment, if they are going to compete at some point they are going to end up doing their own stuff. It didn’t surprise me that Netflix was the first — what surprised me is that I was a part of it. As you’ve seen, on the heels of Netflix [are] Hulu [and] Amazon. All these channels and companies are now getting into the game. Two days ago HBO and CBS announced [that] they’re doing their own streaming services as well as what they do regularly.

I do think that maybe the thing we’ve done that is the most unique — and maybe the most disruptive — is releasing an entire season on one day, giving the audience the opportunity to watch the series however they want to watch it. I think maybe that is a valuable lesson that we are showing we learned what the music industry didn’t learn — give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and the chances are they’ll buy it and not steal it. That doesn’t mean that piracy will go away, but I think we take a bite out of piracy. I think there is a reason that “Game of Thrones” is the single largest pirated show in the history of the medium: people can’t get it fast enough. By giving it to them all at once, I think we take a bite out of piracy. I think the ground is shifting and I think it’s going to be very interesting to watch how my industry deals with things like disruption and chaos. But it’s not just my industry — a lot of industries are having to move very fast and learn to respond. At the end of the day, the audience is telling us what they want. They don’t care about the platform, they care about the content.

A&E: You assumed the role of executive producer for “The Social Network,” a movie based on another Internet-centric powerhouse, Facebook. With Facebook, the platform allows users to be the content they create and see. Should the entertainment industry start welcoming more user-generated content and less “star power”?

KS: I think they are either going to make the ground very welcoming and fertile or we’re going to have a lot of people who are going to self-produce, self-publish [and] self-distribute, and the entertainment industry is going to get none of that. We see it happening right now. It’s incredible now that someone can find an audience on the Internet without a lot of money behind them and without having the biggest microphone. The studios, the networks, the theaters — they’re going to have to start paying attention or they’re going to lose that talent. Why should that talent partner up if they’re going to get all this money on their own?

We see examples of what happens when industries are so star-driven. The theater is a perfect example — it’s very difficult to get a play on Broadway that doesn’t have a major star in it and that’s a mistake. The owners have not taken responsibility for making the theater affordable to young people. If you are a young person and it’s going to cost you $125 to go see a Broadway play, you’re probably going to save your money and buy something else. You force every producer to cast a star instead of discovering [a] star or creating a star. There is too much short-term thinking and not enough long-term thinking in how we build audiences.

A&E: An audience which has definitely been created and sustained over time is video gamers. The late film critic Roger Ebert once wrote “video games aren’t art.” Given your recent work on the upcoming “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” can you make a case either way?

KS: The jury’s out. It will not surprise me that video game companies go into the making of movies. It did not surprise me that Activision [Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare publisher] decided they wanted to try to do drama. They brought me in and I helped them make that transition into having a story and a character the audience follows — it looks like me, which is crazy. Again, I am not surprised things are moving in that direction. When you look at the incredible things that can happen in terms of technology now — the virtual reality, the 3D — what I watched happen while I was shooting “Call of Duty” — it’s pretty incredible. It makes sense to me that they are going to try to move in a direction of storytelling and filmmaking in a way they never have before because the technology is there now and they can do it.

A&E: We’ve touched on user-generated content and distribution in the Internet age, but let’s return to film for a moment. Have you ever brought one of your creations home into your personal life after a day of filming, whether accidentally or intentionally?

KS: I’m sort of the guy who when he hangs up the costume at the end of the night the character stays with it. There are times when you have to, if you’re shooting a particular scene and it’s going to take you a couple of days to complete it, you might have to live with something — a feeling, a tone, an attitude — that you need to stay in in order to be in that world. But most of the time I’m fortunate that I don’t take characters home.

A&E: In your talk, you assured the audience you didn’t go to college. Seeing as your words were delivered at U.Va., how important do you think formal credentials are to the world today?

KS: It seems to be different for different people for different reasons. There are some businesses that people go into where degrees are very important. There are others where the most important degree you have is your talent and what you with it and how you challenge it. It’s different for different industries. I went to Juilliard. It was a four-year program [and] I quit after two years. My parents were like, “You’re not going to get your degree,” and I was like, “I think it’s going to be OK.” That was a choice I made. There are also people who went through the whole program and came out of it and had very successful careers. [Actor] Val Kilmer went to Juilliard and other people that I obviously know who did very well in the program and got their degrees and have done very well. To me, it’s very individual. It always works for everybody [and] it’s different for everybody.

A&E: What advice would you give the individual — say, one who’s not necessarily

indoctrinated in the U.Va arts community — to get involved in the arts here on Grounds?

KS: There are lots of ways to get involved in the arts. You can do it in your own community. Every single city and town has a community center and they tend to have programs there that are sometimes theater programs or they put on shows. Sometimes you can just get involved [based on what they] need. Sometimes people need somebody who can work Internet; sometimes they need somebody who can type. [There are] any number of things you can get involved in any tiny or small way that would mean a lot to them. In terms of participating, you’ve just got to show up. You’ve got to go, you’ve got to get up, you’ve got to be willing to stand up and maybe feel embarrassed and not sure if you can do it.

[These are] things we’ve all gone through when you’re suddenly in a room and you’ve got to face your peers and share something. It’s always an incredible feeling when you do it and when you get through it and when you get over that fear. Fear can be a great motivator. When I do workshops, I’m always looking for the shy person in the corner because that was me. I know what it is like when you watch someone have an experience and become involved in a way they never have before. When you see the nickel drop in their eyes when they just discovered something about themselves they didn’t know they were capable of, that they can express themselves in a way they never imagined, that’s an incredible thing to watch, and it’s also an incredible thing to feel. You’ve got to be willing to get up and try it.

A&E: You’ve been able to express yourself in ways far extending past film, television and theater. Besides creating video games, you’ve also dabbled in music, playing legendary singer Bobby Darin in the biopic “Beyond the Sea” and also singing alongside the voice of Dean Martin on a duets album.

KS: The family of Dean Martin came to me and they were going to do this duets record so they were able to isolate Dean Martin’s voice from when he recorded some of his great stuff. They asked a whole bunch of artists and I was really A) amazed they asked me and B) incredibly delighted to do it. We went into Columbia Records, which is where he had done these songs originally, and I did two tracks — “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and “King of the Road.” I’m probably going to do more singing. I just did a concert a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C. for my foundation and it was incredible with a 40-piece orchestra and backup singers. I really loved doing it because all of my time in the last ten years has been so focused on getting the Old Vic up and running again that I just haven’t had the kind of time to do music as I would have liked. Maybe that time will open up now.

A&E: That being said, there’s a lot you haven’t done. Is there something in particular you’d like to try in the future?

KS: I haven’t done a horror movie and I haven’t done a big, big action like “Iron Man” kind of movie. That would probably be kind of fun.

A&E: So what’s the future look like for you — if you’re not immediately donning a superhero cape or a bloody mask?

KS: That’s the most exciting thing — I don’t know. At least I know about “House of Cards” and that we’re probably going to go on and do some more of them, and I’m loving that experience. But in terms of theater I’m not sure and in terms of film I’m not sure. I do know I want to do more singing. I have such a great time doing it and it’s so much fun. People seem to enjoy it when I do it — they don’t run from the theater. So I think there’s probably more of that. That’s the exciting thing — it’s always about figuring out what is next and being open to things you haven’t thought of before so I try to keep myself open.

A&E: But you want to end up on stage?

KS: I will die on stage. Absolutely.

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