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Kevin Spacey discusses 'NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage'

Jeremy Whelehan’s documentary, “NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage,” follows Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes as they put together a production of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and take it on a ten month tour around the world. It was all part of Mendes’ Bridge Project, billed as the world’s first transatlantic theatre company, which combined both British and American actors to perform this classic play, and the tour took them to London, the ancient Greek amphitheatre in Epidaurus (which is simply breathtaking to look at), Istanbul, Sydney, Naples, San Francisco and Brooklyn. Throughout this documentary we see how strongly the cast bonds with one another, attention is paid to the backstage crew who don’t always get the respect they deserve for the tireless work they do, and we share in the amazing places they visit.

Movie poster for "NOW: In The Wings on a World Stage."
Kevin Spacey on vacation
Photo by Jesse Grant

But when Spacey appeared at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, California for this documentary’s press day, he spoke mostly about his love of acting on the stage as opposed to acting in movies. For him the theatre remains his first love, and he went out of his way to point out why that is the case. Despite his success in movies which resulted in him winning two Academy Awards and many cinematic opportunities, he chose instead to spend a decade in England as the Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre. After hearing him talk at the SLS Hotel, we completely understood why he came to make this important decision for himself.

And yes, he did talk about how Richard III came to influence his character of Francis Underwood on “House of Cards.”

When you decided to do this production and take it around the world, at what point did the idea of doing a documentary come into play?

Kevin Spacey: The conversations started a little bit with Sam Mendes in the first year of the Bridge Project because there were three seasons where Sam directed five productions; the first two seasons were two and the second season was two, and then “Richard III” was the third and the final. We only did one show in the third season, thank God. But we started talking in the first season.

I think it was probably after I went to Epidaurus to watch Simon Russell Beale do “The Winter’s Tale” and I was just like, “Oh my God. Whatever we do, we have to bring it to this theater. This is the most unbelievable theater.” And then I said maybe there’s a way that we can capture this experience. It’s probably been about 35 or more years since a theater company has gone around the world and done this kind of tour. It just isn’t done anymore because it’s too cost prohibitive. That and the fact it was this unique combination of British and American actors coming together to do classical work. So it was the first transatlantic theater company. So we just started chatting about it and then Jeremy, who had worked with me at the Old Vic as an assistant director on about seven of our productions and who worked with me on “Beyond The Sea,” came to me and said, “I think you should like somehow document this.” And I was like, “Well that’s exactly what Sam and I have been talking about.”

We didn’t quite know how to do it and I was also quite reluctant to say what it was going to be. I think maybe almost anyone that has made documentaries will talk about the fact that you just don’t know what it’s going to be until you have it, and then it sort of tells you in the editing room. So I was reluctant to give parameters of what we were trying to do. It was more like, “Just fucking capture it.” Ultimately, I think it was not until the middle of the second season of the Bridge Project that Sam and I decided on “Richard III,” and then it was a very sort of let’s do it kind of decision. We started in the rehearsal room and Sam was incredibly generous as were all the actors to let the cameras in and film that process as we went along, and then we really did figure it out in editing. When I was shooting last season on “House of Cards,” Jeremy and our editor (Will Znidaric) came to Baltimore for 11 weeks and we cut what is now the film.

Did the actors always know they were being filmed, or was there a period of where they had to get adjusted to the fact that the cameras were around?

Kevin Spacey: Well there were some who at the very beginning like Gemma Jones who never wanted the camera in their face. She was like, “Get that fucking thing out of my face!” She was very clear about it. But as time went on she starred to get to know Jeremy, and Jeremy is this lovely Irish lad who was very amenable. She started to like Jeremy and she likes the boys as you get from the film, so she starred to soften up. By the time we were halfway through she’s lifting her skirt and she knew the camera was there. They all knew the camera was there. But I think what was great was that because Jeremy had by this point almost become a member of our company, people forgot there were cameras. Also, people didn’t know what it was for. There was never like, “Okay it’s going to be a PBS documentary and it’s going to be on HBO…” We just literally didn’t know how it was going to end up being and then how it was going to end up necessarily being distributed if at all. It could have been just a very expensive home movie, you know? (Laughs)

Have you filmed the play? After watching this documentary, a lot of people would love to see it if they didn’t see it on the stage already. Could it be an extra on the DVD or Blu-ray release?

Kevin Spacey: No. I mean I imagine that Jeremy probably shot the whole play in various places, but it wasn’t designed that way. We didn’t film it that way and no one was wearing microphones, so even if we put it together it would probably be pretty haphazard and from different angles and places. It could be something worth looking at because I don’t think we will ever do it again because it’s just too massive and frankly, I have said this before, it’s a wonder they didn’t find my fucking bones in the parking lot, like they did the real Richard III, after doing 200 performances. But it also wasn’t what we set out to do.

We have heard that when the actors performed the play at Epidaurus and then went back to the Old Vic, everybody said that they knew the play so much better. Is that because you were in an amphitheater and it was like so empty (stage wise) that you really had to fill it up? Why do you think that performance in particular stands out above the others?

Kevin Spacey: I have to say that Epidaurus experience was unparalleled. No experience I’ve ever had in a theatre has ever been quite like it. To begin with, to rehearse in that space over a number of days was quite remarkable, but it is a very, very different venue when it’s empty then when it’s full. The first time I saw it full was after I… We had to wait for it to get really dark so it was like 9:15 at night when we could actually start the play. And also, because you can’t get 14,000 people down to the bathrooms in less than two hours, there was no intermission when we did it at Epidaurus; we did it straight through.

I was backstage and the green light goes on and that’s your cue to walk out the door, and I remember I scurried across the stage and set down in the chair, and the lights came up and I went (does gasping sound). Sam Mendes said to me after that performance, “Oh my God, it was the most terrifying thing to watch you for the first half hour because you were breathing for like four people.” Literally, I looked up and it was like a wall of people, a human wall that went as far as you could fucking see. And then it’s that thing about why I was so grateful we ended up doing three performances in Epidaurus rather than just two because it took us to performances to learn how to play that space.

I guess I should explain that the thing about the differences and playing different theatres and different venues of different sizes and shapes is that it’s all about how you hear your own voice. That’s what acoustics are. Acoustics are about measuring how much energy and vocal power you need to be heard, and the other way that you can measure that is when you can hear your voice back. If you’re in a theater where it doesn’t come back, you then strain because you’re trying to get it to bounce back at you off of walls, off plaster, off staircases and off wood. The audience sucks up a lot of that vocal power, but in a place like Epidaurus which had been built by geniuses, the human voice can carry all the way to the top. I had friends who came and sat one night very close and sat the next night all the way at the top, and they said they could hear better up there than they could right there (next to the stage).

There’s something about what happened to us in that environment. The fact that they’ve been doing plays in this place for 2000 years, that Julius Caesar sat right there and watched plays, that gods were there… You could look up and see stars, and it was so majestic and so huge. Knowing we were the first time that a production of “Richard III” had ever played Epidaurus and that nothing had sold out as fast in Epidaurus since Maria Callas in the 1970s, it was just extraordinary. So we went back to the Old Vic, all of that experience and all of that feeling like we were part of something that was bigger than all of us was infused in us, and I think it affected all of us.

And yes, it is true that Sam did come a few days after we got back from London and said, “STOP YELLING! It’s a smaller theatre.”

There are actually a lot of similarities between the character of Richard III and your character of Francis Underwood on “House of Cards.”

Kevin Spacey: Michael Dobbs (one of the executive producers) based the character of Francis on Richard III. That’s why direct address exists in ”House of Cards.” I know a lot of people think that Ferris Bueller created direct address, but he didn’t. It was a guy named William Shakespeare and he invented it in this play. That’s why for me, it was such an amazing circumstance that I closed this play in March of 2012, and on April 28 I started shooting “House of Cards.” So I cannot tell you what that meant for me in terms of how I approached “House of Cards.”

Do you think you could have done “House of Cards” without just coming off of “Richard III?”

Kevin Spacey: I don’t think I could have done “House of Cards” if I hadn’t spent the last 10 years doing theater.

What is it about the characters of Richard III and Francis Underwood that attracts you to play them?

Kevin Spacey: Well it really wasn’t my choice to do “Richard III,” it was Sam’s choice. He really wanted to direct me in this play. I know people are always trying to connect the dots of, “oh you must always love playing these characters.” But the truth is I don’t ever play these kinds of characters in the theater. “Richard III” is the first time I’ve ever played this kind of character in the theatre ever in my entire life.

I have always done completely different kinds of things. What I would say is that there is no doubt that both of these characters are investigations into the corridors of power, into the nature of power, and that they are both characters that have such a remarkable ability to predict the way someone will respond. They are able to be 16 moves ahead in the chess game which is why they generally get what they want.

What was for me sort of incredible having had the experience of doing “Richard III” and then starting “House of Cards” was that I had been all over the world breaking the fourth wall looking out at the audience and talking to people and being able to see this relationship between the character and the audience and between Richard and the people he’s telling a story to, and it was wild. I remember I would point to people and say, “Can you believe that just happened?” And they would go (mimics a shocked face).

So when it came time for me to start doing the direct addresses in “House of Cards,” the memory of that relationship was so burned in me that it really helped me because now I’m just looking down the barrel of a lens. I don’t have eyes and I have had to make a slight adjustment so instead of thinking of so many people, I’m just trying to think of my best friend when telling things I wouldn’t tell anyone. In a way I wanted to make it that sort of intimate thing. Sometimes when Beau (Willimon, the show’s creator) writes some line of dialogue into the camera and I’ll just go, “Beau I don’t think I have to say anything. I think they know exactly what I’m thinking. Let’s just not say anything.” And so we would just cut it. He’s always surprised by the actor cutting lines.

The great thing about this documentary is how it shows the now-ness and being in the present when you do theatre. Have you always approached theatre in that way? Do you find it therapeutic being so in the moment?

Kevin Spacey: Yeah. One of the reasons I wanted to make the movie is because a lot of times over the last 10 years people look at me like a very confused puppy (as if to say), “Why did you go to London and like run this theatre? Why do you do theatre? Isn’t it boring? Isn’t it always the same? Why don’t you just make movies and make money?” Here’s what’s incredible in terms of if you’re going to make any kind of comparison between the experiences for an actor: Theatre is organic, film is not. Theatre you come every day and you work with a group of people and you’re are all up for it and you all get to do the whole thing every night, be it two hours or three hours. In film you work in two or three minute bits and it’s never in chronological order and then someone takes that away and makes it look like it all happened, or that you gave that performance. But you might’ve given that performance in one take that way and another take that way, and they put all that together and makes it look like that’s the way you did it, and sometimes they make you look really good!

The big thing for me, for all those people who think it must be the same; I often use the analogy of tennis. If you go out and you play eight nights of tennis, yeah it’s the same rules but it’s a different game every time you’re out on that court, and you’re working on a different part of your game every time you’re out on that court, and your partner is working on a different part of their game. You add to that the active being watched, and that changes it because it’s one thing if you go to the park and you’re playing with a friend of yours and it’s just the two of you. It’s another thing if you go to a club and there’s 15 people watching you with sandwiches and champagne and you’re like, “Oh fuck!” Theatre is alive and it is now, and then it’s gone. The other big thing I always remember is that no matter how good I might be in a movie, I’ll never be any better. It’s frozen. But in theatre I can be better tomorrow night, I can be better the night after that and I can be better in a week. The journey you go through as an actor is incredible.

There’s a sand painting we see in the movie that’s just incredible to look at. Does that relate to how you see the theatre, and is there a play you wish you had filmed or a performance of yours which you wish you had filmed?

Kevin Spacey: I’m of a very contradictory mind about this and I accept that about myself. I’m a big contradiction and this is one of them. Yes, I think it’s fantastic that things like National Theatre Live and Metropolitan Opera have been doing these live streamings into movie theaters so you can get up out of your house and you’re going to pay $25 bucks and you watch a live, or not live, production. I think it’s great that some things are being captured, and I hope that that will be a part of something that will open that up in a way that makes it accessible and for free on the internet in a slightly different way than what those particular schemes have done.

But while I think that’s fantastic to plant seeds for people who don’t really get theater or don’t go, I also want them to go to the theatre. I want them to experience theatre in the theatre and not necessarily on a screen. The problem with it is you were taking a three-dimensional experience and you reduce it to us two dimensional experience, and it is just not the same. I think we’re moving closer and closer towards being able to find ways to capture things that will be of value to keep on film, but it will never be the experience that you have when you sit in a theatre and you look at something that’s happening before your very eyes and it is alive. No matter what, that performance that you just saw will never happen again, and the perspective from which you saw that performance is very different from the person who is down the aisle watching it from this perspective.

The critics insist on sitting on the aisles because they don’t want to sit there; they want to run out and start writing the review immediately. That means that these people have spent 30 years watching plays from this perspective or that perspective; they never sat in the middle. So we created an aisle at the Old Vic and we stick them in the middle. We only do that for opening nights because I want them to see it from this perspective because it’s different.

You worked with Sam Mendes in both film and theatre as a director. Does Sam change as far as working with actors from different mediums or is it all just the same?

Kevin Spacey: It is all just the same, and I suppose that goes part and parcel with the fact that I don’t think there’s film acting and stage acting; I think there’s just good acting and bad acting. What was great about Sam when we first worked together, even though “American Beauty” was his first film, was that he took the best of theatre and applied it to making a movie. We rehearsed it for two weeks like a play with the entire cast. Everybody was there no matter how big or small their parts were. We taped all the sets out on this big soundstage, and we rehearsed every single scene so by the time we got to the set we knew what we were doing. We had answered the big questions and we were ready to work and discover it on film. It’s the same process in theatre, just longer (6 weeks). We workshop the play, threw it around and tried to find different ways in.

He’s also one of those, I would say, rare directors who not only give you a great direction but they know when to give you the great direction. There are times where I would’ve been doing something for weeks in a particular way, and then in a third preview Sam would say, “I think tonight you should try it this way. I don’t think the way you’ve been doing it is right.” And you go, “Why didn’t you fucking tell me this six weeks ago?” And he said, “Because you wouldn’t have been able to take the notes six weeks ago, but now you can. Now you understand more now than you did then.” So it’s about a director watching how actors are developing and shifting and changing, and when they are ready for a note he just really knows when to give it. That’s pretty good.

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