It”s been 25 years since Kevin Spacey was last in a weekly role on a television series, when he made CBS viewers sit up, take notice, and ask, “Who the heck is that guy?” with his performance as “Wiseguy” villain Mel Profitt, a charismatic crime boss with an unhealthy relationship with his sister and a drug addiction he hid by shooting up between his toes. (“The toes knows,” he would say while giggling, in a line I can still hear in my head a quarter century later.)
Technically, the two-time Oscar winner still hasn”t returned to television, as his newest role – as Francis Underwood, the ruthless, silver-tongued House Majority Whip in the new political drama “House of Cards” – is appearing exclusively as part of Netflix”s streaming video service. (All 13 episodes of the first season will be posted on Friday, Feb. 1.) But the series was made in the style of a premium cable drama, even though Spacey, writer Beau Willimon (adapting the early ’90s British miniseries of the same name, which starred Ian Richardson as Francis), director David Fincher and much of the cast (notably Robin Wright as Francis” calculating wife Claire) have little to no experience working in television.
I spoke with Spacey about his return to the format that launched his career, the advantage of playing the same character over a long period of time, and more.
Was there ever a point, after “Wiseguy” and before “Usual Suspects,” where you were even considering doing another show? Clearly after that, it was not something that you needed to do.
Kevin Spacey: No. The way things happened for me was I really focused on film. But really it’s “Wiseguy” that kind of got me film, because Bryan Singer and Chris McQuarrie wrote “Usual Suspects” for me because they had fallen in love with the character on “Wiseguy.” In a weird way that show had similar aspects to this one in that because they were doing story arcs, it was like doing a mini-series within a maxi-series. So it sort of fits in to this particular wheelhouse because there is an arc going that me and David know where it’s going for 26 (episodes). We could get a third season, but we don’t know yet. But it doesn’t feel episodic in that for me it feels like I’m doing a really long movie. And that first experience of doing “Wiseguy” felt that way as well. It was like doing an arc of something in the way in which we worked with the writers and the way in which they took suggestions as I was beginning to discover what that character was. It was really delightful and it’s been a very similar feeling here of I’ve recognized the advantage that I’m in, where a lot of actors that I’ve talked to are doing series where they’ll get a pilot and then maybe an order of four or maybe six, and then they don”t know and then they wait. And then if they get good enough ratings then they might get another order of four or six.
To be able to have the luxury of 26 is pretty remarkable. Simply artistically, from the perspective of knowing how that arc is going to go has just been incredible.
What made you interested in doing this now at this point in your career?
Kevin Spacey: Fincher. When we were on the set of “Social Network,” which I produced and David brilliantly directed, we started talking about when we worked together again as actor and director and this idea started to gel. We both loved the original series; thought it was diabolical and fun, and naughty. And also strangely because I was about to walk in to doing “Richard III,” which this character was largely based on. I was like, well, this is kind of an interesting transition to go from actually doing Richard III to playing this role that’s been somewhat based on it. Yeah, it all starts with Fincher and then, you know, you just keep adding on the positives. There really hasn’t been any cons to the whole idea or experience, or frankly now the actual shooting of it. It’s been incredible.
As you know, I haven’t done a series of this length before. So that took some getting used to because I’ve never shot a film that lasted as many days as I was working on this one. But it’s because it’s this thing where it’s moving forward, I haven’t gotten bored or restless.
Have you felt over the course of this like you understand Francis better now than you did when you started and maybe your performance has grown as a result?
Kevin Spacey: Yeah, and I think that my performance is perhaps also influenced Beau in terms of where he wants to go and things he wants to explore. But look, there’s a lot I don’t know. Big chunks of things and certain things that, yes, that’s true and that’s not true about him, but there’s all kinds of places that we’re going to go that I don’t know yet. That’s kind of exciting.
Where did the little southern lilt to your voice come from? Was that you? Was that Fincher? Was that Bo?
Kevin Spacey: It was Beau entirely making a decision about where to place Francis in terms of where he was born and how he would sound. And some of that came out of our concern -you listen to the way in which Ian Richardson spoke, and there’s a kind of lilt to the British accent, there’s a kind of rhythm and it’s got a musicality. How would those lines that we were deciding to pay homage to from the original, how would those sound coming out of an American? And ultimately, Beau went, “Maybe southern.” Bo’s father is from South Carolina. So I think he called his dad and asked his dad to say a couple of lines and his dad said them and Beau though, “Oh actually, rhythmically that kind of works.” So that’s the reason that he ended up putting him in South Carolina.
And does that wind up helping in those moments where you turn to the camera and are addressing us? Sometimes, it”s almost practically in mid-sentence.
Kevin Spacey: I love breaking fourth wall. And yeah, I think rhythmically it does help. You can get away with lines of dialogue that Bo’s written that are quite wonderful and have a kind of southern lilt to them where, yeah, that could have worked with a British person, but I’m not sure it would have worked if I was speaking in southern California or a more typical American accent.
So, is Francis basically only out for Francis, or is there some core of public service, greater good within him even now?
Kevin Spacey: Well, I definitely think that no one even as selfish as they might come across who was driven by their own ambitious as they might come across is really out only for themselves. I think that there are – that’s what makes it complex. It’s not just one thing. And if it was, it wouldn”t be interesting to watch. It’s about relationships and figuring out how people work and figuring out, you know, Francis is very keyed to teeing something up and predicting how someone will respond. And that’s a very interesting quality to have as a person. And I think that the whole notion of bad for a greater good is an interesting notion. You know, it’s like Lyndon Johnson. People are looking at him now in a different way than they did then. They’re saying he was an incredibly effective president but at the same time he was a ruthless motherfucker. So that’s an interesting question for an audience to grapple with, which is does the end justify the means? Is that the right thing to do? It’s going to be very interesting.
You’ve played villains in films before. You’ve played protagonists before. Francis is both a protagonist and has certain sort of villainous qualities to him. But I assume you don’t view it that way or you certainly can’t play it that way because in his mind, he”s right.
Kevin Spacey: Yeah, you can’t. Sometimes people are asking me, “How do you feel about your character?” I’m just like, it’s not my job to sit in judgment and it’s not my job to take a moral stand on it. It’s my job to play it as openly and honestly as I can, and let the chips fall where they may and let an audience make up those decisions.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com