Los Angeles -- A good bad man is hard to find. Unless Kevin Spacey's in the general vicinity.
Brad Jenkel, a producer of the actor's directorial debut, "Albino Alligator," observes, "He plays guys who have this morality problem. They have this weird side to them. I guess that's what attracts him to them."
Mr. Spacey's breakthrough came in 1988, when he played Mel Profitt, a drug-addicted gunrunner involved with his own sister, on the cult TV series "Wiseguy." He won a Tony on Broadway in 1991 for playing the charismatic yet unreliable Uncle Louie in "Lost in Yonkers." From there, he essayed the venally banal middle manager of "Glengarry Glen Ross," the seductively hedonistic sociopath of "Consenting Adults," and one-half of the couple that doesn't let the fact that they've been taken hostage distract them from their bilious bickering in "The Ref."
And 1995 is shaping up as a career year for him: He continued his lively parade of dirtbags with the guilefully psychopathic movie studio executive fond of bellowing such things as "You're happy -- I hate that!" in this year's "Swimming With Sharks." He co-starred in his first blockbuster-type movie this year, "Outbreak," playing, in a twist, the character so likable it was obvious he was doomed.
He's also due to appear in a thriller-to-be-named-later in the fall, and will star in John Grisham's "A Time to Kill."
Now, however, the movie "The Usual Suspects," which opened Friday, is on the front burner. Mr. Spacey portrays the lame -- in a physical sense, that is -- con man Verbal Kint, alternately sniveling and tart-tongued, the only internationally feared crime lord. "I am a rat!" he insists repeatedly during an emotional interrogation (Chazz Palminteri is his sparring partner), as he jabbers on and on about his take on events.
Bryan Singer, director of "The Usual Suspects," says one of Mr. Spacey's strengths is that he doesn't really look the part he often plays.
"He looks kind of peevish and wimpy," Mr. Singer says. "Audiences feel sorry for him. But one second he can look terrifying and the next second he can look completely innocent. He's a smart actor."
Mr. Singer echoes the thoughts of many in the industry right about now: "He's very, very cool."
Got all that? Appreciate it while you can, because Mr. Spacey's acting career may soon be history.
On the set of his directorial debut, the darkly comic hostage thriller "Albino Alligator," Mr. Spacey looks like an action director. Not in the sense that John McTiernan is an action director, but in the sense that Jackson Pollock was an action painter.
He moves restlessly around his rehearsing actors, checking them out from every angle, finding the action, the emotional focus. During one shot, he abruptly abandons his playback monitor and slides up to the camera like a ballplayer stealing second. He zips around the room, conferring privately with actors, encouraging the cast and crew at large. "We've learned something here," he enthuses after a botched take.
"He's very special," offers Faye Dunaway, one of Mr. Spacey's stars. "He's got vigor and vitality and energy; he's articulate and intelligent. He knows how we work -- discussing work with him is like talking to a brother. He really has enhanced what's going on in every scene. He's done his homework in spades."
Producer Jenkel says, "I wonder if he'll ever act again, because he's such a great director. He has been enjoying this, he has truly been entertained by this. It's too bad, because he's such a great actor."
Mr. Spacey, after much prodding, confesses, "I have to say that acting pales to this experience."
Even though he had only bit parts in "Heartburn" and "Working Girl," Mr. Spacey credits their director, Mike Nichols, with helping him find his own director's voice and demeanor.
"I had to wink at Meryl Streep," Mr. Spacey recalls of his assignment in "Heartburn." Mike Nichols also "directed me [on Broadway] in 'Hurlyburly' -- I was the understudy, warming up in the bullpen every night for a different role. But Mike would let me come to the set, hang out and watch, even though I only had a few days' work; he was really great. I learned a lot about atmosphere on a set.
"Mike is the kind of director -- everyone wants to do a really good job for him. It's such a friendly, funny place, where good work can take place. That's a really great first lesson on a film, watching the way he dealt with problems, when he got frustrated, so that no one was mistreated, no one became the object of unfounded wrath.
"I've worked with screamers and they're boring," he continues. "Nobody wants to work hard for them. If no one wants to work hard for you and no one feels like they're part of the creative juice that runs the engine, then that's when mistakes are made, that's when people don't give a [expletive]. That's when it becomes a job."
Mr. Spacey also gives high marks to Mr. Singer and "Usual Suspects." "It's one of the few movies that I walked out of thinking, 'This is what cinema can do. This is what it's supposed to achieve.' "
Apart from the fairly ludicrous thriller "Consenting Adults," of which Mr. Spacey was considered the only redeeming feature, films he has been featured in have managed to have a strong measure of integrity, if not always box-office punch -- they'll be around awhile. Mr. Spacey pays acute attention to material, and he did even when he was a struggling actor and "Wiseguy" came calling.
"I was so resistant to it," he recalls. "I was theater -- arrogant, you know how it is: 'Series, I'm not going to do a series!' " (He narrows his eyes and adds in conspiratorial hushed tone, "I was lucky to get hired.")
"So I went on this audition, very cranky about it, didn't care about it, but the script was good. I went on a Thursday, and they asked me to do it that night. I turned it down. They couldn't believe I turned it down. I don't know if I came off as an arrogant pus or my arguments were legitimate about doing series work. . . .
"I called Jack Lemmon [Mr. Spacey and Mr. Lemmon starred in a Broadway production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in 1986]. I . . . was nervous about becoming this slick bad guy. Jack said, one reason why was that it was brand-new. He said there was" -- and here, Mr. Spacey does a spot-on imitation of Mr. Lemmon -- "a certain abandon to this whole [expletive] thing.
"That word abandon flew into my brain when I went to Vancouver [to shoot 'Wiseguy'], and that's what I did. I approached the role with complete abandon.
"People responded to that. When anything is just slightly left of center, it really pops out because most TV doesn't do that. It was just so darn bizarre."
Acting with abandon
Abandon. Mr. Spacey has made it his motto. On "Swimming With Sharks," which he also produced, Mr. Spacey poured a rare venom into his portrayal of a movie producer who terrorizes his personal assistant.
Nonetheless, that film failed to find an audience, as did "The Ref," which many had pegged as a sure-fire hit.
Mr. Spacey confesses to a certain amount of typecasting. "I was doing a phone interview a while back, one which I ended quickly," he recalls. "The guy says, 'So . . . you're just such a believable jerk. Are you trustworthy?' I said, 'Acting -- you ever heard of it?' "
Now Mr. Spacey must return his attention to "Albino Alligator." He recalls with a laugh the directorial advice a friend left on his answering machine:
"He said, 'Hope it's going well, but just remember John Ford's adage: "When the hero comes into town, [he moves] right to left. When the hero goes out of town, it's left to right." ' "
NB It's too soon to tell which direction Kevin Spacey is heading.