Kevin Spacey's old-Hollywood values shape cutting-edge 'House of Cards'

NEW YORK — The green shoes.

That's what caught my eye as I sat down across from Kevin Spacey at the Regency Hotel last week and took a mental snapshot of his outfit before asking the first question.

Neat, gray pinstriped suit, with a charcoal shirt open at the collar — and green shoes.

And you know what? He made it work. Spacey looked great.

Unlike many film and TV stars, though, Spacey's appeal is far more than skin-deep. As much style as he has, the artistic and intellectual substance of Kevin Spacey is what impresses most.

The big Baltimore news out of our interview, which The Baltimore Sun reported last week, was Spacey saying "House of Cards" was coming back for a third season and that producers planned to continue filming here. (All 13 episodes of Season 2 arrive on Valentine's Day for on-demand streaming on Netflix.)

"We are enormously delighted to have our home in Baltimore," the 54-year-old two-time Academy Award winner said after praising the quality of the local production crew and the way he and his colleagues have been "so welcomed" while filming on locations in Maryland that stand in for our nation's capital.

But the real pleasure of the conversation was in listening to Spacey's vision for "House of Cards" and his explanation of how his depiction of a treacherous congressional leader in the mold of Lyndon Johnson is informed by his emulation of former Hollywood stars like his mentor, the late Jack Lemmon.

Even though Spacey is the face of a production that defines the new way TV is being made and watched today, he said his performance started with an appreciation of the past — in this case, the work of the late Ian Richardson, who starred in the original "House of Cards" for the BBC in 1990.That series, which was adapted from a book by Michael Dobson, featured Richardson's character talking directly to the audience, as Spacey's does in "House of Cards."

"What a great actor and performance," he said of Richardson as Francis Urquhardt, a wickedly manipulative leader in Parliament. "The great thing about the original series and Michael Dobson's book is that they were based on Shakespeare. The direct address is absolutely 'Richard III.' "

Spacey, who is also an executive producer on the series, said the creative team that included showrunner Beau Willimon and director David Fincher "tried in many ways in the first season to, in a sense, pay homage to that original series — the brilliance of it and how it was done."

But this season, "We kind of allowed ourselves to create our own thing, create our own characters who were going to be based on the original characters but could now go off in their own ways," he said.

Spacey declined to talk about specifics, saying, "Obviously, we have to be quite circumspect about anything that happens in any episodes, because we're living in a nonspoiler generation, which is pretty great — that people sort of get that, now that people are watching us at different times."

Spacey does like talking about the role "House of Cards" and Netflix are playing in the transformation of television to an online, on-demand model.

"Perhaps, we have demonstrated that we've learned a lesson that the music industry didn't learn," he said. "And that's give the people what they want, when they want it, in a form they want it in at a reasonable price, and chances are they'll buy it and not steal it."

TV is doing a much better job than feature films of reacting to societal change while delivering quality content, Spacey believes. And he takes pride in being part of that, a process he dates back to a seven-episode arc he played in 1988 in the CBS series "Wise Guy" as a mad arms dealer named Mel Profitt.

"The thing about that series is that it was almost a precursor to what eventually happened when 'The Sopranos' debuted on HBO in 1999, with stories that are arcs featuring complicated characters that develop over time," he said. "I did this arc of a character in what was sort of a miniseries within a maxi-series. And that kind of thing has now become the staple and the form of some very exciting work in character-driven drama on television."

The character of Underwood is one of the greatest challenges of his career, Spacey said, not just in the number of hours on screen but also the leadership role he plays in the Baltimore-based production.

"I've never been an actor in a movie that shot as many days as I'm shooting in this. So, yes, in that respect, it's a lot of work," he said.

"One of the most important things that got passed down to me by Jack Lemmon was that when you are playing such a central role in something, you have to understand that it's also a leadership role," he continued. "When I show up to work every day in Baltimore, I have to be at 100 percent. I have to have done my preparation. I have to be ready to go to work. I can never allow a crew member to see me nodding off in a director's chair. ... I take that role very seriously. And I love it."

If that sounds old-school, so be it, said Spacey.

"I look back at actors I grew up admiring, and I was not like my contemporaries," he said. "I wasn't really focused on the actors who were famous or well-known in my own time. I was growing up watching Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Bogart, Stewart and Betty Davis.

"And when you look at all of them, the one singular, common link that they all had to Jack Lemmon, who was so important to me, was that they all learned their craft in the living theater. … And they seemed to love what they did for a living — and they believed, absolutely believed, in the characters they were playing. To me, that seems to be one of the secrets of great acting."

From a serial killer in the feature film "Se7en" to an evil king who talks directly to the audience from the stage in "Richard III," Spacey has long been making audiences believe — even in characters frightening and strange.

That's the triumph of Spacey's Frank Underwood: For all his horrible acts, the actor makes him seem so perfectly believable as our man in Congress.