The actor muses on playing Lex Luthor, working with Bryan Singer again and acting with an almost total unkown as the Man of Steel
Lex Luthor is such an indelible character in the lore of Superman, that it makes sense that in a present day version of the film the actor playing him should be one who is an indelible part of the movie landscape.
Kevin Spacey really burst on to the scene playing Roger "Verbal" Kint in Bryan Singer's masterfully crafted, The Usual Suspects. He would go on to play characters like John Doe in Se7en and eventually garner himself a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Lester Burnham in American Beauty. Teaming up with Singer again as the director resurrected the Superman franchise seems like a no brainer, considering the rewards that their last collaboration reaped.
What was it like being bald for this film?
Kevin Spacey: I was bald before. When I did Se7en I was bald for a much briefer period of time. It's actually the easiest thing in the world. I'd shave it every day and then Tanya, the make-up artist, would make it look good. Because when you just are bald, it doesn't quite have that glean that they would add to it. It's funny, you can't stop touching it and other people can't stop touching it, that's the funny thing about being bald.
You worked with Bryan Singer very early on The Usual Suspects and now you worked with him on this film... have you seen his growth as a director?
Kevin Spacey: He's the same guy he was ten years ago. And it may well be that he has more money to play with and more toys to experiment with but it was like a day hadn't gone by. He was always then and he remains to me to this day, one of the handful of directors that I've worked with who is so specific about the way he sees something, whether it's a character or scene or because he has people living in his head, like an editor or composer and all these people are in his brain, he is able to make it so clear to you what he's going for and why he's going for it.
And I think to a large degree that's because he's always been interested in character. No matter what genre it is. The X-Men included. I accepted this movie without having seen the script because I completely trust Bryan. Everything that he talked about, what he wanted the character to be, what he wanted the movie to be, he's a man of his word. That is also a great thing that you can trust a director as much as I trust Bryan. When I'm in that position of trust then you go anywhere a director wants you to go. For, the huge bonus is that I think I'm a better actor when I'm directed than when I'm not. When I have to cover someone else's inability, I don't think I'm as good.
I love it when a director can carve me and say, "No, that's not right. Do that." You give them as many possible selections and choices in a scene as possible. They go and carve it up in editing and you just go, "Wow man, you used all best stuff. That's great." Whereas some people use all the worst stuff.
How do you play a character like Lex Luthor where over the top might not be big enough?
Kevin Spacey: I think to a large degree that's where the trust of a director comes in to play, because there's no question that Lex is a big, iconic almost theatrical character. There are times when you think, "Was that little over the top? Can they see the mugging from a helicopter?" The smart thing about Bryan is that he'll always make sure that he gets different variations. That he has one that's really big and one that's not quite as big. A smart director will make sure that in editing he's got choices. If you're Bryan than you've already cut the movie in your head to a certain degree, but it's only when you're in editing that you start to shape the performance. And that's based on multiple takes and multiple angles, and all of that plays a part in how a character will develop. Which is why at the end of the day, movies are not an actor's medium.
How do you approach the roles you play on a day to day basis?
Kevin Spacey: I think that my work in the theater has turned out to be very fortunate for the work I've done in movies. I had about twenty years of experience in the theater and I think that what theater teaches you, if you've only ever done film, is about arc and about character and even a story. I think that every time I do a play, the experience to be able to get up everyday in rehearsal or every night in performance, and play a full character from A to Z in two and half hours, teaches you when you walk on to a film set... you've got this crazy schedule, you never film in sequence, you're meeting the person playing whoever two seconds before you shoot... you rarely get rehearsal. I've learned, in a sense, how to prepare for those little things that will help tell the story.
That if this happens here... I think that it is the theater experience that I'm able to apply to film. So that I look at a whole script and I'm able to see how a character might arc. And ultimately stuff you do ends up on the floor, so their may be something missing... but ultimately it's the way you think about it. Movies are very strange experiences. You almost never, ever, ever get to play the whole part. I think my brain tries to adapt to that and I think of it that way, so when I'm showing up on this strange day where we're shooting this scene, before we shoot that one, I think it's been very helpful for me.
What was Brandon like? Did he need help as an actor?
Kevin Spacey: No. I always that the role of Superman should be played by an almost total unknown. I always thought that was the smartest choice. I remember when I met Tim Burton about eleven years ago, he was gonna make the movie, and at that time they were talking about famous actors playing the role and I always thought, it's a little bit like when Bryan was doing The Usual Suspects and he was offered more money in the budget if he recast me with a famous actor. Bryan was like, "No, the actor that plays Verbal can't be well known. He cannot have a persona." I've always felt the same thing about this role. A) I think it was the right choice, B) I think Brandon is a very good actor.
I think he's approached it incredibly well. I think Bryan's shaped him incredibly well. I think he's about as prepared as one can be with two feet on the ground for what's about to happen. Just in terms of being known. In terms of the wise old actor giving the young newbie some advice, he's gonna do fine.
What do you recall about seeing the first 1978 Superman?
Kevin Spacey: I remember all of us, I was in theater then, I remember all of us were very excited about Marlon Brando. Everyone was excited that Brando was gonna be in that movie. We all wondered, "What the heck was that hair about?" I remember we all came down to Westwood. Saw it on Friday night. Opening weekend and we just loved it. I had been unique in the sense that I'd seen Christopher Reeve in a play. This was the play that the producers saw him in that led to his screen-test for Superman. I kinda knew who he was.
I can't say that it had a great influence on me as an artist. It was great fun and I have enormous respect for Richard Donner. I think that that was one of those things that I knew going into this project with Bryan, was that he and writers really have enormous respect for the genre, for the fanbase, for the Donner films. And I think, though I have yet to see the whole thing, that there is a sense of homage to that film stylistically. I think as a sort of launch, that was a nice way to approach this project.
Superman Returns opens nationwide on June 28th, 2006.