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Superman Returns Swingshot Figure

MONDAY, JUNE 12, 2006


LOS ANGELES -- The Continuum continues its series of stories from the Superman Returns junket on Friday.

This installment is a roundtable question-and-answer with Kevin Spacey, who plays Lex Luthor.

Below is an edited transcription of the interview.

Question: Obviously it's best to play the villain in these things, right? They're the most fun.

Spacey: You know, I had a blast. It's such an iconic part.

Question: So how do you turn an iconic character into your own and not make him Gene Hackman-ish?

Spacey: Don't watch Gene Hackman. (laughs)

First rule. Trust your director, which I do implicitly. In a sense, when Bryan (Singer) first started talking to me about it - about a year before I got offered the part - he always said that it was going to be darker, it's going to be bitter, it's going to be a Lex out for revenge.

I took the role on before I read the script, and when I started to see the script I saw exactly what they were doing in terms of shaping the storyline and the character. Then on the set there was a lot of honing, and discussions about what line was exactly right. What helps this, what makes that funny. It was just a complete blast.

When you have the experience I had with Bryan 10 years ago (on The Usual Suspects), he's the same man that he was then. It was like a day hadn't gone by with us. We just have a language. It gives you such confidence as an actor to work with a director who is so absolutely clear about what his vision is, and what a scene should be about, and how to approach it.

You just try to give him as many different colors as possible, then hopefully he cuts it together in a way that's good.

Question: You're also involved in the Old Vic Theater in London.

Spacey: I am full-time involved in the Old Vic.

Question: Was it hard to balance those duties with taking on this big movie?

Spacey: No, not at all. The balance for me, last year I was on stage 41 weeks in three different plays, and I made Superman for six weeks. The balance for me is exactly right.

Question: You say you were on the Superman set for six weeks. How hard is that for you as an actor to to get all that work done so quickly?

Spacey: I love it. That's actually the best way to do it. The worst way to do it is when you're on a movie for thre or four months and you have 20 days where you don't work, or 10 days where you don't work.

What was great about this experience was that Bryan had arranged the schedule because of my commitment to the Vic. I took a six-week leave from The Philladelphia Story, and another director took over the role because I wasn't playing the lead, and Bryan said to me, "I'm going to work you like a dog, and I'm going to work you up until the last moment." And he did, because I was due back on stage. We had sold tickets, so I had to get on that plane. He worked me until 8:45 on a Friday night, and I was on a 10:15 plane back to London, then I was on stage the next night.

Question: What play was that?

Spacey: We were doing Philadelphia Story.

Question: Oh you went back to do more?

Spacey: Yeah, I went back to do more Phildelphia Story, but this time with a wig because... I had no hair.

Question: Is it true that Bryan mentioned Superman to you on the set of The Usual Suspects? I thought I read once that he had mentioned it to you even back then.

Spacey: He might have. If he did I don't recall it. What I do know is that we had some kind of conversation when I went in to meet Tim Burton 10 or 11 years ago, when Tim was going to do it. Apparently, Tim wanted me to play the Lex Luthor part. But it was an entirely different script. I never read the script, but apparently an entirely different scenario. I think it was Nick Cage.

Question: Yeah, Superman Reborn.

Spacey: Anyway, that didn't get made. (laughs)

I remember we had a conversation then about it. I think it's then that I remember Bryan saying "Oh, what an incredible thing that would be." He was always such a huge fan of the genre of the comic book, and had such respect for it. In a way I think it's great. They all approached it with a certain reverence for the Donner films, a complete respect for the fan base, and although I haven't seen the film, I think that it probably has an feeling of enormous homage to that style.

Question: What're your feelings on Superman? Were you a fan growing up?

Spacey: You know, as a kid I was more into model cars and rockets and stuff. I wasn't a comic book reader. I just never was into it that way. I have a vague memory of the TV series in reruns, the original series. Then I remember when the first Donner film came out. We all went down to the Westwood theater on a Friday night and we were going to see Brando. We were all actors in drama class, and were like, "Let's go see Brando! Cool! He's gonna be in Superman!"

Question: Do you see this as a classic kind of a role?

Spacey: Yeah, and I think that's probably one of the reasons why I didn't want to watch the Donner films again. I'd just played Richard II at the Old Vic, and there are film performances and recordings of (John) Gielgud doing Richard II and I just absolutely avoided them because you have to approach it in your own way. In the same way that we love to see actors take on similar parts. How many actors have played Hamlet? How many actors have played Richard III? That's part of the joy, is to see how a different actor will approach something. So I just kind of avoided it.

But yeah, it's absolutely iconic, and a lot of fun, and I always hoped that the performance in the movie would have as much humor as I think that kind of role offers.

Question: What has having the Old Vic experience re-taught you about film acting, if at all?

Spacey: I think that there's no doubt in my mind that I have to credit the theater experiences that I've had. What I've learned from working in theater, and continue to learn in working in the theater, in terms of how I'm able to bring that to film.

In the theater, not just in the course of rehearsal, but night after night after night, the ritual of getting up, you learn about arc. You learn about telling a story over two and a half hours. If you haven't had that experience, I think it's much harder in a film situation to figure out how to create an arc in a very crazy shooting schedule.

The honest truth is, and to some degree the frustration as an actor in movies, is that you never get to play the whole part. You never play the whole part. You play this and that, and that, and that.

It's what theater trains you and teaches you about how to give a performance. So when you walk on a film set, when you're working on a script - if I was able to play this part, obviously being directed by somebody who I trust as much as Bryan, how do you create it so that when they cut it all together it's going to have an arc to it?

I mean, look - how many movies do we go to and we see actors who must've shown up on that day, and must have thought that they had the right energy, and they must've thought that it was all going well, but when they cut it together it's like a flat line. They're playing the same thing in every single scene. The same kind of energy, whether it's anger or whatever.

In the theater you learn through what it's like to stand in front of an audience. They're going to tell you very quickly whether you're holding them or whether you're not holding them. Whether they're absolutely attentive and following the story and it's clear, or whether it's not. I've always believed that the work I've been able to do in the theater has had a huge effect on what I've done in film.

Question: What was your reaction when you first saw Brandon in the suit?

Spacey: "There's Superman." Actually, when I first arrived on the set in Sydney they were shooting. I came over to the set to visit Bryan and Brandon was walking out of the Daily Planet dressed as Superman, and I just went "Oh fuck. There's Superman."

Question: Is it true you tormented him on the set?

Spacey: I did torment him.

Question: What kind of things did you do?

Spacey: You know when you're on movie sets, they give you a golf cart so you can drive around in a golf cart to get from one stage to the other. I had my golf cart kind of souped-up. I had Kryptonite stripes put on the side, and I had a big Superman logo on the front with an X through it. It was called the Super-Buster. Then we tied a Superman doll on the back with a chain, so I just dragged it around.

So, on rainy days it was a mess. By the end of the shoot it was just a little ball, a mess with a cape. Then I had a bullhorn, and I used to scream through the bullhorn "Superman must die!"

I remember driving back from the stage and Brandon was coming out of his trailer and he hadn't seen this yet. "Superman must die!" (laughs)

Question: How did he react?

Spacey: "Oh, I'm so screwed!"

Question: Have they told you to set aside certain months in 2007 for the sequel?

Spacey: No. I think they're going to wait and see how this one does, then make a decision about whether they're going to go from there.

Question: Where do you take the character next as an actor?

Spacey: I don't know. The good news is that I don't have to think about that. The good news is that if it's Bryan and the writers who wored on this, I have absolute faith.

The truth is that they may well have already thought about the life of it after this. If they have, they haven't revealed any secrets to me. When you're fortunate enough to have a director like Bryan and writers like that, you just sort of put yourself in their hands and say "Hey guys, whatever do you want me to do."

Question: Do you ever improvise at all?

Spacey: Yeah, there's some improvisation that goes on. I couldn't pinpoint - because I haven't seen the movie yet - what survived. There's times where you're throwing stuff in, and times where Bryan will say, "Just try something." And weird things just happen. When the camera's rolling, you just try something and something just comes to you. Because everyone was so specific and wanted to make sure that we took care of story and character and stuff, there wasn't a whole lot of it going on, but we certainly had fun.

Question: How does your work at the Old Vic impact on your movie career? Do you just kind of play it by ear and figure out schedules?

Spacey: The truth is that my full-time commitment, no matter where I am, is to the Old Vic. If a movie comes along that works within a pre-existing schedule at the Old Vic ... if we've announced a play and announced a slot that we're doing a play, then I'm committed. Movies come second.

Question: The scene where you scream out "Wrong!" How many takes did you do on that?

Spacey: I suspect that that was probably an afternoon of yelling. But we also did it very quietly. You always have to try to not end up giving a director only one choice in editing. Sometimes you end up in editing and you think, "Oh God, did he ever not do it that way?"

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