Movies: Isn’t He Romantic?

“Heather Graham,” whispers Kevin Spacey, his hands cupped around his mouth. He spears another forkful of steak and fries. “She’s got a boyfriend. I don’t want to say it too loud.

Spacey is tossing off names of other people’s wives and girlfriends he’d like to snuggle up to – onscreen, naturally. “I’d love to do something with Nicole,” he continues. “I’d love to do something with Cate Blanchett, because she’s just dazzling, and she’s got that – well you know, she’s no pushover. Oh man, there’s a huge list of …” He pauses and stares serenely into space. “Yeah,” he suddenly exclaims. “The next ten years are going to be really fun!”

No one would ever dispute that Kevin Spacey is dripping with sex appeal. But it’s a dangerous kind of sensuality, a sensuality without heat; if the serpent in the Garden of Eden had a voice, surely it sounded something like his.

Yet if all goes as the actor hopes, American Beauty, which opens September 17, will liberate Spacey from the tyranny of his wily, shifty screen persona. In it, he plays Lester Burnham, who’s not a sociopath, a criminal, or even a miscreant of note but a deeply ordinary, frustrated husband; a dispensable employee; and an estranged father of a teenager. It’s a transitional role, the sort of track-jumper that Jim Carrey attempted with The Truman Show in order to remove himself from the funny-face-and-fart-jokes ghetto.

“I had this great run at playing characters who were very manipulative, dark and secretive,” explains Spacey, who turned 40 in July. “So I’ve been trying, over the last couple of years, to take a gradual turn away from that, because I don’t believe you can do it fast and do it credibly.”

Did it work for Carrey? The jury is still out. Will it work for Spacey? He seems pretty confident it will. “Hell,” he says with gusto, taking a sip of Chablis, “I’m zeroing in on the Great Romantic Comedy. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Actually, Spacey has always been capable of playing more than just schemers, torturers, and exquisite creeps. The world merely discovered him late, more than a decade after he’d started his career, so it came to associate him with the gallery of delectable villains he played onscreen – particularly Keyser Soze, the yarn-spinning gimp from The Usual Suspects. But Spacey had already had considerable stage experience by the time he slinked away with his Academy Award. In 1986, he played Jamie Tyrone, tortured alcoholic son of a matinee idol, in an acclaimed Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In 1991, he won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Uncle Louie, petty hood and unlikely protector of two young boys, in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers.

What has been true about Spacey – uncannily and almost inevitably true – is that his characters seem most at home in the company of other men. There were the real-estate hustlers of Glengarry Glen Ross. The perps of The Usual Suspects. The hard-boiled cops of The Negotiator and L.A. Confidential. The detectives of Seven. (Well, there was Gwyneth Paltrow, but her head wound up in a box.) In Swimming With Sharks, women were peripheral to Spacey’s character, because he was a womanizer. In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, they were really peripheral – his character was gay. Onstage, Spacey’s career started with Hurlyburly, an acidic play about four seriously misogynistic Hollywood cokeheads and their three tarts. His most recent stage turn was as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill’s drama about sixteen seriously deluded gin swillers and … their three tarts.

The climate of American Beauty is very different. There’s tract housing and minivans and a high-school gym. A great deal of the movie is shot in the bedroom, the dining room, and the kitchen – since when have we seen Kevin Spacey in pajamas? The characters are crosshatched with deep yearnings and desires: Lester lusts after the best friend of his teenage daughter; Lester’s wife, played with Stepford zeal by Annette Bening, lusts after the real-estate king of the neighborhood; the boy next door, a soulful videomaker, supplies pot to Lester and sleeps with his daughter; the boy’s father, a former Marine colonel, brims with hatred and urges too unbearable to name. And then there’s a moment – a critical and catastrophic moment – when amid all the sneaking around and clandestine fulfillment of dreams, Lester, Spacey’s character, is mistakenly perceived as gay.

These dynamics obviously do not add up to a Great Romantic Comedy. But they do add up to a spellbinding suburban parable, one that says a whole lot about love, the travails of midlife, and the currents that pulse just beneath the surface of America’s well-tended lawns. For this role, Spacey had to be far more physical, vulnerable, and emotional than he has ever been in films past. At one point, he crawls on top of his wife and tenderly plies her with kisses in a last-ditch effort to woo her back. At another, he tries in vain to compose himself in the presence of his daughter’s best friend – she has reduced him to jelly, to awkward stares and half sentences and giddy fantasies.

“I was looking for somebody who could create a contemporary Everyman figure,” says Sam Mendes, the Broadway and West End maverick who makes his film-directing debut with Beauty. “A Jack Lemmon from The Apartment. Someone who was invisible in an office and could walk through the street without your thinking about him twice, but could also transform himself into someone much more magnetic by the second half of the movie.”

The warmth and tenderness required of Spacey in this role, adds Mendes, wasn’t much of a stretch. “You can see how comfortable he is with women and heterosexuality,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “And anyone being surprised that he can play a love scene – he probably thinks, ‘I’ve been acting for twenty years – of course I can do that.’ “

At the Brasserie Americaine, which sits across the street from Juilliard, Spacey’s almost-alma mater (he dropped out after year three), the actor and I raise our glasses to make a toast. He stops me before I can take a sip – “uh-uh-ah!” – and instructs: “Look into my eyes. You’re supposed to look into the person’s eyes. Otherwise, that’s bad luck.”

They’re beautiful eyes – the color of overdiluted coffee, at least in the glare of the sun – but this is not an invitation to peer inward and get personal. Though Spacey is repositioning himself for roles intended for Hugh Grant, the cuddly accessibility required of these characters is notably absent from most of this conversation. Of course, Spacey has good reason to be leery: The press began openly speculating about his sexuality two years ago, and that’s a step most citizens, public or not, would consider a serious border violation. The problem is that the dénouement of American Beauty turns on the question of Lester Burnham’s sexuality – an issue that can’t possibly have been lost on Spacey when he took on the role. So it seems reasonable to ask: Is he toying with his image? “I would not manipulate my audiences in that way,” says Spacey, very solemnly.

In fact, Spacey rejects a number of tempting parallels between American Beauty and his real life. He doesn’t see much of his own father in Lester Burnham, for example, even though both were restless creatures who could never bring themselves to become company men. (Spacey’s father, a writer of technical-procedure manuals, longed secretly to be a novelist and spent a great deal of time moving his family around Southern California in search of employment.) “I don’t think my father was unhappy,” says Spacey. “And I don’t think I would have been any better in my own father’s shoes, either.”

Nor does Spacey see much of his younger self in the drug-dealing, super-alienated teenager next door, even though both were sensitive artistic kids who got thrown out of military school (in Spacey’s case, for clocking a kid with a tire). “I was a little fuckin’ terror,” he says.

And the actor certainly doesn’t share the same dim domestic outlook of American Beauty, which makes marriage seem like a citadel of unbearable selfishness, loneliness, and resentment. “My parents were married for 46 years – happily married,” says Spacey. “Most of the examples of relationships in my life, whether married or not, have been very healthy.”

He would even consider getting married himself, to one person in particular, though Spacey won’t say whom, and it’s certainly not a given. “I know people who are together and have kids – straight people together, gay people together,” he says. “I think marriage – that’s just a question of whether you want that bond, that union, those vows. It doesn’t make the others who choose not to get married less of a family or less capable of raising a good family and good kids. So, marriage is … yeah, it’s something I … believe in. I’ll just have to see.”

And does Spacey want children too – even though the film implies they’re doomed to live in terminal estrangement from the people who raise them?

“Definitely,” he says, adding that he would raise them in New York, where he lives now. (The West Village, for the moment.)

But based on a very tantalizing declaration Spacey makes early on in our discussion, it seems clear that he must feel some special kinship with Lester Burnham. “My friends who’ve seen this movie,” he says, “have commented that they’ve never seen so much of me in a film.”

In what way?

“I really don’t know,” he says at first. “They don’t see me the way I see me.”

Then he reconsiders. “My personal identification with the character is wanting to break out and do something new,” he decides. “And to be perceived differently. ‘Look closer’ is the theme of this movie. It’s about perception, and how wrong it can be.”

But here’s a question: How will we, the audience, readily sympathize with Spacey in the upcoming nice-guy phase of his film career when we’ve grown to love him so much as a rogue? Why would we accept him in roles made for Hugh Grant any more than audiences of 40 years ago would accept James Mason in roles intended for Cary Grant?

Spacey can at least offer a theory about why we’ll open our hearts to Lester in American Beauty: Within the first five minutes of the film, we see him whacking off in the shower. “There’s a certain risk of humiliation there,” he notes. “It’s a private moment, something that everyone has done.” (Just for the hell of it, I ask him how simulated that scene was. “Well,” he deadpans, “the first one or the second one?”)

For one upcoming project, we’ll have to open our hearts to him even more. He’s working on – you guessed it – a Great Romantic Comedy. “I’ve found it,” he says. “I know exactly what I’m going to do.”

He won’t reveal what the project is.

“But I can say it’s the one I’ve been waiting for for a long time,” he says, grinning. “It’s very, very funny, it’s very sexy, and it’s very romantic. And I fall in love in the end.”

Movies: Isn’t He Romantic?