His early career was driven by manic intensity. Some nights it got so bad he couldn’t sleep. He wanted fame so much he’d do stand-up comedy at midnight in bowling alleys. Even after hitting mainstream success in American Beauty, he chose not to cash in but to move to London to head up the Old Vic – and save the theatre from collapse. At the time he predicted, “The British are going to s*** on me and then later they’re going to go, ‘Oh we love you, we always loved you, and we always knew we were going to love you, and we’re so glad you came.’” Almost entirely accurate, I say.
“I had spent about three and a half years researching theatrical beginnings in Great Britain – everybody derided Sam Wanamaker’s plans for the Globe, and even Olivier had his critics,” he laughs. “But eventually people will realise that I’m still coming to work every day.”
The Old Vic also taught him plenty about the business – when he signed the deal with Netflix, he calculated they only needed 565,000 subscribers to pay for the show. His Trigger Street productions – named after a theatre he dreamed of setting up when he was at school with Val Kilmer – now produces the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey, Captain Phillips, The Social Network and Horrible Bosses. He likes to be in control.
“I’ve had the experience in film where you see the first cut, and you know you made a better movie than that,” he explains. “You tell them, ‘We’re going to get killed,’ but they come back and say, ‘Oh, we tested it in Burbank and the numbers were good.’ And then the movie opens and you get completely killed. So it’s much better to understand the numbers and be in control of the final product.”
He plans to stay on in the UK when his tenure’s finished this year – “It’s my home, why would I want to get away?” he pauses. “I’m lucky, I get to go away and have other adventures but I do love it and there’s nothing about it that I don’t like – even the weather.”
Towards the end of the interview, the conversation drifts towards the chances of his doing any further television once the Old Vic is done and for a minute he’s channelling Underwood – “You’re asking me a hypothetical question I couldn’t possibly answer.” As the storyline in season three builds towards an election is 2016, it’s tempting to ask Spacey – best buds with the Clintons – what he thinks will happen in the real-world US election.
He sounds slightly incredulous. “You’re asking me to talk to you about something that hasn’t happened yet?” Or your hopes for it… “My hopes for it?” he pauses, as if toying with me. “I don’t know what you mean. Are you asking me, do I hope a Democrat gets elected in 2016? Yes.” Do you think it will be Hillary? “I have no idea.” He’s exasperated. “I can’t answer any more hypothetical questions for you, I’m sorry.”
To pull it back, I ask if Woody Allen got back to him after the Netflix gift. He warms up again. “Yes.” Pleasure beams from him. “He wrote me a very lovely letter back and he thanked me for the Netflix subscription and said he would absolutely consider me. I’m ambitious in different ways than I was when I started out – but there things like that… there’s any number of things that I may discover on this road, but it’s a wide open road and it’s very exciting to be on it.”