Kevin Spacey – Making a Bet on Casino Jack
by Jay S. Jacobs
Originally posted on December 21, 2010.
There is probably no one in the world more perfect to play disgraced conservative lobbyist Jack Abramoff than Kevin Spacey.
After all, Spacey has made something of a specialty of playing charming but ethically bankrupt types in films like American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, Seven and Glengarry Glen Ross.
Spacey is a consummate actor who put his film career on hold a few years ago when he took over as the head of the legendary OldVicTheater in London. In this time, Spacey has had to be very choosy about his film projects because of his limited time.
He jumped when he was approached by director George Hickenlooper (Factory Girl, Hearts of Darkness) to portray disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff in a true-life political comedy drama.
Spacey was no stranger to irreverent looks at recent political history – just a few years ago he starred in the terrific HBO film Recount about the controversial 2000 Bush-Gore election.
The new movie – originally called Bag Man, but now released as Casino Jack – took a jaded look at the political corruption that brought Abramoff down. However, upon meeting with the former lobbyist in jail, Hickenlooper and Spacey realized what a charming and funny man he was. Therefore a story which could be played as a dour civics lesson is instead a funny and over-the-top comedy of greed.
Unfortunately, director Hickenlooper died of a heart attack at 47 years old as the film’s promotion was just starting. It was a shocking blow, but Spacey is determined to make sure the director’s final project finds the audience it deserves.
Soon before the opening of Casino Jack, we met up with Spacey in a suite at the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss the movie, the loss of a friend and the comic subtext of politics.
How closely did you follow the Abramoff story before getting this role?
Not a lot. I was already living in London when it broke. I peripherally remember it, because I’ve always had a fascination for politics and have been involved in politics for some time. But I didn’t have, I’m sure, what it must have been in the US, because we have this quaint thing we call the 24-hour news cycle – which usually lasts for a week. So, I kind of remembered it, but not really…. After I met George and after we decided we wanted to make the film together, I found out that I might get the opportunity to meet [Abramoff]. I said, well, I’ll hold off on reading anything or going back and doing lots of research, because I didn’t want to meet him with lots of other people’s commentary in my head. Then I started the process of research after I met him.
What kind of research did you do into Orthodox Judaism?
As much as I could. I met with a couple of rabbis. Someone taught me how to do all the davening. I think I’m saying that right. I had to learn some of the Hebrew, because George wanted me to actually be saying it, but I think I’m relatively grateful that no one can really hear what I’m saying, because I’m sure I didn’t get it all right. That aspect of his character was so fascinating to me, because on the one hand he’s an extraordinarily devoted, religious man who believed in his faith. He consistently did it every single day. That was part of his routine and part of his life. Yet, he makes a bunch of misjudgments and crosses the line. And yet, maybe in his own head, the good things he was doing – and in his mind he was doing lots of good things, including giving lots and lots of money away to lots and lots of people who didn’t have it and needed it – justified the other things he was doing. It’s always interesting to find that, what you look at as a contradiction in someone’s behavior.
When you met Jack, what questions did you ask him?
I was mostly interested in the emotional terrain, because all the facts about the case… and look, he may have had his own agenda and may have been saying things a certain way – I knew I’d be able to vet lots of other people and figure out if he was being upfront with me or not. At the end of the day, I was just trying to figure out what was he going through and at what point – or was there any point – when he started to lose the forest for the trees. What you get a sense of and I think what we’re trying to illustrate in the film is that he was living in a culture and an environment in which lots of this shit is going down. Lots of people were selling access, and they still are. So then you sort of go: well – wow. But after meeting him and then meeting other people on his team – people that knew him, people that hated him, people that wanted him dead – I got a lot of different opinions on him. Then I started reading everything. All you have to do is Google his name, and it’s like: Fuck! I’m going to be here for weeks! And wow, was he made out to be the greediest devil incarnate that ever walked the face of the Earth. I thought, well that’s convenient for an industry that wants to pat itself on the back and say, “See we threw this bad man in jail and we’ve cleaned up our industry.” I think we just went through an election where more money was spent than at any other time in our country’s history. So that’s to me what was interesting about being able to play this guy. He’s symbolic of an environment and culture that’s still happening today.
Between this and Recount, you’ve done a couple of movies now about politics, very recent politics…
It is funny shit, isn’t it?
Do you consider yourself to be a political person?
Yeah, I’ve always been a political person. I admire politics. I think public service is one of the most extraordinary things that people can do. What I don’t admire is power and money and influence invading our political system and destroying the kind of respect that people should have for public service. As long as we force everybody who ever runs for office that what they really have to be spending their time doing is raising millions and millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars for TV ads – then we get what we ask for and it will always be corrupt. Want to clean up the corruption? Take the money out. But the TV networks won’t run ads for free. I got in trouble for suggesting that once.