Now available online, on VOD, and in select theaters is director Jeremy Whelehan’s NOW: in the Wings on a World Stage. The documentary is a great behind-the-scenes look at what Kevin Spacey, Sam Mendes and the Bridge Project Company did with Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Richard III. If you’re not aware, the company performed the show over 200 times and traveled across three continents. The film encompasses the entire company from rehearsal to spending a year on the road together while trying to absorb the different cultures and countries they visited. If you want to see what it’s like to travel the world performing Shakespeare with an all-star group, you should absolutely check this out.
Last week in Los Angeles, I landed an exclusive interview with Kevin Spacey. He talked about the challenge of playing Richard, what it was like being in almost all the scenes, the experience of work shopping with Sam Mendes and finding the character, how his House of Cards character Francis Underwood was based on Richard III, what it was like performing in Greece in front of 14,000 people, how this is his final year as artistic director of The Old Vic and what’s coming up there, how long House of Cards can continue, returning for Horrible Bosses 2, and a lot more. Hit the jump to watch the NOW trailer and for the interview.
KEVIN SPACEY: I don’t really know. I can tell you that it wasn’t really—a couple of clues came my way of what I might be getting myself into when I sat down with a number of actors who had played Richard III in the past. And I was hoping of course, that one of them or all of them were gonna give me the magic key, the secret way in to play Richard III but none of them did that. But every one of them did say the following, “Be careful.” And I was like, “What do you mean ‘be careful?’” So, I threw my neck out, my back went out, my thing went out, the longest fucking role…
I can honestly say to you that I didn’t really know what I’d gotten myself into until the first preview. And the first preview, every one of the members of the company Richard III will say that they thought I was going to have a heart attack. Because I’d literally would come off stage and I would have absolutely no idea what was next. I didn’t know literally what was next, I didn’t know what the next scene was. Because even though we’d sort of done it in the rehearsal room but when you get into theater, then you spend five days doing tech and it all gets sort of pulled apart again, putting it back together was this gigantic realization of, “Oh my fucking god.” It started to get a little better after, probably took me about a week before I started to sort of, “Ah.”
And then you start to learn how to pace it, and then you start to learn what energy it requires and where you can sort of pull back and where you can sort of begin at this level rather than this level. That took a while. The thing that was also sort of, I guess, maybe a factor in what made it possible to do was that we were constantly being thrown into new situations. It wasn’t that I was doing a play night after night, in the same theater, in the same theater. We were facing a new theater, a new audience, or often a country where English wasn’t the first language. And all of those things sort of kept making it kind of a new experience.
Every time we’d end up in a new city it was like, “Oh we’re in a new place. Oh these doors don’t work.” I mean, literally the hilarity of where sets were on a theater proscenium, that door wouldn’t work in one city but in another city it worked. And that door didn’t work in that city but it did in a different one, and you’d always forget. So, you’d watch actors trying exit and they’d have to try three doors before they found one they would easily get off stage. I think maybe the fact that it was kind of new and fresh as we went around in these twelve cities around the world constantly, is also what helped it be something that we could do and that never sort of lost its energy or its attack.
You were the center of this production. How did you maintain the place three hours, what did you do vocally to get ready for this? You’re giving more of your voice than even a rockstar. Also, what happens if you get sick?
SPACEY: Well, I had an understudy named Andrew Long, who played the brother of Richard in the play. I guess I’ve been training in the theater for as long as I can remember. In terms of vocally, there is a demand on your voice, it depends on how good the theater that you’re in is vocally. And some of the theaters were brilliant and some of the theaters were terrible. But every night I would do a vocal warmup, every night I’d do a physical warmup. So you go out on stage, let’s say an hour and a half before the show’s gonna begin and you do lots of vocal work.
Essentially, your voice is an instrument, it’s a muscle and you have to treat it like a muscle and so you have to work it. Although, I must say I did love—one of our actors, Stevie Lee Anderson—his warmup was this, he’d walk out on stage—we’d all be out there doing “hummm,” we’d be doing Shakespearean stuff or Gilbert and Sullivan stuff or whatever. He’d walk out on stage and go, “Taxi! Yeah it’s still here.” That’s his whole warm up, that was it.
You obviously workshopped this extensively with Sam Mendes. Was it ever a version that came close to going? Sometimes you can be right on the cusp of going left or right. Was there ever a decision that came close to going another way?
SPACEY: I suppose that the process that Sam put us through, you try it so many different ways. Sam puts all these rugs over the floor and all these sort of bean bag chairs and chairs and tables and things, so that whatever you wanna grab, “I want to do this scene, I want to have this. Let me just sit here, let me try this.” And Sam would have us do the scene really close together and then he’d have us do the scene really far apart. Then he’d have characters that you refer to but who aren’t in the scene, in the scene just to see what happens to you if you’re looking at them. Then they’d go away. So over that process of six weeks, there were so many experiments that you never feel a gun is to your head and you have to make a decision immediately. You don’t really start making decisions until you start to put the play together.
You’ve basically explored lots of choices and you have a lot of choices in front of you and then Sam will be the one who will say, “You know, you’ve been doing it this way for a while, this particular line. I actually think, why don’t you try it this way?” And that will open up an avenue that will take you somewhere else and that by the way, never stops. That’s one of the great things about the theater, no matter how good I might be in a movie, I’ll never be any better. But in the theater, I can be better and it constantly changes.
People sometimes say, “Isn’t it boring, isn’t it always the same? It’s the same lines.” I go, “Well, do you play tennis? Because that’s the best analogy I can give.” If you go out eight times and play tennis eight times this week, yeah it’s the same rules but it’s a different game every time you’re out on that court. You’re working on a different part of your game every time you’re out on that court, your partner’s working on a different part of their game and the act of being watched changes it. If you go out and play tennis with two of your friends and it’s just the two of you and you’re playing that’s one kind of game. You go and play tennis and fifteen of your friends come with sandwiches and beer and they watch you play, that’s a very different kind of game. And that’s the best analogy I can come up with the theater.
It is alive, it is constantly changing. You are not just, “This is the way I play it every night.” You are constantly finding new ways in, new attacks, “I want to try it this way. Maybe this scene is affecting that scene. I want to attack this scene differently.” And your playing partners are growing and changing and you have to respond to what’s actually happening, not what they were playing four weeks ago, what they’re playing now at this moment. It’s why I call the movie Now, it’s what theater is, it’s now but it’s not set in stone.
One of the interesting things about Richard is that he talks to the audience and I’m also making a connection to Frank Underwood (House of Cards). Can you talk about that aspect and how much fun is it to be able to talk to the audience?
SPACEY: The connection is that Francis Underwood was entirely based on Richard III. When Michael Dobbs wrote House of Cards in the original British series, Richard III is what he based the character on. That’s why the direct address happens. I know some people think Ferris Bueller created the direct address but he didn’t, it’s actually in Shakespeare. And that’s why in Richard III he created that device where Richard breaks the fourth wall, talks directly to the audience, makes them his co-conspirators. And what was so odd and sort of amazingly fortuitous was that a month after I closed Richard III, I was shooting my first direct address in House of Cards.
The memory of that experience of going around the world, over 200 performances, looking into the eyes of audiences everywhere and seeing what that relationship meant to them, how they loved being co-conspirators, it was like naughty and they loved it, it was awesome. I can’t tell you how much that helped me know what to do in the direct addresses in House of Cards because I’m just looking down the barrel of a lens, I don’t have peoples’ eyes to look into. I had to slightly adjusted in that—now I think of it as I’m talking to my best friend who I trust more than anyone, even more than my wife. That’s kind of what I’m doing but it’s the memory of that relationship between partly performer and audience and partly character and viewer that has really informed House of Cards.
SPACEY: Well, the first time I was in that theater was when in our first year the Bridge Project, Simon Russell Beale was doing The Winter’s Tale and I sat in the audience with Sam watching this performance and just thinking, “We have to play here, we have to bring whatever play.” At that point we didn’t even know it was going to be Richard III but I thought, “Whatever play I do, we have to come here.” It’s where it all started. I mean, I made a joke, “If they hadn’t built this theater none of us would have jobs because this is where theater began.”
There was something so—it was as epic an experience as I’ve ever had because I remember the first night, it’s very different playing in rehearsal to an empty theater than the opening night where suddenly 14,000 people were sitting on these ancient steps. I remember I had to run out, sit in a chair and I was like this, my head was down and then the lights came up and I had to look up and I literally just saw a wall of human beings, literally as high and as far as you could see. I remember that for the next half an hour, I think I was breathing for four people because it was so massive and I so wasn’t sure how to play that house.
It took me two performances to learn how to play that theater. The third performance—I’m so glad we stayed for three—the third performance for all of us just ignited and it was, we learned what to do, we learned how much voice we needed to put out there. Because there’s no amplifications, there’s no microphones, the human voice just carries. And I had some people that had come one night and sat that close and the next night they went up and they sat all the way up in the back and they said they could hear better up there than they did down there. It’s an experience I will never forget. We played to more people there in three nights than we did our entire run at The Old Vic.
SPACEY: I will only tease you in this sense that next year is my final year as artistic director and I will be back up on stage but we have not announced in what yet. But I’m about to go do a one-man show for two weeks at The Old Vic to celebrate my tenth anniversary as artistic director and I’m gonna play Clarence Darrow in this wonderful play by David Rintals that Henry Fonda created in the 1970‘s and then later on, I think Leslie Nielsen did here in the United States. It’s a terrific play about whom many people call the father of the legal profession in the United States, the lawyer who was the great Scopes Monkey Trial and the Leopold and Loeb case, and he tried some of the most extraordinary, sensational cases in this country. But also is a great labor lawyer and won the eight-hour day for the American worker. So, quite an important figure.
I know you’re getting ready to shoot Season 3 of House of Cards. Do you think the third is the last or do you think you can go further?
SPACEY: You don’t see Pope Francis? I think Presidency is one thing but Pope, I think we can go on for years.
It’s just so incredibly done on every level.
SPACEY: The truth is, as long as Beau Willimon, David Fincher and I, and our creators feel that there is fertile ground to explore, I see no reason why we can’t stick around for a while.
SPACEY: I think it is a little bit crazier. I’m very glad that almost everybody is back for it and I so love working with Jason and Jason and Charlie because being opposite them in a scene when they’re riffing and they’re improv-ing and they’re trying different ways to do scenes, it is the hardest thing in the world not to absolutely lose your cookies. We spend most of our time laughing and any time somebody wants to pay me to come and laugh all day long, I’m there.
Jason Sudeikis had the whole place laughing during a press conference. I couldn’t imagine what he was like on set.
SPACEY: It’s like that, those guys that just are innately funny, they just are. Anything they say, they just go off and they’re so good at it. I love being around them, it’s just great.
For more on the film, visit Kevin Spacey’s website.