For Kevin Spacey the release of Casino Jack must be bittersweet. On one hand it is a return to form for the actor, who has received much praise, and a Golden Globe nomination, for his work playing disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
On the other hand his director, George Hickenlooper, who passed away suddenly last October, isn’t around to bask in the acclaim the film is earning. “That Casino Jack turns out to be his last, the pride I feel in it—in his direction, his ideas and the final results—has soared,” said Spacey in a prepared statement.
In an interview taped a month before the director’s untimely death Spacey discussed playing Abramoff, a one-time Washington high flyer later convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy.
“I chose not to start my research about him until after I met him,” the actor told me. “But then, after we met I began the process of looking at a great deal of the material that had been written prior to, during and after his trial and conviction, and it was like, ‘Wow, they really made him out to be the devil incarnate.’ But then you look at Abramoff and you go, ‘OK, so wait a minute. He wasn’t buying houses. He wasn’t buying helicopters. He wasn’t buying limousines. He wasn’t taking fabulous vacations with his family. What was he doing?’ He was giving money away to people who needed it. He was trying to build a Hebrew school. He wasn’t even paying his own mortgage. So wait a minute, the greediest man in Washington DC wasn’t spending any of the money on himself!
“So how do you play that because it is certainly not black and white? Did he consider himself to be the Orthodox Robin Hood? What is that all about? That’s where you hope an audience can lead themselves to their own conclusions.”
Spacey, as one of the film’s producers—“When you are a producer on a film you actually have a voice that can be listened to,” he says—was in a unique position to help mold not only his performance but also the structure of the film to help people get a fully rounded portrait of Abramoff.
“It was an interesting process of putting the film together because once we shot it and I looked at the first cut of it I remembered thinking, ‘Recount [his award winning 2008 account of the 2000 U.S. presidential election and the subsequent recounts in Florida] began with an event; a voter in a voting booth on Election Day, voting. But there is no event in this film and I remember saying to George, ‘I know this is going to sound crazy to you but I think the event is Jack Abramoff and we have to start with him. And there is a scene that’s playing an hour and forty minutes into the movie that I think we should start the film with.’
“And that is why the film starts the way it does. It gave you him at the moment just before he was about to be indicted. I felt like that has to move up because otherwise it will take us too long to have any grip on him. We had to start the movie with a scene that makes you say, ‘That guy! Wouldn’t mind watching a movie about that guy. He’s out of his mind doing a monologue into a mirror.’”
Spacey got close to the character so I ask if he would consider turning his take on Abramoff into a one man show at the Old Vic theatre in London where he is artistic director and frequently seen onstage.
“No… no… no,” laughs. “Generally, because I tend not to repeat myself and also, I don’t think it would play for our Old Vic audience.”