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Movies : Swimming With 'Alligator' : Kevin Spacey, our favorite bad guy, is directing with abandon. Will he abandon his former career? 'I have to say that acting pales to this experience,' he confesses.

August 13, 1995|David Kronke | David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

A good bad man is hard to find. Unless Kevin Spacey's in the general vicinity.

Consider, momentarily, the two men that come to the minds of most casting agents looking for villains: Critics have charged that Tommy Lee Jones' post-Oscar performances in "Natural Born Killers," "Cobb" and "Batman Forever" have soared so far over the top he's in danger of straying off the radar screen, and Dennis Hopper has made a lucrative career pounding on the ever-wearying note that created "Blue Velvet's" Frank Booth.

The only constant in Spacey's most memorable performances, says Brad Jenkel, producer of the actor's directorial debut, "Albino Alligator," is that "he plays guys who have this morality problem. They have this weird side to them. I guess that's what attracts him to them."

Adds Bryan Singer, director of Spacey's latest, the caper film "The Usual Suspects," which opens Wednesday: "He's a very complicated person. [Acting] is basically a simple exercise of living life truthfully under imaginary circumstances. But beneath him is a complex person, and that gives way to a character with greater depth than you see on the surface."

Spacey's breakthrough came while playing Mel Profitt, the drug-addicted gun-runner involved with his own sister, on the cult TV series "Wiseguy." He won a Tony on Broadway in 1991 for playing the charismatic yet unreliable Uncle Louie in "Lost in Yonkers." From there, he played the venally banal middle manager in the film version of "Glengarry Glen Ross," the seductively hedonistic sociopath of "Consenting Adults" and one-half of the couple that doesn't let the fact that they've been taken hostage detract from their bilious bickering in "The Ref."

And 1995 is shaping up as a career year: Spacey, now 36, continued his lively parade of dirt-bags with the guilefully psychopathic movie studio executive fond of bellowing such things as "You're happy--I hate that!" in this year's "Swimming With Sharks." He co-starred in his first blockbuster-type movie this year, "Outbreak"--playing, in a twist, the character so likable it was obvious he was doomed. And he's just been cast in the Joel Schumacher-directed version of the John Grisham thriller "A Time to Kill."

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Now, however, "The Usual Suspects" is on the front burner. Spacey portrays the limping con man Verbal Kint, alternately sniveling and tart-tongued, the only survivor of a dockyards blood bath that may have involved a shadowy, internationally feared crime lord. "I am not a rat!" he insists repeatedly during an emotional interrogation (Chazz Palminteri is his sparring partner), yet he jabbers on and on nonetheless about his take on events.

Singer, who created the role for Spacey, recalls: "He came in with this haircut [with a geeky widow's peak] and I immediately knew he was right. Later, he was demonstrating limps across this restaurant. He'd go to the bathroom with one limp, come back from the bathroom with a different limp."

One of Spacey's strengths, Singer adds, is that he doesn't really look the part he often plays. "He looks kind of peevish and wimpy," Singer says. "Audiences feel sorry for him. But one second he can look terrifying and the next second he can look completely innocent."

Singer echoes the thoughts of many in the industry right about now: "He's very, very cool."

Got all that? Good, appreciate it while you can, because as things stand now, Spacey's acting career may soon be history.

On the set of his directorial debut, the darkly comic hostage thriller "Albino Alligator," which Miramax plans to release early next year, Spacey looks like an action director. Not in the sense that John McTiernan is an action director, but in the sense that Jackson Pollock was an action painter. He moves restlessly around his rehearsing actors, checking them out from every angle, finding the action, the emotional focus. During one shot, he abruptly abandons his playback monitor and slides up to the camera like a ballplayer stealing second.

He confers privately with actors, encouraging the cast and crew at large. "We've learned something here--excellent," he enthuses after a botched take.

"He's very special," offers Faye Dunaway, one of Spacey's stars. "He's got vigor and vitality and energy. He's done his homework in spades."

Producer Jenkel likewise attests to Spacey's dogged preparedness, then adds, "I wonder if he'll ever act again because he's such a great director. He has truly been entertained by this. It's too bad, because he's such a great actor."

Spacey confesses: "I have to say that acting pales to this experience."

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