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Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper in CASINO JACK.

Kevin Spacey

Making a Bet on Casino Jack

by Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: 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 Old Vic Theater 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.

Kevin Spacey and Kelly Preston in CASINO JACK.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. 

Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper in CASINO JACK.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?  

Kevin Spacey and Jon Lovitz in CASINO JACK.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.

Where do you think apathy towards politics comes from?

Because I think some people don’t think that their vote counts for anything.  Some people think they vote people in.  We do live in the now.  It’s very curious to me how impatient people are.  I remember, what ten years ago?  It actually took you about five minutes to get on an internet page.  We were like, “This is fucking amazing!”  Now, three seconds go by and your page doesn’t come up, and you’re like, “What the fuck is wrong with this piece of shit?”  I think that attitude has permeated our society.  You look at politics – and we tend to do this, I don’t think we just do this in just this country, this tends to happen all over the world – we find someone who we believe is going to solve all of our problems, who is going to be a savior, and they’re going to have a magic wand.  Then they come in, and they can be very effective.  They can actually accomplish a great deal.  But because we’re not out of the shithole yet, then we point fingers and say, “Oh, this person wasn’t who we thought they were.”  We want people to solve our problems. A lot of people have responsibility for the problems that we’re facing right now.  So I think there’s an impatience and fantasy that it’s all going to happen overnight.  These things take a long time.

Kelly Preston and Kevin Spacey in CASINO JACK.Is Jack out of prison now?

He is now.  He’s totally free.

Has he reflected on the movie now that it has come out?

I don’t know if he’s seen it.  If he has seen it, I haven’t heard.  His kids have seen it.  I saw his two children in Los Angeles at the AFI [American Film Institute] screening.  Parts of the movie might be painful for them to watch, but I think that they were very pleased we didn’t set out to play him as the caricature he had become – as a certain one-dimensional villainous person, but as a real human being.  I think they are happy about that, but I don’t know what he thinks.

Sadly, George passed away before the movie was released.  What was he like to work with?

George is like a kid.  He was like a big kid whose playground was the storytelling.  We laughed a lot.  We discussed a lot.  I mean, every day on the film was just an incredibly fun and intense conversation about how can we achieve the tone that we want to achieve.  How can we make this entertaining?  George had this certain mantra from the very first day, which was “I don’t want to make a boring film about Washington.  I want to make fucking Goodfellas in DC.”  He knew exactly what he wanted and it was a complete pleasure to work with him.  I’m sorry and sad he’s not here to enjoy the release of the film.  It was just the most unexpected and surprising circumstance.  It’s made it very odd to be out trying to promote the movie.  But I know that in the end, George would really want people to see it.  If people saw it, it would make him very happy.

What elements turn a political comedy into a classic?

Well, I think if you’re not afraid of the humor, if you’re not afraid of embracing the fact that some of the decisions that people make in either this film or Recount – which was, again, a very entertaining and funny movie, more than you would have thought – you kind of embrace thKevin Spacey in CASINO JACK.e craziness and the outrageous decisions, the over-the-topness of it all, it’s funny.  It really is inherently funny.  George and I weren’t afraid of trying to make… if we’re going to make some political points, how much more fun is it to be able to do a scene like the Senate hearing scene.  If we’re going to show the hypocrisy at work, let’s do it in a way that’s entertaining, rather than Jack Abramoff is going to give a big, boring speech and lecture about hypocrisy.  It’s much more fun to approach it [this way].  In fact, Abramoff to whatever degree he had said to us that had he known he was going to jail, he would have never taken the fifth.  That’s why that scene ended up being written that way.  George and I were like, “What would that scene be like if he had actually not taken the fifth?”  (chuckles)  It grew from there into a kind of fantasy scene.  So we weren’t afraid of what was funny.  We just have to embrace it.

You spoke men of power. Do you have any interest in revisiting Lex Luthor in the Superman reboot?

Listen, they haven’t called.  All I hear is what you’ve probably heard, too.  All I know is that when I hear a reboot, I’m assuming that means they’re going to recast everybody.

There’s some uncertainty of whether they were.  Would you play him again?

Yeah.  In principal, there was already supposed to be a second one, but it never happened, so it’s their option.  I had a blast doing it, but my suspicion is that they’re going to reboot the whole thing.  I’d be very surprised if they came and said, “Hey, would you do it again?”  Which is actually a shame, I really thought [it would be huge].  I’m a huge fan of [Superman Returns writer/director] Bryan Singer’s and I thought the movie did pretty damn well.

Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper in CASINO JACK.There were a lot of risks, like Superman having a kid.  People weren’t expecting it.

It’s always one of those things where because it’s such an important franchise to so many people, they are so devoted to it, that you’re always going to end up with people who didn’t like it or did like it.  Or liked that part but didn’t like that part.  I had a blast.

Did you ever talk with Bryan about any ideas if you were to come back?

No, because it never got to that point.  He was so focused on getting that film done.  Over the years, I’ve kept hearing little rumors here and there.  This is happening….  Then I read in the paper that it was all being rebooted and new people were on board.  I don’t even know if they have a director.

Yes, Zack Snyder [300, Watchmen].

Oh, okay.

George said in the press kit that you always do such a good job playing very likable antiheroes. Why does that type of role appeal to you?

Rachel Lafevre, Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper in CASINO JACK.It’s not that that type of role appeals to me.  I know sometimes that there’s this impression that people in this business who have gotten to a certain point or have done well, successfully, that we sit around and pick our films – like there’s a plethora of every movie that’s ever going to open in the next year.  I can go; I’m going to do that one.  George Clooney can do that one and I’ll do that one.  You can only do what you’re offered, number one.  In my case, I can only do not just what I’m offered, but what I’m available to do, given my full responsibilities of running the Old Vic Theater in London which is what I’ve been doing the past eight years.  It’s interesting to try and draw a line.  The truth is that I try to find the most interesting things that I think are worth doing at the time that I’m available to do them.  And then other things are never offered, and I go, “Why didn’t I get that?”

Are you going to direct again?

I’d love to direct again.  It’s just it’s a big commitment, and knowing that I’m starting Richard III in May and that will take me ten months.  It will be a ten month commitment.  We’re doing it at the Old Vic and we’re touring the world, nine cities in three continents. Then we come to Brooklyn.  That’s going to be May [2011] to March [2012].  So not [going to be directing] any time soon.


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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 21, 2010.  

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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 21, 2010.