April 26, 2014

Shakespeare hits the road with Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey talks about Shakespeare, the Old Vic, “House of Cards” and a Kansas City actor who made good.

Kevin Spacey likes to do things his way.

When he agreed to co-produce and star in “House of Cards,” the political-thriller series from Netflix, he embraced the plan to release the entire season all at once for viewer bingeing. Nobody had done that before.

When he became artistic director of the Old Vic, one of London’s oldest and most historic theaters, he was the first American to do so.

When he teamed up with director Sam Mendes (who had collaborated with Spacey on the Oscar-winning “American Beauty”) to form an international touring company of British and American actors (including Kansas City native Nathan Darrow) to perform “Richard III” around the world, nobody had attempted such a thing.

And now, a documentary about that 2011 tour across three continents will take an unusual distribution route: “Now: In the Wings on a World Stage,” produced by Spacey, will play for one night only across the country in select theaters, including the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. It will become available for a fee on Friday as a digital download.

“Well, I’m just sort of continuing my disruptive behavior,” Spacey said by telephone Friday. “After my McTaggart lecture, in which I talked about new talent and new platforms … I felt like I had to walk the walk, and to some degree the industry undervalues a film like this.”

At the annual lecture — named for pioneering Scottish television producer James McTaggart — Spacey in 2011 told producers and presenters that they need to embrace the online world or die. Multi-platforming, he said, was the future, whether the old guard liked it or not.

Spacey said just putting the movie out there for online consumption made more sense to him than going the traditional film festival route or lobbying a TV network to find room on its schedule.

“If you like ‘House of Cards,’ this is where it all began for me,” Spacey said. “If you don’t know about theater, this is a way for you to get into it, and if you do it’s something that will interest you.”

On “House of Cards” Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a politician who murders and schemes his way into the White House. Underwood is modeled on Shakespeare’s Richard III, while his wife, Claire Underwood (played by Robin Wright), is based directly on Lady Macbeth. It’s a kind of meeting of Shakespearean villains, which Spacey said comes directly from the original novel by British writer Michael Dobbs.

The “House of Cards” cast includes a couple of actors Spacey worked with in “Richard III,” including Darrow as Edward Meechum, Underwood’s tight-lipped security guard. Darrow played Romeo and Henry V for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and appeared in productions with Kansas City Actors Theatre, includng “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Translations.” He even put on a dress to play a farce at the New Theatre. He relocated to New York in 2009.

“First of all, he was great to work with when we did ‘Richard III’ and we became very good friends and tennis rivals,” Spacey said. “But he’s a remarkably talented actor who does incredible classical work.”

Spacey praised Darrow’s performance as Edmund Tyrone in a 2012 “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Spacey watched with a keen eye because he had once played Edmund himself.

Meechum, he said, is an example of how a seemingly minor role on a series can grow into something larger based on an actor’s abilities.

“I think it has everything to do with it,” he said. “We brought in a number of actors who were intended to play one or two episodes but because of what the actor did … we would say, ‘This actor is interesting, so let’s continue the storyline.’ ”

As the artistic director of the Old Vic, Spacey said there are moments when the company’s storied past is tangible. The theater traces its history to 1818. Many of the leading Shakespearean actors of the 19th and 20th centuries performed there — Edmund Kean, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness. The list goes on.

Spacey said he had seen performances at the Old Vic, but he vividly remembers the first time he stepped onto the boards.

“I walked to the edge of that stage and looked up into that extraordinary, dome-shaped, curved arc of that audience (seating) and I felt instantly at home,” he said. “The history is in its walls, in the plaster, in the boards. You can feel it. But it’s very welcoming. The ghosts at the Old Vic are very friendly, welcoming ghosts.”

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