Kevin Spacey: Where Charm Meets Corruption

As disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Kevin Spacey gets a flashy, showy role — but with the death of George Hickenlooper, the experience is bittersweet

Under normal circumstances, Kevin Spacey would relish and celebrate his part in “Casino Jack”: in director George Hickenlooper’s skewed comedic retelling of the tale of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Spacey gets to pull out all the stops as a man who used charm, connections and charisma to rake in the money until he landed in jail for corruption and fraud.

Kevin SpaceyThe story took a sadder turn, though, when Hickenlooper suddenly died last month of what is reported to have been an accidental overdose of alcohol and pain medication. “I can’t believe he's gone because George was so alive, bubbling with energy, drive, commitment, an open heart and a brilliant sense of humor,” wrote Spacey in a statement after Hickenlooper’s death.

TheWrap spoke to Spacey (who also served as one of the producers of "The Social Network") at the Toronto Film Festival, before Hickenlooper’s death.

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“Casino Jack” veers into comedy at times, and it strikes me that the excesses of that Washington culture were so crazy that you can’t play it straight – this is a movie that needs to be pushed toward comedy and satire.
Well, you don’t want to make a boring docudrama about Washington politics. In some ways you faced the same thing with “The Social Network,” which is, can you make a movie about people sitting at their computer screens and working on the Internet into something unexpected and surprising, with a lot of humor to it? Because that was truly the thing that I was most fascinated by when I met Abramoff, was how funny he was.

When you took the role, did you know that you’d be able to meet him?
I hoped that we’d be able to, but ultimately it is a decision of the bureau of prisons. But when I read the script and decided to do the film, I decided not to do a lot of research. I wanted to wait because I knew there might be an opportunity to meet him. And I wanted to meet him before seeing what everyone had been saying and writing about him.

What did you find?
I could completely see why, when he was in a three-piece suit, he was the most charming guy. He had a great sense of humor, he did impressions, and you could understand why he had been so successful. Then I went and read everything that had been said about him, and let’s face it, he was basically the devil incarnate according to the press and a lot of Republicans who decided to throw him under the bus. What you then have to do is try to unearth, all rig what’s true. He’s obviously not the devil incarnate, and he’s not the greatest guy who ever lived. In fact, it’s much more gray than black and white.

Besides charm, what were his redeeming qualities?
Unlike a figure like Bernie Madoff, or others who have been equally demonized, it seemed to me that this guy wasn’t just stealing money, living high on the hog, buying helicopters … When you actually broke it down, how much money was Abramoff actually making? A lot. He was charging a lot of money, and overcharging is ultimately one of the charges he went to prison for.

But what was he doing with the money? He had a fabulous house, he had summer vacations in Cannes … but actually, he wasn’t even paying his mortgage. He wasn’t doing any of the stuff you would think that if the purpose behind making that money was for self-interest. He gave all this money away, and he was trying to build a Hebrew school because he felt that being an Orthodox Jew, the education his kids were getting was not the kind of education he wanted.

Kevin SpaceyOkay, so is he like the Orthodox Robin Hood in his mind? Because of all these elements, I could play a person who’s a human being, who got caught up in a climate and an atmosphere that is still happening. Because the lobbying industry is as powerful today as it was then. It has not been cleaned up. They’re still getting away with lots of things that are on the border. And Abramoff is the first to admit, I think, that he absolutely crossed the line in terms of what he could and should do.

There’s a point in the film where he’s in prison talking to two convicts, and one of them says, “Why are you here?” And he says, “I don’t know.” Do you think he really didn’t know, or was he trying to fool them, or fool himself?
I guess it’s a climate that he found himself in. You say to yourself, well, what I did was maybe wrong, but was it illegal? Because if he had known that he was actually going to jail, I don’t think that he would have taken the Fifth in the Senate hearings. Which is why we have that fantasy section, where he says what he would have said if he had not taken the fifth.

If he had said actually said what he says in that fantasy scene, laying out the complicity of everyone involved in pointing figures at him, do you think it could have changed the culture in Washington?
Well, you just have to look at Senate hearings in the contest of what they are. They are circuses, and they are shows. They don’t do anything. They can’t do anything to an individual until they become a court case. So it’s a dog-and-pony show for the Senators to sit there and point fingers at the bad guy – when in fact, in every single one of those senators that he talks about had taken money from him. John McCain had been taking campaign contributions from all sorts of competing Indian casinos that he was working on behalf of … You start to see, oh, wait a minute, this is not exactly black and white.

What do you want the audience to take away from this?
I hope the audience is going to make up their own minds about how they feel about his level of guilt, and the culture in the lobbying industry. He might have been doing things louder, bigger and better and making more money than anybody else, but he didn’t think that he was doing anything that everybody else in town wasn’t doing. Which is why when he was then thrown under the bus by his own party, I think he felt so betrayed.

We think of you as the guy who goes on “Saturday Night Live” and does impressions, and I initially wondered if that part of the performance was something you added. But you say that actually came from him?
Absolutely came from him. In fact, he was known for that. I think it made him quite popular at parties. He does people I don’t do, like Dolph Lundgren, which I sort of learned for the movie. He does Reagan. He does a lot of people, and he does them very well. And he also had this other life, which is that he was a film producer for a little while. So he’s an absolutely fascinating character.

Does it free you an actor to be playing somebody that, while he’s a public figure, most people have no idea what he looks or sounds like?
Yeah, it’s a little bit like the experience of playing Ron Klain in [the HBO movie] “Recount.” Because when I played Gore’s chief of staff, other than people in Washington, nobody knew who Ron Klain was. So you don’t have that thing of playing somebody who audiences know.

There is a responsibility that you feel about wanting to try to play a character with complexity and realism and flaws and good and negative qualities, but you don’t feel an obligation to do an imitation. That’s something you have to worry about when it’s someone well known.