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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 Iíve always had a fascination for politics and have been involved in politics for some time.  But I didnít have, Iím sure, what it must have been in the US, because we have this quaint thing we call the 24-hour news cycle Ė which usually lasts for a week.  So, I kind of remembered it, but not reallyÖ.  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, Iíll hold off on reading anything or going back and doing lots of research, because I didnít want to meet him with lots of other peopleís 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 Iím saying that right.  I had to learn some of the Hebrew, because George wanted me to actually be saying it, but I think Iím relatively grateful that no one can really hear what Iím saying, because Iím sure I didnít get it all right.  That aspect of his character was so fascinating to me, because on the one hand heís 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 Ė 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 didnít have it and needed it Ė justified the other things he was doing.  Itís always interesting to find that, what you look at as a contradiction in someoneís 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 Ė I knew Iíd 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 Ė or was there any point Ė when he started to lose the forest for the trees.  What you get a sense of and I think what weíre 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 Ė wow.  But after meeting him and then meeting other people on his team Ė people that knew him, people that hated him, people that wanted him dead Ė I got a lot of different opinions on him.  Then I started reading everything.  All you have to do is Google his name, and itís like: Fuck!  Iím 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 thatís convenient for an industry that wants to pat itself on the back and say, ďSee we threw this bad man in jail and weíve cleaned up our industry.Ē  I think we just went through an election where more money was spent than at any other time in our countryís history.  So thatís to me what was interesting about being able to play this guy.  Heís symbolic of an environment and culture thatís still happening today.

Between this and Recount, youíve done a couple of movies now about politics, very recent politicsÖ

It is funny shit, isnít it?  

Kevin Spacey and Jon Lovitz in CASINO JACK.Do you consider yourself to be a political person?

Yeah, Iíve 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 donít 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 Ė 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 wonít 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 donít think that their vote counts for anything.  Some people think they vote people in.  We do live in the now.  Itís 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, ďThis is fucking amazing!Ē  Now, three seconds go by and your page doesnít come up, and youíre like, ďWhat the fuck is wrong with this piece of shit?Ē  I think that attitude has permeated our society.  You look at politics Ė and we tend to do this, I donít think we just do this in just this country, this tends to happen all over the world Ė we find someone who we believe is going to solve all of our problems, who is going to be a savior, and theyíre 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 weíre not out of the shithole yet, then we point fingers and say, ďOh, this person wasnít who we thought they were.Ē  We want people to solve our problems. A lot of people have responsibility for the problems that weíre facing right now.  So I think thereís an impatience and fantasy that itís 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.  Heís totally free.

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

I donít know if heís seen it.  If he has seen it, I havenít 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 didnít set out to play him as the caricature he had become Ė as a certain one-dimensional villainous person, but as a real human being.  I think they are happy about that, but I donít 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 ďI donít want to make a boring film about Washington.  I want to make fucking Goodfellas in DC.Ē  He knew exactly what he wanted and it was a complete pleasure to work with him.  Iím sorry and sad heís not here to enjoy the release of the film.  It was just the most unexpected and surprising circumstance.  Itís 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 youíre not afraid of the humor, if youíre not afraid of embracing the fact that some of the decisions that people make in either this film or Recount Ė which was, again, a very entertaining and funny movie, more than you would have thought Ė you kind of embrace thKevin Spacey in CASINO JACK.e craziness and the outrageous decisions, the over-the-topness of it all, itís funny.  It really is inherently funny.  George and I werenít afraid of trying to makeÖ if weíre 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 weíre going to show the hypocrisy at work, letís do it in a way thatís entertaining, rather than Jack Abramoff is going to give a big, boring speech and lecture about hypocrisy.  Itís 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.  Thatís why that scene ended up being written that way.  George and I were like, ďWhat would that scene be like if he had actually not taken the fifth?Ē  (chuckles)  It grew from there into a kind of fantasy scene.  So we werenít 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 havenít called.  All I hear is what youíve probably heard, too.  All I know is that when I hear a reboot, Iím assuming that means theyíre going to recast everybody.

Thereís 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 itís their option.  I had a blast doing it, but my suspicion is that theyíre going to reboot the whole thing.  Iíd be very surprised if they came and said, ďHey, would you do it again?Ē  Which is actually a shame, I really thought [it would be huge].  Iím a huge fan of [Superman Returns writer/director] Bryan Singerís 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 werenít expecting it.

Itís always one of those things where because itís such an important franchise to so many people, they are so devoted to it, that youíre always going to end up with people who didnít like it or did like it.  Or liked that part but didnít 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, Iíve kept hearing little rumors here and there.  This is happeningÖ.  Then I read in the paper that it was all being rebooted and new people were on board.  I donít 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.Itís not that that type of role appeals to me.  I know sometimes that thereís 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 Ė like thereís a plethora of every movie thatís ever going to open in the next year.  I can go; Iím going to do that one.  George Clooney can do that one and Iíll do that one.  You can only do what youíre offered, number one.  In my case, I can only do not just what Iím offered, but what Iím available to do, given my full responsibilities of running the Old Vic Theater in London which is what Iíve been doing the past eight years.  Itís 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 Iím available to do them.  And then other things are never offered, and I go, ďWhy didnít I get that?Ē

Are you going to direct again?

Iíd love to direct again.  Itís just itís a big commitment, and knowing that Iím starting Richard III in May and that will take me ten months.  It will be a ten month commitment.  Weíre doing it at the Old Vic and weíre touring the world, nine cities in three continents. Then we come to Brooklyn.  Thatís 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.