HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Kevin Spacey couldn't help but smile at the ovation his latest film, "The Shipping News," received at its Los Angeles première in December. The film, based on Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, opens nationwide this month.
It was the first time Spacey had seen the movie, about a newspaperman's journey from New York to Newfoundland after his wife's death. There, he finds a new life.
Spacey confides, "I don't watch the dailies [the film shot the previous day]. I find it's so much better not to second-guess both myself and the director."
He explains that when he first started acting in films, he thought it would be useful to watch whether his performance was taking shape.
"As the years have gone on, I find one of the dangers of watching dailies ... is you fall in love with moments," he says. "Then, you see a cut of the movie and that take doesn't exist, because it was out of context; it didn't work for the shape the director was trying to give that character's journey."
The two-time Oscar winner ("The Usual Suspects" and "American Beauty") says, "I like to put myself in the hands of the director, and ... trust him - let him guide me instead of second guess my work. If I can ... trust him, I have a much better experience as an actor because I'm giving in my performance all the tools the director needs to make his vision work. At the end of the day, he's going to make the painting, not you."
That's a good reason why Spacey insisted that Lasse Hallström direct "The Shipping News." Hallström's films include "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "The Cider House Rules," and "Chocolat."
As Spacey says, "This movie was one of the sweetest experiences I've had in an environment in which you felt completely encapsulated by his clarity, humor, warmth - and ability, in my case, to carve me up like steak and get rid of all the fat. I don't think anybody approaches family as a subject in quite the way that Lasse does. His movies have this kind of magic ... where he manages to have that camera burrow into the very center from which a character's life flows.... This particular story required that kind of touch."
Bringing to life "The Shipping News" wasn't an easy project.
Spacey's character, newspaperman Quoyle, was described as a walrus of a man with a chin that jutted out from his face. The actor had five days between finishing the movie "K-Pax" and going to Newfoundland for "The Shipping News."
He gained 20 pounds for the role, but forsook prosthetics. Hallström felt a fake chin would take away from the reality of the film and end up with something an audience could never get over.
Together they decided extra pounds, baggy clothes, and stooped shoulders would satisfy. Mainly they agreed it was the attitude, the mental heaviness, forever being told he was useless and boring, which would weigh Quoyle down.
Filming in Newfoundland offered challenges and rewards. "The Newfoundlanders would kid they have four seasons: fall, winter, misery, and summer," Spacey says.
"We were there for nine weeks during misery. I'll say this: Newfoundland is a beautiful, extraordinary, majestic place. There were days and nights when I was just mesmerized by its vastness, its isolation. Also, it had the most unpredictable weather - you could go through four seasons in one day. That's why the call sheet, which we'd get each night telling what we'd shoot the next day, was dubbed 'The true or false quiz.' It listed four different places we might shoot. We were weather-contingent."
In the story, Spacey has a 7-year-old daughter. Since the number of hours a child can work on a film are very limited, Hallström hired triplets for the one role.
"I got to know them apart," Spacey says, "so ... when Lasse would change them on me between rehearsal and filming, I'd know it."
Even though he was far from Hollywood, the actor kept in touch with his Figure Street Production Company. "We've spent two years developing relationships with writers, directors, young actors.... We start filming 'The United States of Leland' with a young cast Jan. 28 and have scheduled two other movies during the year. I'll not be in them."
He adds, "I feel it's a responsibility for anyone who breaks through a certain ceiling ... to send the elevator back down and give others a helpful lift."