With a potentially era-defining US election a little over a month away, the timing of Recount, an HBO drama about Gore vs Bush that manages to turn 36 days of legal bog-hopping and electoral arcana in to a riveting thriller, couldn't be more pertinent.
Among the various previously unknown, and probably uncared for, facts that were presented to a watching world from Florida in the 36 chaotic days that followed the 2000 US election was the fact that the plural of chad is "chad". Hanging chads, (or chad), swinging chads, dimpled and pimpled chads laid siege to the lexicon as it became apparent, in perhaps the most poignant farce Western democracy has yet devised, that the fate of the free world would come down to a protracted legal slugfest and a faulty hole-punch.
At the centre of all this, amongst the more familiar names of James Baker, Warren Christopher and the spectral presences of Bush and Gore themselves, was a man called Ron Klain. Klain had been ousted as Gore's Chief of Staff in late 1999, but a year later he found himself as General Counsel of Gore's Recount Committee. He was, therefore, at the eye of the storm, yet to most outsiders he is an unknown. It is a role that was made for Kevin Spacey, a specialist in everyman antiheroes with blank stares and roiling consciences, one of which, as Lester Burnham in American Beauty, won him a Best Actor Oscar in 1999.
Spacey is a card-carrying Democrat and a friend of Bill Clinton but he insists that Recount isn't just liberal tub-thumping. "The film was never a partisan view of a bunch of whining Democrats who got the election stolen from them. That I wouldn't have been interested in doing." Instead, he saw a chance to get political cinema back in to the mainstream. "This is a film that probably couldn't have been done in 2003 or maybe 2004, 2005 or 2006. Now, eight years later, with some hindsight, I actually think it's the first lesson of the Bush years. You can understand how it happened, even though it's insane."
He may lament the eight years that have followed, but one thing Kevin Spacey isn't is angry. "The film is particularly painful for some people to watch," he laughs. "They keep hoping for a different ending. The great thing for me as an actor is I get to play all that anger on screen. So I don't have to live with it."
There isn't much that rouses him to anger. The only time in our conversation where he approaches anything as undignified as snippiness is when we discuss Resurrection Blues. This was the Arthur Miller play that Spacey, in his capacity as artistic director of the Old Vic theatre, put on in April 2006, having lured Robert Altman from screen to stage to direct. In spite of a Hollywood cast, it received a critical mauling, and was closed early. I ask him whether it hurt that no one turned up.
"First of all, that's a myth. The people did turn up. I only closed that show a week early and I closed a week early because it wasn't critically well received and it wasn't selling in its final week. But the truth is, a lot of people saw that play. I'm glad we did it. It sure looked good on paper. That's the thing about theatre, it's not an exact science and presenting Arthur Miller's last work with a great director was an important thing to do, as far as I'm concerned. Not everything you do will be responded to well."
Watch a trailer for 'Recount'
Spacey, as this suggests, has come to accept that when he became artistic director of the Old Vic in 2003, he was setting himself up for a kicking. "Part of it is I'm an American, part of it is I'm a movie actor so I'm a bigger target and you know, they're able to create headlines and stories with me that they couldn't with someone else." On the one hand his Hollywood cachet enabled him to attract talent and reinvigorate the Old Vic, "a building," he says, "that had for all intents and purposes become a booking house."
But in drumming up interest in his theatre company, he inevitably attracted media attention himself. This wasn't only confined to some barbed reactions to his plays. In April 2004 the tabloids went to town when Spacey was "brutally mugged" walking his dog on Clapham Common at 4.30am. He then admitted on the Today programme that he hadn't been mugged, but by that point the interest was more on what he was doing out walking his dog at 4.30am. No one was talking about the Old Vic by this point.
"I recognised that I had to simply ignore it and spend my time doing our work." Over time, he says the red-top intrigue and the cynicism he describes as, "Is he going to run with his tail between his legs back to Hollywood?" has faded. (He stresses that he never actually lived in Hollywood in the first place, "but nonetheless that's where the press thought 'they' go back to".) Now, as the Old Vic brings Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests to the London stage for the first time in 34 years, Spacey feels vindicated. "What I will say is that the British public never made me feel that they weren't willing to allow us to discover who we were as a company. For any critical comment that might be made in the media, I would get 500 letters from people saying, 'stay the course.'"
He has stayed the course, recently committing to a further six years at the Old Vic. For a man who could be on joke-money per movie it's an admirable decision, and he says he has never had second thoughts as the press thought he might. "Absolutely never. There was nothing that was ever said that made me not want to continue coming to work on behalf of this remarkable building every day."
If anything, his work at the Old Vic has placed his experience making movies in sharp relief. "The main difference between the experience that I've had over these last five and a half years and making movies is that movies are very unorganic to make. They're put together and a year later you go and see them and you go 'wow that really worked out'; or 'wow, that really didn't'. Then they go off in to cinemas and you don't see how it affects people, experiencing it night after night. And also, in the movie business, no matter how good you might be in a movie, you'll never be any better. What you learn in the organic living experiment of coming to work every night and tackling a role in a play with a company from previews to 16 weeks later is a journey."
That may not go down so well with the producers of the follow-up to Superman Returns, who will be paying him big bucks to reprise his role as Lex Luthor next year. "Well, look. If I'm not producing, then I'm an actor for hire. It ends there. That doesn't mean you're not working with a director and other actors and a writer to make the best movie you can, but it's a temporal experience, you'll be together for a couple of weeks or months and then you're done."
So is there really nothing left in the cinema that excites him? He pauses. "Well, I keep waiting for Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese to call me..."
'Recount' is on More 4 on 3 October at 9pm as part of the US politics season; 'The Norman Conquests' is at the Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 060 6628) to 20 December
Kevin Spacey a life in drama
- First professional stage appearance came after a stint at Julliard School of performing arts, as a spear carrier in a New York 1981 production of 'Henry V1, part one' – he also had a go at stand-up.
- His on-stage star rose in 1986, cast opposite his future mentor Jack Lemmon in Eugene O'Neill's 'Long Day's Journey into Night'.
- 1991 Tony Award for his depiction of Uncle Louie in the Broadway hit 'Lost in Yonkers'.
- Shot to superstardom in 1995, winning a best supporting Oscar as creepy Verbal Kint in Brian Singer's 'The Usual Suspects'.
- Won Best Actor at the 1999 Oscars for his efforts in 'American Beauty' as Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man on the brink of a breakdown.
- Became artistic director of the Old Vic in 2003, promising to bring in big-name talent.
- Despite a disaster with 2006's 'Resurrection Blues', a return to Eugene O'Neill with 'A Moon for the Misbegotten' gained Spacey rave reviews.