When Kevin Spacey walked into Room 304 on May 8, it was packed with Drama Division students, faculty, and administrators who all broke into a long rush of applause, cheers, and whoops. But as he strode into the center of the room, he was hearing old echoes from his student days: “Wow! This brings back a lot of memories. This room in particular—we learned Shakespeare in here, our first show. We did—Discovery ... is it still called that?” A loud choral response of “Yes!” from the students. He smiled. Looked around. Took a breath. “You know, the good news is ... I feel like I’m still discovering.”
Spacey’s long-ago memories of Juilliard’s third floor are a complicated mix of joy and frustration. The ambivalence began with his audition, he said, during which Drama Division director Michael Langham asked if he had written his own monologue (it was a snippet from Othello, apparently unrecognizable), and Elizabeth (Liz) Smith, the renowned voice teacher, told him he was interesting, “but your voice sounds like the end of a frayed rope.” Looking back, Spacey now realizes that the teachers who rode him the hardest “actually believed in me the most.” He remembers another encounter with Smith, “after she’d been incredibly rough on me in class, and I said, ‘Well, it wouldn’t matter what I did because you just don’t like anything I do!’ She took me out in the hallway and said, ‘You’re an idiot. Don’t you realize that I’m the hardest on you because I think you’re the most talented, but I also know you’re the laziest?’ And she was right.”
A lot must have changed since his Juilliard days, because “lazy” is just about the least fitting description of Spacey’s current artistic life: Stepping into Room 304 at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, he’s just hours away from heading downtown to Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater to give one of his eight-a-week virtuosic performances as James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. Spacey has been performing in the acclaimed production since last year, when it opened at London’s Old Vic Theatre, of which he is the artistic director. Since assuming that mantle in 2003, he has begun a fierce initiative to draw young people to the theater, pioneering an innovative education-and-outreach program that includes conducting personal workshops with schoolchildren and setting aside radically reduced-price seats for people under 25. He has been acting and directing and recruiting and fund-raising—and all without putting his award-winning film career on hold. Lazy? Not so much.
And in Room 304, even with the memories hitting him, he isn’t slowing down. A chair awaits him in the middle of an extended semicircle of eager acting students, but he can’t manage to stay in it for more than a few minutes. What gets him out of his seat is excitement about work: “So—you all saw Moon, right?” Nods all around; Spacey and the Drama Division had cooperated to make sure every student had the opportunity to see the performance. “What’d you think?” As hands go up around the room, he moves to get closer—to see a face, to respond more fully to a question. He’s eager to know what the students thought while reading the play, how those opinions changed when they saw it being lived. When someone volunteers that he’d assumed he was in for a long, boring evening but had been surprised by how quickly the time flew, Spacey laughs. “On the page, not much happens. In terms of plot, it’s a bunch of people sitting around and talking. But in terms of emotion, it’s epic. The best writers, you can feel their heart and their head: O’Neill is like that, as is Shakespeare; there’s nothing between his heart and his pen.” That kind of emotional scope is what Spacey is after: “Ultimately, all we want in theater is for people to open up their hearts and show us they have them. When we see great work, it’s because someone has been willing to show us their heart, and they haven’t been afraid of the consequences.”
And with that, Spacey wants to get to work. He asks the Juilliard students to get up and show their own hearts, reading scenes from Moon. After a moment or two of stunned terror—Act? In front of Kevin Spacey? The play he’s doing right now?!—two brave students come into the center of the room, scripts in hand. As they read the scene, Spacey sits forward, listening intently in his chair. One actor says a line. Spacey laughs as if he’s never heard it before. They finish—he leads the room in applause, asks for two more volunteers. He ushers up another pair of actors, then another. “No actor owns a part,” Spacey observes. “We are just the current custodians of it. And that’s a good thing. A sense of lack of ownership frees you up. It’s an interesting thing, even for me, to hear those words that I’ve been saying every night said by someone else. Makes me go … hmmm.”
A constant return to the text and an unflagging work ethic are the things Spacey feels he can rely on. “When I’m in rehearsal, I’m there first and foremost, always, to serve the play. I’m there because I want so much for the audience to have the experience I had when I first read it—that moment of thrill that went through me, I want desperately to give that to other people.”
A second-year student raises her hand from the back of the room. “What keeps you going?” she asks. “Why do you act?” Spacey looks at her, in a brief moment of stillness, then answers: “I’m hoping to get better at it.”
[Editor’s note: Since this article was written in May, when Kevin Spacey was appearing on Broadway in A Moon for the Misbegotten, the show closed on June 10, after a limited-run engagement at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.]