Spacey Embodies Political Influence In 'Casino Jack'

Actor Kevin Spacey talks to Don Gonyea about his role as disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the new movie Casino Jack.

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DON GONYEA, host:

Remember Jack Abramoff? He's the former lobbyist who went to prison in 2006 for defrauding American Indian tribes and for corruption. Today, Abramoff can see himself portrayed on the big screen by Kevin Spacey.

(Soundbite of movie, "Casino Jack")

Mr. KEVIN SPACEY (Actor): (as Jack Abramoff) Next to God, faith and country, nothing is more important than influence - political influence. Influence with the powerful is like influence with God: without it, there's only eternal hellfire, damnation and congressional logjam.

GONYEA: The movie is "Casino Jack," directed by the late George Hickenlooper. It opens today in select theaters. Its star, Kevin Spacey recently sat down with us. And even though the Abramoff scandal broke years ago, Spacey doesn't think that much has changed in Washington.

Mr. SPACEY: They've got very clever ways to get around rules. My favorite is, you know, you're not supposed to have a dinner for a senator or a congressman. You can't have a dinner to raise money. So then the question is: What constitutes a dinner? And apparently, if you're not sitting down, it's not a dinner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPACEY: If you're not using utensils, it's not a dinner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: Those have always been my rules.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: Well, let's talk about at least some of the story line. Jack Abramoff's partner in crime, literally, was Michael Scanlon. He's played in this movie by the very fine actor Barry Pepper. There is a scene with Abramoff and Scanlon on the golf course, talking about bilking the Indian tribes out of vast sums of their casino money.

Mr. SPACEY: Well, Scanlon was a sort of notorious and very well-known figure in D.C. And he came up with this idea that since Scanlon was in a different position than Abramoff - Abramoff had to declare all of the money that he charged for. Scanlon was a consultant, so he didn't have to.

(Soundbite of movie, "Casino Jack")

Mr. BARRY PEPPER (Actor): (as Michael Scanlon) You know what blows my mind? All these Indians are so damn rich, and they're still acting like Wal-Mart shoppers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEPPER: (as Michael Scanlon) He's a multimillionaire, Jack, with a $10 watch. Just think, if you and I could access some of that liquid, we would be running D.C. in no time.

Mr. SPACEY: (as Jack Abramoff) Yeah, but what are you suggesting?

Mr. PEPPER: (as Michael Scanlon) I am suggesting that they pay us a ridiculous amount of money. Okay? And then you and I can split the fee 50/50 under the table.

Mr. SPACEY: And so they worked out this what they called a give-me-five deal, which was, essentially, underhandedly, Scanlon would pay Abramoff a percentage of the money that he was able to raise as a consultant.

(Soundbite of movie, "Casino Jack")

Mr. PEPPER: (as Michael Scanlon) I'm grassroots, baby. You're always complaining about living hand-to-mouth. You know what? You deserve better. Okay? And Chief Shanks-a-Lot there is our ticket out of hourly fee hell.

Mr. SPACEY: That was one of the things that ultimately got him in such trouble.

GONYEA: And their personalities are different.

Mr. SPACEY: Yeah, and it's an interesting - I mean, in terms of looking at the two sort of figures and their decision-making, it's a very interesting example of, on the one hand, Scanlon, who just spent an enormous amount of money, you know, buying houses and fast cars. And he spent money and lived high on the hog, whereas Abramoff, oddly, didn't. He was actually giving away a great deal of his money to causes he believed it, to people who needed it - in many cases just total strangers. This is in, to some degree, why it's so interesting to examine a character like this, is did he think that because of all the good work he was doing, that the ends justified the means?

GONYEA: Every movie that comes out that's based on or inspired by, you know, real-world events, gets fact-checked. In this case, I guess this one will be, is being fact-checked by political writers. Where did you guys take liberties?

Mr. SPACEY: I think that there is something rather interesting about the whole notion of what is allowable in drama and what is allowable in documentary. It seems to me that if you take the example of Peter Morgan's great screenplay for "The Queen," I don't think anybody assumes that Peter Morgan was hiding under the bed in Buckingham Palace, listening to the queen discuss her daughter-in-law with her husband. But you source enough. You spend a great deal of time making sure that the events that you're going to portray are relatively close to what occurred. But life doesn't happen in a narrative. Life doesn't happen in dialog. This is what dramatist do. They dramatize.

GONYEA: And when a Washington Post reporter gets punched in the face in the film, it's a dramatic exclamation point, for a purpose.

Mr. SPACEY: Exactly.

GONYEA: Talk about - I don't think it's the final scene in the movie. And we don't need to kind of give away the very ending. But there is this scene where Jack Abramoff appears before John McCain's panel - Senate hearings...

Mr. SPACEY: Well, that scene originally was just a scene in which we did what Abraham had done, which was that Abramoff had taken the Fifth.

(Soundbite of movie, "Casino Jack")

Mr. SPACEY: (as Jack Abramoff) Senator, I respectfully invoke the privileges as stated.

And, by the way, most people who go before the Senate do take the Fifth because the Senate is a joke. They have no power. They can't do anything. It's just a dog-and-pony show. They want to stand there and wag their fingers at people. So everybody takes the Fifth.

But it was when Abramoff said to George Hickenlooper and I that if he'd known or believed anywhere in his heart that he was actually going to go to jail, he would have never taken the Fifth. And George and I drove away from the prison that day and we thought, hmm. What would that scene be like?

(Soundbite of movie, "Casino Jack")

Mr. SPACEY: (as Jack Abramoff) No, I no longer wish to invoke the privileges.

Unidentified Man: Jack...

Mr. SPACEY: (as Jack Abramoff) I have something to say, and I'm going to say it.

Unidentified Man: Jack, just be quiet.

Mr. SPACEY: (as Jack Abramoff) No, no, no. In fact...

Unidentified Man: What are you doing?

Mr. SPACEY: (as Jack Abramoff) ...if we want talk all about the money, why don't we start with the four $5,000 checks I personally handed to Senator Jarvis for his re-election campaign? And we know what that money was all about, don't we, senator?

Mr. SPACEY: He had given money, Abramoff had given money to a number of senators on that panel. And, you know, you can understand the feeling of, well, all these people are pointing at him and telling him what a bad person he is when they had done business with him for years.

Kevin Spacey, thank you for joining us.

Mr. SPACEY: Thank you very much.

GONYEA: Kevin Spacey appears in the role of Jack Abramoff in the new film "Casino Jack."

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