STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Kevin Spacey, who has collected two Oscars for his acting, opens on Broadway tonight playing a failed actor. His character is also a drunk in Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten."
(Soundbite of play "A Moon for the Misbegotten")
Mr. KEVIN SPACEY (Actor): (As Mr. James Tyrone, Jr.) As I was saying, my throat is parched from the long, dusty walk I took just for the pleasure of being your guest.
Mr. COLM MEANEY (Actor): (As Mr. Phil Hogan) I don't remember inviting you. (Unintelligible) the road is hard (unintelligible) a speck of dust in it, and it's less than a quarter mile from the inn here.
Mr. SPACEY: (As Mr. Tyrone, Jr.) I didn't have a drink at the inn. I waited until I arrived here, knowing that you, of all people…
Mr. MEANEY: (As Mr. Hogan) Knowing that I'd what?
Mr. SPACEY: (As Mr. Tyrone, Jr.) Your reputation as a generous host.
Mr. MEANEY: (As Mr. Hogan) Well, the world must be full of liars.
INSKEEP: That's Colm Meaney playing opposite Kevin Spacey. This production was first staged in London at the legendary Old Vic Theatre, where Kevin Spacey is now artistic director. He came into our New York studios to talk with Renee Montagne about the play and the Old Vic.
RENEE MONTAGNE: This play, when it was staged there last fall, brought about something of a reversal of fortune for Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic. His earlier choices were not always well received by British critics. In fact, they could be quite brutal, like the one who opined, under the regime of Kevin Spacey, this much-loved theatre is turning into a long-running farce. Then the raves rolled in for "A Moon for the Misbegotten."
Mr. SPACEY: This play is actually the last play written by the great Eugene O'Neill. And if audiences remember his extraordinary work of "Long Day's Journey into Night," this was a play that O'Neill wrote about his own family. It was about his father, who was a famous actor-manager; his mother, who was a dope addict; his brother, who was a failed alcoholic actor.
So Jamie Tyrone, the character I play in "Moon" first appeared in "Long Day's Journey into Night." And O'Neill then was always nagged at the idea that he had not been entirely fair to his brother in "Long Day's Journey." He felt he hadn't made him as understandable as he should have been. So he wrote "Moon," in a sense, as a redemptive exploration of his own brother's demons.
MONTAGNE: Eugene O'Neill's father was also an actor who ran a theater company. Was he a great actor or an actor who failed to live up to his potential greatness, or what?
Mr. SPACEY: Well, I think that's exactly what O'Neill is examining in "Long Day's Journey" is the regret that James O'Neill had. When he began his career, he was praised by some of the great Shakespearean actors of the time as having an enormous potential. And yet he, in a sense, if you want to use the modern definition of it, he sold out for money.
He found a winning play called "The Count of Monte Cristo," which he revived and revived and revived and revived for over 20 years, long after he was told to play the part. And he made money, and made lots of money and had a comfortable life, but I think he ended his life in great regret that he had not pursued the level of work that actors who had that kind of that talent would have liked to pursue.
MONTAGNE: Now James O'Neill did run a theater company, which brings us to the Old Vic. And you're the artistic director; you're running, effectively, the Old Vic now.
Mr. SPACEY: Yes, and had been living in London now since the spring of '03.
MONTAGNE: The Old Vic is an old, old theater. What, it dates back to the early 1800s.
Mr. SPACEY: It was built in 1818. You know, it was originally a kind of music hall and coffee house. It's on the south bank of London. And at that time, it was really nothing but marshes. I think there were only two buildings on that side of the river at that time, one was the Old Vic and the other was a mental hospital.
In the late 1800s and into the 1900s, it became a theater known as a home of Shakespeare and ballet and opera. And since that time, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Peter O'Toole for a little while, many, many actors have run the Old Vic Theatre.
MONTAGNE: Tell us how you got there. How does an American actor, quite a famous movie actor like yourself, end up the artistic director of one of the most legendary theaters in London?
Mr. SPACEY: Well, it began by my performing there. I fell in love with that theater, almost every actor who has ever played that theater has. It had been, for all intents and purposes since 1976, basically a building that people could rent. And the idea was that the Old Vic, it was always at its best when it had a company.
So I went on this committee to help them begin to search for an artistic director. And, you know, literally over time it just started to dawn on me that maybe this was what I was meant to do. And one night, as close as I will ever get to Dick Cheney, I put my name on the list of candidates. And here I am.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, you were on the search committee before you were chosen.
Mr. SPACEY: Yeah, you know, I wouldn't necessarily say I thought at the time that was the best idea, but it seemed to me that everything in my own life was leading toward this kind of decision. I mean, for people who only know me from movies, the truth is they don't know me.
When I was 13 or 14 years old, I dreamed about running a theater. And I spent 20-something years onstage before I ever stepped in front of a film camera. And by the end of '99, I had to take a step back and say, well, this is going better than I could have imagined. Now what am I supposed to do?
And it struck me that I didn't want to spend another 10 years focusing on film. I wanted to take all of the really extraordinary good fortune and success that had come to me personally and do something with it. It was not about my career.
MONTAGNE: That just about the first thing that happened to you after all the publicity about your taking over as artistic director of the Old Vic was that you got slammed by critics for the work you put on in the theater.
Mr. SPACEY: Well, on one level, I didn't take it personally. On another level, if you actually go back, as I did before I began, and you look at theatrical beginnings in England, you will quickly surmise that every single theater that ever opened in England was received in exactly the same way.
The Royal Shakespeare Company was a disaster for its first three seasons. And as we sit here today with "Moon" about to open on Broadway and over 650,000 people who have come into the Old Vic's building in our first two and a half seasons, I'd say it's pretty encouraging.
You know, we are looking at this from a point of view that we're trying to build a company that's going to last long after I remove myself as artistic director, or get removed.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Kevin Spacey, thanks very much for talking with us.
Mr. SPACEY: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Kevin Spacey stars in Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten," opening tonight on Broadway.
INSKEEP: And you can hear an extended version of Renee's conversation with Kevin Spacey at npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.