Ten months on the road playing Richard III in theaters around the world is a good way to prep for playing a ruthlessly ambitious politician and Washington insider — according to Kevin Spacey, at least.
Just before he took the role of Francis "Frank" Underwood, the fictional majority whip of the House of Representatives who hatches a plan to take down the president in the new Netflix original series House of Cards, Spacey spent nearly a year playing Shakespeare's murderously ambitious king.
Richard III primed Spacey for the role of Underwood not least because both characters take brief, periodic breaks to directly address the audience.
"I have this memory of that experience," Spacey tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies about playing Richard III. "I was able to actually look into people's eyes all over the world and see how much they relished it, and how dangerous it was, and how sporting and naughty they felt in being sort of brought in and made Richard's — and now Francis' — co-conspirators."
David Fincher, the director of House of Cards, adds that when you use direct address with a character like Underwood, "You're getting private time with Machiavelli. It's like you're getting private tutelage."
House of Cards, which premieres Friday, is an experiment for Netflix, which will release all 13 episodes of the first season at once. It's an experiment for Spacey and Fincher, too: Both the actor and the director are known more for their work in film than television. Spacey has starred in such films as American Beauty, Seven, The Usual Suspects and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; Fincher has directed the films Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fight Club and The Social Network, among others.
Spacey, however, says that working on this particular television series has not been dissimilar from working on movies.
"In one way it feels like I'm making a really long movie," he says, "and in another way it feels like I'm in a 26-hour championship chess match because it's all about the moves and how far ahead Francis sees what ... the opponent is going to do."
Spacey on direct address
"The thing that I'm always questioning — and we all are – is, 'Is this arbitrary? Is this an important thing?' And sometimes we've discovered in the course of shooting that, actually, the dialogue that is written isn't necessary. All you have to do is a look. ... The way I've tried to transform my experience in the living theater — which was real people and real eyes, and now of course I'm just looking down the barrel of a lens — is to think of it as if I'm talking to my best friend in the way that you share things with your best friend that you wouldn't necessarily share with your wife. The asides, I'm trying to play them as if this is the person I trust more than anyone in the entire world."
Spacey on the benefits of distance in a relationship
"I know a lot of show business couples who, over the years, have talked about one of the reasons their marriages have lasted, or their relationships have lasted, is because they do have such [outside, independent] interests. They are off doing so many of their own projects and things that they aren't in each other's face 365 days a year. And I think that sometimes degrees and understanding of distance, and that distance in a relationship, is also valuable and important, as opposed to everything being cuddly and maudlin and co-dependent."
Spacey on using a Southern accent when adapting a British show
"[C]reating a character who's from the South ... allowed us to ... [mimic] the sort of rhythmic things that a British accent can do that maybe an accent in the West or too far East might not work. ... Those sentences might not come out in quite the fluid musicality that the British accent has. So I think it was ... a really smart choice to make [Frank] from South Carolina."
Spacey on Fincher's appetite for multiple takes
"Part of what I feel when he's doing that — and I like working this way — is that, you know, he's pushing you in a certain direction. He's having you go in a different direction this way; he's having you try a new meaning, a new approach to a line of dialogue in this way; and, frankly, the other truth is actors bring a lot of complicated accessories to the set. And some of those accessories are gestures, and some of those accessories are, 'Oh, I found a kind of cute way of saying a line,' or 'I like the way my voice does this,' or 'I'm going to use this Coke can to do this.' And I think sometimes, with David, it feels like [what] he's looking for is the cleanest, streamlined version of the idea that the character's trying to express. ... And he's just simply, at a certain point, beating the acting out of you. And I'm quite grateful for that."
Fincher on filming a driving scene in the 1995 film Seven
"It was truly hellish. I mean, it was Palmdale [Calif.] in summer, and it was about 140 degrees in this car and we had as many cameras as we could possibly stick in it. ... And we would drive for like five or six miles down this road, and then stop and then have to turn this entire ridiculous caravan around and go back to the beginning. ... We've fixed this, though, on House of Cards: All of our driving takes place in this very beautiful, air-conditioned green screen room."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
KEVIN SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Power was a lot like real estate: It's all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.
DAVIES: That's Kevin Spacey, who stars as an ambitious congressman in the new political thriller "House of Cards," an original production of and available only on Netflix. All 13 episodes of the first season will be available tomorrow.
Our guests today are Spacey and David Fincher, the executive producer of "House of Cards" who also directed the first two episodes. Among David Fincher's films are "Fight Club," "Seven," "Panic Room," "Zodiac" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," as well as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network," two films that earned him Oscar nominations.
Kevin Spacey had two Academy Awards for "American Beauty" and "The Usual Suspects." Among his other films are "L.A. Confidential," "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Seven," "The Shipping News" and "Margin Call." "House of Cards" is based on a BBC series that aired in England in the 1990s. In the Netflix series, Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a Southern congressman and majority whip of the U.S. House.
As the series opens, he's been helpful to the man who's just won the presidency, and he expects to be nominated secretary of state. But the president decides to appoint someone else, leaving him feeling angry and betrayed and determined to exact revenge.
Here's a scene from the first episode, when Underwood finds out the bad news. He's arrived for a meeting with the president-elect's chief of staff Linda Vasquez, played by Sakina Jaffrey.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
SPACEY: (As Francis) This is the memo I've drafted on our Middle East policy we've been developing. Now, I want to borrow from Reagan. I'd like to coin the phrase trickle-down diplomacy.
SAKINA JAFFREY: (As Linda Vasquez) Frank? I'm gonna stop you there. We are not nominating you for secretary of state. I know he made you a promise, but circumstances have changed.
SPACEY: (As Francis) The nature of promises, Linda, is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.
JAFFREY: (As Linda) Garrett has thought long and hard about this, and he's decided we need you to stay in Congress.
SPACEY: (As Francis) When was this decision made, and why wasn't I part of a conversation?
JAFFREY: (As Linda) I'm sorry, Frank, if it had been up to me, I wouldn't have waited this long to tell you.
SPACEY: (As Francis) So you knew you were going to do this?
JAFFREY: (As Linda) It has been an evolving discussion.
SPACEY: (As Francis) It's a chicken-(beep) move. I was vetted. Was that a ruse?
JAFFREY: (As Linda) No.
SPACEY: (As Francis) Let's be absolutely clear: You wouldn't have won without me.
JAFFREY: (As Linda) You're right, but now we have to lead. And that means making tough choices. As you know, education is a top priority for us, a complete federal overhaul. But it's not just education, Frank. Congress is split. We need you there more than we need you in the State department.
SPACEY: (As Francis) I got you hired, Linda.
JAFFREY: (As Linda) I know.
SPACEY: (As Francis) Donations, endorsements. I wrote the campaign's entire foreign policy platform. I bring years of Foreign Affairs Committee...
JAFFREY: (As Linda) Frank, please.
SPACEY: (As Francis) I want to speak to Walker personally.
JAFFREY: (As Linda) The decision is made.
DAVIES: Well, David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's good to have you both. Do you want to - Kevin Spacey, do you want to describe your character here, Francis Underwood? He's at the center of this series.
SPACEY: It's very hard to describe a character who I'm still learning about, and it's still evolving, and there's a lot I don't know. I can tell you what he's based on, which is that Michael Dobbs, the writer of the original book, was Margaret Thatcher's press secretary. And after he was sort of unceremoniously thrown out of politics, at least in her government, I think he went off on some holiday and decided as an act of revenge he would write this book and based the leading character, Francis Urquhart in that version, on Richard III and a little bit of Iago.
So you have a kind of basis there of one of the great or a couple of the great Shakespearian parts. And then I think what they did with that original series, what Beau Willimon, our head writer, has done on this one is to create a character that is constantly shifting. And for me this has felt like not only am I - in one way it feels like I'm making a really long movie, and in another way, it feels like I'm in a 26-hour championship chess match because it's all about the moves and how far ahead Francis sees what the other - what the opponent is going to do.
DAVIES: Well David Fincher, one of the interesting things about this series is that we see direct address, I guess that's the phrase that's used, where an actor, in this case Kevin Spacey, turns to the camera and speaks to the audience. How does that work? What's appealing about that?
DAVID FINCHER: I think the appeal is that you're getting, you're getting private time with Machiavelli. It's like you're getting, you're getting private tutelage. And you - I think there's a very different relationship with that character than there is with everybody else around him. I think the fact that he whispers in your ear and allows you access to his - not only to what he's thinking at any given moment but also where he's going with something.
You know, he's setting up the board for many, many plays, you know, further down the line.
DAVIES: Yeah. The risk might be that it breaks the dramatic flow and perhaps makes it a little less believable. Are there any kind of guidelines you use about how often to do it or in what circumstances you would - I mean, I know Beau Willimon wrote the script, but is there - is that something you have to be careful of?
FINCHER: Yeah, it's an ongoing discussion. I mean, we would have - up until the day we would shoot things, we would have conversations about, well, is this, is this - is there enough illumination of what he wants and what he's after in this direct address? Can it support its own weight? Is it essential?
SPACEY: And the thing that I - because I had the experience last year of playing Richard III in the theater. We took a production that Sam Mendez directed to 12 cities around the world for about 10 months. I had the experience of having that very relationship with an audience because Richard does direct address. It's what it's taken from for "House of Cards."
So I have this memory of that experience, and I was able to actually look into people's eyes all over the world and see how much they relished it and how dangerous it was and how sporting and naughty they felt in being sort of brought in and made Richard's, and now Francis', co-conspirators.
The thing that I'm always questioning, and we all are, is: Is this arbitrary? Is this an important thing? And sometimes we discovered in the course of shooting that actually the dialogue that was written isn't necessary. All you have to do is a look.
It's a little bit like - the way I've tried to transform my experience in the living theater, which was real people and real eyes, and now I'm of course just looking down the barrel of a lens, is to think of it as if I'm talking to my best friend and in the way that you share things with your best friend that you wouldn't necessarily share with your wife. The asides, I'm trying to play them as if this is the person I trust more than anyone in the entire world.
DAVIES: Right, right, I guess you could do some of this laying out the chess match through, you know, a voiceover internal monologue, but that would be different because here you're making the audience kind of your co-conspirators, right.
FINCHER: Yeah, I think a voiceover is a fundamentally different presentation. It's a thought. It's - you know, when you think of - when I think of the best voiceovers, you know, you think of "Apocalypse Now" or something like that. It's a guy - you know, it's the...
DAVIES: He's talking to himself, yeah.
FINCHER: And the way that it's recorded, even, it feels like it's - these are ideas that are literally echoing inside his skull. And I think that's a completely different thing than what Francis is doing. Francis is saying this is a really, really tricky world, and here's how, here's how one navigates through it. And so it has to be - it does have to be sort of in real time. It can't feel like it's: Oh, I remember April.
SPACEY: But it's also - it's not the first time the device has been used. I mean, I think one of my favorite uses of it is in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," which is just hilarious.
DAVIES: Yes, of course.
SPACEY: And I think there are a few other shows that employ it to some degree. But it is - there's a consistency to when it is useful to bring an audience in in that way. And also, you know, as we've been now doing a couple of premieres and for the first time actually sitting with an audience and hearing how an audience is reacting to the series, there's also an enormous amount of humor and a kind of delicious glee that they get out of those asides.
DAVIES: Right, you know, I'd read that, Kevin Spacey, you had done "Richard III" and had done this direct address to the audience. Is it harder when you have to turn and talk to a camera lens? I mean, I know this is your business, but...
SPACEY: Well, it's - you know, that's where you just have to use your imagination and to some degree the memory that I have of looking in faces. I have that memory. But I do have to - I do have to look down the barrel of a lens, and it is, it's a little odd and particularly sometimes because there's often a reflection, depending on where the light is, so then sometimes I'm actually seeing my own face, which I can't tell you how annoying that is on a daily basis.
SPACEY: So sometimes it's a little odd to sort of navigate through that, just that technical exercise. But when I've seen it, and then I see it cut, or we look back on something, and I think, you know, yeah, that feels like it's the right attitude to strike for this particular moment.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kevin Spacey and David Fincher. Kevin Spacey is the lead character, David Fincher is the executive producer, of the new Netflix series "House of Cards." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kevin Spacey and David Fincher. Kevin Spacey stars in the new series "House of Cards," which is a production of Netflix. David Fincher is the executive producer and directed the first two episodes.
Well, let's hear a clip. This is early in the first episode, when Francis Underwood, our main character, played by Kevin Spacey, has just learned he will not be appointed secretary of state, as he had expected. And he's spent the day walking around Washington, angry and confused, and he comes home at the end of the day, and this is the scene where he sees his wife Claire, who is played by Robin Wright. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
ROBIN WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) You didn't call. You didn't call me, Francis. Nine hours, you don't not call me, not when it's this big.
SPACEY: (As Francis) You're right.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) When have we ever avoided each other?
SPACEY: (As Francis) I wanted the solution first.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) Do you have one?
SPACEY: (As Francis) Not yet.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) This affects me too, Francis. And it's not the money I'm upset about, it's that we do things together. When you don't involve me, we're in freefall.
SPACEY: (As Francis) I should have called you, and I didn't.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) What happened?
SPACEY: (As Francis) She says they need to keep me in Congress.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) Linda said that?
SPACEY: (As Francis) Walker wasn't even there. That's what really gets me. He didn't have the courage to look me in the eye.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) I knew you shouldn't that woman.
SPACEY: (As Francis) I didn't. I don't. I don't trust anyone.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) Then how could you not see this coming?
SPACEY: (As Francis) I never thought they were capable.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) You don't usually underestimate people, Francis.
SPACEY: (As Francis) I know. Hubris, ambition.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) You should be angry.
SPACEY: (As Francis) I'm livid.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) Then where is that? I don't see it.
SPACEY: (As Francis) What do you want me to do, scream and yell, throw a tantrum?
WRIGHT: (As Claire) I want more than I'm seeing. You're better than this, Francis.
SPACEY: (As Francis) Well, I'm sorry, Claire. I am sorry.
WRIGHT: (As Claire) No, that I won't accept.
SPACEY: (As Francis) What?
WRIGHT: (As Claire) Apologies. My husband doesn't apologize, even to me.
DAVIES: And that's our guest Kevin Spacey with Robin Wright in a scene from "House of Cards," the new series on Netflix, which is - that episode directed by our other guest, David Fincher. And we should add that the crash we hear at the end of that scene is where Robin Wright is headed upstairs, and her husband has thrown a tray or something, finally exhibiting the anger, and then she smiles.
SPACEY: You know, we're looking at people who are just beyond I think what we can imagine certain political couples are like because, I mean, the kind of stakes that they're playing at. And I do like - I love the unfathomable nature of Francis and Claire. I love the idea that - I think we discussed this after seeing the first six or seven scripts. There was a lot of conversation about, you know, whether we were going to dramatize their deal, the deal that they had made with one another.
And we just felt like it would be better to, like, just see the behavior, see what came from it.
DAVIES: Yeah, at moments they remind me of a couple of serpents living together. Kevin Spacey, do you - I don't know if you have - invent back stories for your characters or if you talk about this kind of thing, but do you picture a day when they had a softer relationship?
SPACEY: Look, I think for whatever reason there are people who come together at certain points in their lives who provide something that no one else has ever provided. I imagine a great amount of that is freedom, and a great amount of that is clarity about I believe in you, and I'm better with you than I am on my own.
But I think what's interesting about this type of relationship is that it seems that these are not two people who view their life through the prism of their relationship. These are two people who have very strong lives outside of each other and have their own interests outside of each other and perhaps even their own friends, although we'll see to what degree their friendships are genuine as the course of the series goes on.
And that strength, that individualism, that ability to be so concrete in their own lives, then when they come together, they're even stronger. But they do - but they are allowed to operate in their own worlds and give each other that kind of freedom.
I suppose it - you know, I know a lot of show business couples who, over the years, have talked about one of the reasons their marriages have lasted, or their relationships have lasted, is because they do have such interests. They are off doing so many of their own projects and things that they're not, you know, in each other's face 365 days a year.
And I think that sometimes that degree and understanding of distance and that distance in a relationship is also valuable and important, as opposed to everything being cuddly and, you know, maudlin and...
SPACEY: Co-dependent, yeah, exactly. So I think we'll begin, as the series goes on, to explore that. And perhaps it will always be a question that people will be asking: What is going on with those two?
FINCHER: But that's sort of interesting.
FINCHER: What was the bargain?
DAVIES: Right. You know, Kevin Spacey, I have to ask you, I know that you have, at times, been supportive of political figures, and I'm told that you have something of a relationship with Bill Clinton. Did you draw on any of those relationships as you crafted the Francis Underwood character?
SPACEY: No, not so much because my experiences, you know, I've known the former president for a very, very long time, but the context in which I know him and the context in which I was doing things for the Democratic Party or for his re-election, et cetera, was always about fundraising and, you know, going out and hosting an event. And oh, Stevie Wonder's going to play.
What I've been able to pull from is the experience of being around the environment, of seeing how things work in Washington, being at the White House or being able to know congressmen or senators. And I also have to say that I was very grateful to the current majority whip, Kevin McCarthy, and the current minority whip, Steny Hoyer. They both met with me. They both answered a lot of questions because I wanted to understand the practical and complicated effort to corral 218 congressmen to vote in a particular way.
And as we've just seen the least productive Congress in the history of the United States just come to its close, it is kind of fascinating and interesting to play a character who, while perhaps diabolical, he gets stuff done.
DAVIES: Kevin Spacey, you've had all this experience at the Old Vic, the theater in London. And I wonder, as you developed the character of Francis Underwood in "House of Cards," whether you looked at Francis Urquhart, who was the lead character in the British version of the "House of Cards," kind of how you translated that to a different sort of culture and society, how you molded the character differently. Did you draw on that experience?
SPACEY: Well, I watched it about three years ago, when David first said hey, look at - and I remembered the original series, and I had seen the original series. My mother loved that series because it aired on PBS in the United States. But I didn't watch it again after that because you don't want to steal too much from another actor's performance.
DAVIES: Well, they're really kind of pretty different, aren't they? I think, you know...
SPACEY: Well they are. They're different in many ways, and I think that what Beau Willimon and David and I all were interested in doing was in a sense using the original British series as a launching pad but that clearly our Francis was going to be different. He's obviously from a different place. He has a different last name.
And to a certain degree, how do you negotiate a character that is in a sense so beloved in Great Britain and so delicious in terms of the performance but make it something all of your own? So in a way, by bringing back some of the dialogue, by creating a character who's from the South, which allowed us to in a sense in the writing, the sort of rhythmic things that a British accent can do that maybe an accent in the west or too far east might not work.
They might - those sentences might not come out in quite the sort of fluid musicality that the British accent has. So I think it was, it was a really smart choice to make him from South Carolina.
DAVIES: Kevin Spacey stars in, and David Fincher is executive director of, the series "House of Cards," which premieres tomorrow on Netflix. They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with actor Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher, who've collaborated on the new political thriller series "House of Cards," an original production of Netflix. All 13 episodes of the first season are available tomorrow.
David Fincher got an Oscar nomination for his film "The Social Network," based on the Ben Mezrich book about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. I asked Fincher about the opening scene of the film, when Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is talking in a bar with his girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara. He's a Harvard student anxious to get into one of the prestigious final clubs, and he's frustrated that she isn't sympathetic.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SOCIAL NETWORK")
JESSE EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) I'm trying to be straightforward with you and tell you that I think you might want to be a little more supportive. If I get in, I will be taking you to the events and the gatherings, and you'll be meeting a lot of people you wouldn't normally get to meet.
ROONEY MARA: (as Erica Albright) You would do that for me?
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) We're dating.
MARA: (as Erica Albright) OK. Well, I want to try and be straightforward with you and let you know that we're not anymore.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) What do you mean?
MARA: (as Erica Albright) We're not dating anymore. I'm sorry.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) Is this a joke?
MARA: (as Erica Albright) No, it's not.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) You're breaking up with me?
MARA: (as Erica Albright) You're going to introduce me to people I wouldn't normally have the chance to meet. What the - what is that supposed to mean?
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) Wait. Settle down.
MARA: (as Erica Albright) What is it supposed to mean?
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) Erica, the reason we're able to sit here and drink right now is because you used to sleep with the door guy.
MARA: (as Erica Albright) The door guy? His name is Bobby. I have not slept with the door guy. The door guy is a friend of mine, and he's a perfectly good class of people. And what part of Long Island are you from, Wimbledon?
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) Wait.
MARA: (as Erica Albright) I'm going back to my dorm.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) Wait, wait. Is this real?
MARA: (as Erica Albright) Yes.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) OK, then wait. I apologize, OK?
MARA: (as Erica Albright) I have to go study.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) Erica?
MARA: (as Erica Albright) Yes?
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) I'm sorry. I mean it.
MARA: (as Erica Albright) I appreciate that, but I have to go study.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) Come on. You don't have to study. You don't have to study. Let's just talk.
MARA: (as Erica Albright) I can't.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) Why?
MARA: (as Erica Albright) Because it is exhausting. Dating you is like dating a StairMaster.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) All I meant is that you're not likely to - currently. I wasn't making a comment on your appearance. I was just saying that you go to BU. I was stating a fact. That's all. And if it seemed rude, than of course I apologize.
MARA: (as Erica Albright) I have to go study.
EISENBERG: (as Mark Zuckerberg) You don't have to study.
MARA: (Erica Albright) Why do you keep saying I don't have to study?
EISENBERG: (Mark Zuckerberg) Because you go to BU.
DAVIES: And that's Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara in the film "The Social Network," directed by our guest David Fincher. And our other guest, Kevin Spacey, was an executive producer on that project.
David Fincher, I know you've been asked about this scene a lot, and it's been written that there were - you did 99 takes with these two actors. And, you know, directors have different approaches. Do you do that a lot because you're working towards a particular performance that you want to get, or is it that you like to have a lot of options when you get to the cutting room? Can you just talk about that little?
FINCHER: Well, this is something that's been blown out of proportion over the last couple of...
FINCHER: We shot the opening scene. The opening scene in the movie was incredibly important to setting the tone and the pace, and it was a wonderful character introduction for two very important characters. And it's the first of the bookends that make up the arc of this relationship. But the 99 takes is over six setups, or something like that. So it's, like, 15, 20 takes, maybe, per set. And getting actors to talk over each other...
FINCHER: ...in a way that you can actually use and then edit is - it's difficult. It's tricky, because you're committed, you know, you're committed - if they're going to - if they're literally going to interrupt each other, you're committed to that take, that performance of somebody stepping on somebody else's dialogue. So that was - that's why we shot as many takes as we did.
SPACEY: First of all, he is right. It's not 99 takes of one camera, in one place. It is - you know, there are a lot of directors who will do lots and lots of setups, but very few takes. David doesn't do as many setups, but he does more takes.
And part of what I feel when he's doing that - and I like working this way - is that, you know, he's pushing you in a certain direction. He's having you go in a different direction this way. He's having you try a new meaning, a new approach to a line of dialogue in this way.
And frankly, the other truth is actors bring a lot of complicated accessories to the set. And some of those accessories are gestures, and some of those assessors are, oh, I found a kind of cute way of saying a line, or I like the way my voice does this or I'm going to use this Coke can to do this. And I think sometimes what David - it feels like - he's looking for is the cleanest, streamlined version of the idea that the character is trying to express, and the way in which that character would express it. And he's just simply, at a certain point, beating the acting out of you.
SPACEY: And I'm quite grateful for that as I look at, you know, particularly the cuts of "House of Cards" and the episodes that we've done, that there is an absolute clarity. And I think it's true in "Social Network," as well. There's an extraordinary cleanness to those characters. It's not encumbered by a lot of actorisms, which people often get away with, and frankly, shouldn't be allowed to get away with. And so I'm very grateful that someone's on the set being the master of his craft.
FINCHER: If my job is ostensibly just to record something, then what you're talking about is, you know, inflicting hardship and pain on people. But it's not. My job is to coerce a behavioral response that, when it's re-contextualized, when a slice of it is taken and put and butted up against another behavioral response, it's supposed to create this sense of - you know, in the case of that opening scene from "Social Network," there are a lot of things that play. You want to get the idea that these people know each other, that they are, they've been intimate with one another. They have a - you know, they are all kinds of things that have to be, you have to get glimpses of. And so to get all those little colors and nuances, sometimes you have to - you know, the best actors in the world working things out, you know, at home in their bathtubs...
FINCHER: ...or as they brush their teeth in the mirror, that's perfectly valid. And then there's also the day of, where they come in and the lights are there, and 90 people are watching them. And you kind of you want to be able to push them around so that they respond in ways that they, you know, maybe didn't give themselves credit for.
SPACEY: And I have to say that I know that I'm better at my job when I'm directed. I'm not better at my job when I'm left to my own devices.
SPACEY: Because what that means is that it's not that I don't trust my instincts. It's that my instincts sometimes are the wrong element for that particular scene at that particular moment, that particular delivery. And so I really love it when someone is there with an extremely sharp knife and cutting away all the fat.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kevin Spacey and David Fincher, and we'll talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with director David Fincher and actor Kevin Spacey. They're both involved in the new series "House of Cards," a political thriller which is on Netflix. David Fincher is the executive producer and directed the first two episodes, and Kevin Spacey plays the lead character.
I want to talk about an earlier collaboration between the two of you. That's the film "Seven," which goes back, gosh, almost 20 years now. This is a ghastly murder mystery, in a way. And I wanted to hear a scene near the end of the film. And if anybody's concerned about a spoiler alert from a 1995 film, run from your radio. But I'm going to give away some of the plot, here.
This is a case of two detectives investigating a series of grisly and creative murders. And each one of them represents one of the seven deadly sins, and the murders are crafted to conform to punish the sinner. There's a glutton who's killed in a certain way. Late in the film, the murderer - played by Kevin Spacey - has surrendered and agreed to take the two detectives, played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, to find the final two bodies. So in this scene, they're in their car on the way to this discovery, and we're hearing Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman talk to the killer, played by Kevin Spacey, who's in the backseat of the police car handcuffed. And we'll hear Kevin Spacey as the killer, speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SEVEN")
SPACEY: (as John Doe) Nothing wrong with a man taking pleasure in his work. I won't deny my own personal desire to turn each sin against the sinner.
BRAD PITT: (as Detective David Mills) Wait a minute. I thought all you did was kill innocent people.
SPACEY: (as John Doe) Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man, a disgusting man who could barely stand up, a man who, if you saw him on the street, you'd point him out to your friends so that they could join you in mocking him? A man who if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn't be able to finish your meal? And after him, I picked the lawyer, and you both must have secretly been thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets.
PITT: (as Detective David Mills) Murderers?
SPACEY: (John Doe) A woman...
PITT: (Detective David Mills) Murderers, John, like yourself.
SPACEY: (John Doe) A woman so ugly inside that she couldn't go bear to go on living if she couldn't be beautiful outside? A drug dealer. A drug-dealing pederast, actually. And let's not forget the disease-spreading whore. Only in a world this (bleep) could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that's the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's common. It's trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon and night. Well, not anymore.
DAVIES: And that's our guest Kevin Spacey in the film "Seven," directed by our other guest, David Fincher. You know, after hearing that interesting conversation between the two of you about the collaboration between a director and an actor, I wonder if you could both just talk a little bit about working together and getting this performance.
FINCHER: Well, this is, I mean, the scene that you just played the snippet from was probably one of the worst possible scenarios for directors and actors because it involved a car in the sun, with all of these lights hanging off it and trying to find a road long enough that you could have a scene that take - that is this elaborate. And, you know, I mean...
SPACEY: And then you add all the sounds.
SPACEY: Yeah. I'm handcuffed in the back of the seat. You have every sound that the car makes and all of the attending equipment around the car that's on the car. So you know you're going to end up...
FINCHER: People walking and talking.
SPACEY: You're going to end up looping - you know, meaning re-recording - your dialogue later, you know, in a studio. All I remember, really, is, is in that scene, David said to me at some point, look. I've done a lot of the work up to this point because, you know, the audience is going to have seen - you know, the sort of interesting thing about "Seven" is you don't actually see any...
SPACEY: ...act at all. You see the aftermath. And he said, so they're going to be kind of teed up for this. So if you just don't drool, we might get away with this.
FINCHER: But, I mean, it was truly hellish. I mean, it was Palmdale and in summer, and it was about 140 degrees in this car. And we had as many cameras as we could possibly stick in it. And still...
SPACEY: And Brad and I were very tired, because we had to sit up very late the night before working on the scene. We were working really hard on the sort of the back-and-forth in that scene. So we were both kind of exhausted as we shot it. That's what I remember about that.
FINCHER: Yeah. And there was driving. We'd drive for, like, five or six miles down this road, and then stop and have to turn this entire ridiculous caravan around...
FINCHER: ...and go back to the beginning. And...
SPACEY: And do it again.
FINCHER: Yeah. And we've fixed this, though. On "House of Cards," all of our driving takes place in this very beautiful, air-conditioned green screen room so that actors can get in and out of the cars very simply and...
SPACEY: And we can say the dialogue that is actually going to be in the series, rather than having to go re-loop all of it.
DAVIES: So I'm sure there weren't dozens of takes of this. But, I don't know, Kevin Spacey, do you...
SPACEY: Oh, there were a lot.
DAVIES: There were a lot of takes.
SPACEY: Yeah, there were a lot.
DAVIES: Well, do either of you just want to talk a little bit about this character? I mean, what's fascinating about it, this guy is a monster, but obviously doesn't see himself as a monster at all. I mean, there's...
FINCHER: Well, this is the...
DAVIES: ...you have to get inside his head and make him, you know, believable.
FINCHER: But this is the thing about, I mean, I always think an argument is better on screen when everybody's right.
FINCHER: When every person who's involved is - can righteously say this is what I believe in and this is what I think is true and you can kind of scratch your chin and go, oh, he does have somewhat of a point.
DAVIES: One other question about "Seven": You know, in "Seven," Kevin Spacey, you don't appear in the opening credits to the movie. This was your idea, right?
SPACEY: It was. And although it was, I think, about a three or four-day fight with Newline Cinema because they, of course, at that point, didn't understand what I was arguing. But what I was arguing was I had just shot a series of films that I knew would be coming out before "Seven."
And I thought if any of those films do well, or if I emerge from any of those films in any way, and I felt those roles in those films might give me that opportunity - one was called "Swimming with Sharks," and the other was called "The Usual Suspects" - that I was concerned that if an audience sat in a movie theater and it said, you know, Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Spacey in - right, however those billings would have been - that you were then - if people would either know the name or had seen that someone was playing this role, then you'd be waiting for that person to show up.
And I felt like it might be better for the film that an audience has absolutely no idea who John Doe is, and that there's no sense of who's coming. And so that when that character first appears onscreen, two things would happen. Oh, my God. There he is. And who's playing him? And anyway, ultimately, I did win that argument. And I think I took the first credit at the end credits of the film. And I think it worked really well in terms of keeping that mystery going for audiences.
FINCHER: Yeah. And it is the great trick of that movie, what Andrew did was - you know, and I remember reading it for the first time. I've said this before, but it is - it's an interesting thing, because as a director the only enjoyment you ever get of the movie that you're making is the first time you read it. Because then the rest of it is just fractally subdividing issues and problems and hurdles that have to be overcome. But your only enjoyment of it is the first time you sort of hold it in your hand, the only time you get to experience it as the audience.
SPACEY: And is it - do you find that it's also - that the process is also like you're trying to get back to that first feeling you had when you first read it? That's the experience you want the audience to have.
FINCHER: Right. And this is the - this becomes really interesting when somebody goes, here, would you read this script? Because you kind of have to make room for experiencing that. If you really want to get - you have to have a kind of - you know, it has to sort of be a powerful first reckoning with the material when you first finish it, because you're going to constantly be drawing on what that felt like.
And I remember reading - I remember holding in my hand and knowing that I had 15 pages left. I could hold it in my right hand, and I'd gone through 100 pages with my left hand. And I was reading the script, and all of a sudden, here comes John Doe, and he gives himself up. And I thought: If I'm in a movie theater, I'm going to be asking myself, this movie could just be beginning.
FINCHER: I could have made the halfway point. What is going on? You can't do this. Well, I knew that that wasn't the case, and I was so curious as to how is this going to get tied up. And then the only pages that I know still exist - unless they didn't send me - no, it says the end at the end here. I'm like, it actually is the - but I always felt that that was the greatest thing about it, was you definitely got a feeling in the story that we're never going to catch this guy. We're never going to meet him. We're never going to know who he is. And these guys will never get in front of this train. They will never be able to change the course of this. And then when he shows up, for a moment, you get this idea that they could actually kind of wrest control of this whole thing back. And then, of course, all is lost.
FINCHER: But that is - it's an interesting - it was for me was...
SPACEY: Yeah. And for me, when I read it and then ultimately did it, it's so fascinating to play a character that actually doesn't show up until, like, the last two reels of the film.
FINCHER: Yeah. And when he does, he kind of goes, oh, by the way, here. Let me help you with those handcuffs.
FINCHER: And you go oh, no. Don't cuff him. And it's - if he wants it, don't give it to him.
DAVIES: Well, Kevin Spacey, David Fincher, good luck on the series. And I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us.
SPACEY: Thank you.
FINCHER: Thank you.
DAVIES: Kevin Spacey stars in and David Fincher is executive producer of the Netflix series "House of Cards," which premiers tomorrow. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new box set featuring jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.