Originally printed Sepember 29, 1999

Paul Wong
Spacey, ruling. (Courtesy of Dreamworks)

Kevin Spacey stars in “American Beauty” as Lester Burnham, a suburban father who’s lost his way until he finds the strength to challenge the system. Galvanized by the “I’m not afraid of anything” attitude exhibited by his next-door neighbor, Lester goes from an advertising industry drone who’s “lost it” to a weed-smoking, iron-pumping, burger-flipping would-be Humbert Humbert.

His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a real estate agent so into self-help tapes that she actually believes the hype. Jane (Thora Birch), his daughter, despises both of her parents equally and is pinching pennies for a boob job.

“I think Lester manages to sort of tap into a part of his life that must have been alive and well in college. Annette and I spent a good deal of time in rehearsal talking about what they must have been like when they first met, how great their life used to be,” Spacey said in a recent interview with The Michigan Daily. “We began to figure out when it started to fall apart, when priorities began to change and their focus on both sides began to be other things.”

Part of Lester’s attraction to audiences is his effort to get out of the rut that is his life and become something more. His journey to find himself again – whether that be his inner youth or inner retiree – allows Lester to begin to live out his life-long fantasies, something Spacey feels most people can relate to. Speeding along Lester’s rebirth are boy-next-door Ricky (Wes Bentley) and wannabe Lolita, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari).

Spacey credits the three young actors, Birch, Bentley and Suvari, with forming the soul of the film and making it accessible to audiences of all ages. “Kids are really loving it, I suspect not only because of what the film’s about but also because of the performances of these three incredible actors,” Spacey said. “They are, thank God, playing teenagers that aren’t just angst-ridden and trying to get laid.

“What we’re hearing is people saying ‘thank you.’ In this glut of movies that are supposedly dealing with the problems of youth, it’s nice to have one that’s actually dealing with it in an honest and mature way,” he added.

For Spacey, “American Beauty” represents somewhat of a shift in roles. Previously known for his twitchy, tense performances in such films as “The Usual Suspects” and “Seven,” here Spacey takes on the more familiar world of suburbia. Recently, he made a high-profile career move in taking the lead role in “The Iceman Cometh” on the stage.

“I don’t think I could have ever done this film without having done ‘Iceman.’ Its spirit and what Lester is searching for are on many levels the things that the characters in ‘Iceman’ are searching for. What I was given in that play and what I experienced with it taught me more about fellowship, camaraderie and about working together as a community than anything else,” Spacey said. “I think the two experiences inform each other. I walked away to ‘American Beauty’ with this feeling, and I know that’s the feeling that I had to feel in order to get where Lester gets.”

Just as Lester makes a change in his career path and life in general, Spacey, as well, has reached a point in his career where he wants to branch out from his established on-screen persona.

“I no longer wanted to play the kind of characters I became known for. I wanted to start moving in new directions,” said Spacey. “This film kind of completes a step that I’ve been taking since ‘L.A. Confidential.’ I began to try to play characters that were just a little more ambiguous and perhaps on morally shifting ground, but nonetheless moving toward characters that were just much more affected by events. It allowed me to go to a place that’s more vulnerable than I’ve been able to show in film.”

Thanks to characters like Lester, Spacey’s future appears blessed with success and security, so much so that he feels confident enough to turn his attention to smaller projects by first-time writers and directors. Not coincidentally, “American Beauty” is the product of rookie director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball.

“There’s a lot I want to do and there’s a lot I want to help do that I won’t act in, and there’s a lot of things I want to help other people do,” Spacey said.

“That, to me, is fantastic to give an opportunity to people that otherwise wouldn’t get it and watch them run with the ball and deliver something that’s fantastic.”

Spacey himself is clearly poised for a fantastic run of his own as the great roles keep getting thrown his way, proving to us all why it’s never too late to get it back.

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