Allison Pearson: My tearful interview with Kevin Spacey proves he’s MeToo’s greatest casualty

Kevin Spacey interview by Allison Pearson
Kevin Spacey interview by Allison Pearson

How long before Kevin Spacey is allowed to be uncancelled? Seriously, I’m curious. It has been almost seven years since Spacey had the leper’s bell hung around his neck. Is it to be a life sentence or are the millions who relish this great actor’s performances to be allowed to see him back where he belongs, on stage and screen?

I must admit that, until recently, I had vaguely, and without paying much attention, taken the no-smoke-without-fire view of Spacey. Hollywood bigshot exploits his position for sexual favours – it’s the oldest story in the book. Then I watched the new Channel 4 documentary, Spacey Unmasked (Spacey Stitched Up, more like), and a long, revelatory interview in which the fallen star spoke to journalist Dan Wootton, and I completely changed my mind.

Ten men, nearly all failed actors, pour out tales of woe in the two-part documentary that pretty much add up to heavy petting plus crushing disappointment. (Spacey apparently let them down by failing to become their mentor or read their terrible screenplays.) It was not nice or acceptable behaviour, as the star now readily admits, and some will find it distasteful, but the fair-minded will surely wonder how a man can be eternally damned for so little.

In one particularly ludicrous testimony, a drama classmate surfaces from high school, 48 years ago, to complain that the young Kevin Fowler, as Spacey was then, put his hand on his crotch when they were driving to a party. That was almost obligatory for teenagers in steamed-up cars in the 1970s, as I recall.

The whole production was staged for tragic effect, with moody lighting, a tearful walk-out and amateur hysterics about the two-time Oscar winner being a predator and “cold-eyed monster”. Such is the growing feeling of injustice that several major celebrities, including Sharon Stone and Liam Neeson, are beginning to speak out to demand that Spacey is given a second chance.

Even Channel 4 has to admit that if the allegations are true (we’ll get to that), nothing Spacey is accused of is actually criminal. As the theatre critic and veteran journalist Libby Purves observed after watching the programme, “Even to a straight, Christian, conventional old bat like me, I tell you that none of it seems worth bringing ruin on a human being.” Quite. I now feel immense compassion for Spacey, tinged with anger at the clear injustice.

Even at the peak of the MeToo movement, no one fell faster from grace than Spacey, who had scaled the dramatic heights with films such as The Usual Suspects (winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) and American Beauty (Best Actor). “My life was finished in four days,” Spacey tells me in an emotional interview from his Baltimore home earlier this week.

He looks chipper in a plaid shirt and speaks with great eloquence, of course, showing a consideration and restraint his accusers don’t deserve – but battling to salvage his reputation in endless court cases has clearly taken its toll. There is a vulnerability to him, a frayed rawness around the edges that surfaces when he breaks down several times during our conversation. At one point, I am so distressed by his distress that I feel like crying too, but we are here to set the record straight, so I plough on.

If this were a movie it would start here, preferably with a laconic voiceover by Spacey. In October 2017, the same month that a New York Times investigation into allegations of sexual assault by the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein set off the MeToo movement, an actor named Anthony Rapp was apparently emboldened by the outpouring of stories. He publicly accused Spacey of molesting him at a party in 1986, when Rapp was 14 and Spacey in his late 20s.

Within hours, Spacey responded on social media, saying he had no recollection of the incident, adding, “But if I did behave then as he describes, [I] owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior and I am sorry for the feelings he has described carrying with him all these years.” He then went on to compound the damage from that notably inept statement by coming out as gay, something he had denied for years. Understandably, there was widespread outrage that Spacey appeared to have used his coming out to excuse a sex crime.

But it wasn’t true. In 2022 a jury took 80 minutes to clear Spacey of all allegations. Rapp was subsequently ordered to pay Spacey $40,000 (£31,600) in damages. You would have thought that was pretty conclusive, wouldn’t you? But Rapp’s attorney at the time insisted that, while they accepted the jury’s verdict, “Anthony told his truth in court”.

It is the cruel catch 22 of cancel culture that being innocent may afford no protection against being treated as guilty.

After Rapp came forward, Spacey swiftly lost several roles, including that of the thrillingly villainous American Iago, President Frank Underwood, in the Netflix show House of Cards (five seasons in). The film director Ridley Scott excised him from his film All the Money in the World (Spacey’s scenes were re-shot with the late Christopher Plummer). “It was a business issue,” Scott said briskly, protecting his project from the contagion of toxic reputation.

I wonder if Spacey feels that the complaints against him were blown out of proportion on the rising tide of MeToo fury?

“Well, I think that there was definitely a rush to judgment,” he says carefully. “And I think that, to some degree, corporations then put themselves in a situation where they now had to behave in the same way toward anyone who was accused of anything. I mean, if the companies that I had an incredible partnership with had stood up and said, ‘We hear you and we take allegations seriously and we’re going to investigate this. And when we discover what the truth is, we’re going to tell you how we’re going to react.’ But, instead, they publicly divorced themselves from me and said that they would never work with me again before a single question had been asked. Certainly, when Netflix did that, and we’d had an enormous success together, people must have thought, ‘Well, they must have the dirt on him.’ So then everyone else decided to react punitively toward me. And all I ever wanted was for people to ask questions and investigate. And I am well aware that that did not happen.”

House of Cards
Spacey won a Golden Globe for his leading role in House of Cards - Melinda Sue Gordon

In August 2022, Spacey was ordered to pay $31 million (£25.5 million) to the producers of House of Cards over losses relating to allegations of sexual misconduct by him, after losing an appeal over the sum. But it’s a bitter irony that Netfix now refuses either to release, or to sell, Spacey’s final work for them, a biopic of the critic and celebrated wit Gore Vidal. Vidal, who also had a predilection for younger men and saying outrageous things, should consider himself lucky that he’s dead; he’d certainly be cancelled if he were alive today. What about the specific allegations? One young actor, who appeared in a production of Sweet Bird of Youth in 2013, when Spacey was running the Old Vic theatre, claimed he groped him in public at an after-party held at the Savoy. The accuser says, “He pulled me in closer and in my ear he whispered, ‘Don’t worry about it.’” Is that true?

Spacey shakes his head. “It’s not true.”

So what is the motive of someone like that to speak out and say that happened to him?

“I don’t know. But I would say this, when Anthony Rapp told his story [against me], there were a number of people who came forward to tell another story because they felt so strongly that Anthony Rapp was telling the truth. The story must be true. Well, it isn’t true, and it wasn’t true. And there were other stories that followed that also weren’t true, or there were parts of them that were true, or they had been exaggerated or not happened at all. I think some people maybe think that they’re helping and doing the right thing.”

Spacey says a lot of “incredible progress” has happened because of the MeToo movement, which is decent of him since he can count himself among its biggest casualties. But he also indicates the unfairness of not giving the accused an “opportunity to actually have a fair shot at being able to prove that either something didn’t happen or there are circumstances that make it questionable”.

The Channel 4 producers did initially approach friends of Spacey for comment, but when the star was found not guilty, they never called back, he says. Spacey is suspicious. “I think clearly they must have thought, back in 2022 when they announced that they were going to do this documentary, that I was going to lose the Anthony Rapp case, and by the time it came out I’d be in jail and they would be really ahead of the curve. But, you know, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, and perhaps because they had already at that point spent money, I think they just decided that they wanted to go ahead with it.”

This is Spacey politely saying that he believes the agenda was to make an explosive take-down that would sell around the world and bury him once and for all. In fact, in the brief time since the documentary aired, Spacey and his manager, Evan Lowenstein (who has stood by him throughout, and to whom he is devoted), have already managed to come up with evidence that “at the very least calls into question some of the allegations”. More of that in a minute.

Surely he is not saying there was never any truth in multiple tales of unsolicited body contact and grabbing crotches? Spacey, who has called himself a “big flirt”, said they were “clumsy passes”. “You’re not claiming you never behaved badly, are you?”

“I am not saying that. I am absolutely accepting that, at times, I behaved poorly. And if anyone wonders, you know, Kevin, why would you have done that? I say, Yes, you’re right, I was involved in horseplay and I was involved in interactions on set that I thought were just fun. And I made a lot of jokes and, you know, sexual innuendos. And it was more common in those circumstances than it is now. And I might have been having fun because everyone was laughing, and that’s what I wanted to have people do. But to have learnt later in conversations I had with people I worked with that, actually, they felt I was belittling them, which was horrible to hear, because I never, ever wanted to do that intentionally. Those conversations have been really important because I’ve then been able to have those conversations with my therapist and try to get to the root of why did I do that? And to make sure that in work environments in the future, I never, ever put myself in a situation where I ever hurt anybody or my conduct is questionable. It’s upsetting that sometimes I behaved in ways that I will never behave in again.”

Spacey has notably softened his tone since he posted a defiant video over Christmas 2018, Let Me Be Frank, in which he reprised his role as Frank Underwood, delivering a storming soliloquy smouldering with fury and contempt for those who brought him (Underwood, Spacey, or both?) down.

“But you wouldn’t believe the worst without evidence, would you?” Underwood taunts.“You wouldn’t rush to judgment without fact, would you? I mean, if you and I have learnt nothing else these past few years, it’s that in life and art, nothing should be off the table. We weren’t afraid, not of what we said, not of what we did. And we are still not afraid. Because I can promise you this, if I didn’t pay the price for the things we both know I did, I’m certainly not going to pay the price for the things I didn’t.”

To watch that video today is to be reminded of the astonishing visceral power of a thespian who is currently in painful exile from his calling. He makes your heart thump. We have heard of actors disappearing into character, but to watch character disappear into actor, and to not quite know where man ends and performance begins, is truly something. Both mesmerising and weird at the same time, it makes you wonder about the state of mind of the man who made it.

Which is Spacey: the artistic giant who once bestrode his industry now raging at the McCarthyite mob who took him down, or the newly therapised, humble, remorseful Kevin I encounter, who talks of “programmes” where he has learnt to trust and become a better person? There are moments in our interview when he’s talking so compellingly, so charmingly – one accuser compared him to Kaa, the “Trust in Me” snake in The Jungle Book – and I suddenly find myself thinking, “Ah, yes, but of course you’re convincing me, you’re Kevin Spacey!”

Is he acting? Is a swimmer in water? Is a peregrine falcon hunting? It is who he is. You can make your own minds up when you watch the video of our interview, but, for what it’s worth, I believe him. He’s simply too broken, too tired to keep the mask in place, although, inevitably and quite forgivably, Spacey wants to say whatever it is that can help him “find a path back”. It’s a wistful phrase he uses again and again.

Kevin Spacey
In the past couple of years, Spacey has been offered some great roles he was desperate to play but, at every turn, there is another block - Reuters

Dorothy Byrne, one of the producers of Spacey Unmasked, has said she hopes it could be a MeToo moment for men. That made me laugh. Two of the accusers are former Marines so beefy they could squash Spacey like a beetle. (Any comparison with what Weinstein did to young actresses are as odious as they are absurd.) One guy even admits on camera that he was prepared to do “something I didn’t want to do” to the star in the hope of getting “something I did want”. There’s a word for that. It’ll come to me.

Spacey says he watched an interview with Byrne. “It seemed to me that this is a person who has decided that she’s judge, jury, prosecutor. I mean, she actually talked about these things as if they’d actually happened. And we (Spacey and Lowenstein) know that we’re going to present evidence that some of those individuals pursued me for years after they claimed that I had done some terrible thing.”

The documentary begins with Daniel, who had a small part as a Secret Service agent in House of Cards, and accuses Spacey of touching him inappropriately on set in 2013. Three years later, after he had left the show, Daniel sent Spacey provocative pictures – at Spacey’s request – which Lowenstein sent me with a date stamp so there can be no mistake. “We were very friendly to each other,” Spacey says, “and at no time did he ever say that any of our horseplay had upset him in any way, shape or form.”

It’s all too familiar to Spacey. “There’s one case where someone accused me of something in 1998 and said they never spoke to me again, and I was a terrible person. And I have emails from this person in 2011 saying how great it was to have seen me when I was in LA and wondering whether I might put him up for a role in Captain Phillips, a film that I was producing. I mean, OK, does anyone see the logic in that?”

What intrigues me is the power dynamic. The two-time Oscar winner clearly exerted a powerful hold over those guys who considered themselves “a nobody” compared to him. Was there really no part of you, Kevin, that didn’t exploit that power?

I’m a kid from South Orange, New Jersey, who was raised in Southern California in very, very more-than-modest surroundings,” he says, “My father was unemployed so often that by the time I was 10 we’d moved about eight times. I came from nothing, and I have not spent my life looking at myself the way other people see me. I look at myself as unbelievably fortunate to have been given the opportunities that I’ve had. And, you know, there’s power dynamics in every relationship. But I never used my position in a quid pro quo, ‘if you come into my trailer I’m gonna give you a part or I’ll give you an audition’ way. Doesn’t mean I didn’t recommend people to a director, but there was no price to pay. Absolutely not. Now, it appears what some of the accusers are saying is they thought because I’d had a 15-minute conversation with them, or got stoned with them, or had a drink with them, that I was now going to be their mentor, which is not what was occurring.”

Spacey kept a low profile for several years, possibly in the mistaken hope it would speed his rehabilitation. Ten months ago, a court in London cleared him of nine charges including sexual assault (a reporter who sat through the case told me the evidence was flaky and occasionally farcical). Afterwards, the actor expressed the hope that this exoneration would mean he could finally work again. But this latest attack from Channel 4, almost calculated to derail a comeback, is too much. He is ready to break his silence and fight.

Kevin Spacey Fowler was born in July 1959 to Thomas and Kathleen. He has an elder brother, Randall (Randy), and a sister, Julie Ann. In the documentary, Randy paints a horrifying picture of their father as a brutal Nazi sympathiser who sexually abused him. Randy, “a kook” according to Lowenstein, has been selling unpleasant stories about Spacey for years although the actor has a letter from his brother thanking him effusively for a large gift of cash which saved his business. Their mother adored and protected Kevin, although it was clearly not the ideal upbringing for a sensitive, imaginative boy who may already have had confused thoughts about his sexuality.

“I didn’t know what I was,” Spacey recalls, “All I know is there were times when my father would say things that were very homophobic and very upsetting, and I was certainly afraid of that. And I think that there were other things in my family that taught me very early on that secrets kept me safe. So that was automatic for me. Secrets. Now I realise it didn’t keep me safe.”

Young Kevin always wanted to be a performer and had a gift for impersonations. He could have been a stand-up comedian, but ended up winning a place at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York to study acting. He was thrilled when he landed his first part as “a rock or something” in Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park for $125 a week.

You know, I think one reason Spacey lied for so long about being gay – strenuously denying it to Playboy magazine and even telling an interviewer he had a girlfriend – is not just because any star who has come out in Hollywood has never gone on having a career as a leading man or lady. Fear of his father had made him so repressed that he probably didn’t want to admit it, not even to himself. Spacey’s jarring use of the antediluvian “horseplay” for his lunges at men sounds like someone trapped in a more disapproving era with a lot of shame about his desires.

Being secretive, unknowable, was a huge part of Spacey’s success as an actor, I think. In the Nineties, he enjoyed an amazing run of films: Glengarry Glen Ross (rivetingly good alongside his mentor and father figure Jack Lemmon), The Usual Suspects and Se7en (terrifying), followed in 1997 by LA Confidential. Two years later there was American Beauty, which won him the Oscar for playing Lester Burnham, an advertising executive having a midlife crisis and sexually obsessed with his 16-year-old daughter’s best friend. Lester ends up being murdered by his in-the-closet, homophobic neighbour. As if the ghost of Thomas Fowler had come back to punish his son.

Kevin Spacey lounging in a reclining chair as Annette Bening stands in the entryway perturbed in a scene from the film 'American Beauty', 1999
American Beauty was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning five – including Best Actor for Kevin Spacey - DreamWorks SKG/Getty Images

What we see in almost every Spacey performance is the importance of him remaining calm and even serene, however crazy the stuff going on around him is; the voice (no one ever seems to say how beautiful the voice is, but it is) has a lot to do with it.

Spacey always puts on a great show, but he’s much less of a showboat than you might expect. Audiences always seek him out and wait for him to turn up, but he makes sure not to hog the stage; he doesn’t need to make that kind of effort.

Note also that, however solemn the material, he’s almost never not funny. Comedy is always at the edge of things, a lightning flash of wit in the darkness. (That was true of Cary Grant as well, another actor with secrets.) He is also a brilliant mimic, and acknowledged as one even in the business. Maybe that’s why he’s at his best when one kind of life conceals another – the mad doomy dreamer inside the shell of the loser in American Beauty; the evil genius inside the limping lowlife in Usual Suspects. It’s all about how much you can hide and still get away with things. Life as a nasty game, best approached by keeping your cards close to your chest; showing your hand would only spoil the fun. How much of this is dramatic skill and how much pathology, who knows?

Did Spacey’s track record for playing creeps and villains make people more willing to believe ill of him when the allegations started to fly? Was it being such a great actor that somehow sealed his fate? I reckon there is something in that. Was there also a double standard applied to him because he wasn’t heterosexual? (Spacey wryly observes that there are quite a number of men “who are well known, who throughout history and even today, are what the press likes to call “legendary Lotharios”. You never hear a gay man called that.)

Although our interview has had moments of real distress, I sense Spacey is more hopeful than he has been for a long time. He says he and Lowenstein play what they call the red-button game. “If you push the red button, it goes back in time and none of the bad stuff will have happened. Would I push the button? And the answer now is no. Because despite the challenges and the difficulties and the pain and the bad days, I’ve also witnessed the most beautiful demonstrations of friendship and love and family. And had conversations and experiences and just seen things in everyday life. Small moments. Making someone laugh. I wouldn’t want to miss any of those. And those far outweigh all the negative stuff that you’ve just listed, Allison. Far outweigh it.”

It’s true that there are a lot of substantial figures in his industry now calling vocally for Spacey to be allowed to resume his career. They emailed me in the last couple of days.

“I can’t wait to see Kevin back at work. He is a genius,” said Sharon Stone. “He is so elegant and fun, generous to a fault and knows more about our craft than most of us ever will. Of course people wanted and want to be around him; it’s terrible that they are blaming him for not being able to come to terms with themselves for using him and negotiating with themselves because they didn’t get their secret agendas filled. Fame is an ugly monster.”

Liam Neeson vouched for a friend who is “a good man and a man of character. He’s sensitive, articulate and non-judgmental, with a terrific sense of humour. He is also one of our finest artists in the theatre and on camera. Personally speaking, our industry needs him and misses him greatly.”

Another great actor, The White Lotus star F Murray Abraham, bristled at the injustice. “Kevin Spacey is my friend and I vouch for him unequivocally. Who are these vultures who attack a man who has publicly accepted his responsibility for certain behavior, unlike so many others? Has the world forgotten his huge accomplishments, not only as an actor but as the leader of Britain’s most important theatre company? But all that aside, he is a fine man, I stand with him, and let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Sir Trevor Nunn, the veteran theatre director, who worked with Spacey at the Old Vic, says: “In this country, we believe in the rule of law, and consequently, that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.

“Kevin Spacey faced long court proceedings in the UK and was found, by the jury, to be innocent of all charges. But now, a Channel 4 documentary is urging viewers to believe that the accused is guilty, whatever a jury may have previously decided.

“In my view, Kevin is an actor of genius, on stage and on screen. He was a thrilling, complex and in Shakespeare’s heightened language, a compulsively tragic Richard II.  But then he was the moral centre of my production of Inherit the Wind, when he played the lawyer at the heart of the story, based on the famous Clarence Darrow. The roles could not have been more different, but he was equally charismatic in both.

“In light of the court’s verdict, surely it is time for this man to be forgiven for whatever poor judgments he may have made in the past and allowed to resume his career, after seven years of exile?”

British broadcaster Stephen Fry submitted a balanced testimony it’s hard to argue with. “I don’t know anybody in the profession who didn’t admire Kevin Spacey as an actor, director, producer and theatre administrator… No one can doubt that he has been clumsy and ‘inappropriate’ on many occasions – he made too many people uncomfortable, embarrassed and upset.

“To bracket him with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, however, to continue to harass and hound him, to devote a whole documentary to accusations that simply do not add up to crimes… how can that be considered proportionate and justified? He hasn’t hidden away, he has given full-on interviews accepting and owning the mistaken and unacceptable behaviour of his past.

“I saw the recent Channel 4 documentary and while we can justifiably feel that the people interviewed certainly might have cause for complaint, there was nothing said there to bring a gleam to the prosecutor’s eye. Why was it made? To what purpose? His reputation is already wrecked. Surely it is wrong to continue to batter a reputation on the strength of assertion and rhetoric rather than evidence and proof?

“There is not the faintest chance that he will so much as tap a stranger on the shoulder in future. I am pretty sure most people have got the measure of his past behaviour, but very, very few believe he should be continually pilloried and jeered. Unless I’m missing something, I think he has paid the price.”

In July 2023, Spacey was found not guilty of nine sexual offences by a jury at Southwark Crown Court
In July 2023, Spacey was found not guilty of nine sexual offences by a jury at Southwark Crown Court - Tim Clarke

And what a price. The beautiful home we see behind Spacey as he talks is in foreclosure, taken from him as so much else has been. In the past couple of years, he has been offered some great roles he was desperate to play but, at every turn, there is another block. The writers no longer object to Kevin speaking their words, the actors (most of them) are OK appearing alongside him, the producers and directors are cool, the sales and money men have been persuaded it’s not a liability to have the name Spacey attached to their project (as if!).

Jeez, who are these petty moralising gatekeepers who would keep perhaps the finest actor of his generation in the wilderness? Shame on them. I tell Spacey I think viewers would be very happy to see him and he says he has had only lovely, kind comments from members of the public who approach him.

Spacey says he is disappointed to have lost out on roles for these reasons. “But I believe that audiences believe in me. It’s just unfortunate that a single person is speaking for the entire British public, or a few people in studios or networks or streaming services are speaking for the entire American public. I think that someone will roll the dice and say, ‘I believe in you. I believe in you as an actor, and I believe in you as a human being. And I believe that you’ve learnt and I believe that you’ve changed. And I want to give you an opportunity to come back.’ And that’s going to be an opportunity I’m going to embrace and honour.”

In the days that I have been thinking and writing about Spacey, a line by the poet Thomas Wyatt has been flitting through my head. “They flee from me that sometime did me seek.” It’s a mysterious poem, freighted with loss and sadness. There’s an actor who could do that injustice justice, who knows how it feels when people flee from you.

As we say our goodbyes, Spacey is back on droll form, still finding the comedy amid the darkness, still coming up with good reasons to uncancel him. A hint of a sly smile: “My hope is that, from a business perspective, you know, my stock is low, so I’m a bargain, right?”

Oh, and what a bargain Kevin Spacey would be for anyone bold enough to offer that path back to redemption. Let him act.

You can hear Allison Pearson discuss her Kevin Spacey interview with Liam Halligan on the Planet Normal podcast by listening to the audio player above, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.