Jewish Journal

Kevin Spacey gets in touch with his inner Jew in ‘Casino Jack’

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Nov. 23, 2010 at 11:18 am

Two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey lifts his fork from his plate of lox and eggs and jabs it in the air. He’s tucked away in a back booth at Art’s Deli in Studio City, recounting his monologue from the opening scene of the black comedy “Casino Jack,” which opens Dec. 17. The film is inspired by the true story of the disgraced right-wing former super-lobbyist and Orthodox Jew Jack Abramoff, whom Spacey portrays.

In that scene, Abramoff wields not a fork, but a toothbrush, as he informs a bathroom mirror that, as a result of “a s—-load of reading and studying and praying,” he’s come to some conclusions he’d like to share — ostensibly with the reporters and FBI agents circling him: “You’re either a big leaguer or you’re a slave clawing your way onto the C-train,” is one of them. “You say I’m selfish — f—- you,” is another. “I give back, plenty. ... I’m humbly grateful for the wonderful gifts that I’ve received here in America, the greatest country on the planet! I’m Jack Abramoff, and, oh yeah, I work out every day.”

Spacey portrays a hubris-filled, over-the-top character; the real lobbyist really did brag about his exorbitant fees — and about working out every day — but director George Hickenlooper also envisioned him as a kind of empathetic anti-hero.

Hickenlooper died unexpectedly last month of what appear to be natural causes, at 47, two weeks before his scheduled interview with The Jewish Journal.  But he detailed his journey to “Casino Jack” in his introduction to the published screenplay, including the myriad hours he spent interviewing Abramoff at the Maryland prison where he was serving time on counts related to defrauding Native American tribes, the purchase of gambling cruise boats and other charges. “Casino Jack” is, according to Hickenlooper’s account, a kind of first-person opera, from Abramoff’s point of view. 

In the film, the mega-lobbyist wheels and deals, but also davens, lays tefillin and is passionate about his family and about funding charities, including a short-lived all boys’ Jewish day school, the Eshkol Academy. The character reveals that he was motivated to become a “real” Jew after, as a secular teenager in Beverly Hills, seeing the film version of “Fiddler on the Roof.” When Abramoff’s mob-connected associate, Adam Kidan (a hilarious Jon Lovitz), seeks to insult the lobbyist, he calls him a “fake Jew.”

“Maybe no one would want Jack Abramoff to be humanized, but that’s my job,” said Spacey, who also met with Abramoff in prison. “I don’t sit in judgment of the characters I play.”

Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoffin “Casino Jack.” Photo courtesy of ATO Pictures.

In fact, Spacey has earned awards and kudos playing nuanced, morally ambiguous characters in such films as “American Beauty,” “The Usual Suspects” and “L.A. Confidential,” among his myriad roles in film and theater.

For the Journal interview, it was his choice to meet at Art’s “because I do tend to like delis — I grew up in the Valley — and this is where I’m more comfortable than some chi-chi ‘fab’ restaurant that everyone says is the greatest place on earth.”

He hates the term “Hollywood” — “That’s a city,” he opined, and he isn’t into the culture of “who’s hot and who’s not.”

In 2003, Spacey settled in London to serve as artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre because he “wanted to change my life.”

In person, the 51-year-old actor is by turns droll, cerebral and charming but doesn’t mince words: Asked whether some viewers might perceive “Casino Jack” as whitewashing Abramoff, he pointedly replied, “What does that mean?”

Apparently some Republican observers were concerned that the film might do the opposite, given that Spacey is a prominent Democratic activist and a poker buddy of President Clinton’s. Spacey even portrayed Al Gore adviser Ron Klain in 2008’s “Recount,” another dark comedy about politics — one reason Hickenlooper wanted him for “Casino Jack.”

Kevin Spacey, left, and George Hickenlooper on the set of “Casino Jack.”

The two met after Spacey read that he was the director’s first choice on Hickenlooper’s Facebook page: “It is absolutely 100 percent true that I was cast on Facebook,” Spacey quipped, noting the irony as he is also executive producer of the Facebook saga “The Social Network.” 

His approach to the character was meticulous. “If you were looking at this as a science project, there were three separate ingredients,” he said. “The first was the man I met,” he said of his five-hour visit with Abramoff at Cumberland prison in spring 2009.  “Both George and I came out of there going, ‘For a guy who’s been completely framed as the devil incarnate, he’s pretty charming, funny and a pretty good impressionist.”  Hickenlooper has recalled how Spacey addressed Abramoff as President Clinton, while Abramoff answered as Ronald Reagan.

The second factor was learning about others’ views of Abramoff, which Spacey obtained in part by scouring the media coverage and speaking to K Street lobbyists.  And the third was what the actor refers to as “the facts” — including what Abramoff actually did. His conclusion was that Abramoff’s nature was “not as black and white as they all sure seem to make it sound. 

“If I look at somebody like Bernie Madoff — and there have been other figures who have quite clearly, knowingly stolen millions of dollars — they have lived a fabulous high-on-the-hog life: Fifth Avenue apartments, jets and vacations and yadda, yadda,” he said. “I started to break down what Jack Abramoff actually did with all the money he was making — and, by the way, he was making a s—-load of money — as the highest-paid and certainly the most successful Republican lobbyist in the history of Washington, D.C. But I couldn’t find the fabulous cars, the Learjets, the vacation homes in Denver and the Swiss Alps. All I could find is that he hadn’t paid his mortgage and that he wanted to build this Hebrew school because he felt that some of the rabbis in his area were not teaching properly. So if he wasn’t doing all that stuff I just assumed he was doing, because he was being laid out as a parasite who only was all about the money, who was he? ... There’s no doubt that he did things that were crossing the line, but my job was to try to get into his mind.”

Spacey said his visit with Abramoff proved “extremely helpful,” although he declined to reveal specifics, except to say, “He was absolutely honest in that he took complete responsibility for what he had done.” And the former lobbyist was wearing a black velvet yarmulke — the same kind that Spacey wears throughout the movie, at times covered by the black hat that made Abramoff look somewhat like Don Corleone in all those photos snapped around the time of his arrest.

“I was fascinated by [Abramoff’s] Judaism, by his commitment, to the point where he would open up the only kosher restaurant on K Street,” Spacey said. “That kind of faith is always interesting, regardless of one’s religion, because then you wonder, ‘How can they end up doing these things that appear to be [improper]?’ That’s an interesting contradiction to highlight.”

The film does so by emphasizing Abramoff’s Jewishness, sometimes in comical ways: When the character tells a federal agent, “I only eat kosher,” the man sardonically replies, “This is a federal holding facility. It’s not kosher.” When the character describes how “Fiddler on the Roof” inspired him to become religious, Lovitz wonders why it didn’t make him want to become — like the fictional Tevye — a milkman.

Spacey, who is not Jewish, sought a rabbi’s advice on how to wrap tefillin and to understand the Hebrew words of the prayers he would chant in the film.

So why would a devout Jew engage in less-than-kosher deeds? “I think he was living in a [political] culture where this was happening all over town,” Spacey said. I think this is the way they did it, and it’s still the way they do it. They haven’t cleaned up the lobbying industry. That’s b.s.” He added that “George was fascinated that Washington, D.C., had managed to make it look like they’d cleaned up the industry by throwing Jack Abramoff under the bus.”

The conversation again turns to what Spacey calls Abramoff’s “extraordinary dedication to his faith — since he was a young man — born, I believe, out of problems he had with his own father. I think they had a very tough relationship, and as we often see, people compensate for that in other ways.  And I think his faith drove him, and in his faith he obviously found great comfort during the difficult periods, and it is true that while he was in prison he did teach other inmates about [Judaism].”

The last time Hickenlooper met Abramoff, he asked the lobbyist to recount the most influential moment of his life. “Jack then proceeded to tell me a very personal story that had happened between him and his father when he was a boy… a harsh incident that, I could tell, had been emotionally shattering for him as a young man,” the director wrote in the introduction to the script. “It was almost a kind of ‘Rosebud’ story that clearly defined what Jack was all about.”

Hickenlooper promised never to reveal the story, given that Abramoff’s father was still alive and would be hurt by it. 

Spacey remains even more silent about his conversations with Abramoff — but he is virulent about politicians, citing his trip to Lebanon last summer. “I met Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Israelis. ... There are tensions, but people are learning to live with each other, whatever problems they have. And then politicians stand up, they get everyone riled up,” Spacey waves his hands to demonstrate — “and you just think, ‘Shut up. Shut the f—- up and let people get on living.’

“And when I look at Washington and this whole situation, I say, ‘Shut the f—- up.’ Let good bills pass.  Let people live their lives.”

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