November 23, 2010
Kevin Spacey gets in touch with his inner Jew in ‘Casino Jack’
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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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