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Jewish Journal

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

by Naomi Pfefferman

November 23, 2010 | 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.”

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