Kevin Spacey delves into 'the little things' to portray Jack Abramoff

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 6:00 AM

On the surface, Kevin Spacey and Jack Abramoff don't appear to share much in common.

Spacey is a Democrat. Abramoff is a Republican.

Spacey starred in a high school production of "The Sound of Music." During his teen years, Abramoff was a wrestler.

Spacey is best known for his roles in films such as "American Beauty" and "The Usual Suspects." Abramoff? He's known as the lobbyist who rose high and fell hard, ultimately serving time in federal prison after being convicted on multiple charges related to widespread corruption and fraud.

But spend an hour at breakfast with Spacey at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington - where he has come to discuss his Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of Abramoff in the new film "Casino Jack" - and it becomes clear where the Spacey/Abramoff Personality Venn Diagram may overlap.

Spacey, an actor who often plays ambitious, even ruthless men, is at turns charming (a word Spacey also uses to describe Abramoff), defensive, potty-mouthed and passionate, as well as prone to doing impressions, a trait that he shares with Abramoff and that is on display in "Casino Jack." He even dumps a healthy amount of sugar into his cafe au lait, laughing when a reporter reminds him that, as Abramoff, he does that in the movie.

"Yes, it's the little things that people informed me of that we tried to infuse into the film," he says with a smile.

Political junkies - and anyone who saw the first of this year's two Abramoff movies, Alex Gibney's documentary "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" - are familiar with how Abramoff and colleagues tried to defraud Indian tribes of millions . They also know that a subsequent FBI investigation uncovered evidence of sweeping misconduct that led to criminal charges against Abramoff, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, former U.S. representative Bob Ney, former DeLay aide Mike Scanlon, and other congressional staffers and lobbyists.

But it's the details - the little things, as Spacey calls them - that people may not know and that often work their way into "Casino Jack," a satirical, hyperbolic version of the events that led to the 2004 ethics scandal.

Example: how Abramoff wore the unfortunate "Godfather"-like fedora and trench coat to a 2006 courthouse appearance.

"He opened his closet, grabbed the first hat that he could grab, the trench coat because it was raining, and went outside," Spacey says, noting that Abramoff often kept his head covered in public because of his Orthodox Jewish faith. "And he never thought about, what will this look like? . . . That's why I wore the hat several times in the movie before that scene. I didn't want to make a big point of it, and I didn't want to have a dialogue about it, but there is a subliminal thing that can happen with an audience, which is, 'Oh, yeah, that's that black hat. Oh, he always wore that black hat.' "

Spacey uncovered that kind of information through extensive research that involved absorbing news coverage of the Abramoff case, much of which he had missed because he lives in London; speaking with Abramoff's friends and former colleagues; and spending six hours last year at a federal prison in Cumberland, Md., getting to know the man himself.

Spacey describes Abramoff as "very forthcoming" during their prison conversation. But press for too many details, and the two-time Academy Award winner borrows from the same playbook Abramoff used during a 2004 Senate hearing: He pleads the Fifth.

"I'm not going to answer specific questions, and I'll tell you why," he says. "Because I felt it was very gracious of him to have met with me. I mean, he could have told us to go [expletive] off. I simply keep the content of that meeting private, because I don't want to use it for fodder. I also want to be very careful that I do not speak for him. . . . At whatever point he makes a decision to start talking about his experience, he can do that in his own time and under his own conditions."

Abramoff hasn't spoken yet. Currently serving probation after completing his prison sentence this month, he did not respond to requests for comment via his attorney, Abbe Lowell, or his Facebook page.

Critical response to "Casino Jack" has been tepid, but Spacey's performance earned a Golden Globe nomination, as well as early praise from some media outlets, including the Hollywood Reporter. (For the record, it's not Spacey's only well-received film accomplishment of the year; he also acted as executive producer of "The Social Network.")

A self-identified friend of Abramoff's stood up at last month's D.C. premiere and thanked the actor for accurately capturing the one-time power player's humor and "dorkiness."

For Spacey, creating a portrait of Abramoff that is perceived by those who knew him as fair - and that does justice to the vision of director George Hickenlooper, who died suddenly in October at 47 - may be a greater reward than any nomination.

"At least you want to get what we got" at the premiere, he says, "which is the people who knew him go, 'Yeah, that's him.' "

Even Barry Pepper, who plays the money-hungry Scanlon in "Casino Jack," says that, although Spacey and Abramoff are clearly very different people, he also can see a common denominator.

"I mean, you don't have an Oscar in each hand for nothing," Pepper says of his co-star during a telephone conversation. "I think it's because of his passion, his deep passion. I think Jack was fueled by similar things. He had tremendous passion. I think it got derailed or misguided at some point along the line. But you see why Kevin was chosen to play him. He has that fire in him."

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