he face reminds you of someone, but you can't quite remember who. Someone younger? Someone a lot older? Someone paunchier? Someone more ethereal? Maybe that kid who played Liv Ullmann's syphilitic son in "Ghosts." Or perhaps the actor who starred as TV evangelist Jim Bakker. Mel Profitt, the psychotic, incestuous bad guy on "Wiseguy." Jamie Tyrone Jr., the older son in the Jack Lemmon revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night." The sleazy guy in the limo who tried to seduce Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl."

They're all Kevin Spacey, working actor -- almost nonstop since he graduated from Juilliard a decade ago.

What he's doing now is yet another type -- a just-short-of-satire small-time gangster in Neil Simon's new play, "Lost in Yonkers," at the National Theatre through Feb. 10.

A friendly, baby-faced, beginning-to-bald 31-year-old, Spacey realized some time ago he didn't look like the kind of actor who played leading men in movies. He's not complaining, merely pointing out that "I keep seeing the same people, and I don't look like them. I have to go at it in a different way."

His different way was to do as many and as varied parts as possible -- no trademark roles, no easy hits. A serious actor, Spacey wanted to stretch. As far back as junior high school, it was always the next part, the next opportunity. "When I left Juilliard, I wanted it all," he says. "And in six months."

Despite his impatience, Spacey focused on his craft. A year out of Juilliard, he seemed to be doing well enough, and getting parts, but he decided to leave New York. "I felt I wasn't good enough to play in the leagues I wanted to play in," he says simply.

Outside New York, he continued to work steadily. At the Barter Theater in Fairfax County, at the Kennedy Center (as an understudy for the title role in "Toyer," as the adolescent lead in "The Seagull"), at the Seattle Rep, in Williamstown, "any place that would have me," he says.

His plan: to put together a body of work in the regional theater. It was a plan he has repeated in recent years in film and television.

He's always been looking for the best training he could get. Even in high school in Los Angeles. Chafing under the restraints he believed his drama teacher was imposing on him -- and his conviction that maybe the drama department wasn't training people as well as he wanted to be trained -- the 11th-grader switched schools to get satisfaction -- and more appreciation. In high school!

Even then he held his work up against high standards. And he holds the people he works with to those standards too. ("I've worked with one or two directors I've liked," he says. "Great directors guide you but essentially they allow you to discover a role for yourself.")

When he was offered a juicy role in a story line on "Wiseguy" three days before production started, even that much-touted TV noir series came under his scrutiny. He carefully questioned Steven Cannell, the originator of the show. Would he be caught in a predictable part? Would he just be a guest star, whose role wasn't written as well as it should be? "I warned him it had to evolve," Spacey says. "It wasn't going to make sense right away from the dailies. But if I could approach the role with total abandon, if I could {expletive} the medium, then I thought it would be fun." He did. And it was.

His expectations about his part in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (often pointed to as his breakthrough role) were optimistic from the start. "I think we made that play live more than it had in quite a while," he says of the controversial production starring Jack Lemmon and directed by Jonathan Miller at the National Theatre in 1986.

Spacey was particularly proud to play the title role in the recently finished "Clarence Darrow" for American Playhouse Films. A story that spans 30 years, the film addresses a lesser-known period in the lawyer's life, and a less-than-flattering side of his character. "He was a deeply flawed man," says Spacey, "facing something in himself that he thought he was above. This is a Darrow that most people don't know."

After two years in films, he is pleased with the opportunity to get back on stage in a new Neil Simon play. His role, like many in Simon's recent works, is part serious, part comedic. But in describing it, it is clear that he has approached it with the same thoughtful intensity he gives to all his pre-performance preparations. "An actor's primary function is to interpret the playwright. ... Neil is a far more complicated writer than people suspect -- and far more intuitive than I had suspected. {The part} gave me the personal feeling I was finally able to do something worthwhile."

With such demanding standards, this man could be exhausting to work with -- and must have been impossible as a child. "I was," he admits.

So impossible, in fact, that in desperation his parents (a secretary and a technical manual writer) sent him to military school in the fifth and sixth grades only to watch him get thrown out. "I was a very rambunctious and rowdy child," he says.

In response, a guidance counselor suggested acting as an interest that might absorb the young Kevin, a way in which he might legitimately act out. And it took.

Over the years Spacey has tried not to take parts he didn't believe in, an amazing luxury for a young actor. But what he really looks for in a part is the feeling of danger. "It's extremely important," he says. "The most interesting work I can do as an actor is when I don't know what will happen next."

One of his New York jobs gave new meaning to that requirement, when he was on call as an understudy for all the male roles in the Broadway production of David Rabe's "Hurlyburly." He'd been asked to audition for one role, and director Mike Nichols gradually had him learn all the others too. Some weeks he'd play one character on Wednesday and another on Saturday.

He's inherited a number of roles filling in for actors who have dropped out of a project at the last minute, most recently at the Long Wharf production of "National Anthems" in 1988. Al Pacino dropped out four days after rehearsals started, and Spacey got the call. "Now I'm not the first person I think of after Al Pacino," he says, "but luckily we have the same agent."

For the most part Spacey has been lucky about the actors he's had a chance to work with -- among them, Lemmon, Colleen Dewhurst, Burt Lancaster, Andy Garcia and even Fred Savage and Macaulay Culkin -- and careful about what he's chosen to do. "I have always set my own path," he says.

He is aware that he may seem a little picky. "You hear a lot, 'You're in no position to turn that down,' " he says. "But that's like saying you're in no position to have integrity, to have a point of view. Because once you give it up, it's like virginity. It's gone. You've lost it. I don't think you can get it back."

Of course, not everything he's done has been a success. But he doesn't spend much time blaming himself. What he wants to do is learn from the experience. "Sometimes you can't help out a project no matter how good the ingredients are," he says. "Not everything can be a gem. Certain plays were really good, but they just didn't come together. I had struggled, but no matter what I did, I personally couldn't solve the problems."

So at this point what kind of an actor has Kevin Spacey become? "I think I am a much better actor than I have allowed myself to be," he says.

Because by his standards, he isn't there yet. One of the ways he hopes to get there is by "acting" less, by having his technique be less noticeable. "For four years I've been playing flamboyant roles," he says. "Now I'm trying to find a greater degree of subtlety. I want to see how far I can go by doing very little."

Like the actors he admires, like Henry Fonda. Spencer Tracy. "Actors of my generation tend to refer to De Niro, Pacino," says Spacey, who admires them as well, "but these guys were terrific."

"The simplicity and directness of Tracy's acting," he marvels. "If I can gain an ounce of what he knew both at the beginning and the end of his career, I will really have accomplished something." He's a fan of Katharine Hepburn too. And has been since he presented her with a bouquet of flowers backstage at the Mark Taper Forum when he was in junior high school. "You waited for me. How lovely," he quotes her, speaking perfect Hepburnese.

He didn't see the actress again until she turned up backstage to see him during the Broadway run of "Long Day's Journey." He sent her a long letter, and another bouquet, this time a big one. She said, "Keep in touch." And they have -- though he's quick to point out that, ever the fan, he might write her a nice long letter, telling her what he's been doing, and, ever the star, she'll reply, "Dear Kevin, Good for you. Kate."

What he's doing now, of course, is "Lost in Yonkers." He's committed to it through the end of June. He doesn't know what he'll do next -- though he wants to do more theater. He's interested in tackling Shakespeare -- perhaps Richard III, Hotspur, one of the Henrys, the unmentionable "Scottish play."

And he is still hungry for all the experience he can get. "There are certain doors that just won't be open to me until later on," he says matter-of-factly. Which ones does he crave? "All of them," he says. "I count on all doors to be open. I'm not using the theater as a steppingstone to something else. I want to work in every way that I can in every place that I can where I can in some degree grow."

He can even imagine leaving his home in Greenwich Village and moving to England for a while, to come up with yet another body of work, this time on the British stage. The money he's made in film and television have made that possible. "The advantage of having 'gotten somewhere' is that I hope to God I can spend more time on my work than on getting it. I'm not in a position where I have to go to work," he says. "You know, I used to work in the Gallenkamp Shoe Store in the Northridge Mall, and I worked on commissions. So the fact that I'm paid handsomely to do something that I enjoy doing is very exciting."

The enormous amount of money actors and directors and writers are paid in Los Angeles, however, leads to what he characterizes as "the absurd, high costs" of staging or filming just about anything, a fact of life that distresses him.

"Theater costs are so expensive in this country, it's become an expensive club, and most people can't afford a $50 ticket," he says. "At least in England they still have three-pound seats. ... There has to be some kind of reevaluation here. ... Everybody deserves to come and be entertained and enlightened -- and to be moved. It shouldn't just be those people who can afford it."

But fair is fair, and a three-pound seat means lower salaries for the talent.

"My friends keep saying they don't pay much over there," says Spacey almost to himself. "But that's all right. I'd rather work. ... I don't want to arrive one day and be this year's discovery. I want to have always been quietly working."