On December 16, 2010 in New York City, the official press junket took place for Casino Jack at the elegant Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. We (a small group of 5 reporters) were placed in a room and the 3 actors came in separately for their interviews in the following order: Kevin Spacey, Jon Lovitz, and Barry Pepper. Sadly, the director, George Hickenlooper passed away at the age of 47 in October, but he was very much a presence at these meetings. This was his final work.
You can also read my review of the film to give you a better understanding of the comments made in this interview by these wonderful actors.
Kevin Spacey: I just got in from London this morning. We had an opening night last night for the production of our 7th season at the Old Vic of a great Feydeau farce called A Flea in Her Ear, which is starring a really wonderful actor named Tom Hollander. It went very well.
You look great!
KS: Well, they built me from the ground up.
This seems like a really fun role, but did you feel like you were doing a disservice to the American public?
KS: Oh God, I'm not that pretentious. I was very fortunate that George Hickenlooper, our sadly deceased director, had a real interest in the politics of this country. He came from a long line of politicians, in fact his cousin won the governorship on election night last month. We both have admiration for politicians and we really do think it's fantastic that people do go into public service and believe in certain principals. I get incredibly frustrated by what seems to have happened in our political system which is that the power and money is so persuasive and so invasive that a lot of the respect that people should have for public service is gone. So in a way, Abramoff (the subject of Casino Jack), is an incredibly colorful character and it was really fun to try to understand that because there were so many contradictions to him. His beliefs, his extraordinary faith, his devotion to his family and yet, a series of missteps, misjudgments that ultimately got him in a lot of trouble. But maybe, from his perspective, he was living in a culture where this kind of stuff was going on all the time and, yeah, he did it bigger and louder and better and made more money than anybody else, but he was in the environment. As I started to do the research into the film and look for what we do as actors, which is to look for the clues, what's real, what's false, what's bad reporting, what's lazy journalism, where's the evidence, where's the facts – you put all that together, and plus I had the opportunity to meet the man himself, to sort of go, how do I play this person who, in his own mind he thought all the things he was doing were justified. So we think throwing him under the bus, sending this bad man to jail, we've cleaned up the lobbying industry, see? And we pat ourselves on the back and we go through an election where we spend more money than at any other time in our history. Although there are upsides, I was very surprised that Tom DeLay was found guilty.
It wound up being such a comic character!
KS: I suppose taking a lesson from a film I did for HBO a few years back called Recount, I'm pretty sure when people heard we were going to make a movie about an election or they hear you're going to make a movie about a Washington lobbyist you can hear the yawning start across the country but when you put things in the context of how they actually happened and we did a lot of research and a lot of sourcing on Recount what we ended up discovering is this s*** is inherently funny because people are making such outrageous choices or being so ridiculous or making choices where you literally go, "I cannot believe that actually happened." This personality behaved in this way – there are things that our just, you can't write this s***. So it's funny and I think that in the case of Recount when Sydney Pollack got ill and couldn't direct, he ended up producing, and when he suggested Jay Roach (as director), I thought what a really great idea, because Jay is not necessarily the director you would have thought for that film. But what Jay brought, because of his background and the fact that he's so skilled at doing comedy, was, he wasn't afraid to underscore those aspects of human behavior. Therefore, the movie became far more entertaining and far funnier than I think anyone ever imagined it could have been. I think that was a good lesson to take into Casino Jack, because George kept saying, literally from the first time we talked and the first day that I spent time with him, "I don't want to make a boring movie about Washington, I wanna make f***ing Goodfella's in D.C." And so that in a way became a, certainly his own, mantra. The way in which we worked together to try to find that, and it's a funny thing when you're shooting a movie because thank God I had a director who really understood the tone that he was trying to reach, but you know the film kind of builds in its insanity and in a sense I was quite conscious of trying to play things and give George enough choices so that if he wanted the comedy to suddenly take an elevated lift he'd have that performance where it got really crazy. By the time you get to the White House and he's screaming at Jon Lovitz down the line, "fat f***, fat f***, fat f***," you've seen this kind of arc. The image that George and I came up with in how to try to play it was, I get on a f***ing race horse and I'm galloping until he hits a brick wall and then he falls off the horse. Ultimately a film is all about the choices that a director ends up using and editing. I'm very grateful that George found a way to make that arc both work for the tone we wanted to strike, which was funny, but also it stayed in the world, I don't think it ever suddenly went outside the world and went, oh, there's an actor riffing, but it does sort of work in the context of the story tone.
Did you meet Jack Abramoff before you started shooting and what did you get out the meeting?
KS: He was certainly a source, he wasn't the only source and George had met him four times on his own and I was told that the first meeting Jack basically tried to convince George not to make the movie. But I think once he realized that George was going to make the movie, probably in his own mind, he figured it's smarter to participate and talk than to not. I certainly learned why he agreed to talk later on because I made a decision that I wasn't going to do any research before I met him. I was in London when this whole story broke, so I kind of remember it peripherally, but I hadn't been subjected to what we like to call the 24 hour news cycle which seems to go on for 72 hours. I decided I didn't want to look at all that stuff. I didn't want to read opinions of him or commentary, I thought, wow, I have the opportunity to meet the man without all that being in my head, I'm just going to meet the man, so that was sort of step one and it was very helpful, it was illuminating, to whatever degree he was being honest with me. He may have had his own agenda and he may have had reasons for saying what he said but I also knew I was going to vet a lot of other people and I'd be able to find out if what he said squared with the facts and also just the way people thought about him. Then I went to D.C. and I spent a bunch of days meeting his team, a bunch of his lobbyists, I met people that knew him, I met people that hated him, thought he didn't get enough years in prison, was a terrible man and then I started looking at everything that had been written because all you have to do is Google him, Google his name, are you kidding? What was interesting with all that is that he'd never done a single interview, he only did one interview just before he was sentenced, I think it might have been for Vanity Fair, he never sat down and did an interview, although I'm told that MSNBC did sit down with him and did interview him, but they chose never to air it. So I don't know why that was quashed. Somewhere out there, there is an interview, so I didn't have a lot of public information on him but I had a lot of people's opinions of him and commentary on him. So you're trying to then balance, wow, he's the devil incarnate, he's the worst human being to ever walk the face of this earth, the greediest motherf***er, and then you've got other people that talk about him so glowingly, people that knew him very well, people talked about how charming he was, then you've got Jack himself. So you're trying to sort of go, well, ok, how does all of this fit and that's when you start to appreciate that in lots of these kinds of cases it's never just black and white, it's always far more grey, far more complex.
What was Jack Abramoff's reaction to finding out that you were going to play him?
KS: Deeply, bitterly disappointed. He wanted George Clooney, or I think he told me his second choice was Brad Pitt, eventually he had to live with what he got.
Has Jack seen the movie?
KS: I don't know if he's seen it, his sons have seen it and in fact they were at the AFI screening in Los Angeles last month and they were very enthusiastic about the film and felt even those parts that are probably painful for them to watch, it was fair, and that we turned him into a human being, we humanized somebody that had been pretty de-humanized and I think probably that was the reason he didn't want a movie to be made anyway, he thought, now they're going to throw me under a train as opposed to just a bus. I'm not that kind of actor. I like films where the audience is, even if people have made up their own minds about him, I don't really think that many people even know who he is outside of D.C., but even if, I like that fact that in the course of the movie, people, against their better instincts are going, I like him, I don't like him, etc., I liked that, but I didn't like that. That to me is what's fun about playing a character like this, that you allow the audience to be the people who ultimately make a judgment about how things appear. What was crossing the line about the hypocrisy of the whole lobbying industry, in terms of how he was helpful without ever knowing he was helpful. He said to George and I, and this was hours into our conversation, that if he had known he was gonna go to jail, because he never believed he was gonna go to jail, he would have never taken The Fifth in front of the Senate. George and I were driving away from the prison that day and ultimately that scene got written as a kind of fantasy. I don't want to give it away, but kind of a fantasy of the hypocrisy of having John McCain pointing his finger, calling him a terrible human being, when he'd taken lots and lots of money from Jack.
Why can't that (the fantasy scene) happen in real life?
KS: What's funny about those Senate hearings is they're just a dog and pony show because the Senators don't have any power, they can't prosecute somebody, they can just wag their finger at them, but there were many of those people who were sitting behind that desk who had taken checKS: from Abramoff, documented stuff, so we felt that maybe there's a way to sort of underscore that hypocrisy in a really fun way, in a comic way, rather than lecturing the audience about it.
It had to be fun to film.
KS: It was really fun, I had to be cautious about how much I did the impression because you want people, for at least half of that scene, to think this really happened.
Well I did. It's such a theatrical performance, when you were playing it, how did you strike the right balance between theatricality and reality.
KS: The thing about tone is that it's not in your hands. It is ultimately, if you trust the director and I trusted George, it was just incredible. We just worked so well together, you're more apt to take chances when shooting a scene to go that far because I have done four or five other takes where I went this far and then I went that far and then I underplayed it. So ultimately the director is going, "oh, I can shape this by taking that take and using that performance" and that's all it's about because ultimately you don't ever really get to play the whole part, you're playing little strips and making choices, but it's not like when you're doing a play. You determine exactly how it's going to shape over 2 ½ hours and quite often sometimes you do the movies and you go and see the cut and you go, why did they choose all the wrong takes?
What was the most fun you had during this filming?
KS: Lovitz just kills me. I've known Jon for 25 years and he still kills me. I've known him since his Comedy Central days.
I read that he sings beautifully and plays piano. That's a surprise.
KS: Yes, he also gave me some advice, very good advice on how to play Richard III, which I'm doing next year with Sam Mendes. (Mr. Spacey does a flawless, hysterical impersonation of Jon Lovitz doing Shakespeare, who knew?) He said, "Here's how you should play it. You stand on the stage with a big watch in your hand, go like this (staring at his wrist for a long time), then say – Nooowwww-is the winter of our discontent" --- so I'm going to bring that to Sam Mendes very soon. Thank you all.
Is it easier to play a fictitious character or a real life character and did you meet Adam Kidan?
Jon Lovitz: I think it's easier to play a fictitious character because you can make anything up, when you're playing someone who is really well known and everyone knows what he's like, it's hard because you really have to study the guy and imitate him and then you've got to play what's written, but there were two pictures of him on the internet from footage of him walking, but the pictures were really extreme. In one he's got short red hair and he's really smug and the other one, when he gets arrested, where he's going on trial, there's a picture of him and his hair's all white. He looKS: horribly worried and about 20 years older. I based it on that and then what I read but mostly it was what was in the script. But George Hickenlooper, he made a great movie, he should be here, and it's just horrible. We all loved him, he was just so great to all of us, so everyone did great work, their best work and he really collaborated, but he made the movie. We were out there three weeKS: and then he was on the project for like a year, going, "I'm in Toronto, I'm in Toronto editing, I'm still in Toronto." I've never kept in touch with a director like that, we became friends with him, the whole cast became friends, we would hang out – that hardly ever happens.
You can see what he pulled out of everybody.
JL: Oh yeah, I watched the movie – oh my God, everybody in the movie is pitch perfect in the same movie. I remember just thinking of the girl who was the reporter for the Washington Post, like, God she's really good, everybody was really good.
Your character was the icing on the cake.
JL: Who am I to argue? (He is playing with his phone, searching for a review about the movie to read to all of us at the roundtable.) Did you read the review from Ron Wilkinson?
Have you ever worked with Kevin Spacey before?
JL: No, I've known him for like 25 years. There's a restaurant on 69th street and Columbus Avenue and Penny Marshall brought me there and everybody would hang out, so I knew him from then. I remember the first time I met him I said, "I know you. I saw you in Wise Guys, you're a great actor." I never forgot him in that.
He knew you, of course?
JL: Well, of course. (He continues searching on his phone.) I feel so stupid reading this to you.
I heard that George was contacted by Adam Kidan on Facebook during production of the movie. Did they ever have an interview?
JL: George asked if I wanted to speak to Adam and I said no, because the guy's in jail, he's a crook and maybe he had something to do with Gus Lewis being murdered, maybe he didn't. I didn't want to talk to him, but I asked George, what did he say to you? George said that he said – well, I don't care about the wire fraud, that's true, but don't say I murdered the guy, 'cause I got kids, he said, I didn't murder him. I don't want you to say that.
(Reading from his smartphone) "Ron Wilkinson, NY City Film Reviews (he reads a favorable review and continues) ... and then it says, "Jon Lovitz, an Oscar for sure!"
Are Hollywood and Washington similar?
JL: Honestly, I didn't understand politics, I really didn't and someone said, it's like Hollywood and I went, whoa. So I started watching people...oh, he says this because he wants that and he's saying that because he wants this. Does he mean this? And he's lying about that, so he told this guy to say that. Now I get it – they're just lying and bulls***ting to get what they want – oh, now I get it. Not the intricacies of passing a bill, etc. I'm not as astute on that but now it's so obvious. I was doing my "liar" character on SNL and my lawyer at the time, one of the top lawyers said, you know your character is really popular in Hollywood. I said, "It is? Why?" Well, because everybody lies and I said, "They do?" I had just gotten into SNL, I didn't know anything and my thing is I hate lying. Why would you lie? They're going to find out anyhow and then what's the point if you can't trust a person, so I was that naïve. Now, so and so said this, I'm like, yeah, ok.
It's not intentional, all this lying that goes on.
JL: Oh my God it's disgusting. Well, people constantly justify and then best friends screw each other over and go, it's just business. I don't know what's right or wrong anymore because everybody's just justifying. I have a book of Jewish morals and law and it's about trying to do the right thing morally, I guess I am religious – 'cause I didn't' think I was, and that's why in the movie I said to Jack, I added that line, "you're a fake Jew," and he says, "I'm very religious, I'm Jewish." "No you're not, you say you're trying to do the right thing morally, but you constantly aren't." He's hiding behind it. He's saying he's religious and he's constantly doing the wrong thing morally and justifying it and Kelly Preston has that line, "quit justifying it, it doesn't make it right." Her character is actually the moral one, she says "you can't do this" and it's ironic because he converted to Judaism and usually when you convert to a religion, you're forced to study it so you learn it better than someone who is just born into it.
Kelly Preston was amazing.
JL: Yeah, she was great and such a nice person.
How did this role come to you? What made you want to do it?
JL: Well, George's agent called and said we recommended you to George. George said, "No, I asked for you." Apparently he and Kevin wanted me. Kevin said he recommended me. I don't know, they both wanted me. They had someone else but he wasn't totally available and then George and Kevin said, 'just get Lovitz,' which was important to me because what about Kevin? I don't want to get on the set and he goes, what's this comedian doing here? Because this is a serious movie. George said, "no, no, Kevin wants you." So I was relieved. I always liked Kevin but I didn't know him, it's a dramatic role and I talked to George and I didn't know him at all but he was super nice. I said I want to play it really real, because a lot of the time people say that same thing he did, because the director hires me for a part and they want to do it "real" and then they go, oh, do that thing you do. Oh, alright. Because I've done it a lot and people go, 'aren't you tired of doing it?' Yeah, I do it in my standup, my comic persona is me, but in the part I want to try, you know, I want to do different things. I want to be funny and be really real but they always want the same thing. But this time he goes, "no, you can do that." And I would do a scene and he'd go "a little less," even less? Yeah, and I said well, do you want like documentary film acting, and he goes yes. I don't know, I kind of made up the term in my head, 'cause I would watch documentaries. Like, say, there was a farmer in a documentary and he's going to lose his farm and he's in distress and you watch these people and it's really like interesting. George said, no, that's not a guy, that's an actor, and you go well, that's the best actor I've ever seen, it's so interesting because I can't tell he's acting. And that's what film acting is, very low key and he goes, yeah, that's what I want and he knew what I meant because he'd made documentaries. If you look at the movie, it's kind of like a documentary because he made a lot of them. So that helped a lot. I said ok, got it.
So you're really glad that you got to do a dramatic role?
JL: Well, I'm thrilled. I'm very sad that he's not here, it's horrible. We're all supposed to be celebrating together and it was a huge breakthrough for him and you know, Kevin thinKS: this is his best stuff since I think American Beauty and is thrilled to be in a great movie. We all loved him, we really did, you'd have liked him a lot. He was humble, but he went to Yale, he was very, very bright and if you read the book you'll see how good his writing is, he wrote it.
There's a lot of relentless energy in the movie. How did that manifest on the set? Watching the movie it's like non-stop, it keeps hitting you, the dialogue's fast, the characters are moving fast.
JL: He did the screening at Kelly Preston's house and he asked a lot of people, but he said, "Jon, what do you think?" I go, "honestly, it's really good in the beginning and then it slows down in the middle." A lot of exposition, it's just too much about how everything works, then it picKS: up at the end and when I saw him again he said, "I took your advice, I cut a lot." So I watched it, and I said what did you cut? 20 minutes? "Cause it moved like that (snaps his fingers) the second time I saw it. He said "no, just 6 minutes." That's it! It felt like he cut 20 minutes out of it but that's him, that's the way he made it and cut it and edited it. The director makes the movie. We shot for 5 weeKS: and I don't know how they shot the whole movie in 5 weeks. I thought it would be 10-12 weeks. I even said to him, "are you gonna get everything in?" "Yeah, we'll get it!" And he did. I don't know how. He worked on it for another year. I was getting updates on Facebook for a year. He worked his ass off on it, but that's George.
Was there a favorite scene for you? I liked the "fat f**k" rant.
JL: That scene, Kevin wasn't there, it was George reading his lines, George said, "really just let him have it, go nuts on the guy." I just go with it. I've been doing standup for seven years now and I really learned to just go with what's happening in the room. And in improv you learn to just go with it. What happens with acting, you get so into a scene and you're so into it emotionally – you go, "you're just so, so, so, oh f***, I forgot my lines" and then you do it again. So I kind of just keep going, but I say "fake Jew" in it because I wanted to.
What's your take on Jack Abramoff? Did he get out early?
JL: He's out now. December 4th he was released and we're all supposed to meet him Saturday and have a dinner. He wants to get back in the movie business. He did get out early and I'm sure in his mind he did nothing wrong but who knows? Yes, he made millions of dollars, or they charged the Indians millions, but they made billions, but they got arrested. One of the Indian tribes he helped built a hospital and named it after him. Go figure.
Thanks Jon. It's been a pleasure.
Did you get to meet Mike Scanlon?
Barry Pepper: No, he was actively cooperating and still is, with the investigation so he had kind of removed himself from the scene. So that wasn't available to me, but what I did have the opportunity to do was speak with his colleagues and friends. Some of them who had fallen out of favor with him or vice versa. He kind of left them to pick up the pieces and some of them had quite interesting things to say and it really helped me layer the character. Then of course, you read as many of the booKS: as you get your hands on. There's this huge paper trail of emails and evidence so there was a lot for us to go on but what reveals itself was, in both cases, Kevin's and mine, was these two very schismatic personalities. Mike was holding down a $10 an hour lifeguard job on the beach in Rehoboth beach, the entire time he was making millions as a PR rep and lobbyist, so he had this very dual sort of life happening, possibly as a front, I don't know. But he was this ultimate surfer dude and yet in Washington he had this very Hale fellow, well met, country club type personality, very smooth, slick and oily and people said that you instinctively knew not to trust him, but they said he could talk the chicken off the bone. He was such a smooth operator, so that was the difficultly, first of all this is factual reporting, it's stranger than fiction, hard to believe that this bizarre odyssey took place but it did and so how do you weave your way through it and try to find this balance, of this very schismatic character. Jack in the same way, this loving father, husband, and philanthropic with his charities and yet both of them just driven by this avarice and greed like a narcotic because they just flourished in that environment that was created in 1994 when Republicans took control and they just turned it into a bordello of big money. Hickenlooper met with Jack in prison and I spoke with some of his friends and this is what they said and the script just starts blossoming from there but you can't proceed without a First Amendment lawyer.is what they said and The script has to be vetted for inaccuracies and liabilities or else you can't get production insurance. So what's so remarkable about a story like this is, yes, it's told with a certain amount of entertaining but when you read these booKS: and you speak with these people, you realize that's the way these guys rolled.
In looking at this story, do you think you've provided the audience with a service? So many people are not even aware of this situation.
BP: Absolutely, I wouldn't have involved myself in the project if I didn't think that it had a certain sort of cautionary tale about the fact that this is alive and well in Washington and our democracy is drowning and this is really what is driving it. Our democracy, sadly, doesn't seem to exist without this corruption. I think that material equality and liberty and our democracy it's all intrinsically connected. You can't have all of the great wealth in the hands of the few and nothing in the hands of the many and still have liberty and freedom and you and I can't be represented accurately and fairly, if we don't have $15 million or $100 million to run a campaign. So how do you actually have liberty and freedom? You saw that in a recent mid-term elections there was record numbers of millions spent on these elected positions and the reason being is that they're just, they wield so much power, they're such gravy train positions, people are willing to wager their entire fortunes on the possibility of being elected because, not a penny of that is spent for you and I and they'll recoup every dollar either through the same practice, through legislative favors or lavish gifts or loopholes.