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'Pure Emotional Terrain'
Kevin Spacey phoned TIME reporter Stephen Short from L.A. Feb. 11, less than a week before he was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for his work in American Beauty, which earned seven other Oscar nominations.

Lorey Sebastian/©1999 Dreamworks LLC

TIME: Your character Lester Burnham goes through the biggest changes in the movie. What for you was his defining moment?
There's nothing like standing in a place and wanting nothing so much as to change but simply not being able to. That's Lester's dilemma. He spends the entire film reaching from the outside and trying to pull things toward him. Finally he realizes that the changes he's had to go through are internal. All that's articulated in the final kitchen scene with Angela [Mena Suvari], where you had to see his entire life in six minutes. The scene happens in silence and was so hard to make. We had to be cautious how we shot it, as it was hard not to make it bullshit or feel too sentimental. I think that's a beautiful scene. Lester finally finds the level of inner peace he was searching for.

TIME: Has this film's success surprised you?
Yes and no. Anytime something reaches out beyond your wildest imagination, then yes. No, because I think it's a great film for end of the millennium. It's message is that we must be careful how we view one another. Life's all about perceptions.

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TIME: You and director Sam Mendes are both very theatrical people. You must have been impressed by his virginal director's eye?
At first I was anxious. As an actor you're always nervous as to what a director will do with something. But we saw eye to eye immediately and he was never afraid to go for broke. He wanted the tone of the movie absolutely consistent in style, content and approach and that's what theater teaches.

TIME: He told me he was anxious. He said the first few days were a series of huge nightmares.
I'll tell you one thing. I've never heard a director saying that the dailies suck. Usually no one talks much about dailies, but I asked Sam how it was going early on and he'd say, "I hate them, I hate them, I hate them, I hate every single thing about them. I hate their way, I hate their look, I hate the way you act, I hate the set, I hate the costume, but the dialogue is great." But you know, he went to the studio and just said I want to shoot those days again and that was a really ballsy thing to do.

TIME: Would you agree with his assessment that theater's so much more glamorous than cinema?
Sure. Sam came out with one of the great lines I've heard about moviemaking. He likens it to the building of a shed. And he's right. It's mechanical, it's technical. I mean, the whole thing is fake, you stand there trying to deliver lines in front of 50 people with headphones on, some are fiddling with your costume, one person's checking that the mirror's not reflecting off anyone's face. And the whole continuity thing's a nightmare. You're shooting a scene sometimes when the other actor's not even there, then you film the final scene 10 days into the movie and you shoot the opener 10 days later. You're trying to be private in public all the time. It's nuts.

TIME: Sounds like hell.
My job as an actor is to give a director editing choices. When I see a movie that works I think it's a miracle. A real miracle. The Maltese Falcon was shot in 32 days and to me, that was a miracle.

TIME: How do you get any fun out of it?
The premiere is really the only glamour in cinema. The rest isn't. Theater is very much more romantic, more tangible. You rehearse for six weeks as an ensemble, it's more intimate, more shared, it's a group thing. In American Beauty I think we all took the best of theater and tried to apply it.

TIME: Do you look at younger actors/actresses today and think they don't even know what that means?
Some have never had the experience. These days, a young actor makes a few successful movies, they then become a successful individual who generates movies and then it becomes hard for them to sustain a career. They don't know what to bring to a role anymore. They don't have foundations. Directors have changed too. A lot of them in the '80s moved from music videos and you know a lot of them don't even know how to lead a rehearsal. They just don't even know how to help or suggest anything very constructive. When I look back at the last seven or eight years at people like Sean Penn or Samuel Jackson, these guys are actors who hit later and that's very encouraging. I think a lot of younger actors now are trying to emulate that. I've spent a good portion of my life trying to build the right foundations. But now, young actors/actresses get lost to film and TV very early on and never really come back.

TIME: What's American Beauty mean to you?
I think it's pure emotional terrain for everyone.

(American Beauty opens in Hong Kong March 2.)

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