EDITOR’S NOTE: This was discovered on the web by one of our spies. We don’t know where she got it, so if this steps on anybody’s copyright we extend at least a thousand requests for your pardon:
GUARDIAN EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL TELEVISION FESTIVAL 2013
JAMES MACTAGGART MEMORIAL LECTURE
BY KEVIN SPACEY
Good evening. I’m delighted to be here. First, I can honestly tell you that no event in my life this year has given me more heartfelt pleasure to prepare for than giving this speech today. As an Edinburgh Festival virgin I really didn’t know what I was letting myself in for so you will be pleased to hear I did my homework before sitting down to write a word. And the relief for all of you is that I’m not someone with an important job in broadcasting using this speech to audition for an even more important job in broadcasting.
Since, in the history of the MacTaggart Lecture, no actor has ever been asked to give this speech, I also won’t be spending any time justifying why I’m giving this speech. If what I say today is responsible, then I alone am responsible for saying it. And if the MacTaggart were a political office that you actually had to run for, then the banner hanging over this lectern would be my campaign slogan and theme for today and it would read . . . “It’s the creatives, stupid.”
Now when I think of what it must have been like for this industry when the MacTaggart was first given almost 40 years ago, I imagine that the audience then probably went home at the end of the festival and shared that time honored tradition – when the entire family would gather around the television set – tuned to a certain channel, at a certain hour and watch a favorite movie (like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’). They probably felt blessed to be living in such a modern age with a 21-inch television that brought the family together.
Today when I think about how all of you might go home at the end of this festival, you can sense things are a bit different now than they were then: Its more likely that you have already recorded ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ on your DVR, as you gamely try to gather the family around the giant movie screen you’ve installed in what used to be the basement; then you can try to find out where your children are on Facebook, and might ask your partner to stop Instagramming photos of the meal they’ve just ordered from the delivery service – during the film – while Grandma desperately pins even more pictures of cats on her Pinterest page, as your son quietly and surreptitiously clears his entire browser history, and your daughter Tweets how boring ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ is because its not in 3D or even in color . . . you too will feel that warm glow of precious family time when we all come together to . . . ignore each other.
It is indeed a more complicated, modern and wonderful life, isn’t it?
A bit of cautious humor as I begin my comments today. And I want to start by sharing with you a couple experiences I have had in television that profoundly changed my view of this medium and are perhaps some of the influences that led to my doing ‘House of Cards’ with Netflix – one of the primary reasons (if not the only reason) I was asked to speak today.
Now I was lucky, my parents loved literature and the arts so we had a house full of books and I was taken to the theater often as a young child. But I was also captivated by television. We loved to sit down as a family and watch Upstairs/Downstairs or The Wild Wild West, crowded round our set for the latest episodes. Television showed me a world beyond my neighborhood, people I had never met, places I had never seen. It fired my imagination, just like theater and books had.
I was not a studious kid and I struggled to find things that would command my attention and engage my ideas and energies. But I knew I loved stories and drama. I had even sat down with a school friend and drew on a napkin in a restaurant the plans for the theatre we dreamed of opening one day – a theatre we would name Trigger Street after the street my friend lived on.
Well, as it turned out I did eventually get to run a theatre, the Old Vic but I saved the name Trigger Street for my production company; so I am one very lucky guy because I have been able to live out my dreams almost so perfectly now as I look back on it, that you’d think I’d made it up. But in fact, it was a teacher who had an idea how to engage with young people who saved me.
You see, it turns out I was drawn to acting at a very young age and this smart drama teacher pushed me towards a workshop, where I was blessed to meet the man who would become my mentor, the great actor Jack Lemmon.
At this workshop – that was being run by Mr. Lemmon in 1974 – we had to do scenes from Juno & The Paycock, which he was performing at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. And after I finished my scene, Jack Lemmon walked up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “That was a touch of terrific. You should go to New York and study because you are born actor”. Mind you, I was just 13 years old.
So after graduating high school, I took Mr. Lemmon’s advice and went to NY to study at the Juilliard School of Drama. And then I later got the chance to audition to play Jack’s alcoholic son in the Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night. So in 1986, 12 years after I first met him I found myself in a room (once again with Jack Lemmon) and after I finished my audition, in which we did four scenes together, once again Mr. Lemmon walked up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I never thought we’d find the rotten kid, but you’re it. Jesus Christ, what the hell was that”?
I spent the next year working every night alongside Jack – including our run in London at the Haymarket; and he became the most important mentor, friend and father figure I could have hoped to find. We did 3 films together, ending with Glengarry Glen Ross.
Fast forward to 1990 when I was invited by Jack to sit at his table at the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award to Sir David Lean. And for those of you who haven’t heard of Sir David Lean, two things you should know; one – he directed Lawrence of Arabia and two – if you don’t know who David Lean is – you’re in the wrong business.
Anyway, I remember being on the edge of my seat as Mr. Lean dedicated his entire acceptance speech to the idea of promoting and supporting emerging talents. It turns out he was concerned, perhaps even frightened, about the film industry’s lack of commitment to developing talent and the greater and greater number of films that the studios were making that appealed only to the pulse and not to the mind.
This is part of what he said that night in 1990 in front of all of Hollywood: “I find myself thinking that nearly everything Noel Coward and I used to talk about in doing new things and nearly everything I learned in those early days seems to be contradicted today. We don’t come out of many new holes anymore. We try to go back and come out of the old ones. Parts 1,2,3 and 4 and I think its terribly, terribly sad. Okay, do the old things – Parts 1, 2 and 3 – but don’t make them a staple diet.
This business lives on creative pathfinders. I terribly miss; we all miss, I think, somebody like the great producer Irving Thalberg. He had a foot in both camps: He understood us creative people. And he understood the money people. And we’re in terrible danger. I think there are some wonderful new storytellers coming up now.
They are going to be our future. Please you chaps in the money department, remember what they are. I think the time has come, where the money people can afford to lose a little by taking risks with these new filmmakers”.
And then Lean said the following… “I think if they give these new storytellers encouragement, we’re going to come up and up and up in the film business and find the new ideas. But if we don’t – were going to go down and down and down and lose it all – to television. Television is going to take over”. Hold onto that thought, because I’ll come back to it.
The second experience I want to tell you about is when I took my first trip to Los Angeles as a working actor in 1987; after studying at Juilliard and having begun my career in the theatre, I was offered a reoccurring role on the CBS series Wiseguy, which I immediately turned down. At this point I had only experienced two guest starring parts in episodic’s: one on The Equalizer and the other on Crime Story.
The experience and the performances I gave in both these shows was, frankly, forgettable. I was an unknown theatre actor, who’d never worked in front of a camera, but I understood story, I understood arc and how to create a character and I wondered who all these guys were standing around the camera in suits; asking why my hair was that way, or why I was wearing that tie or why I was acting “that way”.
These weren’t the directors or writers; they were . . . network people. “I see network people”. Sticking their fingers in creative decisions and having opinions about everything. Even though I was just starting out, I already knew that I didn’t want to have that kind of experience as a steady diet. So I turned down this offer to do Wiseguy. When my agents began to scream at me – who the hell did I think I was, etc., I picked up the phone and called Jack Lemmon.