“You show up, they put dots all over your face, put you in a black jumpsuit, and put a helmet on your head with a camera pointed at you and a light shining in your eyes.”
Kevin Spacey has been many things: actor, producer, director and theatre artistic director. Multiple Oscar winner and binge-view-worthy pioneer in the world of original Netflix drama. He’s been Richard II, Lester Burnham, Frank Underwood, John Doe, Clarence Darrow, Lex Luthor.
Now, he can add helmet-toting jumpsuit-wearing dot-decorated video game star to that list, courtesy of his role as Jonathan Irons in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Judging by his enthusiasm describing the shooting process to the Guardian, it was something of an eye-opener.
“It’s like ‘do this scene, stand up on those boxes there, on an empty sound stage, put your hand on this pole like you’re leaning up on the top of something, walk down these boxes, sit in that chair and say the rest of your dialogue, then the scene will be over’,” he says.
“But when you look over at the monitor where they’ve rendered that world, you’re standing in a helicopter and your hand is on its roof. And then you get into a jeep and it drives away. And you think ‘What the FUCK! I’m so far away right now from the Old Vic and a theatre audience…’”
As you’ll have surmised, Jonathan Irons is a full motion-captured performance, rather than a day-in-the-studio voiceover role.
It makes Spacey the latest Hollywood link for the Call of Duty franchise, with past games having tapped screenwriters David S. Goyer (Blade, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) and Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana).
In the new game, Spacey takes centre stage in the role of Irons, chief executive of the Atlas Corporation, a powerful private military corporation with ambitions to restore order to the world in 2054 after a devastating attack that has laid traditional forces low.
Activision wants to ‘advance gaming’
How did this happen? “They sat me down for this dinner with all the guys at Activision, and walked me through the idea of wanting to advance gaming. They wanted to begin to try to focus on really creating a character and storytelling that you would follow,” says Spacey.
The way he tells it, taking the lead role in a game isn’t such a big departure from a career that’s already seen its share of medium-hopping risk taking, from taking a 10-year job as artistic director of the Old Vic theatre to signing on for House of Cards, one of streaming service Netflix’s first moves into original drama.
“People thought I was crazy when I decided to move to London 11 years ago to start a new theatre company at the Old Vic, when I could have stayed over here and made movie after movie after movie,” says Spacey.
“Or when I decided to do a drama series with an online streaming company that had never done original content before. Or now, when I’m going to be an actor in a video game. This is an opportunity to do something that nobody had done, and also frankly to reach a new audience.”
That’s a strange thought, given the profile of Spacey’s roles in films like The Usual Suspects, American Beauty, Seven and Superman Returns. But equally startling is the thought of Spacey browsing YouTube comments to discover that he’s still unknown to a fair few gamers.
‘Who the hell is Kevin Spacey, and why is he in Call of Duty?’
“When Activision released the trailer in May, there were hundreds of people asking ‘who the hell is Kevin Spacey and why is he in Call of Duty?’ Maybe there are people who are gamers who haven’t seen movies I have made, or the movies I have made have made no impression on them at all,” he says.
“But this is their medium, this is what they love to do. Games are advancing in terms of storytelling and trying to create a character, and it’s a brand new audience for me. It’s kinda cool: if they like what they see in Call of Duty, they may want to go and watch House of Cards, or a movie I’ve done in the past.”
Canny career-minded motivations – and surely a handsome fee – aside, Spacey is keen to stress another reason for taking the role: the chance to get involved in developing the character of Irons, rather than simply – as is often the case with films – starting with a fully-formed character and script.
‘I really had to take a leap of faith’
“With this, I really had to take a leap of faith, because they hadn’t written it yet. They wanted me to be a part of developing it, and helping guide them through this new terrain of storytelling,” he says.
What form did that guidance take? “I was trying to avoid horrible clichés: things that just didn’t feel authentic. Wanting the character and the relationships to be genuine, and wanting the audience to be somewhat involved,” he says.
“I’ve taken my experience to help these guys not to fall into traps, so the character doesn’t feel like lots of other characters. A little humour doesn’t hurt either. But I was also attracted by the idea of by this character, being able to reveal and underscore the fact that private military companies are getting too much power.”
How successful the character and narrative are will become clear as people start playing the game and either criticising its dramatic aspects or – arguably worse – simply skipping them in order to get to the next mission.
Spacey shrugs off the latter prospect, preferring to talk instead about the wider intersection between technology and culture, whether it relates to gaming or people binge-viewing House of Cards on Netflix.
‘We’re going through a remarkable period of creativity’
“We’re going through this remarkable period of time where two things are happening. The technology is advancing at such an incredibly rapid rate, and we’re going through this remarkable period of incredible creativity,” he says.
“Why did I end up doing House of Cards? Because the world of television, or now streaming, is the world in which more and more great writers and directors and stars are going to tell stories that are complex, diverse, with antihero characters. And the audiences are devouring it, and demanding that this kind of storytelling is what they want.”
Spacey is enthusiastic about the prospect of games developers and publishers holding similar storytelling ambitions, and suggests that new technology – virtual reality headset Oculus Rift looms large at this point in the conversation – will have a big impact.
“If this is where the technology is now, where are they going to be in five years? Where if they actually start getting into storytelling and with the worlds they can create, imagine the places they can put actors that they don’t have to build, because they can render them?” he says.
“And a step further: where can we go in virtual reality, where can we go in 3D, when you can put actors anywhere you want to put them? Where the gaming world is going – and certainly Activision proved it by hiring me – is being willing to push and bend and move in a new direction of actually capturing the character, and storytelling.
“If this is the direction they’re going, they’re going to be making movies. And, of course, my production company is doing Gran Turismo with Sony, which is another step in taking a game and turning it into a film.”
That project was announced in 2013, with Spacey producing the film of the PlayStation racing franchise and Watchmen screenwriter Alex Tse also reportedly attached to the film.
It will be one of a new wave of game-derived movies – also see films based on Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid, Assassin’s Creed and Minecraft, and perhaps also Ridley Scott’s episodic Halo Nightfall project – aiming to dispel memories of past cinematic turkeys based on the games that we love.
‘Everything I’ve learned about storytelling and characters, I learned in theatre’
Spacey declines to wring the turkeys’ necks again. “Like anything new, it takes a while for anyone to get something right,” he says. “It’s the nature of the beast, the nature of anything that is new, and stepping into a world that is uncharted territory.”
His Call of Duty role means games are now charted territory for Spacey, although it remains to be seen whether the fate of Jonathan Irons in Advanced Warfare leaves scope for him to return in any future sequel. But he finishes our conversation by relating games back to his optimism about working in various media.
“It’s an exciting time for theatre, film, television and games. As long as there are really good stories to tell and audiences who want to hear those stories, I feel incredibly lucky to work in all these different media,” he says.
“I’ve taken the experiences that I’ve had in the theatre and applied them to film and television and now games. Everything I’ve learned about storytelling and arcs of characters, I’ve learned in the theatre.”
Give or take the odd jumpsuit, helmet and computer-generated helicopter, perhaps Jonathan Irons isn’t such a world away from the Old Vic after all.
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Monday 3rd November 2014 08.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010