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Kevin Spacey on ‘Call of Duty,’ Gaming’s Future, and Why Keyser Söze Still Rules

Ben Silverman
Kevin Spacey
Kevin Spacey

He’s appeared in dozens of films, won two Oscars and a Tony, and currently stars in a hugely popular TV series. He’s also the face of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, releasing Tuesday for PCs and consoles. 

But Kevin Spacey isn’t convinced that you know who he is.

“One of the things that cracked me up was that when they released the [game] trailer a couple of months ago, there were literally hundreds of people on Twitter and through social media going, ‘Who the hell is Kevin Spacey and why is he in Call of Duty?’ ” he told Yahoo.

It’s a good question. This is Spacey’s first foray into video games, but while other celebs have dipped their toes into interactive waters, few have done it while at the helm of a groundbreaking show — in Spacey’s case, he’s still working on House of Cards.

So what gives?

“I love doing things that are unexpected,” he said. “I love doing things that challenge me in a new way, and I love doing things that no one else has done. It’s very much in line with me.”

That sort of introspective risk-taking has informed Spacey’s recent career. In 2003, he took leave of Hollywood and moved to London for a decade-long run as artistic director of The Old Vic theater company. In 2013, he eschewed the traditional networks and went with Netflix to distribute House of Cards. Maybe turning up in a video game isn’t that weird, after all?

“In the gaming world, they don’t know me,” he said. “They might have seen a movie or two that I’ve done, but I’ve made no impression on them at all. I’ve left no impression whatsoever. So there’s a gigantic new audience for me to play in front of, and that’s fun.”

Advanced Warfare is something new for Call of Duty. The past few games in the blockbuster series have touched on near-future technology, but Advanced Warfare leaps ahead a few decades to 2054. Outfitting players in robotic exo-suits packed with jump jets, cloaking devices, and time-slowing tech, it’s a fresh direction for a franchise that’s seen enormous success keeping itself at least loosely tethered to current events.

Spacey plays Jonathan Irons, the charismatic, manipulative head of a private military company deeply embedded in the political conflicts of the game’s war-torn world. He’s not a playable character, but he’s powerful, intimidating, and oddly likable — a Kevin Spacey classic, you might say, and one that invariably draws comparisons to Cards’ Frank Underwood.

Spacey, though, was brought on early to ensure that Irons was his own man.

“It was kind of a strange job in the sense that normally, you get a script and you have a director and everything is sort of laid out before you accept it,” he said. “I had to take a leap of faith with this experience because they hadn’t written it yet. They had an idea, but they actually wanted me to be a part of [Irons’] development and help guide them through the waters of making sure it felt authentic, or that it wasn’t overblown, or didn’t try to steal too much from other characters I’ve played.”

Screenshot from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Screenshot from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

It wasn’t easy. Spacey has built a career playing power-hungry troublemakers, and Irons certainly stands out as one of the toughest. But how tough is he? I asked Spacey who he’d rather have back him in a fight: Irons, Underwood, or the character that earned him his first Oscar, criminal mastermind Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects.

Don’t worry — he got it right.

“There’s something about Keyser Söze that I’ve always found interesting because you never actually see him except being weak and playing this character that’s feeble and has no power at all,” he said. “The power of that character is only the power you give him in retrospect, because it’s only at the end of the film — when you realize who he is — that you realize the truth has been in front of you the entire time. You just haven’t been looking at it from the right angle. And that, I think, is a subtler power, and a little bit devious. “

“So I’d go with Keyser Söze.”

No offense to Frank Underwood, but Irons might be a close second. Equipped with a high-tech army of tanks, mechs, drones, and soldiers, he cuts an imposing figure. And though he’s only a video game character, he looks exactly like Kevin Spacey.

Spacey is hardly the first actor to appear fully rendered in a video game. Most recently, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe put in memorable performances in the PS3 game Beyond: Two Souls, which was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013, but Spacey’s eerily lifelike turn as Irons has already raised eyebrows. Advanced Warfare developer Sledgehammer Games tapped the same motion-capture gear James Cameron is using to create Avatar 2 to catch every skewed glance and muscle twitch.

Kevin Spacey in motion-capture gear
Kevin Spacey in motion-capture gear

For an actor reared in the theater, the experience was a little awkward.

“They put you in a black jumpsuit and they put a helmet on your head, dots all over your face, a camera in your eyes, tags all over your body, and you’re in an empty soundstage, and they go, “OK, Kevin, we want you to walk up on top of those boxes and put your hand on that bar we’ve adjusted over your head, and we want you to walk down that box and sit in that chair and then say the rest of your dialogue and that will be that.”

“Then I look over at the little monitor, where they’ve already rendered the world, partially … and I see that I’m standing in a helicopter, with my hand on the roof of the inside of the helicopter and I then walk down that helicopter, and I get into a Jeep and I drive away.” 

And I go, “Jesus f****** Christ, what did I get myself into?”

Activision hopes he got himself into a hit. Last year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts was a disappointment, failing to match the sales of 2012’s Black Ops II and coming up short with critics. While Advanced Warfare is bound to be among the year’s best sellers, analysts are concerned that the series has peaked. To publisher Activision, it’s not what Call of Duty can do for Kevin Spacey; it’s what Spacey can do for the game.

So does he play? Not so much. Spacey says he’s worked through a bit of Advanced Warfare but doesn’t consider himself a gamer. He does, however, consider the medium to be fertile ground for great storytelling.

“If [game makers] are as interested in advancing storytelling and getting into drama as they seem to be — and certainly this game, and hiring me, proves they are — then think about where they’re going to be in four or five years as the technology continues to grow and as they get better at storytelling and bring in people to help them make that transition,” he said.

“It’s very exciting.”

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