The two-time Oscar winner discusses his latest project, the Vegas card-counting flick 21.
The gambling maxim "The house always wins" doesn't necessarily always ring true. For players with a quick mind and a sharp memory, the odds in Blackjack can actually be quite favorable -- so long as the dealer doesn't catch you counting cards. Years ago a group of M.I.T. students got so good at the practice that they succeeded in wresting millions from casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere, prompting author Ben Mezrich to chronicle their exploits in his 2002 bestseller "Bringing Down the House." Now their story is getting the Hollywood treatment, courtesy of Kevin Spacey and his new movie 21.
"I always thought that this was a story that was ripe for film," says Spacey, who served as a producer on the film in addition to its star. "I first started hearing about this more than a decade ago from friends in Boston. There was kind of this known secret, but we couldn't ever really get any information. Nobody would ever go on the record."
That all changed, of course, when Mezrich's book debuted to raves. Eager to pounce on the window of opportunity, Spacey quickly dispatched producing partner Dana Brunetti to track down the author, and they soon hammered out a pact to turn the story into a movie.
The deal marked the beginning of 21's long and arduous road to the big screen. "When we found the book five or six years ago we thought, 'Hey man, we're kind of ahead of the curve,'" says Spacey. But the demise of studio backer MGM and the ensuing fallout stranded the project in development limbo for years; in the meantime, movies like the Ocean's trilogy turned the once-novel playground of Sin City into well-trodden cinematic territory. When 21 did finally receive the green light from Sony, producer Spacey faced a dilemma: "After all the series and poker shows and Vegas movies and Vegas series and all the stuff that happened in the last six years, how do you make Vegas interesting again?"
A solid story certainly helps. So does having an Oscar-winning actor to headline your cast. But Spacey wasn't always certain that he'd even be in the film. "I always believed in this story and thought it was great," recounts Spacey, "but I didn't know really until there was a script whether there would be a role for me or not." In order to make room for the Oscar-winning actor, the 21 scribes took a smaller role -- that of the M.I.T. students' card-counting mentor Micky Rosa -- and expanded it.
Seeing Spacey's name atop the marquee is an increasingly rare phenomenon. After his first Oscar victory (for 1995's The Usual Suspects) led to a flurry of lead roles in high-profile projects -- some great (American Beauty), some not-so-great (K-PAX) -- he decided to pare down his film schedule dramatically in order to concentrate on his first love. "My priorities just changed many years back when I made the decision that I wanted to go and start this theater company in London," explains Spacey. "Theater had always been my primary allegiance and while I spent ten years being driven and having a kind of personal ambition for a film career, I got to a point where that just was no longer of interest to me."
That's not to say he doesn't still hold affection for making movies. Despite all the bumps 21 experienced along its path to the big screen, Spacey seems proud of the final result. "This is the first major studio film that Trigger Street (Spacey's production company) has done," he says. "And it's a movie that's a popular mainstream entertainment in which one gun goes off and nobody gets shot. There's no car crashes or car chases and it's about performances and it's about the mind."
21 opens this Friday, March 28th.