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Spacey shares rewards of risk-taking

Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey delivered the final 2015-16 Distinguished Speaker Series lecture. Photo: Chad Cooper

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published April 28, 2016

“We should all aspire to be innovative. We should all be in a battle with mediocrity.”
Kevin Spacey, speaker
Distinguished Speaker Series

Following visits from presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, UB welcomed another American politician — albeit a fictional one — to campus yesterday: Frank Underwood, a character played by Academy Award winning-actor Kevin Spacey.

Spacey graced the stage in Alumni Arena last night as the UB Graduate and Undergraduate Student Choice speaker and final guest of the 2015-16 Distinguished Speaker Series.

The actor, who received Academy Awards for his performances in “The Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty,” is perhaps now best known for his role as the executive producer and star of the Netflix original series “House of Cards,” in which he plays the Machiavellian — and debatably evil — politician Frank Underwood.

Although Spacey delivered various lines from that title role and kept the audience entertained with several of his other signature impressions, he also came with a message he wanted to share with the UB community: that everyone should embrace the art of storytelling.

“I think six of the most powerful words in the human language are: let me tell you a story,” Spacey said.

“Stories are the very substances of our experiences… A good story can touch our hearts, a great story can bond us together and a bad one can tear us apart.”

For much of his speech, Spacey shared his own story, one of determination and risk of how an unknown actor rose to be an international star.

It began when a 13-year-old Spacey took a workshop led by famed actor John “Jack” Lemmon. After Spacey performed in a few scenes, Lemmon approached him and raved about his acting skills before suggesting that he travel to New York and learn the art.

Spacey took those words to heart, and four years later traveled from California to New York to study acting at The Julliard School.

“Sometimes, a teacher, a parent, an adult, an idol can say just the right words at just the right time and it can be life-changing. And for me, it happened on that day: ‘You should go to New York and study because you are a born actor. This is what you were meant to do with your life,’” Spacey recalled.

Traveling across the country as an aspiring actor was the first of many risks Spacey took throughout his career.

Two years later, the actor would drop out of Julliard, with “no prospects, no auditions, no job, no money, no manager, no agent.”

However, with relentless determination, he hounded casting directors and theater managers, landing small opportunities that laid the foundation for his career.

After failing to land a role in a play opposite his idol and future mentor, Lemmon, Spacey attended a lecture the director was giving in order to meet him. Noticing a sleeping woman had a ticket in her purse for after party the director would attend, Spacey admitted to stealing the ticket.

“I know it was wrong. It was a risk, but it was a gamble that changed my life,” he said.

After meeting the director and gaining another audition, Spacey would later land the role opposite Lemmon.

But his greatest risk may have been leaving a successful career in film to serve for 11 years as artistic director of The Old Vic Theatre Company in London.

Although the move went against conventional wisdom, he wanted to take on new challenges in his career.

In a little more than a decade, Spacey helped restore the theater company as a destination for audiences, staging more than 50 productions and creating education and outreach programs for aspiring actors, directors and producers.

“They might call you crazy for walking away from a successful film career to run a theater for a decade,” he said. “They might call you foolish for making a political drama with an online streaming service. They might call you nuts for taking a production of Shakespeare around the globe and thinking that it could be profitable. And they might laugh in your face for appearing in a video game. But make no mistake: No one ever breaks new ground by playing it safe,” he said.

So, what does Spacey consider the future of storytelling? Virtual and augmented reality, or VR.

“I truly believe that VR will be a quantum leap forward for storytellers, just as the motion picture was a century ago,” he said.

“With the emergence of new tools, new apps, new technologies, there’s actually never been a greater time to make vivid stories that can stand out from the crowd.”

But no matter the medium, Spacey closed his talk by urging audience members to take risks and break new ground in their fields.

“We should all aspire to be innovative. We should all be in a battle with mediocrity,” he said. “We should all be interested in and willing to break the boundaries. Because if there is one thing that overlaps business and art, it’s that in the end, it’s the risk-takers who are rewarded.”