During his three decades on stage and screen, Kevin Spacey has played a lot of villains. But Francis Underwood may be his nastiest piece of business yet. The soulless center of David Fincher's new Netflix series, House of Cards (available for streaming Feb. 1), Underwood is a seemingly genteel South Carolina congressman who's passed over for secretary of state and plots a chesslike game of political payback with the help of his Machiavellian wife (Robin Wright) and a hungry young Beltway journalist (Kate Mara). ''I think people just like me evil for some reason,'' says the 53-year-old actor. ''They want me to be a son of a bitch.'' Spacey has been so good at being bad that we often overlook how many different kinds of characters he can play. That's why we asked the two-time Oscar winner to reflect on some of his most memorable performances.
Little-known fact: One of Spacey's earliest roles was in a high school production of The Sound of Music, playing Captain von Trapp to Mare Winningham's Maria. But his first break on the big screen was as a creepy subway stalker in this Mike Nichols drama.
''I was understudying the Harvey Keitel and Ron Silver parts in Mike Nichols' play Hurlyburly. About a month after I finished, Mr. Nichols called and said, 'What are you doing this summer?' And I said, 'Let me check my imaginary calendar.' He said, 'I'm doing this film, and there's this part I think you're right for. It's this film I'm doing with Meryl and Jack.' I'm thinking, 'Okay, that would be Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Yeah, I think I'm free.' That scene in the subway where I wink at Meryl was shot on my 26th or 27th birthday. I was so terrified that I couldn't blink, but hey, I got my SAG card.''
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin...and Kevin Spacey? He may have been the least famous face in the cast of this profane, powerhouse David Mamet adaptation, but Spacey proved that he belonged in their company.
''Mr. Pacino came to see me in Lost in Yonkers on Broadway. And before I knew it, I was asked if I could come to a read-through of Glengarry at his office. That film is one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had. It was like showing up on Arthur Ashe court every day and you're going to play Lendl, then Murray, then Sampras. Pacino had this scene where he rips me a new a--hole, and he started to go off script and say what a loser I was. When we got to the end, I was like, 'What the hell was that?' And he said, 'I just wanted to give you a little more to get you where you needed to get.' Extraordinary.''Swimming with Sharks (1995)
George Huang's indie about a sadistic movie-studio exec named Buddy Ackerman who terrorizes his assistant (Frank Whaley) gave Spacey his juiciest role yet as a barking big-screen bastard.
''There are stories that I based Buddy on Scott Rudin and Joel Silver. But I didn't know either of them at that point in my career. I just based it on what was on the page. There's a story that when Harvey Weinstein was at his worst, his assistants would stick a tape of Swimming With Sharks into his VCR. The reason it's fun to play characters like that is because that's not what you're like in real life. Seriously, I was just acting, if people can believe it.''