Cover Story

Pair of Aces

With The Negotiator, Their tense new action thriller, these two wild cards prove they're flush

We tend to think of big summer-movie casting decisions as the executive-suite whims of Evian-swigging, Gucci-suited slick Willies. "Give me Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford, stat!" Or, even more cynically, as the cold-blooded, soulless, demographically approved calculations of those same studios' number crunchers. The 18-to-34s loooove Brad Pitt!"

But casting The Negotiator didn't work that way at all. Which, of course, you may have already guessed, since Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey aren't exactly thousand-watt marquee attractions. What's more, the teaming seems...well, it just seems too damn smart.

Actually, the whole thing went down like this: Spacey and Jackson bumped into each other at a party the night before Spacey snagged his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1995's The Usual Suspects. Mutual fans since back in the days when they were both semi-anonymous struggling New York stage actors, and having recently shot an all-too-brief courtroom tete-a-tete in A Time to Kill, Spacey and Jackson cast The Negotiator themselves, then and there.

"We were just getting warmed up by the time A Time to Kill was over," recalls Jackson. "So when I saw him at the party I said, 'So, Kevin, are you reading The Negotiator?' And he says, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'And???' And he says, 'I'll do it if you do it.' And I said, 'Well, hell, I'll do it if you do it!' And that was that."

After seeing Spacey and Jackson toy with each other as dueling Chicago hostage negotiators in their new cat-and-mouse thriller, it's hard to wrap your head around the fact that it was originally hatched as a Sylvester Stallone flick. In other words, it was a Kurt Russell away from becoming Tango & Cash, Part Duh. Instead, thankfully, it features a pair of guys who've got more chops than a well-stocked butcher shop. But, as Spacey and Jackson will be the first to tell you, for some reason they're still not seen as, quote unquote, movie stars.

"I don't think Hollywood sees me as an opening-weekend-guarantee guy, even though I've been in some movies that have made a lot of money," says Jackson, 49. ''Even with the success of A Time to Kill, they still see it as a Sandra Bullock movie." Adds the 39-year-old Spacey a bit more pointedly: "Quite frankly, a lot of movie stars play themselves because that's what they're expected to do, and on some level that's what they can do.... If I was only interested in making dough and being famous, I could show up in every movie and do the same thing with my eyes closed. But I'd be bored and eventually lose my credibility because audiences would go, 'What ever happened to him? He was interesting about four years ago.'"

Instead, what Spacey and Jackson are is part of a small and elite group of actors with a capital A. Sure, maybe Ritalin-popping kids aren't drooling for the Sam Jackson action figure or the Kevin Spacey Extra Value Meal. But these guys are simply two of the pound-for-pound best actors working today. "The bad news is maybe they won't get as rich as some people," admits Kill director Joel Schumacher. "The good news is they're going to work till the day they die. There'll always be great roles for them."

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