His hair forming an exclamation point on his forehead, his body twisted into a palsied knot, Kevin Spacey hobbles painfully through the neo-noir thriller The Usual Suspects. As gimpy Roger ''Verbal'' Kint, Spacey is at turns pitiable, funny, wily, and utterly inscrutable.
''He's a character actor and a chameleon,'' says Suspects' director Bryan Singer. ''In his roles he always changes his look, his hair, his voice. Beneath the surface is a very complex human being.''
In person, Spacey, 36, can swing from serious to frivolous. (His hilarious impersonation of Jack Lemmon, his mentor and costar in Long Day's Journey In to Night, is dead-on.) California bred and Juilliard educated, he broke out in 1988 with his terrifying portrayal of a brutal gangster in TV's Wiseguy, followed by a Tony-winning performance in 1991 as Uncle Louie in Lost in Yonkers. Spacey, now based in New York, says his theater roles ''are closer to me as a person than most of my film roles,'' which is good news, as his most memorable screen characters the sadistic real estate manager in 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross, the abusive studio executive in 1995's Swimming With Sharks are not exactly folks you'd invite home for dinner. ''The dangers of ambition are what interest me,'' he declares. ''I was driven to do Suspects because Verbal was more internal. It was a discipline for me to trust that stillness.''
Spacey's latest challenge was his directorial debut for the forthcoming heist drama Albino Alligator, starring Matt Dillon and Faye Dunaway. (''I've been madly in love with her my whole life,'' he exclaims. ''Acting pales next to this experience.'') But he'll be back before the camera next month, as a DA in Joel Schumacher's A Time to Kill. What he'll do with his hair and his voice this time is anyone's guess.