Kevin Spacey rounds out UB's Distinguished Speakers Series

Actor discusses storytelling, virtual reality and 'House of Cards'


Kevin Spacey’s entire career up to this point has been based on taking risks.

He says no one, whether in acting, writing, producing or any specific trade, will make it big unless they take initiatives to further their respective careers.

So when he was still a budding actor attending a lecture by Dr. Jonathan Miller, an acclaimed English theater director for whom he wanted to perform, he saw an after-party invitation hanging out of the purse of a rich, sleeping woman next to him. He knew he had to make a decision: take a risk or fall into obscurity in the relentless theater business.

“The little angel on my right shoulder is telling me, ‘Just ignore it,’ Spacey said. “But the little devil on my left shoulder was making a pretty good case.”

Years later, Spacey still recalls that moment as pivotal in helping transform a young boy from California who devoted his entire life to pursuing an acting career into an award-winning actor, producer and director with intentions to revolutionize how the public views film for the foreseeable future.

“I say to that woman sitting next to me at Dr. Miller’s lecture that night, I say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’” Spacey said. “I know it was wrong. It was a risk. But it was a gamble that changed my life.”

On Wednesday night, Spacey took the stage at Alumni Arena as the sixth and final participant of this year’s UB's Distinguished Speaker Series in front of a packed crowd to discuss a wide range of topics. He discussed the origins of his acclaimed Netflix series “House of Cards,” his opinion of what it takes to tell a story and his belief that virtual reality will help transform the world.

It was the first time since 2006 that the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and Student Association (SA) agreed to bring the same student choice speaker to UB. The last time both organizations agreed on the same speaker was when the Dalai Lama came to Buffalo.

Spacey acknowledged every time he took a risk, his acting career began to take shape more and more. He talked about his first encounter with his childhood idol and mentor Jack Lemmon as a young stage actor. He also spoke about his decision to leave acting for years to become the artistic director at The Old Vic in London, England. And he always referred back to the six words that helped him through his career: Let me tell you a story.

He said students, actors and tradesmen should know how to tell their own story for personal brands and to share unique experiences with others. He referred to Starbucks, which he said is an Italian-sounding coffee that costs quadruple the price of what he thinks is “an American drink.”

Spacey encourages others to share their stories and he believes everyone should take advantage of new technology like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

“Every day, more and more videos are going viral,” Spacey said. “We’re going from hundreds of artists and actors making millions of dollars, to millions of artists and actors making hundreds of dollars.”

Spacey convinced the story-telling process will only get more advanced with visual aesthetics. He told the audience that virtual reality (VR) would change the perception of how we watch film. It’s not limited to the arts industry – surgeons are using it to help train future doctors for surgery and help quarterbacks understand game tape in a different dimension. It is the next tool in revolutionizing professions, including the field of education.

“You’re at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean learning about marine biology. You’re in the fields of Gettysburg watching the Civil War. You flip on a headset and you’re standing in the pit of the Globe Theatre … And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I truly believe VR will be a quantum leap forward for story tellers,” Spacey said.

Alexander Kennelly, a junior biomedical science major, agrees with Spacey. He was hoping Spacey would speak about other topics than art and theater, so he was surprised to hear Spacey speak about VR.

“I just remember just a few years ago that virtual reality is touching the surface,” Kennelly said. “I didn’t know exactly how it would fit in but it seems it’s catching momentum.”

Like Spacey reiterated all night, it’s just another risk – like the risk Netflix took on “House of Cards.”

Netflix is a company he’s seen expand its story in quick fashion; it was the only network that would accept his Emmy-award winning series, “House of Cards” the way Spacey envisioned it.

Spacey told the crowd the show intends to create one cohesive story. Primetime television networks would reject the show because it lacked a pilot. But Spacey wanted the show to jump immediately into creating “the complex characters” and Netflix allowed this – the company offered a two-season trial run.

This was a company that released its first seasons of “House of Cards” on DVD and reached its audience via mail.

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

It’s a testament to the rise of popularity of the show, as he received deafening applause when he reprised his role as Frank Underwood, the diabolical president of the show, to begin the speech. But many didn’t know the efforts he made in order to become one of the most famous fictional presidents in this era of television.

He credited his progression as an actor to The Old Vic, a place he rarely took the stage.

Instead, Spacey informed the audience how his 13-year tenure as the artistic director at the famous London playhouse helped sharpen the rigid edges of Spacey’s character.

“I hope, because of the work I did there, I hope I’m a better actor, a better person and a better producer,” Spacey said. “And I know this: I would never have been ready to take on the role of Frank Underwood.”

The 45-minute speach was followed by a half hour question and answer session.

Rohan Kinhiker, a graduate student in UB’s School of Management, asked for Spacey’s opinion about breaking the fourth wall, a common occurrence in the Netflix series.

SA President Minahil Khan asked Spacey about his decision to drop out of Juilliard, a touted theater school in New York City. He didn’t agree with some teachings, but it forced Spacey to understand theater on his own.

“Whatever I came to Juilliard to learn, I felt I had learned and I was anxious to work,” Spacey said.

That experience may not have shaped his career, but it furthered it. Spacey said he never regretted his decision to drop out. He wanted to make a difference in the theater and film industry. He wanted to tell his story.

“Create something you find compelling,” Spacey said. “And others will too. Don’t try to create for the masses. Create your own story. Tell what you know.”

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.