- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 27, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Something in me resists accepting that Jeff Bridges is a decade older than Kevin Spacey, his co-star in "K-Pax." Perhaps that is because

Mr. Bridges, born in 1949, became known to movie audiences when the actor was barely into his 20s, notably as the young hothead of "The Last Picture Show" in 1971. In a manner of speaking, Mr. Bridges had grown up in front of the public. He had joined the cast of Lloyd Bridges' popular television series "Sea Hunt" when he was about 8.

Mr. Spacey, born in 1959, never had a juvenile phase as a recognizable performer. His breakthrough was playing Jamie Tyrone in the Jack Lemmon revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which was staged in London and New York in 1986 before being adapted as a television dramatic special. Although distinctive rather quickly as a sarcastic type, Mr. Spacey emerged in a fully grown state of cleverness and finesse.

The actors shared a forum recently at the Four Seasons Hotel here while promoting the inspirational fantasy "K-Pax," which opened yesterday. "K-Pax" is derived from a novel by Gene Brewer and entrusted to the English director Iain Softley, whose previous feature credits were "Backbeat," "Hackers" and "The Wings of the Dove." The movie aspires to insinuate Mr. Spacey as a sagacious, redemptive man of mystery who calls himself Prot and claims to be a visitor from a distant planet, the K-Pax of the title. Mr. Bridges plays the psychiatrist, Mark Powell, who is assigned to the exile's case when Prot is picked up by police as a suspicious character at Grand Central Station.

Curiously, Mr. Spacey originally had been solicited for the role played by Mr. Bridges. That was 31/2 years ago, when Mr. Spacey was in London with a revival of the Eugene O'Neill classic, "The Iceman Cometh." As the actor recalls during interviews: "I first read it without knowing which role they wanted me for. It turned into one of those embarrassing moments. I called my manager full of enthusiasm and raved, 'That Prot is such a wonderful role.' She tried to let me down lightly by saying, 'That's not the part.' I reply, astonished, 'That's not the part?' 'No,' she explains, 'they want you to play the psychiatrist. Prot is set for another actor.'"

Asked which actor, Mr. Spacey doesn't hesitate to answer, something of a rarity in such cases. "Will Smith," he reveals. "It's no skin off my nose. For whatever reason, it never got made in that incarnation. Anyway, three years go by. They come back and say, 'Would you be interested in playing Prot?' Well, yes. Then we went out and got a much better psychiatrist in Jeff Bridges."

If Mr. Spacey's career seems more purposeful than many others, that may be because he doesn't lose track of roles that seem to have passed him by. "Sometimes it's worth the wait," he says. "I just had the same experience with 'The Shipping News,' which will open at Christmas. That's a book I read six or seven years ago. I fell in love with it and wanted to play the role, but it was intended for John Travolta at that time. Then John dropped out and Billy Bob Thornton took his place as the top prospect. We kept tracking it. Every now and then my manager would make a strategic phone call: 'Hey, is that movie ever gonna happen?'"

Again, the patience and persistence of team Spacey were rewarded. "It was an extraordinary experience," he says. "Lasse Hallstrom was just sublime as a director, and the women got better every week. I ask you: Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench? What a horrible job. If you're just patient, things may work out the way they're supposed to. It's always a case of you struggling and fighting to get the chance to do something you've never done before. I spent a number of years kind of shifting the parts I play."

Mr. Spacey says he sensed a need to avoid typecasting soon after winning his first Academy Award, as best supporting actor, in "The Usual Suspects."

"Between 'Seven' and 'The Usual Suspects,' there was a particularly strong impression created about the kind of actor I was. I was always looking further down the road. I didn't want to play your evil nemesis in every new movie," he says. "I took little, tiny, incremental steps in another direction. I started playing roles that were morally ambiguous. guys on shifting sand, starting with the cop in 'L.A. Confidential.' He seems complacently corrupt at first glance, but he's restless about his own identity. He does the right thing and, bang, he's gone.

"By the time Sam Mendes offered me 'American Beauty,' he saw what I was up to. He was willing to take a risk that would have been inconceivable three years earlier. If you're interested in change, you have to walk toward it. You can't sit back and wait for the phone to ring."

Well, maybe and maybe not. Mr. Bridges leaves the impression that he manages his career with maximum nonchalance, even to the point of discouraging directors who seem to want him.

"I think both Kevin and I like to insinuate our own personalities into the characters we play," he says. "It's great to have great players to play with. All the cliches are true. They'll elevate your game. I've taken a tip from my Dad's career and tried to avoid stereotyping. 'Sea Hunt' typed him as an adventure guy for a long time. In a way it was a compliment, but it limited his choices, too. Years later his role in "Airplane' typed him as a comedian. I found that out when I recommended him for a role in 'Blown Away.' I had to correct misimpressions that stemmed entirely from 'Airplane.'"

Mr. Bridges decided to "mix it up" as much as possible. "Too many similar things, and it's too much baggage," he says. "Not just for the actor. For the audience, too. They'll grow used to thinking of you as 'that sort of guy.' I'm not conscious of really going after roles. Not since my early 20s, when I was aggressive and wanted to attract as much attention as I could. I just don't approach a career that way anymore. If anything, I find I spend a lot of energy resisting roles. I have this kind of funny relationship with myself. I'll be attracted to a challenge but also repelled by it. There's something about challenge that's downright exhausting."

Mr. Bridges says he was dragged kicking and screaming into some of his more rewarding roles. "I have vivid memories of trying to talk directors out of hiring me," he says. "I'd suggest other actors, usually my friends. I did that on 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,' which ended up getting me an Oscar nomination. The director, Mike Cimino, taught me a valuable lesson. I was saying how I really wasn't comfortable with the idea of playing this guy. I said to Mike, 'Do you really see me in this part?' He said, 'Yeah, you're the one I want. Look, it's like the game of tag. You've played tag, haven't you? You're It. Whatever you do in this role, the character is doing it. You don't have to worry about being comfortable with whatever you do. It's not a matter of relating to the guy. You are the guy. No one else is going to be playing him."

During one scene in "K-Pax," Mr. Spacey must prove the oddness of his character by eating a banana without removing the peel. "It was a lot more than one banana," he says. "It was always in the script. That's how Prot consumes produce. The prop department had crafted fake peels and placed bananas inside them. No offense, but it just looked really bad. To the naked eye. It looked as if I were picking up a gigantic yellow felt marker. And they fell apart. So I said, 'Just go to the store and get some nice, ripe, yellow bananas and wash them. We'll do it.' So that's what we did, and it left me with an astounding potassium high for about four days. It doesn't make you sick. It makes you goofy. You're bouncing off the walls, like a cartoon character. Jeff couldn't believe it. 'You are dedicated,' he said."

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