Kevin Spacey is now having "the time of my life"

The star of the hit Netflix series "House of Cards" is also featured in a new documentary about his worldwide tour in Shakespeare's "Richard III."
CBS News

Kevin Spacey is a revered star of stage, screen and Internet, whose been shaking things up with his portrayal of a schemer who turns the White House into a "House of Cards." He talks shop with our Anthony Mason:

If ambition and power are the lifeblood of the nation's capital, then Frank Underwood may be the ultimate political vampire.

The Machiavellian hero of "House of Cards," who'll stop at nothing to climb the power ladder, is played with delicious deviousness by Kevin Spacey -- and he looks like he's having a lot of fun.

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards." Netflix
"I am," he told Mason.

But the Emmy-nominated series was a huge gamble. Netflix spent more than $100 million to order 26 episodes . . . without ever seeing a pilot.

"I think people thought we were nuts," Spacey said. "I didn't think we were nuts."

And audiences have fallen for Spacey's conniving character, somehow appealing, because he lets us all in on his plan.

"People think that direct address was invented by Ferris Bueller," Spacey said, "but in fact, it wasn't. It was invented by Shakespeare."

Underwood is based in part on Shakespeare's Richard III, who also directly addresses his audience.

"Because I had the experience of doing 'Richard III' just before I started shooting 'House of Cards,' boy, did I learn about that relationship!" he said. "To look in the eyes of audiences and see the kind of naughty glee that they got with being on the inside, the audience becomes your co-conspirators."

Spacey has just produced a new documentary called, "Now: In the Wings on a World Stage," about his worldwide tour of "Richard III." The 54-year-old actor says his heart has always been on the stage.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III, as seen in the new documentary, "Now: In the Wings on a World Stage."

"This is where I learned my craft," he said. "This is where I am at my best."

The son of a secretary and a technical writer, Spacey fell in love with the theatre in junior high school. At 13 he attended a workshop with Jack Lemmon in Los Angeles:

"After I did a scene, he walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder and he said, 'That was a touch of terrific. You know, you're a born actor.'"

"That must have been pretty extraordinary when you were 13 to have him say that to you," said Mason.

"Yeah, life changing."

We went back with Spacey to Chatsworth, the California high school from which he graduated. "When I do workshops now with kids, I see myself. I was that person."

Student: "I'm going to be going into acting when I grow up."
Spacey: "When I grow up! When is that? When are you planning that?"
Student: "I have to get a little bit taller."
Spacey: "A little bit taller? Good luck with that. But even if you don't, it doesn't really matter. You know how tall Tom Cruise is? He's as tall as this desk!

Examining his yearbook, Spacey said, "Yeah, look at me. My class picture. I think I'm wearing my father's tie."

And he had very wide lapels. "Yeah, man, that was the thing. Frightening!"

Kevin Spacey on the nature of success
Spacey transferred here in his senior year to study drama. Fellow actors Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham were classmates. In the school's production of "The Sound of Music," Spacey would play Capt. Von Trapp to Winningham's Maria.

Spacey spent an hour talking with the drama class about Shakespeare:

"I played Laertes and Polonius," said one girl. "I got to die twice!"

"Did you die very differently twice?" Spacey asked.

"Yes," she replied.

He asked one group to perform a scene (from "King Lear"); and then he co-anchored the school newscast.

From Chatsworth High, Spacey would head to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, where his fellow students included David Hyde Pierce, Ving Rhames, Elizabeth McGovern and Kelly McGillis.

"You were pretty ambitious right from the beginning," said Mason.

"Sure. Nothing wrong with ambition, baby."

Kevin Spacey doesn't play favorites
"You went through a period that you, yourself, described as 'the attitudinals'?"

"Yeah, I became a bit of a jerk," said Spacey.

Why? "I was clearly not good enough. The level of my arrogance did not match the level of my talent, by a large measure. I'm only very grateful that A, it happened, and B, it didn't last long."

"What knocked you out of it?" Mason asked.

"A number of people who told me I was a ****!" he laughed. "Probably can't say that on 'Sunday Morning'!"

He landed his first film role in 1986, playing a subway mugger stalking Meryl Streep, in "Heartburn."

In 1995, his performance as the crippled con man Verbal Kint in "The Usual Suspects" earned him an Oscar.

"My mother always, always, always thought that I was going to be famous," Spacey said. "Thought that I was going to win Oscars. In fact, I believe I accepted the Oscar as a ketchup bottle many a time in front of my mother in the kitchen. 'I'd like to thank the Academy,' I said with a ketchup bottle."

Just four years later, in 1999, his role as a depressed suburban father, Lester Burnham, in "American Beauty," would win him his second Oscar.

But at a point of time when a lot of actors might have gone for the "gravy train," Spacey said, I'm outta here.

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in "American Beauty." Dreamworks
"Something was unsettled in me," he told Mason. "After 'American Beauty' came out and the response to that film was so incredible, I was starting to feel like, 'Okay, so now what?' Am I going to spend the next 10 years doing what I often see happen with actors who get to the place I got to -- which is they start doing a lot of movies they probably shouldn't have done?"

Instead, at the peak of his Hollywood career in 2003, Spacey abruptly moved to London to become artistic director of the Old Vic Theater.

He's spent more than a decade running the company there, turning down any film role that required more than eight weeks of shooting.

"Do you think it hurt your film career in any way?" Mason asked.

"Every now and then, I remember, I would read things where people said my career was over and that, you know, I'd run away from Hollywood. But I'll tell you this: I don't think I could've picked a better decade to go run a theatre than the decade we just had in terms of what I missed!"

"You didn't want to be an Avenger?"

"You know, they didn't ask."

And while Spacey is known for complicated, somewhat demonic characters, at the beginning he was a standup comic.

"Yeah, and I still love doing that," he said. "I mean, I love doing impressions. When I was young I learned very early on that I could make my mother laugh. And that was one of the greatest sounds I ever heard."

And was he a good comic? "I was a good impressionist," he replied.

Case in point: his President Clinton:

"You know, that 'House of Cards,' I love that show. 99 percent of what they do is real. The one percent they got wrong? You could never get an education bill passed that fast."

"Would you do comedy just to change the perception?" Mason asked.

"I'd love to. It's a funny thing where people in Hollywood have it in their head that that isn't what they offer me. I don't get offered those kinds of films. They're very stupid; they should offer me these films!"

Until they do, Kevin Spacey is relishing playing the ruthless Francis Underwood on his relentless campaign to reach the White House . . . and rule the world.

"I'm having the time of my life working on it," he said. "It's a complete joy.

"And ultimately, of course, there's Pope Francis as well," he smiled.

To watch a trailer for the documentary "Now: In the Wings on a World Stage" click on the video player below.

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