“Good morning. How was your bus ride?”

As Kevin Spacey takes his seat at the American Beauty press conference – flashing that familiar whiplash smile and tossing a good-natured crack at the assembled ‘regional’ press – the charisma is out and proud. Installed next to co-star Thora Birch, the actor has for all the world the look of a man who has reached the peak of his career. For all the outward modesty, deeper down he knows his moment has come, and that with this film he cements his place as the most feted screen actor on the planet, bar none.

The movie, which is Dreamworks cheapest ever production (made for a piddling $15) marks the directorial debut of British theatre wunderkind Sam Mendes, has enjoyed massive sleeper success in the US, with commentators queuing up to tip Spacey for a second Oscar (he first won for The Usual Suspects in 1995). But more than that, in his portrayal of jaded suburbanite Lester Burnham it reveals sides to Kevin Spacey that have hitherto not been seen.

We first encounter Lester in the intimacy of his morning shower: hunched over, back to camera, jacking off. “This will be the highlight of my day,” he tells us in an expressionless voiceover. Lester is a shell of a man. A paunched, slipper-shod poodle with a nothing job and a faded marriage. Wife Caroline (Annette Bening) is a hapless, hi-gloss estate agent who uses matching secateurs and sandals to tend the rose bushes, and abides unsuccessfully to the mantra: to achieve success one has to project the image of success at all times. Not surprisingly, their sixteen-year-0ld daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is the picture of teenage misery.

Things begin to change when Lester overhears Jane’s all-American airhead friend Angela (cover star Mena Suvari, last seen in American Pie) talking about him. “I’d fuck your dad, definitely” she brags, “if he got himself into shape.” Next thing we know, Lester is in the garage pumping iron like it’s never been pumped before, between bouts of feverish daydreaming – in which Angela comes to him shrouded in rose petals and not a lot else. Further inspired by Jane’s friend Ricky – an adolescent misfit who deals blow, videos dead things because they’re beautiful, and reminds Lester of his own carefree youth – he starts smoking dope, tells his boss to go fuck himself (in glorious Spacey fashion) and gets a responsibility-free job flipping burgers in a local drive-thru, willfully oblivious to his wife’s burgeoning affair with white-toothed sales phenomenon Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). But the road Lester embarks on takes an unexpected turn. It’s a journey that will redeem him but also, as he tells us right at the start of the picture, ultimately cost him his life.

It’s a textured tale, veering continuously between hilarious and heartbreaking, and drawing on some familiar American Dream-bashing elements. At the outset, Lester resembles nothing more than a modern day Willy Loman – defeated, domesticated and disregarded by the institutions he bought into; he goes on to become something like Howard Beale (the Peter Finch character in Network) impulsively overturning the apple cart and refusing to shoulder the iniquities of his lot. Actually, and I promise you won’t read this in any of the highbrow movie mags, the closest model for Lester would be Reggie Perrin. Albeit Reggie Perrin with a compulsive masturbation complex and a spiraling skunk habit.

But back to the press conference, where much attention is being focused on the details of Spacey’s fitness regime, by which he effected the on-screen transformation from suburban sloth to superfit Lothario. Presumably, the physical demands of the role meant punishing stints in the gym trailer between every take?

“Well, when I could get Thora off the bench…”

“The muscle truck,” Thora shudders. “You should have seen this thing. It was vaguely atrocious.”

“Not vaguely,” counters Spacey. “Yeah I had to train for about four months before we started the film because we were on a very short schedule. I had to be in the best physical shape because we were shooting early Lester in the morning, later Lester in the afternoon. But I actually enjoyed it. When you work that hard you see results very fast. Within a month or so I began to see a physical change – which I found very encouraging.”

So you’ll be keeping up with the regime then?

“Oh yes, I’ve just come from my muscle truck. It’s parked out front.”

 

Two days later, in a suite at London’s Dorchester hotel, and Spacey is considering the notion of Lester Burnham as hero for our time.

“I think there are many people, women just as much as men, who find themselves in a place where they wish nothing so much as to change. And I think the fact that the film seems to have struck such a chord in the United States reflects that. Lester just happens to be one of those people who decides to actually do it. He decides to test life, test the waters. If people see certain heroic notions in that, that’s fine. But I don’t think we went into it with that idea. We were just trying to tell the story of this particular family.”

Interviewing Kevin Spacey can feel uncannily like being drawn into one of those mind games his characters so frequently play in his movies. He’s an infuriating contradiction. There’s the dark, narrowing eyes, the leaden brow, the guarded gravitas and somehow at the same time a mask of complete openness – though his answers are anything but open. Questions are tossed back, deliberately misinterpreted to his own ends, or, when it suits him, smashed into the stand with great earnestness, all in the most personable manner. Every so often he’ll throw in a quip or gesture to lighten the mood. Then it’s back to the narrowing eyes and the mask.

Ask him who his heroes are and he lists Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Bogart, Stewart, Hepburn: “The ones that don’t get caught at it are the ones I always like.” And herein, perhaps, lies a key to at least some of the Spacey mystique. Never one for the celebrity circuit, he has submerged his private life in order to give greater credence to his performances.

He tells me how, having made his name in films such as Se7en, The Usual Suspects and Swimming With Sharks  the role of Lester Burnham was a godsend, the last step in a purposeful plan to inch away from the dark, disturbed protagonists is known for.

“I met Lester at the perfect moment for me because I was experiencing my own sense of wanting to break out, to be perceived in a different way. Very often in the film industry people like you the way they discovered you. And sometimes it takes a while to move in a new direction. I mean, I recognised the great good fortune of doing the early films I got known for. But along with that came a certain amount of baggage. And the baggage was, you know, ‘we liked you playing that bad guy in that movie, why don’t you come and do it in ours?’ Except their movie was usually worse.

So following 95’s Oscar success, Spacey deliberately embarked on a trajectory away from roles such as Se7en‘s serial slayer John Doe, in search of more rounded, ambiguous parts – starting with LA Confidential‘s smarmy sleaze-buster Jack Vincennes, through Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil‘s gay murder suspect Jim Williams, even taking in A Bugs Life‘s dastardly insect bully Hopper, to finally be reborn here as a tank-topped, hen-pecked Lester, papers tumbling from his briefcase as he walks to his car in the morning. It’s quite the reincarnation, crystalised in a memorable spat between Spacey and Bening over the dinner table. Apparently, off screen, the histrionics caused a great deal of mirth as Bening improvised the mother of all hissy fits.

“We like to refer to that as the asparagus scene,” he says. “I was supposed to cut Annette off about two lines into her protesting. But she had a kind of moment when the camera was on her, she just went into a…Freudian aneurysm or something. It was quite startling to watch. And I was so mesmerised by the fact that she just kept going on and on and on. I was supposed to stop her but I just became…frightened for the kids. Finally she got to the end and she said, ‘Goddammit, you were supposed to cut me off!’ And I said, ‘I know, but you’re possessed and it’s actually amazing to watch.”

 

Thora Birch has similar memories of the indomitable Bening stoking up the marital strife to meltdown levels.

“It was funny but it was also kind of scary. Annette’s insane. She doesn’t kid around. She has wonderful improvisational skills and she just kept going and going. I mean, I was laughing – but out of a certain element of nervousness. It was like okay now calm down now please…”

As teenage miserabilist Jane, Thora Birch is the revelation of the film, managing to glower through pretty much every frame of the two hours running time. The sixteen-year-old actor’s rise to the brink of stardom, as she tells it, is one of those stories that could only come out of Los Angeles – having started out at four playing cutesy-pie kids in TV commercials after her babysitter ‘spotted her’ imitating the television and offered to become her manager. Having progressed through TV parts and minor roles in movies such as Patriot Games, All I Want For Christmas (where as an eight-year-old she sang a duet with Lauren Bacall) and last year’s Anywhere But Here she has established herself as a full-fledged member of the Christina Ricci-led ‘New Talent’ Club (“Christina’s great. There’s a lot going on up there.”) Now managed by her dad, she’s set to follow up her success in American Beauty with a role in this summer’s Dungeons and Dragons.

Janes begins the film torn between bombshell best friend Angela and cute-but-creepy boy next door Ricky (Wes Bentley). With the flush of youth still on her cheek Birch clearly identifies with the growing pains her character endures.

“I never really got along with other kids my age, and they never really got along with me,” she tells me. “When I was younger I really tried, you know, like I wanted to be accepted by them. But it was just kind of an unspoken feeling, I just always felt different. I really do feel more at home with adults and other people who are in the business.”

And what would be your reaction if your dad began to behave like Lester.

“Well I’d probably begin to behave like Jane. But you know, I hope I would make more of an effort to try and understand him. Jane, she doesn’t care to, because she’s just too disappointed. She’s just got too many problems in other areas of her life.”

 

In contrast to Spacey, director Sam Mendes couldn’t be more chatty. The implausibly young British theatre prodigy – who directed Dame Judi Dench to acclaim and awards in The Cherry Orchard and famously brought Nicole Kidman to the English stage in The Blue Room – had already turned down several offers to go to Hollywood. But when Steven Spielberg (of all people) showed Mendes the Alan Ball’s script – having been wowed by the visual flair of his Broadway Cabaret revival – the Berkshire boy knew he’d found the project to cut his cinema teeth on.

His first days on set, however, turned out to be something of a baptism of fire. In his own words, he everything completely wrong.

“It was the scene in the burger joint,” he confesses. “It’s a very funny scene but it’s also the last time that Lester and Caroline ever see each other. And there was no poignancy, no sadness. The production design was very cartoony; the costumes were very cartoony. The lighting and camerawork were very mundane. And the acting was way over the top; it felt like a Farrelly Brothers movie. Now, I love Farrelly Brothers movies, but that was not what I wanted to make. Mercifully, the studio were in full agreement, and more than happy to pay for a re-shoot.”

They got it right second time around: in tandem with cinematographer Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) labouring to fashion an appropriate visual style; a palette of cool, uncluttered widescreen frames with an unfussy, frequently still camera, as though unconsciously breathing life into the Kubrick / Eyes Wide Shut formula. When it came to the cutting room stage, however, Mendes was in for another shock.

“To be honest, I thought I was making much more of a…the only way I can describe it is kind of a Coen Brothers movie. A much more whimsical film. And I realised when I put it together that actually it’s a much sadder film than that. A much more haunting, poetic film than that. And that delighted me.

To me there are three sorts of filmmaking at work in the movie. I wanted the main body of the film to have a kind of surreality – sort of hovering a foot above reality the whole time – because I wanted the journey from reality into fantasy to be as short as possible. Then there’s the fantasy sequences where I wanted the camera to move with fluidity and grace – with a kind of dreamlike quality. And then there’s Ricky’s video footage, which has a more raw, kinetic handheld feel to it.”

It’s a noteworthy debut, though perhaps not quite the outright masterpiece some would have you believe. Encumbered with an unfocused whodunnit endgame it doesn’t need it tends also to over-egg the message (whether you really buy Ricky’s beauty-fixated camcorder antics you’ll have to make up your own mind). While many of the characters – – Lester, Jane and Angela in particular – move powerfully from a state of confusion to a moment of clarity the screenplay relies on increasing doses of artifice to get them there.

But of course, little of this really matters right now. For American Beauty will be received as a bittersweet movie fable packing grandstand performances: Spacey turning from mouse to menace; Bening painting the smile on an increasingly desperate face; Birch executing the most sullen cheerleader routine in movie history.

Says Spacey: “I think this is the kind of filmmaking that I always dreamed movies could be. It’s an extraordinarily unusual film for a major studio to have done. Not just to have done, but to have never asked for it to be watered down, or tried to soften it, or make it PC. If Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen can say let’s make the smallest movie we’ve ever made, get a new director on board and say: you keep this under budget and we won’t touch it, we’ll let you make the movie you want to make, then more people can.

There’s always be those bigger-end films because the studios have to in order to survive. But what I hope is that maybe instead of doing parts seven, eight and nine of those, they’ll take some of that money and put it into films like this. It won’t stop those other movies from being made. They’ll always be made. You just won’t see me and Thora in them.”