Kevin Spacey finds Abramoffs humanity in Casino Jack

Two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey lifts his fork from his plate of lox and eggs and jabs it in the air. Tucked away in a back booth at Art’s Deli in Studio City, he recounts his monologue from the opening scene of the black comedy “Casino Jack,” which opened this week in San Francisco.

The film is inspired by the true story of the disgraced right-wing former superlobbyist and Orthodox Jew Jack Abramoff, whom Spacey portrays.

In that scene, Abramoff wields not a fork but a toothbrush as he informs a bathroom mirror that as a result of “a s–load of reading and studying and praying,” he’s come to some conclusions that he’d like to share, ostensibly with the reporters and FBI agents circling him.

“You’re either a big leaguer or you’re a slave clawing your way onto the C train” is one of them. “You say I’m selfish — f– you,” is another. “I give back plenty.”

Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff in “Casino Jack” photo/jta/courtesy of ato pictures

Later he says, “I’m humbly grateful for the wonderful gifts that I’ve received here in America, the greatest country on the planet! I’m Jack Abramoff and, oh yeah, I work out every day.”

Spacey portrays a hubris-filled, over-the-top character — the real Abramoff really did brag about his exorbitant fees and about working out every day — but director George Hickenlooper also envisioned him as a kind of empathetic anti-hero.

Hickenlooper died unexpectedly last month at 47 of what appeared to be natural causes, two weeks before his scheduled interview with the Jewish Journal. But he detailed his journey to “Casino Jack” in his introduction to the published screenplay, including the myriad hours he spent interviewing Abramoff at the Maryland federal prison where he was serving time on counts related to defrauding Native American tribes, the purchase of gambling cruise boats and other charges.

“Casino Jack” is, according to Hickenlooper’s account, a kind of first-person opera told from Abramoff’s point of view.

In the film, the mega-lobbyist wheels and deals, but he also davens, lays tefillin and is passionate about his family and funding charities, including a short-lived all-boys Jewish day school, the Eshkol Academy.

“Maybe no one would want Jack Abramoff to be humanized, but that’s my job,” Spacey said. “I don’t sit in judgment of the characters I play.”

In person, the 51-year-old actor is by turns droll, cerebral and charming, but he doesn’t mince words. Asked

whether some viewers might perceive “Casino Jack” as whitewashing Abramoff, he pointedly replies, “What does that mean?”

Apparently some Republican observers were concerned that the film might do the opposite, given that Spacey is a prominent Democratic activist and a poker buddy of President Bill Clinton’s. Spacey portrayed Al Gore adviser Ron Klain in 2008’s “Recount,” another dark comedy about politics — one reason Hickenlooper wanted him for “Casino Jack.”

The two met after Spacey read on Hickenlooper’s Facebook page that he was the director’s first choice for the part. “It is absolutely 100 percent true that I was cast on Facebook,” Spacey quipped.

His approach to the character was meticulous. “If you were looking at this as a science project, there were three separate ingredients,” he said.

“The first was the man I met,” he said of a five-hour visit with Abramoff at Cumberland Prison in spring 2009. “Both George and I came out of there going, ‘For a guy who’s been completely framed as the devil incarnate, he’s pretty charming, funny and a pretty good impressionist.’ ”

The second factor was learning about others’ views of Abramoff, which Spacey obtained in part by scouring the media coverage and speaking to K Street lobbyists. And the third was what the actor refers to as “the facts” — including what Abramoff actually did. His conclusion was that Abramoff’s nature was “not as black and white as they all sure seem to make it sound.”

“If I look at somebody like Bernie Madoff — and there have been other figures who have quite clearly, knowingly stolen millions of dollars — they have lived a fabulous high-on-the-hog life: Fifth Avenue apartments, jets and vacations and yadda yadda,” he said.

“I started to break down what Jack Abramoff actually did with all the money he was making … but I couldn’t find the fabulous cars, the Learjets, the vacation homes in Denver and the Swiss Alps. All I could find is that he hadn’t paid his mortgage and that he wanted to build this Hebrew school because he felt that some of the rabbis in his area were not teaching properly.

“There’s no doubt that he did things that were crossing the line, but my job was to try to get into his mind.”

Spacey said his visit with Abramoff proved “extremely helpful,” although he declined to reveal specifics, except to say, “He was absolutely honest in that he took complete responsibility for what he had done.”

The former lobbyist was wearing a black velvet yarmulke — the same kind Spacey wears throughout the movie, at times covered by the famous black hat that Abramoff wore in photos snapped around the time of his arrest.

“I was fascinated by [Abramoff’s] Judaism, by his commitment, to the point where he would open up the only kosher restaurant on K Street,” Spacey said. “That kind of faith is always interesting, regardless of one’s religion, because then you wonder, ‘How can they end up doing these things that appear to be [improper]?’ ”

So why would a devout Jew engage in less-than-kosher deeds? “I think he was living in a [political] culture where this was happening all over town,” Spacey said.

“I think this is the way they did it, and it’s still the way they do it … George was fascinated that Washington, D.C., had managed to make it look like they’d cleaned up the industry by throwing Jack Abramoff under the bus.”

“Casino Jack” is playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco. It opens in wide release Dec. 29.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal