Goodfellas in Washington: The Tale of “Casino Jack”

 In Culture, Interviews

Actor Spencer Garrett talks about the film directed by the late George Hickenlooper.


“Casino Jack,” a film starring Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff, is already generating award-season predictions thanks to its strong performances and intelligent mix of humor, intrigue, greed and betrayal. Anticipation for the film makes the sudden death of its St. Louis-born director, George Hickenlooper, who died last week, an even greater tragedy for the film industry and the city. The film, which opens the Sella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival Thursday, November 11 at 8pm at the Tivoli Theatre, will include a tribute to Hickenlooper starting at 6:30pm.

We sat down with actor Spencer Garrett, who plays Tom DeLay in the film, about “Casino Jack”‘s depiction of Washington corruption, the fun that happened behind the scenes and working with Hickenlooper.

ALIVE: “Casino Jack” tells the story of the rise and fall of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He’s such a controversial man, everyone will take something different from his story. For you, at its core, what is “Casino Jack” about?

Spencer Garrett: I think it’s really about this culture of avarice and greed that was permeating the culture during the Bush administration, when nothing was regulated and people just got to run rampant and do whatever they wanted. Abramoff was sort of the prime example of that, because he was a rock star as a lobbyist and he bit off more than he could chew. But what I think George [Hickenlooper] was trying to create with this film was a very even-handed portrayal of Republicans and of Mr. Abramoff.

ALIVE: You have an interest in politics and a history of being in films with a political edge. Is that what primarily drew you to “Casino Jack”?

SG: Not really. It was George, meeting him and his body of work, which I’ve always been a fan of, and his passion for this project. I got a chance to read a draft of the script early on, and I loved Norman Snider’s writing. Then there was the opportunity to work with George, Kevin Spacey and this cast that had been put together. That all drew me, but mainly it was George. People were just drawn to him. He had a zest and a love for life that I have not felt in any director, possibly with the exception of Mike Nichols, who I worked with on “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

ALIVE: You play Tom DeLay in the film, a man that many American’s have very strong feelings about. Did you have any reservations in taking on this role?

SG: No, I didn’t because I knew that George wasn’t going to have any of his actors twirl their mustaches. DeLay is a larger-than-life character and everybody knows that, so my own expectations or my own feelings about the man himself I had to kind of put on hold, regardless of my own politics. I wanted to be as democratic about it as I could.

ALIVE: That being said, did you try to be as true to the real-life DeLay as possible, or did you strive to make the role your own?

SG: I kind of split the difference. Because of the Internet, I had access to a lot of footage of DeLay on C-SPAN, and it would have been easy to just do an impression of him. I wanted to take as many of his mannerisms as I could just from watching him, but I also wanted to bring my own qualities to it as well. Spacey looks nothing like Jack Abramoff, but when you see Abramoff in clips, you see that Kevin has found little things that Jack Abramoff did and little inflection of his voice. I listened to Tom DeLay’s book on tape, so I managed to get his voice down. So it’s little pieces of him and little pieces of me.

ALIVE: The film is filled with over-the-top, extraordinary characters. Were there such big personalities off screen as well?

SG: Yeah, I mean Jon Lovitz [as Adam Kidan] is one of the funniest human beings I have ever met. I worked with him years ago on “NewsRadio.” Just sit next to him in the makeup trailer and he makes you laugh. Just look at him, he’ll say one or two words and you’ll bust out laughing. At five o’clock in the morning, when you’re about to start a very long day on set, he kept the mood really light.

ALIVE: You also got to work with Kevin Spacey, and early reviews have praised his performance as one of his best. What was it like watching him basically become Jack Abramoff?

SG: I’ve known Kevin a long time and he has such an extraordinary work ethic. There was one scene in the film where he had to play piano. Kevin had a piano in his hotel room, a piano in his trailer and he actually learned to play Chopin. He inhabits a character more than anyone I’ve seen or worked with.

ALIVE: A lot of biopics aren’t made until decades after the person lived. The Jack Abramoff scandal happened less than ten years ago. Why do you think this movie needed to be made now?

SG: I think George probably chose it because he was such a political animal. But really it spotlights a time in our culture when things were allowed to run rampant. As we saw last election, people desire change. If you have any interest in Washington or politics, or even if you don’t, just to watch and see the seedy underbelly of Washington and everything that goes on there is fascinating in and of itself. George called the film “‘Goodfellas’ in Washington.”

ALIVE: With that unsavory side of the movie, are we supposed to walk away from this film feeling sorry for any of the characters?

SG: I think what’s wonderful about the film is that it leaves a big question mark. In the last scene of the film Abramoff is in prison and is writing a letter of appeal to President Clinton and Kevin’s portrayal of him is actually rather sympathetic. It’s not a bash on Abramoff, so [Spacey] manages to make you actually feel for the guy. Obviously there are a lot of bad guys in the movie, but if you walk away thinking, “Gosh, maybe things can actually change,” then it did its job.

ALIVE: While watching the movie, one feels the energy in every scene. Did George Hickenlooper have a specific way of drawing that out of you?

SG: He was really extraordinary at letting you bring your own thing to the party. George just basically said, “I hired you to be the guy…be the guy.” He trusted all of us. The film was in such good hands with Barry Pepper [who plays Michael Scanlon] and Kelly Preston [who plays Pam Abramoff], just a seasoned group of people. All George did was gently coax us along and let us do our thing.

ALIVE: As his final film, do you think “Casino Jack” is a good representation of who Hickenlooper was as a filmmaker?

SG: I think it’s the best representation of him as a filmmaker. He’s made a lot of terrific little independent films and great documentaries, and all of his skills were put to the best use on this film. The sky would have been the limit from here, because of the offers and opportunities that were coming his way. That’s why it’s such a loss for all of us because George really had great things ahead of him. If the legacy of “Casino Jack” is that people will go back and look at George’s early work and appreciate the stuff that he did, whether it was “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” “Hearts of Darkness” or “The Man from Elysian Fields.” People will see this body of work from this independent filmmaker and go, “Wow, this is a guy who was really about to get his due.”



St. Louis Director George Hickenlooper

St. Louis Director George Hickenlooper on the set of “Casino Jack.”



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