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In person, celebrities tend to ride the aura that surrounds them. They sit back and wait to be entertained by questions. Kevin Spacey seems intent on undermining all that.

He is leaning forward in a hotel restaurant, his chest practically level with the table, part supplicant, part regular guy. If there's ever an actor you wanted to talk plainly with about the secrets of the trade, Spacey makes it clear, he is the guy.

It's welcoming, if a little disarming. It's also in sharp contrast to his lead role in the film Casino Jack - which opened on Friday - as the stiff-backed, fast-talking Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose shady deals not only led to his spectacular fall from the heights of power to prison, but also brought down a host of congressmen including Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Casino Jack, Spacey says, huddling forward, is about that unrelenting Washington roller coaster.

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"This man was on a ride. One of the reasons he got so caught up in it was that he never slowed down enough to look at what he was doing," Spacey says. "I think that I wanted to have that sense of forward movement, that he was always interested in where he was going and not very interested in what he had just done."

Spacey, in contrast, is introspective as he describes this. His character may be driven by fast action, but Spacey is obviously very comfortable talking about and analyzing the creative process. The method by which he developed his portrayal of Abramoff seems as important to him as the finished film.

"Even if you're telling a story based on true events, or it has factual things in it, you're also dramatizing," he says. "You're trying to elevate [the story] and you're trying to make something more entertaining than people might expect. How do I make a movie about a huge political event and not make it a boring cooking lesson?"

A twist came when Spacey and Casino Jack director George Hickenlooper (who died in October before the film's release) visited the lobbyist in prison.

"After we had the chance to meet Abramoff, we found him so completely funny and charming in a way that I think neither of us expected," Spacey says. "Because I'm kind of a political junkie and peripherally remembered this story, I decided I was not going to read anything [more about Abramoff before meeting him]"

The actor and director were both taken aback by Abramoff's demeanour.

"And so what you're trying to then do as an actor is say, okay, where in all of this range of material and opinion can I try to play a character that will be a real human being, and not necessarily black or white or this or that? Because it is more complex than that," Spacey says.

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"I try to not judge the character that I'm playing. If I sit in judgment, then I can't enjoy the character as a person because I so vehemently disagree with what they've done or the kind of people they are. I have to be neutral about them as black and white figures," he continues.

"But you talk to any actor: [They]have to approach it that way. Abramoff probably viewed what he was doing as no different than what everyone else in the lobbying industry was doing. It was a culture, an environment, in which everybody was doing it. He was just doing it bigger, louder, faster, and making more money than anybody else - which also means he was making a lot more enemies."

Inevitably, some may see Casino Jack as taking sides politically. This is when Spacey changes his posture. He leans back in his seat. Criticism? Lay it on me, his body language suggests.

In Washington, the game of bending the rules "is a culture that, to this day, even in Obama's administration, continues. They have the most influence, and they find very clever ways to go around the rules," Spacey says.

"My favorite one is that you cannot buy senators and congressmen dinner. You can't have a dinner fundraiser. So what constitutes a dinner? If you're not sitting down, it's not a dinner. If you're not using utensils, it's not a dinner."

He breaks into an incredulous laugh. "So it's still going on. There has not been a huge cleanup in the lobbying industry since this. So, if people were to say this is all about the Bush administration, it's not."

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The film distills an intricate story, which was made even more challenging, he says, by the fact that everything was shot out of sequence.

"In a way, you're guessing how the other scenes will go, even if you haven't rehearsed them with those actors. It's always about where a character is from scene to scene, and about what they know and what they don't know. It's the thing about making movies that [makes it]hard for actors like me who love theatre."

Theatre relies on developing a character over time. A stage director - Spacey cites Trevor Nunn in particular - might wait weeks before making a key suggestion about his role because of the growth an actor needs to go through with the character, Spacey says.

"I like very much to feel that I can trust a director and that a director can trust me, and that a director can feel they can direct me. It's been a very rare occasion where I felt someone was intimidated to the point where they didn't want to offend."

Film doesn't have that luxury of time. It's closer to the disjointed, fast-paced world of lobbyist Abramoff. It requires an even greater effort to bring the character front and centre. That's why Spacey wanted to place a monologue in which Abramoff looks into the mirror and gives himself a manic pep talk at the start of the film. Originally, it was scripted to appear in the middle.

Picking apart a text is what Spacey loves, he says, as he leans forward again, happy to be immersed in the tricks of the trade.

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