As celebrity-centric fetes go, the Q&A session Saturday night at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s annual Renaissance Award gala — honoring two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey — was much more fun, informative and entertaining than most.
Chicago native and fellow actor Jeremy Piven posed the questions to Spacey at the Four Seasons Hotel fete, spiced with fascinating Spacey career anecdotes and his brilliant impressions of everyone from Johnny Carson to Spacey mentor Jack Lemmon, Bill Clinton, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and William Hurt. Piven himself showcased his own talent for mimicry by asking the first question to Spacey in the voice of Owen Wilson.
Given his popular role as evil President Frank Underwood on “House of Cards,” Spacey was brought to the stage to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.” Noting Spacey’s iconic role on the Netflix series, Piven quipped — about his role as Q&A moderator and questioner — “I am less qualified to do this than Donald Trump is to be president!”
Then, as a special surprise for the Academy Award winner and former director of London’s legendary Old Vic Theatre, a series of videos paid tribute to his enormous talent — often laced with humorous tweaks. Robert Downey Jr., joined by his wife, Susan, hilariously acted as if he thought Piven was the honoree — and Spacey was the award presenter. Other videos showcased comments from former Spacey co-stars Annette Bening and Samuel L. Jackson, good friend Lionel Richie and Marlene Iglitzen, the widow of Gene Siskel, for whom the film center is named.
Earlier in the evening, as Spacey walked the red carpet at the event, the actor told the Sun-Times that there was special pleasure in being honored in a major theater community. After all, the actor is a Tony Award winner and, in fact, will be hosting the Tonys himself this June.
“I love coming to Chicago,” said Spacey. “I’ve had some really good times here, and indeed have seen some really great theater here — and would love to do theater here myself.”
Spacey noted that he’s especially honored “to be receiving this award in Gene Siskel’s name. I think that criticism, even when you don’t particularly like to hear it, is an important and valuable thing. We learn about ourselves, we learn about each other, we learn about the world. Plus very often I think what Gene clearly loved and believed in was the power of cinema — the value of it. So, I think being given this honor in his name keeps his legacy alive.”
As for his ongoing role on “House of Cards,” Spacey smiled when a comparison was made to to the current state of affairs in the real Washington, D.C. “I’m having the time of my life [playing Underwood]. Every year it gets better and better, and I laugh more and more with [co-star] Robin Wright.
“However, the good news for us is that we feel no obligation to compete with the real world — the real headlines. We are in our own alternative universe, and as long as we stay true to the story we want to tell and the characters we’ve created, we’ll be fine.”