Kevin Spacey knows something about spoilers. He is, after all, the central figure in two of the biggest so-shocking-you’ll-drop-your-coffee-mug movie twists of the ’90s: Seven and The Usual Suspects. So it comes as no surprise that the 57-year-old actor, while sipping a large iced coffee in an over-lit white room in midtown, gives little away about his upcoming projects. What’s next for President Frank Underwood on the just-unleashed fifth season of House of Cards? “I can’t be the Spoiler-in-Chief,” he says apologetically. “There are people today who are just watching season one.” How will he translate Clarence Darrow (the acclaimed one-man show about the famous Illinois lawyer, in which he starred twice in London) from the 1,000-ish-seat Old Vic theater across the pond to the 23,000-plus–seat Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens? It will involve putting seats on the U.S. Open’s storied center court, utilizing its giant screens and…well, you’ll just have to see.
It’s not that Spacey is cagey. Chatting with him for an hour, even a spoiler-free one, makes you feel sure the Tony Awards ceremony, which he hosts on Sunday 11, is in safe hands. On subjects about which he is unshackled, he is a generous storytelling delight. Push play, and he takes you backstage with Jack Lemmon on an opening night (with a spot-on impression). He’s so dazzling in a tiny room that one easily imagines him eating up the big stage on theater’s night of nights. So it’s almost disappointing when he does give away one sliver of detail about his approach to the MC role. “We want to mostly make sure it’s not about me,” he says. “We want to do things in a way that hasn’t been done before, but it’s got to be about the plays and musicals.” He’ll at least sing a few songs, right? He offers an Underwoodian smirk: “No spoilers today.”
So we’re not going to get The Kevin Spacey Show at this year’s Tonys. What can you tell us?
I think these things have become way too much about the host. I am not sure whether this is true or not, but it seemed to me that Johnny Carson had a multiyear contract [for the Oscars]. That Billy Crystal had a multiyear contract. That Bob Hope had a multiyear contract. They weren’t auditioning people to host shows and then firing them the next year when the ratings weren’t high enough. To some degree, you have to allow people to learn how to host.
Carson, Hope and Crystal: Are their hosting styles the sort you’re going to emulate?
No, I’m not. I’ll steal from everybody. [Laughs]
Fair enough. You won a Tony in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers. But the bulk of your more recent theater work has been at the Old Vic, where you were artistic director from 2003 to 2015. How challenging was it to be an American in London trying to save an institution?
I remember it was about three months before we were going to open our doors in 2004 for the first time. I was sitting with what was a small staff then and saying, “Guys, get ready.” They were like, “Yes, we’re so excited.” And I said, “No, no: Get ready to be killed. For the most part, the theater community here knows me as a film actor. If I don’t come riding down Waterloo Road on a white horse with Laurence Olivier standing on my shoulders, they’re going to hate everything we do for a while.” And they hated everything we did for a while!
You had major successes there, including with Clarence Darrow. You’ve also played him on TV and starred onstage in Inherit the Wind, based on Darrow’s defense of a science educator accused of the crime of teaching evolution. Why are you so drawn to this man?
I suppose it’s that I just keep being drawn to his homespun logic. And that he was a man who took on causes, took on cases, took on issues that other people avoided. He has such a remarkably diverse career: He started out as a labor lawyer, then became a remarkably successful civil rights lawyer; and then later in his career, [he had] the Monkey Trial. Even though [he] lost the case, [he] kind of won. Then he became a criminal defense attorney at a time when most people his age were retiring.
It’s a one-man show, presented in the round, which is tough enough. Why on earth did you choose to do it on a tennis court for the New York run?
I was at the opening night of the U.S. Open; I’m a big tennis nut, and I try to go every year. On that night, they don’t play tennis—there’s a concert. I thought, Wait a minute, that’s a fucking crazy idea. Even in the worst seat in the house, people pay good money to watch a little yellow ball fly around the court at 120 miles an hour. I’m bigger than a yellow ball, and I don’t move nearly as fast!
Frank Underwood is kind of an anti-Darrow. Is it hard to keep him and the show shocking in the Trump era?
First, we never felt an obligation to compete with the real world. We’re in our own alternative universe. What happens, though, is this: We come up with our story lines and our bible a year before we start shooting; we were nine episodes into shooting before the  election happened. People are going to think we stole [this season’s plot points] from the headlines—but it’s actually the other way around. I was joking with [showrunner] Beau Willimon last year that we should do something in the episodes that’s really awesome, like figure out how to get $500 billion into the arts budget and then see if we can make that actually happen.
Spacey hosts the 71st Tony Awards Sunday June 11 at 8pm.