Kevin Spacey’s Speech at U.Va.: Frank Underwood’s Guide to Surviving College

October 28, 2014
Kevin Spacey speaking at UVA

If a conniving and manipulative politician gave you college advice would you listen?

Well, if this politician can admit that U.Va. basketball player Joe Harris is far more popular than him and manages to turn the venerated Seven Society, into a joke about Broadway musicals, then yes, absolutely, bestow me with your wisdom.

Thankfully, Kevin Spacey, who currently plays the Emmy award-winning role of Frank Underwood on the political drama, “House of Cards,” arrived in Charlottesville on Oct. 18 to share his advice (and enthusiastically high five Dean Groves). At every mentionof “House of Cards,” the audience erupted into cheers and applause, proving that U.Va. had picked a crowd pleaser.

Spacey spoke as part of the second annual President’s Speaker Series for the Arts, the University’s effort to put a greater spotlight on the arts at U.Va., as it endeavors to further integrate the arts into students’ educational experience.

Taking the podium with the charisma and energy you might expect from a film and stage actor, who also happens to run a 195-year-old theater, Spacey began his speech with rule #1:  “Success is a mixture of preparation and luck.”

To this, I admit I may have rolled my eyes… It was not exactly brand new advice. Yet, managing to include a story about a stolen invitation that led him to director Jonathan Miller’s after party, which subsequently helped launch his career, breathed life into this age-old saying.
 
His story struck me as a mixture of preparation, luck and more than anything, some serious determination, which led perfectly to rule #2:
 
“Treading water is the same as drowning for people like you and me.”
 
In other words, take chances and dare to test the limits of your passion and ambition.
 
At the height of his career after starring in the critically acclaimed films The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, my favorite Spacey film, he could have chosen to settle into the ease of working on big budget movies. But instead, Spacey surprised his agent by choosing to revive a historic British theater, the Old Vic Theatre Company, as artistic director. At that point, the Old Vic had turned into a venue that people simply rented out. Ten years later, Spacey has managed, produced and starred in several of the company’s productions.
 
And rule #3?
 
“From the lions to a pack of wolves, when you’re fresh meat, kill and throw them something fresher.”
 
Directly addressing the First Years, he continued: “And if you don’t know this one by now, you’re in for a long, four f*cking years.”
 
Wit, wisdom and a surprisingly wry sense of humor- well played, Mr. Spacey.  

He finished his speech with an emphasis on generosity, especially the importance of supporting and nurturing emerging artists. Why? Because story telling helps us better understand each other, learn collaboration, find a voice and a collective soul, he asserted.

Indeed, movie star, Collin Farrell, whom Spacey discovered in a small Irish play, probably wholeheartedly agrees. In the play, Farrell played a boy with autism, astonishing Spacey with his ability to take on the role so convincingly that he continued to follow Farrell’s acting career, putting him in touch with the Hollywood agents who helped catapult him to fame.

While Spacey focused the majority of his talk on the performing and fine arts, each piece of wisdom could be applied to any student’s educational and professional goals.

I sometimes feel that the highly competitive nature of U.Va. discourages students from embracing their intellectual curiosity and playfulness since it may not lead to an automatic career path, making Spacey’s speech even more crucial for our community.

When reflecting on the talk with third year arts administration major Caitlin Kingston, with whom I attended the event, she made an important point:

“The concept of taking risks that he talked about makes me feel more relaxed about my career situation […] I think a lot of people here think that there’s a certain formula for success, and it is comforting to know that taking risks and having a bit of luck is also something that plays into it. ”

My advice? Just don’t get caught stealing any invitations. Community of trust, remember?

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