Jonathan Yeo

Kevin Spacey



Traffic had come to a standstill, as will happen in London. If I’d stayed in the car I would have been 15 minutes late arriving at the National Portrait Gallery. So I decided to bolt from the comfort of my seat and ran down the Mall, across the plinth-laden expanse of Trafalgar Square, when something hit me … a memory I had not recalled until that moment. I came to a screeching halt in the middle of the square, because suddenly the circumstances of the evening ahead had instantly shifted into one of the most moving realisations of my life.

Eleven years before I had also rushed through Trafalgar Square, arm-in-arm with my mother, on what would be the last night she and I would attend a play together. Mom had been diagnosed with a brain tumour some months before and knowing that the stages of her disease would soon rob her of the ability to travel, this was our last trip to London together – the place she wanted to go more than any – a place she had loved her entire life. We were heading towards the Globe Theatre to witness Mark Rylance’s brilliant performance as Viola in the astonishing production of Twelfth Night. But on the way, my mother decided she wanted to stop in the National Portrait Gallery, just to get one last look at her favourite portraits of some of the most iconic and important subjects in British history.

As we stood in front of the portrait of Laurence Olivier – who created the National at the Old Vic Theatre for 14 seasons (a theatre I would soon take over as Artistic Director) – my mother leaned into me, her arm clasped in mine, and said: ‘They’re going to hang your portrait in here one day’. And I smiled at her and explained that my portrait could never hang in the National Portrait Gallery because I was not born in Britain. She looked at me and smiled and said simply, ‘They’ll make an exception, in your case’.

My mother would pass away the next March and I would very soon move to London to start my leading role at the Old Vic. And as this memory filled my mind, I realised that I was on my way to the National Portrait Gallery where Jonathan Yeo’s portrait of me as Richard III was to be unveiled. Clearly mother knows best.

The first time I met Jonathan was when he suggested doing a portrait of me as Richard III from the Bridge Project’s production at the Old Vic, which was directed by Sam Mendes. Having previously seen Jonathan’s hilarious portrait of George W. Bush (to which one has to get very close to appreciate its use of porn images), I was worried that he was going to utilise the same method of artistry with me. I was relieved to find he wanted to do only a normal portrait.

As an actor who has spent my life disguising my own character so as to reveal that of another, working with Jonathan was an interesting process on which to reflect. From a personal perspective, having been photographed for years (goodness knows the internet is full of snaps), to have a major portrait unveiled in a national gallery was an honour – if not a bit surreal. Perhaps only my mother could have thought such a thing would ever really happen. But there is an alchemy that Jonathan and I found in his studio, a chemistry that allowed me to portray character and him to reveal it – in a completely new way. In a world of the Instagram image, this ancient process returns us to a more concrete and sturdy capture of character. And Jonathan loves character.

When Jonathan later approached me about a commission for the Smithsonian, in Washington, DC, his proposal was to do a portrait of me – as me. But my reaction to this was one of reluctance. I do not believe I am nearly as interesting a subject as the characters have been blessed to bring to life and prefer for these figures to be portrayed – not my personal mug. I suggested that Jonathan instead paint a portrait of me as President Frank Underwood. He then flew to Baltimore to visit me and to capture Frank Underwood on the set of House of Cards, the Netflix political series in which I play a fictional US President. Jonathan both sketched and photographed me – in full costume and make-up – on the Oval Office set. Later on I visited Jonathan at his studio in London, and got the chance to see the work in progress. I couldn’t believe how big it was, but loved the scope and the sense that you were looking at it on some sort of flickering screen. I also liked the idea that when the portrait is hung high on a wall, the foot looms nearly as large as the President’s head and almost seems to threaten the viewer with a swift kick in the face. One never knows what Frank Underwood is about to do.

The process of portraiture requires mutual commitment in time and energy, but from this relationship with Jonathan has come work that has surprised and delighted. And the longevity and gravitas of this work, the art of portraiture and the fact that it will hang in the Smithsonian for many generations to come, is both epic and grounding to the senses in a serious way, which in our now transient world of social media is something worth noting.

I am honoured to have Jonathan bring my contribution to the creation of Frank Underwood and my interpretation of Shakespeare’s poisonous Richard III to such remarkable and impressive life on canvas. It has been a thrill to play these devious men, whose relationship with their audience is singularly revealing and filled with humorous honesty. In fact, it was Shakespeare who invented the ‘direct address’, and Lord Michael Dobbs based his character in the British television version of House of Cards on Richard III. And so when looking at both these portraits one can almost hear the many lines of dialogue that President Underwood and King Richard have shared with their listeners, along with their burning stares and their frightening clarity. Like these paintings, both these men have many layers, only to be revealed by observation – by looking and discovering the depth of darkness in their souls.