Sitting and smoking in a swanky bar at a Toronto hotel, wearing a shiny suit pinched from the "Beyond the Sea" costume department ("It's my 'Splish Splash' outfit"), Kevin Spacey...

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Sitting and smoking in a swanky bar at a Toronto hotel, wearing a shiny suit pinched from the “Beyond the Sea” costume department (“It’s my ‘Splish Splash’ outfit”), Kevin Spacey is the epitome of ’50s-style cool.

If the lines seem a bit blurred between Spacey and pop singer Bobby Darin, the subject of the film that Spacey directed, co-wrote and starred in, it’s understandable: Spacey’s been trying to make this film for more than a decade, and such doggedness doesn’t disappear easily. A castmate waves from across the room, commenting on the suit; Spacey, grinning easily, says, “Bobby, he ain’t going away.”

Though little-known today, Darin’s brief life story provided plenty of drama. Diagnosed with a weak heart as a child, young Walden Robert Cassotto grew up in the Bronx determined to overcome ill health through making music. As a young man, he headed west, changed his name to Bobby Darin, wrote a silly little tune called “Splish Splash,” performed it on “American Bandstand” in 1958 and, just like that, became a pop star.

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Later recordings, most notably the finger-snapping smash hits “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea,” established him as a fine big-band style crooner, and his singing career thrived through the mid-’60s. He also dabbled in movies, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his work in 1964’s “Captain Newman, M.D.” Darin married teen star Sandra Dee in 1960; their high-profile Hollywood marriage produced a son, Dodd, and an eventual divorce. Darin later reinvented himself as a folk singer and political activist before his death following open-heart surgery in 1973, at the age of 37.

Interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall, Spacey took a few minutes to explain his yearslong pursuit of Darin’s story. It’s fair to say that 45-year-old Spacey is a bit old to play Darin, but things might have been different if the actor/director had gotten the film rights to Darin’s life when he first sought them, back in the early ’90s. Warner Bros., which owned the rights, “wanted nothing to do with me,” said Spacey, who’d loved Darin’s music since his own childhood. After a “long and gradual” negotiation — during which time Spacey’s star as an actor rose, with acclaimed roles in “The Usual Suspects,” “L.A. Confidential” and “American Beauty” — Spacey finally got the rights in 2000.

“I was determined to do a film that would celebrate, first of all, this music,” he said. “I think of all these guys who have been revived over the last few years, the Rat Pack, Bobby’s kind of the forgotten one. That’s why I thought the story would be ripe for drama, because people don’t know about him. And I wanted to make a film that would be embracing of what it is to be an entertainer, and what that costs an individual.”

And Spacey decided early on that he would sing Darin’s songs himself, rather than lip-synching to Darin’s voice. An experienced singer who performed in numerous musicals in his youth (” ‘Damn Yankees,’ ‘West Side Story,’ ‘The Boy Friend,’ ‘Dames at Sea,’ ‘Sound of Music,’ ‘Gypsy’ … I was the musicals guy”), Spacey felt that he had the vocal chops to do Darin’s songs justice.

“I believe that when an audience actually hears a performer doing it, it’s a different experience than lip-synching. I didn’t want to do an imitation, but I wanted it to be where an audience would wonder, ‘Is that Bobby or is that Kevin?’ and to me that’s exactly where it wants to lie.”

Though initially resistant, Darin’s estate (represented by his son, Dodd, and his manager, Steve Blauner) proved to be most helpful, supplying Spacey with Darin’s original musical arrangements. “Note for note, we did exactly what Bobby did. We wanted to capture that sound but give it a new zing and a new life.”

Spacey, who’ll soon begin a concert tour to promote the film, is putting movies on the back burner for a while (though he’ll appear in the crime drama “Edison,” due in theaters next year). He’s now the artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre, supervising its upcoming seasons and working as both a director and actor there. “For me, it’s like a new life,” he says of the new job. “I always wanted to run a theater, and what a theater to run.”

Smooth and polished during the interview, he expresses pride in “Beyond the Sea,” particularly in the fact that both Dodd Darin and Steve Blauner saw the film and were “over the moon.” And he’s clearly comfortable in Bobby Darin’s skin, as well as his suit. “One thing I admired most about Bobby was his ability to continue to change it up, reinvent himself, not do the easy thing, challenge himself despite the fact that people wanted him a certain way,” he said. “I have experienced some of that myself, so I recognize it.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com