Kevin Kline is misunderstood. His performances on stage and screen over the past four decades are so seamless that audiences often attribute his characters’ traits to him. That is, of course, a tricky proposition that he observes with a healthy dose of humor.
Kline mused on the topic and several more in an interview leading up to the release of The Extra Man, which opened in several major markets this weekend as part of its continued national rollout. Hit the jump for the audio and transcript, along with tales of his love for Ricky Gervais, why he’d never run for President and John Cleese’s humorous take on Kline’s performance in The Big Chill.
Kevin Kline’s career path started on a piano bench. Born and raised in St. Louis, he entered the University of Indiana as a music major before a freshman year acting class convinced him to switch to theater. Just shy of his 21st birthday, Kline became a member of Juilliard’s initial class of Drama students under the legendary John Houseman (who formed the Mercury Theater Company with Orson Welles in 1937). Kline and his classmates were so talented (Patti LuPone and David Ogden Stiers were among them), that Houseman kept the group together with the formation of The Acting Company upon their graduation in 1972.
He spent several years in repertory theater with the group and also found a home in productions with Joseph Papp, the founder of New York’s famed Public Theater and its long-running Shakespeare In The Park series. Kline’s extensive theater work led to two Tony Awards for musicals; first as Best Featured Actor in 1978’s On The Twentieth Century and another for Best Actor three years later as The Pirate King in The Pirates Of Penzance. Kline reprised the role in the Gilbert & Sullivan revival onscreen in what became his first film job. It was also the musical’s initial movie adaptation after several televised versions, including his turn in a 1980 broadcast.
Kline’s early film roles foretold a career that would feature a vast array of genres. A major delay in the release of Pirates meant that the next film he shot, the searing drama Sophie’s Choice, would actually mark his film debut, as it hit theaters two months earlier. His performance opposite Meryl Streep earned a Golden Globe nomination. The nostalgic ensemble drama The Big Chill came next and the western Silverado arrived in 1985. The latter marked the beginning of a working relationship with Monty Python veteran John Cleese that proved fortuitous for both. Kline won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the psychopathic killer Otto in the critically and commercially successful comedy Cleese co-directed, A Fish Called Wanda.
In recent years, he has taken several roles as a mentor to younger male characters, ranging from the father-son relationship in Life As A House to the teacher-student dynamic in The Emperors Club and even in Trade where he played a lawman who takes a crusading teen under his wing as they desperately search for the boy’s sister.
His latest film, The Extra Man, is the latest in that thread. The movie’s based on a novel by Jonathan Ames (an Executive Producer on the HBO series Bored To Death, which is adapted from his book of the same name). Kline plays Henry Harrison, a seemingly asexual playwright who accompanies older widows to social engagements to fill the spot in a theater seat or table for dinner (a.k.a. “the extra man”). He offers a host of advice to a young boarder in his apartment, Louis Ives (played by Paul Dano), as the two embark on a series of mini-adventures throughout New York.
Kline’s exactly what you would hope he would be: charming, funny, insightful and generous. We began our interview by using his film career’s starting point of The Pirates Of Penzance to get his thoughts on another famous film pirate. Click here for the interview’s audio or read the transcript below.
Collider: You were the original Pirate King on film and now Johnny Depp is doing Pirates Of The Caribbean 4. Have you seen those films?
Kevin Kline: I only saw the first one and thought he was delightful, delicious, great. I’m also a Keith Richards fan (who played Captain Jack Sparrow’s father in the 3rd Pirates film) so I thought that worked great.
And rock and rollers are pirates. Friends of mine who are in the rock and roll business say it’s piratical lifestyle. But, gee, you think they would’ve made Pirates Of The Caribbean without The Pirates Of Penzance? Did I pave the way? No. (laughs)
I was just interested to get your take on it.
(Very playful in tone) I’m happy that it was so successful and that Johnny Depp was able to buy himself a nice island. So, the irony of a pirate movie financing an island. Didn’t even think about that. I thought “Lucky bastard. He’s got his own island.” But for a PIRATE to have an island! Even though I know that he’s not a pirate. He’s an actor who PLAYS a pirate. Still. I just noticed the irony in that.
I was talking to (The Extra Man director) Shari (Springer Berman) about this (assumption that actors adopt their characters’ traits in the audience’s mind) and she said when you came in for ADR (the post-production dubbing session), it took her a second because she said, “Oh my God, he’s not like Henry Harrison. He really is that good of an actor.” How often do you get confused for characters that you play? Everything from A Fish Called Wanda to Dave to The Extra Man?
Well, there’s sort of two sides to that. I think there are people who think, “You’re that guy.” Whoever, that psychopath in A Fish Called Wanda or “You’re Dave!” During the Bush administration, “Why don’t you run for president? We NEED you.” I said, (with a laugh) “First of all, I learned doing that part, that it’s a crappy job. No thank you. But, appreciate the thought.” But also directors- I mean, I just did some ADR for Robert Redford for this film I did with him. I just-
The Conspirator? [Kline plays Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in Redford’s new film about the trial of Mary Surratt who was accused of playing a part in the President’s assassination]
Yeah. I got there first and then he came in and, “Hey, how’s it going?” We started chatting and about two minutes later, he said, “Oh my God. Kevin, it’s you!” (Laughs) He apologized. He said, “I’ve been looking at you for months and months in the editing room. (In the dubbing session) I looked like this (clean-shaven, as he was for our interview) and in his movie; I had this beard and no mustache. I, he looks like some kind of Quaker wackjob. But, directors see a LOT of you in the editing room. Not only in the filming, but they’re stuck with you for quite a period of time. Yeah, it must be a shock. It’s even happened to me. I see people; it’s like, “Oh my God!” You know, I just did a play with them a year before, but “you were wearing a doublet and hose and you had a sword. I didn’t recognize you without your (laughter) pirate hat or–” You know? When we see someone in a different milieu then we’re, out of context, Suddenly, they forget.
Are you talking about Cyrano (De Bergerac which earned him a Drama Desk nomination for Best Actor along with Emmy and SAG Award Best Actor nods for the Great Performances broadcast on PBS)?
Yeah, but it could be any, it could be a movie, too. (As a former co-star) “Remember I was your wife?” (As himself) “Oh my God, you’ve changed your hair!”
In that cross-over between real-life and, and characters… There are others, but The Emperors Club with Emile Hirsch, and-
–And Paul Dano (who also appears in the film).
Yeah. I was leading to The Extra Man or Hayden Christiansen in Life As A House where you have these mentor types of roles and I wonder the experiences that you had with John Houseman early on, if there’s any of that that plays into it at all, with-
There’s nothing paternal about John Houseman. He was this sort of eminence whom after I got out of school and everything, and he started The Acting Company and he became no longer “Mr. Houseman” but “John” and you could actually talk to him, but he was just sort of this scary figure for the first couple of years. Joe Papp was a kind of mentor, but it was something in his spirit that affected me and, and attracted me. Joe would always come (backstage) after opening night of whatever Shakespeare I was doing and say, (rubbing his hands together) “So what’s next? What about ___?” And I’d say, well, I’d like to do ____.” (As Papp) “Let’s do it.” (Claps his hands once) “Next.” And, you know, you made a commitment and he held you to it and that was as close to a mentor (as he had). In terms of acting, one of my oldest friends, who I was in college with, began teaching, while we were all part of a group that performed, a theater company off-campus in a coffee house. He started teaching and he’s still coaching, more than teaching, and he was a, a kind of mentor. He was able to talk about acting in a way that just inspired me and I have continued to see him over the years. Just, sometimes he’ll read a script and we’ll just talk about it. His name is Harold Guskin (who’s also worked with Kline’s Big Chill co-star Glenn Close, James Gandolfini and several others). He actually wrote a book called How To Stop Acting which I actually gave him the title for because he always says, “stop acting” because he teaches you to “be,” not to “act.” You know, and to strip away all the kind of acting apparatus and paraphernalia and accoutrement and accessories to “play purely.” So, I guess that’s a mentor. He’s nothing like (Kline’s character in The Extra Man) Henry Harrison. He’s a very bright, down to earth, pragmatic, crazy, but not like Henry Harrison.
You said you were in school WITH him. Right?
He was in graduate school. I was an undergraduate. Yeah.
But you’re of similar ages. So, it still–
— is interesting.
He was always an older, sort of wiser, venerable presence, even in the group. He acted, but he was mostly a director and then, he started teaching us. He said, “You’re all terrible. We have to have acting classes. So, he started teaching.
Talking about “stop acting.” You’re always grounded in a reality, no matter how–
Oh, I do it for myself but I count on directors. Any director that I would trust would do that. Larry Kasdan (who directed Kline in The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, Silverado, I Love You To Death and French Kiss) would do it and Mike Nichols. When I did The Seagull with Mike Nichols (who directed an all-star cast that included Oscar winners Kline, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marcia Gay Harden, Oscar nominee Natalie Portman, Golden Globe winner John Goodman, Emmy winner Debra Monk and Tony winner Stephen Spinella), he gave me a great note, when we had just moved out of the rehearsal room up to the stage. It was the Delacorte (Theater in Central Park). The outdoor–
Yeah, I saw it.
It was huge, huge (seating capacity exceeds 1,850). I was real at home there ‘cause I had done many productions there and he said, “He’s a writer, not an actor.” Because I was playing Trigorin. (Kline had been rehearsing the part in a bigger way to compensate for the size of the theater, instead of being truer to the more contained character)
(Kline laughs). You know, naturally, the instincts take over to (adopting a deeper John Houseman-like voice) “fill the stage and fill the space” with –
And especially there, because it just goes out into the open air.
(Laughing) Yeah. So the sky is the limit, literally. And you get, and you gotta watch yourself. There are so many conventions and we all fall into it ourselves. “That’s acting.” People accept it. It’s part of going to the theater but the actors, I think, that we admire most are the ones who break the convention. They’re not doing the conventional. You can do it conventionally, and it’s like, (giving the look of a tepid audience reaction) “Yeah, it’s good. A little ACTED.” You know what I mean? It’s not even being “actor-ish” or “Oh, she’s a little ‘actressy’” It, there’s just something acted. Real people, as I like to refer to non-actors (laughs) will say ‘I don’t know. It sounds like they were just saying lines. She bugs me.” Or, “He bugs me.”
They’re indicating (the use of gestures, facial expressions, etc to “indicate” an emotion or action as opposed to actually feeling the emotion or doing the action) so much-
It can be someone who is indicating, someone who is what I call “schmacting” which is (gives a pained smile) “Ok.” And that’s why Harold calls his book “Stop Acting.” That’s something that the actor is hired (for) because he knows how to self-direct. Some directors feel that they have to direct anyway. Even though you’re doing it right, they think you want them to talk to you about something. I don’t. (Laughs) I want to know when I’ve strayed from the path or, “You can do that less.” Or, “You can do that more.” I remember the first day’s shooting of A Fish Called Wanda, I kept saying, “Whew. Too much, right?” And John (Cleese) said, “More.” (Kline asks) “Too big?” (Cleese) “Bigger!” You know, he, he’d seen The Big Chill and he went (mock yawning and laughs) and he said, “You’re so f—ing boring when you’re doing those (contained performances).” He wanted it big. But yeah, you need a director to tell you when it’s too big and when it’s not enough.
How influential was John Cleese on you from watching Monty Python early on and then you guys worked together in Silverado and Fierce Creatures and of course, A Fish Called Wanda. How big of an influence and in what way did he influence your acting?
Well, long before I met him, I LOVED Monty Python. When I first saw the film And Now For Something Completely Different, that was my first exposure. Before (their show Monty Python’s Flying Circus) was on the television here. They took a–
— film which was just sort of a “Best of” sketches. And I just thought, “These are my people. I love this. I mean, I felt the same way when I saw Ricky Gervais do The Office. This guy, now THAT’S it. THAT’S something.
Speaking of “not acting.” That is–
Well, yeah. This is something different. I love this. I LOVE this. (Laughter) So, Cleese had an effect long before I met him and then, getting to know him, it’s a whole other thing. There’s the man. But I think I must have appropriated stuff from Monty Python. In fact, I remember when we were doing The Pirates Of Penzance, when the director (Wilford Leach) said, “Ok, I don’t want any of you to listen to the D’Oyly Carte.” There’s a tradition. You know about the D’Oyly Carte Company? They did all of Gilbert & Sullivan’s–
Oh, oh. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
— plays. It’s a company that was at the Savoy–
— Theater and for 100 years, each successive company was handed down the same, “And on this line you do this and this is how we do this.” And it was like a prescribed way that if you’re doing HMS Pinafore, it’s done like this. Yeah, you could, I guess bring your own thing to it, but within a very circumscribed, stylistic format and the director said, “I want you to ignore the last 100 years of Gilbert & Sullivan. Forget everything you’ve thought about Gilbert & Sullivan.” I didn’t really know much Gilbert & Sullivan. “Let’s just pretend that this was written for us” and I said “Oh, great!” We did it in Central Park and it’s free. You knew they were getting their money’s worth and we just had fun. But I remember thinking, “We don’t have to ignore how comedy has evolved in the intervening hundred years since the D’Oyly Carte. So, Monty Python, Steve Martin, Jerry Lewis, whatever, all these other crazy things that have happened. They could be part of our vocabulary and the kind of absurdism of Monty Python; I think probably affected my (taking on a jokingly mock elitist tone) evolution of the Pirate King. (Laughs)
Yeah. All right, last one. I saw you working with The Count on Sesame Street. You and (wife) Phoebe (Cates) doing that song.
(Singing) How big is your bathtub?
Yeah. (The Count) is actually measuring (his bathtub during the song). Did that come through Frank Oz (one of major creative forces behind the Muppets and Sesame Street who directed Kline in 1997’s In & Out) or is that something you were doing–
I did something with Frank after In & Out where he was Elmo and my two kids came and ‘cause they, he’s just kind of, “hey why don’t we talk with these kids?” and my kids were just horrible. My son kept picking up the rod that moves the arm (of the Muppet). You know, “How does this work?” “Owen, you’re not playing along. Just talk to Elmo.” They, they never aired it. There was nothing usable.
Right. And so you did this as a backup to that?
No, Sesame Street had asked me to come on, couple of times. “Why would I do that?” Then I had kids. “They’re watching Sesame Street. Oh, that’ll be fun and the kids can come.” And so I did “How Big is Your Bathtub?” with Phoebe. It’s a really well written song. It’s a way of teaching kids to measure. So we kind of did it for the kids. I think they might have even watched it.
I was going to say, what was their reaction to it?
I think it’s the last, last thing of mine that they watched. (Laughs)