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There’s a Story Behind Every Smooch : Stars and Director of ‘French Kiss’ Discuss On- and Off-Screen Romance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like prizefighters surrounded by their trainers, the two stars--Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan--and the director, Lawrence Kasdan, sequentially enter a hotel suite in the course of a hectic press junket for their new film, “French Kiss.”

Kline is the first to arrive, looking cleanshaven and dapper, unlike the “nicotine-saturated, hygiene-deficient” French con man, Luc, that he plays opposite Ryan’s klutzy American. In the movie, which opened Friday, two odd ducks meet cute on a flight to Paris--she’s out to rescue her fiance (Timothy Hutton) from the clutches of a French siren (Susan Anbeh)--and they bicker their way across France and into each other’s arms.

Kline’s wife is actress Phoebe Cates, and she eventually comes up--as do Ryan’s husband, Dennis Quaid, and Kasdan’s wife, Meg--in a discussion about how they draw from their talents and personal experiences to make a romantic movie.

But their personalities emerge first as they pose for a photo: The bearlike Kasdan is a good sport, Kline plays the clown, and Ryan is wary and assertive--not at all like her anal-retentive Kate in “French Kiss” or, for that matter, any of the moony heroines she has played in such films as “When Harry Met Sally . . .” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

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The de facto queen of romantic comedy is cute and perky, to be sure, but also smart and, at times, astringent. After all, Ryan’s production company, Prufrock, is named after T.S. Eliot’s sardonic poem about love, and it is under that banner that “French Kiss” is being presented. It was the actress, too, who brought Adam Brooks’ screenplay to Kasdan who, in turn, persuaded Kline to sign on.

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Question: People often talk about “chemistry” between actors in a romantic comedy, but sometimes you have a couple passionately involved off-screen and on film they fall flat. How come?

Kasdan: That’s because it always starts with the script. If the material isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how much heat there is between two actors, it ain’t going to work. . . . So, when you hear, “These two people have no chemistry with each other,” there is usually something else wrong with the movie. It obviously helps if they’re two actors who are great together, like Kevin and Meg, and it can really hurt if you end up with two people you don’t want to see touch each other. . . .

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Ryan: You know, I can never figure what people are talking about when they talk about chemistry. It’s either easy or it’s not, and sometimes when it isn’t easy at all, it still looks like chemistry. It’s a very cultivated thing. It’s not something left up to nature or to the gods.

Question: As actors, can you use something you know or feel about the person off-screen to help create an on-screen rapport?

Kline ( sniffing his armpits ): Are you calling me a “nicotine-saturated, hygiene-deficient” kind of guy?

Kasdan: Well, we didn’t want to bring it up, Kev.

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Ryan: Yeah, and you thought I was walking away from you in character!

Kline: It’s part of the trick of acting. You have to take things and you have to magnify them. I had to look very hard to find something in Meg that irritated me.

Ryan: Hard to believe, huh?

Kline: On any given day, there’d be a number of little. . . .

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Ryan: On any given day?!! (laughter)

Kline: But then I had to magnify it.

Question: How do you make a romantic comedy for the ‘90s, when people might be less inclined to buy into the conventions of it?

Kasdan: Hmmm, that’s a problem. It doesn’t work now to revisit those old ones. The remakes very often feel labored. We’ve moved along, our culture has moved along. You can’t have people playing dumb in a romantic comedy now. These are smart characters, and the movie assumes the audience is very smart too. The truth is there are no models for (“French Kiss”). It’s a road picture, really, about love sneaking up on people.

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Question: Can each of you speak to how love in the movies has influenced your own perspectives on love and how it’s affected your relationships with your mates? For example, Larry, I was surprised to learn you met your wife, Meg, in 1971 on a blind date, at a Japanese film, “Woman in the Dunes.” It ends with the woman castrating the man, doesn’t it?

Ryan: Ooooohhh.

Kasdan: Yeah, it was a metaphor for the marriage. (laughter) What she really does is lure him into this pit in the dunes, and he can never get out. That’s exactly what happened to me. (laughter)

Ryan: I’m going to call Meg.

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Question: Kevin, when you met Phoebe, did you know she was it?

Kline: No, I was pretty sure it wasn’t.

Question: Why?

Kline: Ohhhhh. Eeeeeee. Aaah. It’s another generation, 12 or 14 years difference. And then I looked at Charles and Lady Di and thought . . . (laughter) I always walk into a situation as a half-empty glass. So when I first met Phoebe, I remember thinking, “She’s too happy to be with me. She’s too enthusiastic about life and she’ll never. . . . What’ll we talk about?” And four or five years later. . . .

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Ryan: She had to listen to all those ‘60s albums, had to play catch-up.

Kline: Yeah, after I was finished indoctrinating her. . . . Dating was very slow. I don’t even know when it turned. Oh yes I do. When we were separated for the first time. And I just missed her desperately. And then when I saw her again, I realized it wasn’t just the fact that I’d been lonely. It was really her. And that was just the first of many, many, many steps, four years’ worth, before we realized that this was a life . . . sentence.

Question: Meg, did you feel that same sense of void when you were separated from Dennis after you started dating him?

Ryan: Well, whatever. But what Larry and Kevin are talking about is the knowing and not knowing, which is what is interesting about this movie. In love, you recognize that it happens in your subconscious and it moves up to your consciousness. It’s not an intellectual decision that you decide to love someone. And, in this movie too, it’s their subconscious that clicks and their intellects catch up to it.

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Question: When you were in your 20s, what was your idea of a romantic date?

Kline: Seeing a great romantic movie, that always worked for me. I remember the first time I held hands with a girl. Oh God! We were watching “Dr. Strangelove.”

Ryan: “Woman in the Dunes”? “Dr. Strangelove”? I’m going to start talking about “Poseidon Adventure” pretty soon.

Kline: To this day, “Dr. Strangelove” is one of my favorite movies. I mean, it’s a classic, but God, when you start holding hands, wow!

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Kasdan: Hand-holding can never be what it is the first time. I remember an older guy telling me that once you’ve been with a girl to a certain stage, you’ll never have to go back and work your way back up to that. That was news to me. I thought you had to start all over again every time. Kevin, you look confused, did you have to start with hand-holding each date?

Kline: No. No. I was still thinking about what was really romantic to me when I was in my 20s. I was just being crass before. It was music, finding some song that took you and the girl into an unconscious level that was beyond conversation.

Question: Last question. I heard that Kevin taught you some fairly twisted French on the set, Meg.

Kline: Oh, you mean my announcing to the crew that La Grande Salope Americaine had arrived? The Big American Bitch? (laughter)

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Ryan: You also taught me that whole “Merci, beau cul” thing.

Kline: Oh yeah, I told you to go tell the French-speaking crew that. Meg thought she was saying, “Thank you very much"-- “Merci beaucoup.” But she was actually saying, “Merci, beau cul” --"Thank you, nice ass!”


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