Sorry, It’s an Obsession

John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

No sooner has Kevin Kline sat down at an Upper East Side coffee shop than a self-described producer right out of “Broadway Danny Rose” approaches him to say hello and remind him of efforts nearly three decades ago to film “The Robber Bridegroom.” Rather than brush the guy off, which is what most famous actors would do, Kline listens politely.

Then, when the man leaves, he immediately goes on an extended riff about the acting company he was a part of at the time, the four years he spent touring with it after graduating from Juilliard, and his dues-paying in New York working off-and off-off-Broadway.

Catching himself, Kline finally stops. “I can’t shut up,” he says, exasperated. “I was walking over here with Phoebe [Cates, his wife]. She said, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I have to talk to the L.A. Times about “Life as a House.” Do you have any advice?’ ‘Yeah, just don’t be yourself.”’

“Life as a House,” which opens Friday, is Kline’s newest film. He’s eager to talk about it, but he keeps getting in his own way, digressing on movies and plays he’s done, particularly his turn this summer as the third-rate writer Trigorin opposite Meryl Streep in Mike Nichols’ star-studded adaptation of “The Seagull” in Central Park. He’s got a lot of material to chat about, having been one of America’s foremost actors for the past 30 years. He can sing, dance, play tragedy and farce, declaim Shakespeare and John Cleese. He’s been called the American Olivier, but Olivier came from the British acting tradition. Where did Kline come from? Indiana, the Juilliard School and off-Broadway.


It’s not that Kline is deliberately taking a stroll down memory lane or self-consciously summing up. He’s still got a long way to go (he’s only 53). It’s that there’s nothing linear in his thinking. He’s all over the place, although that place is always the stage or the screen. Acting may or may not be his life, but it’s what excites him.

This obsession also irks him. He’s acutely aware that he can’t stop talking about his work--and, by extension, himself. Show biz narcissism is one of his pet peeves and favorite subjects. At its most extreme, this expresses itself in a self-mocking hamminess.

“I think it’s a deeply, neurotically embedded character flaw,” he says of this impulse. “Comes from having an older sister who was nicknamed Sarah Bernhardt in our family. So I guess in childhood I found a way to get the attention I needed.”

What’s interesting is that having been rewarded for this behavior, first as a child and then on Broadway, winning Tony awards for his twisted actor in “On the Twentieth Century” and the flamboyant pirate in “The Pirates of Penzance,” Kline can be satisfied in smaller, subtler ways onstage. He played the disgusted Trigorin passively, practically disappearing behind his beard while Streep literally did cartwheels. In fact, his performance was so unflashy that he was questioned or criticized by critics expecting fireworks.


“I kept hearing that he was subdued,” Kline says now, still a bit puzzled. “I played him all kinds of ways, outrageous and wacky in rehearsals, but I ended up with what seemed right. Meryl and I made it whatever it was that night. Meryl is very loose that way. I remember when we did ‘Sophie’s Choice’ [the 1982 film in which he and Streep play lovers], first day of shooting. It was a rough scene where I had to throw her around the room.

“She said, ‘Don’t be afraid to hurt me, you won’t, and do whatever you want, go wherever you want with it, I’ll go with you. I love to be surprised.’ And it was like that 20 years later.”

At any rate, Kline takes the same low-key approach to George, his character in “Life as a House.” George is a model builder for an architectural firm who loses his job and then learns he’s terminally ill. In a last-ditch effort to give his life some meaning and reconcile with his estranged teenage son (Hayden Christensen) and maybe his ex-wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), he decides to build his dream house and get everyone involved.

This is not as simple as it sounds, because George is a jerk. But Kline plays George’s self-loathing and his physical deterioration with restraint. He doesn’t overdo the wracking cough, nor does he beg for audience sympathy.


“I think there was a very fine line that he was aware he shouldn’t cross,” says Christensen, whose character begins the movie as a morose Goth and morphs under George’s tutelage into a semi-sunny suburban boy. “Do we play it too much sentimental, or do we stay away from that? I think Kevin stayed away from it, nicely so.”

Notes Irwin Winkler, the film’s director, about Kline’s character: “His ex-wife hates him, his son hates him, his co-workers dislike him, his neighbors dislike him. Very often an actor will play that and almost wink at the audience, saying, ‘You know the character is a bad guy but I’m really a good guy.’ And Kevin doesn’t. He gives an honest performance.”

Nobody has ever accused Kline of giving a dishonest performance. Even his moronic, over-the-top Otto in the 1988 film “A Fish Called Wanda,” for which he won a best supporting actor Oscar, was “honest” in the sense that he embraced his own stupidity. (Demonstrating an Ottoism, he sniffs his armpit.)

Kline is not, nor has he ever been, a matinee idol. It has simply never interested him. If anything, he seems attracted to weak characters. He’s amusing on the subject of heroes, saying he’d love to play one, although his idea of a hero is not Batman but Henry IV. He laughingly dismisses the “dark side” that is often appended to do-gooders in commercial films to make them “human.” Having issues with authority figures or being a divorced dad is not good enough--he wants it more real, more raw.


“No, no, I want to see him hit his wife or hit his kid,” Kline says of his character in “Life as a House.” (He’s not being glib here. In the film, George almost punches his wayward son in a fit of rage.)

Kline not only runs away from heroic roles, he runs away from most roles. He has a reputation for dithering and then declining, so much so that he’s earned the nickname “Kevin Decline.” Even the projects he has agreed to do have involved a lot of soul-searching. He didn’t want to do “On the Twentieth Century” because the part initially was small and uninteresting (that changed during rehearsals). He didn’t want to do “The Pirates of Penzance” because he’d had his fill of musical comedy. His longtime collaborator Lawrence Kasdan (“The Big Chill,” “Silverado,” “I Love You to Death,” “Grand Canyon,” “French Kiss”) had to put in a good word for director Ivan Reitman before he would do “Dave.” He didn’t want his kids to appear recently in “The Anniversary Party” (along with him and his wife). He didn’t want to do “The Seagull” outdoors (that was Streep’s idea) because he felt that Chekhov requires the silence of a theater.

Because of this track record, he almost wasn’t offered the lead in “Life.” According to Winkler, Kline had circled two of his projects without committing, so the director was gun-shy.

“When we were thinking of casting, I really put him out of my mind,” Winkler says. “I didn’t want to go through the process of meeting with him and then getting turned down, so when [Creative Artists Agency agent] Rick Nicita called and said, ‘Kevin read the script and he really likes it a lot,’ I said, ‘Rick, give me a break, I’ve been through this before, and I don’t really want to go through this again.”’


However, there were reasons to go through this again. Aside from admiring Kline’s talent, Winkler, a former producer who often talks like one, thinks Kline is a lot more bankable than the industry gives him credit for (and he’s relatively inexpensive). “‘In & Out’ was a big grosser,” he says. ‘Dave’ was a big grosser.... He’s had a lot of hits, but for some reason, George Clooney is considered so much hotter.”

So Winkler met with Kline. He told him the same thing he’d told Nicita, but Kline insisted that he really loved the character. In fact, he put his money where his mouth was. According to Winkler, both of them took about 20% of their last salaries to get the film made, although they figure to make money off the back end if it shows a profit. The New Line film cost about $18 million.

“Which is my usual price,” Kline says wryly. “No one has paid it, but we keep sending it out there: ‘Kevin will do it.’ ‘What’s his price?’ ‘Eighteen million.’ ‘Oh, sorry.”’

The comedy stops when the issue of his nickname and his selectivity comes up. Kevin Decline is an old joke and, as with most old jokes, a tiresome one. Kline says that if he took every part that came his way, he’d be doing five movies at once. But there’s another, deeper reason why he’s so finicky.


“I remember John Houseman once said there are two types of actors,” he says. “There are the actors who work all the time, take pretty much everything that’s offered to them. And there are actors who wait two years between projects and are very selective. He said at the end of a career the number of successes is the same. To which I said, ‘So it’s really how able to live with failure you are.’

“There are a lot of actors where it’s water off a duck’s back. Some of us aren’t that able to accept our failures. I hate failure. I like success. I hate being bad in things.”

This selectivity hasn’t gone unnoticed in some quarters of the acting world. “When I said I’m making a film with Kevin Kline, everyone gasps and goes weak at the knees. He’s incredibly popular,” says British actress Scott-Thomas. “He’s everything that we love in actors because he’s always so surprising. His performances get you in unexpected corners.

“It does feel to me like he takes acting seriously and at the same time he has a sense of fun in it. It’s acting. It’s pretend. And at the same time he knows that the pretending can be really exhilarating and extraordinary and important for an audience.”


What’s unusual is that most actors who feel this way generally pick safe projects. They find success doing one thing, and they do it over and over again, usually with diminishing returns. Kline knows very well that no matter how selective he is, there are elements beyond his control, especially in film.

He recalls that the studio wanted “Sophie’s Choice” to end happily (it didn’t). He says originally the relentlessly bleak “Ice Storm” was intended to be funnier but test audiences resisted. He refers to several black comedies he did, which he will not name, that were tested and reshot to death.

There was some talk that he was less than thrilled with “Wild Wild West,” a rare foray into big-budget filmmaking, but he dismisses that. Even “Life,” as relatively innocuous as it is, was subject to studio pressure that it be delivered without an R rating (the R remains). Despite his intolerance of failure, Kline will not bad-mouth projects, nor does he seem bitter about all the meddling.

“I don’t think he’s ever held a grudge,” says Sissy Spacek, who worked with Kline in the 1986 film “Violets Are Blue.” “You never see him mad about something. There are a lot of people who can be funny on film, but they’re not funny in real life, they’re tortured. [Kevin] is genuinely funny. I’ve never met anybody quite like Kevin.”


Audiences who want an insight into Kline might be forgiven for finding one in the character he plays in Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s “The Anniversary Party,” an indie hit this summer. They wrote the part with him in mind. In the film, he’s a middle-aged actor, affable, light on his feet, a trifle vain, a little needy. His wife (played by Cates) is an ex-actress who gave up her career to raise two kids and is a friend of Leigh, who’s her friend in real life.

Kline is uncharacteristically close-mouthed when these parallels are brought up. He is not this guy, he insists. And yet however much Kline may have been concerned about being confused with this character, he embraced him anyway.

“I think the greatest thing about him in the role was an ability to mock himself,” Cumming says. “He’s really comfortable with who he is, so he allowed us to take the rise out of that slightly.... It’s a testament to him that he went with it. I really admired him that he was able to do that. A lot of people in his position wouldn’t take that chance.”

So what’s next? Indie films like “The Anniversary Party” and human dramas like “Life” seem the way to go for someone as particular as Kline, especially as movies dumb down and studios’ aversion to risk continues to rise. Looking down the road, he would like to play Lear, the lion in winter. Beyond that, he has no immediate plans, although he has completed another film, “The Palace Thief,” based on the Ethan Canin novella, in which he plays a professor of ancient history at a boys’ prep school.


Meanwhile, there’s acting to talk about, and talk he does, endlessly. It’s something he reflects on even while he’s doing it. He remembers an ad-libbed scene in “In & Out” in which his character, a repressed gay schoolteacher, wraps his leg around Tom Selleck when Selleck kisses him.

Kline says he repeatedly had to suppress the urge to do the same thing to Streep when they rolled around onstage in “The Seagull.” Of course, there’s only one person on-or off-stage who would have been distracted by this memory.

“Me,” he says. *