How to keep a career fresh

Times Staff Writer

Greg KINNEAR nearly skipped his breakfast meeting at Shutters in Santa Monica on a recent summer day. Hollywood ego gotten the better of him? Or just plain rude? No, nothing like that. He’s human, that’s all. He’d misplaced his car keys, looked everywhere but was coming up empty.

But then, that’s what happens when you have two little girls who like to play with jangly keys.

It’s that kind of endearing regular-guyness that allows Kinnear to be equally believable as the harried father of a budding child beauty queen (“Little Miss Sunshine”), as the charming suitor of Tina Fey (“Baby Momma”) or, in two fall films, as a recently deceased man protective of his widow in “Ghost Town,” opening Sept. 19, and as an underdog inventor in “Flash of Genius,” set for an Oct. 3 release.

Over a bagel and cream cheese with coffee, the tousled-haired Kinnear says he’s grateful he hasn’t been typecast.


Still, he adds, “like all things, it’s a blessing and a curse. There is probably added simplicity to a career where you can be identified for the kinds of roles you can -- and should -- play as an actor. I am sure with me, it’s the second or third meeting [for a role] that people come around and say, ‘You know, he could do that.’ I don’t think a lot of times I am the obvious choice.”

He doesn’t like to make obvious choices for himself either, preferring to swim against the current, as he describes it.

“If I see something that feels a little different or feels out of the zone of something I just did, I am instantly attracted to it,” he says.

“Ghost Town” is a spirited romantic comedy from writer-director David Koepp that finds Kinnear playing a New York ghost who doesn’t like his wife’s (Tea Leoni) attorney fiance (Billy Campbell), so he asks the only person who can see him, a cranky dentist (Ricky Gervais), to break up the relationship.

“I thought David Koepp’s script was magnificent, and Ricky Gervais -- I was and have been a fan since his first dive into ‘The Office,’ ” says Kinnear.

When he learned Gervais was going to be in the film, Kinnear didn’t hesitate to join up. “I thought it would be funny and a good romp. It was a blast making it.”

That wasn’t the case with “Flash of Genius,” a period drama about Robert Kearns, an engineering professor in Detroit who invented the intermittent windshield wiper in the 1960s.

“Funny enough, the original title of the script was ‘Windshield Wiper Man,’ ” he says, laughing. “That was just enough to make me not read it. For almost two months, it sat on my desk. In the climate of today’s movies, I thought it was a comedic superhero.”


“Flash of Genius” is anything but. The drama follows the nearly two decades of litigation Kearns pursued against Ford Motor Co., claiming the company infringed on his patents. His single-minded obsession alienated his friends, his wife and their six children.

When curiosity got the better of him and Kinnear finally decided to read the script, he couldn’t put it down.

“It just held me,” he says. “I found him to be as infuriating as he was inspiring. The fact that he was a flawed guy and this script acknowledged that. . . . They didn’t put a kind of fake glow on this hero character that is going to beat the big guy. They showed him warts and all. He was determined and uncompromising. He put his life and his family and his wife -- all of that -- on the back burner in order to find justice.”

Kinnear was given a lot of photographs and saw filmed interviews of Kearns, who died in 2005. He spoke to the man’s wife and children. He dyed his hair, put on weight and wore brown contacts. All the preparation helped to give him structure.


Still, he says, “I can never be somebody else. When I do a role like this you bring 85% of yourself to the role. But I felt like I had a very strong connection to who he was as an individual. I felt very emotional reading his story.”