The Sunday Conversation: Kevin Kline

Kevin Kline, 63, appears in two vastly different films this month: He plays Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in "The Conspirator," Robert Redford's film about the conspiracy behind Lincoln's assassination and trial of alleged accomplice Mary Surratt, opening April 15. Kline also takes on his first French film role as an American doctor living in France in Caroline Bottaro's Pygmalion-like chess drama, "Queen to Play," coming to theaters April 1.

A number of critics who saw "The Conspirator" at the Toronto film festival said they thought it was antiquated, and this kind of historical drama would be a tough sell to audiences. Do you think that's true, and how much does it matter?

I cannot think of a postmodernist twist to put on the story of the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln and especially the story of [alleged conspirator] Mary Surratt. Old-fashioned? Timeless and universal might be better. One of its biggest selling points is it's a chapter in our history that very few people know about, me among them. I did not know until I read the script. Most people don't know that there was a conspiracy to kill not only Lincoln but the secretary of State and the vice president as well.

But in terms of understanding a war that was just over but not really over, because enemy combatants were still in the fields and "the South will rise again" was resounding throughout the South, there was a kind of fervor if not panic in the American psyche. And obviously, the timeliness in terms of 9/11 and people's reactions, it's a very human flaw, we react to the moment and aren't great at putting things in perspective when there's an urgency and personal fear tied into it.

You play Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, which was a key role and one that represented one point of view in the film. How did you feel about his point of view and was he a challenge to play?

The biography I read about him and other historical accounts depicted him as a kind of – I hate invoking his name, but – Dick Cheney of the administration, insofar as he did things his way. He was not against subverting constitutional law as it turns out in this trial but doing things his own way and not much caring what people thought about it. He did extraordinary things, and he also did rather dubious things, but he was not a very nice man.

At first, Stanton hated Lincoln, called him "a monkey." And then during the war, they became very close. They were seen holding hands at the telegraph office. He also reputedly – and this is a little-known fact – disinterred the corpse of his first wife to hold her in his arms. Later [President Andrew] Johnson wanted him thrown out. He barricaded himself in the office, refused to step down, arrested the man that Johnson appointed, the new secretary of War. He was a unique character.

I suppose he would be the least sympathetic character, and that was nice. That was something new. I haven't played many villains, which is not to say he's a villain, but he comes closest to a villain [in the film].

Both of your upcoming films are examples of globalization of film. Three British actors – James McAvoy, who plays Surratt's lawyer, Frederick Aiken; Tom Wilkinson as Southern Sen. Reverdy Johnson, who persuades Aiken to take the case; and Colm Meaney, who presides over Surratt's military trial as Gen. David Hunter – have pivotal roles in "The Conspirator." That's been going on for a long time, actors crossing the Atlantic between English-speaking countries, but "Queen to Play" is a whole other ballgame for obvious reasons – not many American actors speak French. How did you come to be cast?

The producer knew that I spoke some French and decided to send it to me, and I read it and loved it. And I liked the challenge of doing it in French. I thought the whole experience would be different and I would learn much, which I did.

What kind of French did you know? Was it college French?

I studied it all through high school and a year of it in college. But to speak it and to understand when others speak it, especially Parisians who speak rather rapidly, was a whole other thing. And I had the good fortune, when I did "French Kiss" for Lawrence Kasdan lo these many years ago, the studio paid for me to go to the Alliance Francaise here in New York for three months before the film. And then shooting the film, I had a coach. And that film only had about 2% of it in French. The hard part was actually being a Frenchman. This was an American who lived in France, whose wife was French but who's still American so I could get away with it if there was still a trace of accent.

Is that why they made your character American, because you're American?

Caroline Bottaro, the writer who adapted it from a German novel written by a German in French, who happened to be her next-door neighbor in Paris, thought he should be foreign. And my name came up. He could have been French, but I know Caroline wanted it to be difficult for them to be together. Not only is he a recluse, not only is his wife a suicide, not only is he considered dangerous by the townfolk, but he's also very ill, although that's not played up very much. So maybe that was part of it, to make more bridges that have to be traversed by making him foreign.

Were you scared?

Yeah. That's why I did it. I love a lot of French cinema. Is it because it's a foreign language and there's just something exotic about it that makes it so appealing or is it the acting part? This film is a typical lovely small French film, a little novella. And it's a story of real people. There's not a big climax or ending or punchline to each scene. There's a kind of naturalism that's different probably for cultural reasons to an American viewer. It's a mystery to me; that's why I wanted to do it, to see if acting in a foreign language and working with a completely French crew [was different]. Once the camera is rolling, acting is acting. But everything in the context that surrounds it – the climate on the set, the general atmosphere – is different.

How so?

You shake hands with all the men, you kiss all the women on both cheeks when you see them at the beginning of each working day, and then they ignore you and condescend to you and dismiss you the rest of the day. But they like that personal touching thing to start the day, and in a sense are much calmer. There's much more quiet. Again this could be just this set, because everyone was charming and welcoming and warm and very respectful. And I have to say, they tend to look at film as an art form and treat actors as quote unquote artists. Again that could be all in my head.

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