Greg Kinnear came to stardom relatively late in life, after a series of lead-up careers, first as an entertainment reporter, then as a talk-show host on The Best Of The Worst, Later With Greg Kinnear, and Talk Soup. His cinema breakthroughs came in the mid-'90s, when he co-starred opposite Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond in the remake of Billy Wilder's Sabrina, earned an Oscar nomination for his role in As Good As It Gets, and stole scenes as the smug Captain Amazing in Mystery Men. His star has risen steadily since, with key roles in the breakout audience favorite Little Miss Sunshine and the critically praised The Matador, though he often ends up as easily the best thing in less-winning movies like Fast Food Nation, Invincible, and Auto Focus. Kinnear currently has two movies in theaters: In the comedy Ghost Town, he co-stars as a ghost trying to get the cooperation of reluctant medium Ricky Gervais, while in the drama Flash Of Genius, he takes the lead (and carries the movie) as real-life inventor Robert Kearns, who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, then spent more than a decade battling Ford and other large auto-makers over patent infringements. Just before Flash Of Genius opened, The A.V. Club sat down with Kinnear to discuss Bob Kearns, Dora The Explorer, and the swirling vortexes of despair that surround most of his characters.
The A.V. Club: How did you go about getting into character for Flash Of Genius, and understanding who Bob Kearns was?
Greg Kinnear: Well, there's not a huge well of information out there. He died the year before I got involved. I certainly would have liked to have met him, but that was not an option. And his kids and his wife Phyllis are around. I talked to his oldest son, Dennis, the one who helps me in the courtroom in the film. He was very helpful and open about his dad and who he was. And there was some TV footage of him in the courtroom, when he was fighting Ford and Chrysler. Ed Bradley did an interesting piece on him for some news magazine. There were some photographs, plus my own sense of what engineers are like, from the few that I've known. So it's kind of a mixed bag. I'm playing the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, it's not like anyone's watching the movie going, "Hey, that's not how I remember that guy." [Laughs.] So we had a pretty open slate in terms of that. I certainly wanted to—it's part of the fun of the job, it's certainly the most interesting aspect of doing a real-life story about a real-life person, is trying to capture something authentic about who he was, some truth to his behavior. At the end of the day, it's just me, but there's small degrees to which you can give him a little bit of life.
AVC: You had a similar situation playing Bob Crane in Auto-Focus—he died back in the '70s, so you didn't have time with him before doing the film. By contrast, you spent a lot of time with Dick Vermeil before playing him in Invincible. Do you find it more limiting or helpful to have access to your subject?
GK: You're never going to duplicate another person's life anyway. Oddly enough, I think there is some benefit to keeping some distance from the subject, because it's all interpretive anyway, no matter how much you want to go be whoever. It's just a very interpretive thing. I also find that you learn more about a person from the people around that person than you do from the person themselves. We all have our own ideas of who we are that may or may not be justified, and you can really find out a heck of a lot more accurately from the people around an individual.
The truth is, when I read this script, I really liked this character. He's a little abrasive and a little gruff, not the most charming person, as Alan Alda says in the film. I felt there was so much underlying decency to the guy, but he just had these qualities that were—he was not likeable. And the truth is, I was kind of afraid to talk to the family. I was like, [Nervous, wobbly voice.] "What was he like?" in fear that they were going to reinvent him, and present a new guy that wasn't like what I had gotten off the script. I was happy, because they did kind of act like most of my conversations seemed to validate that [screenwriter] Philip Railsback has done a nice job of capturing the tone of the guy. And then John Seabrook's article, which started all this, also painted the guy as pretty accurate from the get-go.
AVC: In all these cases, after a bunch of research or analyzing the script or spending time with a subject, do you ever wind up with an interpretation of a character that differs from the director's?
GK: That would be bad. I haven't had that experience. I know it's lingering out there, it happens, I'm sure it does. It is the thing that's perhaps the most daunting about doing a movie with a first-time director like Marc [Abraham]. You don't really have a backlog of previous work to look at. Part of filmmaking is always a guessing game, and part of it is always a game of trust. The way I see it is maybe not the way this person is going to see it. You read a script like Flash Of Genius—the range of this movie is all over the place. It could be a lot of different things, told a lot of different ways. And when you have a director who has work you can identify from the past, it gives you some reference point as to what their interpretation of the story might be, and how that might jibe, right or wrong, with how you see it. But with a first-time director, you don't really know where you're at. Marc and I sat down in a series of meetings and just started talking about where he saw what I saw. And I realized, the more we talked about it, the closer we were. In terms of me trying to portray—it's a pretty minimalist movie, in a lot of ways. It's got a courtroom scene—actors just love the courtroom scene. The actor always wants to have a big showy courtroom scene, and here I am playing a guy who absolutely doesn't belong in a courtroom. Leave it to me to choose that movie.
AVC: Marc went with an unusually buttoned-down, quiet tone for the film. And you play Kearns as an internal, self-contained man. There are no big Oscar clip-scenes where characters are yelling at each other. What did you find in Bob Kearns that you looked forward to playing?
GK: It felt very truthful to me. You say there's no big showy Oscar scene with people screaming… I don't believe a lot of those kinds of scenes. I felt like this story and the tone of what was happening was modulated in a way that felt truthful. What's fun about it, I guess, is capturing some sense of who the guy was, and then ultimately helping to reveal, to just tell this story. It's a pretty compelling story. I was just very taken with what his fight was all about.
AVC: You've said in many different interviews over the years that you're drawn to characters in crisis, or at the brink of ruin, or in one case, "trying to keep it together in spite of a swirling vortex of despair." And you could say that both about Bob Kearns and your character in Ghost Town, even though they're very different people in very different situations. What is it about that character that appeals to you?
GK: Gosh, I don't know. I guess it's just human nature, you know? There's something in human nature, the trying-to-get-on-with-it quality of people, the struggle to maintain or keep the show going can be exhausting. It just seems like that element of trying to move forward while things are breaking down… Obviously, it's always been the backdrop for a lot of great literature and great cinematic characters, but aside from that, I'm just drawn to it because that feels honest to me.
AVC: Are you drawn to it just as an actor in roles that you're playing, or do you enjoy—
GK: Watching people being ruined all around me? [Laughs.]
AVC: Is it something you seek out in films you watch, or books you read, too?
GK: Oh, I suppose I'm drawn to it because it just feels real to me. When I see it—whether I'm doing it, or I see it in a movie or read it in a book, that kind of singular human pursuit of maintaining control while it's slipping away—it just always jumps out at me. This is the scary portion of the interview, where I say I feel like I understand it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Why? Do you think there's something in your life that makes you particularly suited to play these characters?
GK: [Long pause.] I don't know. Maybe not. Just because I think I can relate or somehow understand it doesn't necessarily make me particularly suited to play them. That's what I'm drawn to, or have been to some degree. Honestly, when I'm looking for characters or roles to play… I really don't make a concerted effort to try to find a type of role. Maybe I've just done enough of them now where people are like, "Oh, it's the guy that's in a swirling vortex of despair, send it to Kinnear!" I don't really know, but it does seem to be a recurring theme, now that you bring it up. Hm.
AVC: Do you think there is a particular role type that people look at and say, "Get me Kinnear!"
GK: I have been told that I was used on a breakdown one time, "the Greg Kinnear type." So it's out there. I don't know what it is. One of the funny things is, I'm never in the room when all these people sit around the table with coffee and Danish, discussing who might play so-and-so. If I end up on a list, or if I'm being considered for something, I don't get the transcripts of what the lead-in discussion was. That's just the case with everybody. All of us drive home from the dinner party, and we really don't know what they're saying about us back at the house we were just at, you know? So in terms of how people interpret my work, it's a little bit up for grabs. I feel that I've been very fortunate—the kind of material and opportunities that have come my way haven't all been of a singular nature. And that's not been by design. For whatever reason, I've gotten a chance to do a mix of stuff. And I'm really grateful for that.
AVC: We talked about your character-building process when you're playing a real person. How are things different when you're in an ensemble comedy like Little Miss Sunshine?
GK: They aren't. Same job, whether it's comedy or drama. Regardless of the weight of the role, I feel like the job is always kind of the same. Who is this person? What's this guy here, and how is he playing with this thing, and what's he trying to say? And what's the volley with all these other people around him? So I don't feel like that part of it changes. In fact, it's the one thing that doesn't change, which I'm very grateful for. I have not reached the point—if there's a point you reach as an actor where it's, "Oh, I got this figured out, I know how to do this," I certainly haven't gotten there, unfortunately. But I am happy to say that the primary building blocks of where you start, at least, there is a little bit of sameness to that. And that's always nice.
AVC: Speaking of primary building blocks, you got your degree in broadcast journalism, and you were an entertainment reporter, then a talk-show host. Was becoming a film actor always a goal?
GK: I had interest in acting. I started as a drama major in college. I got to school and said, "What am I going to do with this?" But I didn't know anybody in the business, and it seemed like—I don't know. I had a teacher who said "Less than 1 percent of you will ever make a living being an actor." That was how we opened the semester.
AVC: Was there useful advice in there, or was it just dispiriting?
GK: It was kinda like, "Huh?" It was just that the idea of making a living as an actor seemed ridiculous. How would that possibly happen? Who are these people? Where do they come from? Who makes movies? Aren't they just born into the world? There's nobody making movies. So it all just seemed very overwhelming. And I hadn't even been to California. So I switched to broadcast journalism, thinking—I had interest in news, I'd always had interest in news, and thought maybe that was something I could do. So yeah, in the backdrop of high school, and I had some drama work over in Greece, I had some interest, I just didn't have the audacity to hope. [Laughs.] At the end of the day, probably. [Pauses.] I don't know, it all worked out for the best. If I'd gotten into some show or something at 21, 22, I don't think that would have been the best thing for me anyway. So I'm lucky the way that it did happen, grateful that I had a while before my first thing.
AVC: Do you have any interest in going back to talk shows? If somebody came along tomorrow and said, "Do you want to be Letterman's replacement?" would you accept?
GK: Well, there's times when I miss it. There's times when I'll see a show, or something cooking on TV, and think, "That can really be fun when it's working." But it's a grind. I did that at NBC, it was five days a week. I was doing Talk Soup and Later at the same time. It's a hard job, more difficult than people realize. And it's a completely different world than acting. At the end of the day, if it came down between the two, there's no comparison at all, I absolutely am doing the right one. But there are nights, late at night… "That would be fun."
AVC: Do you keep up with The Soup at all?
GK: Not so much. I got a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, and we don't have a lot of TV going on in the house. I can tell you all about what's going on with Dora The Explorer on a weekly basis, or the Wiggles, but outside of that, my pop-TV IQ has gone way down. But it was already damaged by those clips of Jerry Springer.
AVC: You've made a point in past interviews that you can find humor in anything, that it's just an inescapable part of your personality. Is there humor in Flash Of Genius, in Bob Kearns?
GK: Oh, I think so. Yeah, I do. I think there are some really nice moments of humor. There's no overt attempt to make the character funny, or to make things funny that are happening in the movie. But I think Bob Kearns, in all his rigidness, trying to represent himself in a courtroom and trying to get through this enormous gauntlet has some really nice moments where you might smile. I don't know how to explain it. I know what you're asking, and it's a hard thing to frame, how I see the humor in this guy, but I definitely do. You mentioned Auto-Focus—it was the same thing with Bob Crane. It was Paul Schrader's movie, it was pretty dark stuff, but there's something inherently hilarious about the human tragedy sometimes.
AVC: Is it important to you to find humor in your roles, in order to make them work?
GK: Don't have to, but like it a lot. Like it a hell of a lot more. It just makes things feel more real to me.