The actor: Comfortable with both low comedy and high drama, Kevin Kline plays sophistication and stupidity with equal precision. Classically trained as an actor and pianist, Kline studied in the first acting class to graduate from Manhattan’s storied Juilliard School, then spent four years doing the classics in a repertory company formed by John Houseman before landing a gig on the soap opera Search For Tomorrow, a back-and-forth that remained characteristic of his unpredictable career. He broke into films in the sobering drama Sophie’s Choice, then reprised his role in the Broadway production of The Pirates Of Penzance. He starred in the anti-apartheid drama Cry Freedom, but won his Oscar for the following year’s A Fish Called Wanda, in which he plays a thick-headed ex-CIA operative whose idiocy is matched only by his intellectual arrogance. As the lead in Dave, he embodied old-fashioned American values in a way that made it possible to believe in them, while his In & Out character turned his small town upside-down with the news that he might be gay. After the triumph of last year’s The Extra Man, Kline now hits theaters with two movies at once: Robert Redford’s political parable The Conspirator, in which he plays Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, and Caroline Bottaro’s Queen To Play, in which he plays—in French—the grudging mentor to Sandrine Bonnaire’s nascent chess champ.
Queen To Play (2011)—“Kröger”
The A.V. Club: The outlines of this movie are familiar. Sandrine Bonnaire is a stifled chambermaid who discovers her intellectual power through learning to play chess; you’re the imposing, emotionally withholding teacher. But the movie doesn’t underline everything. Your character gradually grows pale and sickly throughout the film, but there’s never a moment where he comes out and says, “I have to tell you I’m dying.”
Kevin Kline: Right. Well that’s one of the glories of French cinema, is its ambiguity. When I first met with Caroline Bottaro, I had questions about the scenario. I said, “Now at this moment, do you think it’s this or this?” She said, “Both.” And I knew, excellent, good, excellent. Because we live in the gray area, but films tend to be black and white. Black hats, white hats, good guys, bad guys; it’s oversimplifying. I like ambiguity. I like when all of the strings are not all neatly tied up at the end—the Hollywood ending, that sort of thing. This was nicely ambiguous. I enjoyed that.
AVC: This is the first role you’ve played entirely in a language other than English. Apart from the technical challenge of improving your French, does that change your approach? Does the rhythm of the language affect the rhythm of performance?
KK: That was one of the things I was curious to find out, what effect linguistics has, if any, on performance. Speaking French can change the shape of your face and superficial things like that. But thinking in a foreign language, and speaking in a foreign language, I was curious to see. I was intrigued by the notion of working with a French crew, in French, with a French actress that I admire and have admired for years, since À Nos Amours. Have you ever seen that film? Unbelievable. I thought it would be a great learning experience, and indeed it was. Very challenging. I found that ultimately, once the camera’s rolling, acting is acting, but it was different. There’s a minimalism, certainly in Sandrine’s acting, where she is beautiful to be in the presence of, and I think that had a positive effect on me. It’s hard to tell. Maybe I would have played him that way with some bombastic scenery-chewing actress as well. I don’t know. Because the character is reclusive and curmudgeonly. Distant; doesn’t like talking, really. Which helps. To play a French jabbering, gibbering, loquacious type would have been… you know, much more work involved.
AVC: How does that compare to playing Shakespeare, which is English, but not our English?
KK: That’s a good comparison. I hated Shakespeare when I was in high school. I thought, “This is a foreign language.” That’s what keeps so many people away from it. But happily, as an actor, once I started doing it, when you’re forced to look up, “What does that word actually mean? What did it mean then? What was the connotation and the signification of the use of that word?”—because you have to absorb all that as the actor. As a reader who’s been assigned it in senior year of high school, or even forced to stand up and recite it from memory, it’s not the same as when you have to perform it. You have to marry yourself to it, to that language. And it is like learning a new language; once you’ve learned it, subsequent forays are easier. There’s a degree of artifice, in a way, when you’re doing Shakespeare. You have to embrace the fact that this is not naturalism. This character that I’m playing is not a guy like me. I don’t talk like that. Nobody talks like that. It happens to be poetry at times; at times, it’s pretty straightforward. But one has to embrace that, and certainly not be mired in a purely naturalistic style. And so maybe the years of doing that has opened up that door for me.
AVC: The way Shakespearean language is taught, iambic pentameter is one of the first things you learn, which makes it seem like he was writing in this incredibly artificial, unnatural style. But in part, as with rhyme schemes, it was just a tool to help the actors memorize their lines, and in part, it’s just an easy rhythm to fall into.
KK: I was just helping my wife’s goddaughter, who was working on the Scottish play. [Macbeth, often called “the Scottish play” due to theater superstitions against naming it. —ed.] “Well, it’s da-dum dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum, and so that means that you stress this word…” And I said, “No no no, that’s a myth.” There are so many misconceptions about, “What does it mean, iambic pentameter?” “What does a feminine ending mean?” In fact, it’s just a form that Shakespeare used pretty loosely. It’s just a pulse, it’s just a little thing. As an actor, once you’ve been taught about scansion, you’re taught to forget about it. It’s there, as a tool, it can tell you something, but it may just be the language.
AVC: You started out studying classical piano, and your father was involved in music as well. Does that background influence the way you approach the rhythm of acting?
KK: Purely on a theoretical level. People have suggested, and I have concurred, “Yes, I think having a music background has influenced, or had some effect on, my attraction to, my love of Shakespeare.” I considered becoming a linguist when I was in high school. I’d always been interested in language, and my best classes in high school were Latin and French. So there’s something to the musicality of Shakespeare that I love. I’ve always likened it to having a musical score, as we have in films, but it’s right there in the language. There’s a musical element in the way people express themselves. But of course, one can’t be, as an actor, seduced by that. You can’t love the words too much, or it becomes this recitation, beautifully sung. There’s the story about Maurice Evans, when John Barrymore was sitting in the front row, and after the intermission, he turned to the audience and said, “And now, Maurice Evans will sing the second half of Richard II.” There is that temptation to sing it a bit, if you are inclined.
AVC: Have you wanted to do more singing onscreen?
AVC: You have a few times, in The Pirates Of Penzance and De-Lovely.
KK: I know. And it was always a one-off, for singing. My father was a trained opera singer, and I know what good singing sounds like, and I know it’s not what I do. If you grow up listening to opera—we also listened to Frank Sinatra, and musical comedies, things like that, there was all sorts of music in the house, including rock ’n’ roll. Not when my father was around. But yeah, I have sung, when necessary. And it’s fun. Doing a musical is fun, just to start each evening off with an overture. You’ve got the music under you; it’s a different thing. It’s not unlike Shakespeare in that way. That’s why a lot of actors who do musicals, I find they’re good at Shakespeare. Again, there’s that degree of artifice. Suddenly, you burst into song, or you burst into an aria of a soliloquy. If you can call it an aria, and then you try not to sing it.
AVC: It’s not always the best pure singers who make the best musical actors. It’s more about acting through the song, or at least it can be. You don’t have to be Caruso to do Oklahoma.
KK: Right. I’m told that all the time, when people have asked me to do musicals on Broadway or something. I say, “I’m not a good enough singer to do that.” They say, “You don’t have to, you just have to act the song. Remember Rex Harrison, and Richard Burton, when they did Camelot, My Fair Lady,” what have you. “Yeah, but this is really… This should be sung.” There are certain things that should be sung, and sung well, and I know my limitations.
The Conspirator (2011)—“Edwin Stanton”
AVC: Stanton was Lincoln’s secretary of war, but as the character who presses the most forcefully for the conviction of Anna Surratt, whether or not there’s evidence she was involved in the assassination, you’re kind of the heavy of the piece.
KK: Thank you. Yeah, I think, if there’s a heavy, it would be he. [Thinks.] “It would be he.” If it were I—would you say that? Would you use the subjunctive? Were it I—
AVC: “Were I the heavy.” Yes.
KK: Curious. Subjunctive, it’s a dying form. But yes. Were there a villain, it would be I. Because he was, historically, from all my research—he was a tough cookie. He was not there to make friends. He was not popular. People told Lincoln, “You don’t want this guy around.” And Stanton hated Lincoln, originally, called him a monkey. But eventually, became very, very close to him, and to him is attributed the line, when Lincoln finally died, saying, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Or, as some scholars argue, “Now he belongs to the angels.” This was the guy who said that, but also said [when Lincoln’s wife was crying over his corpse], “Take that woman out of here and don’t let her back in.” Hated Mary Todd Lincoln, who also hated him. He was quite a forceful character. I would say, yeah, he must be the heavy.
AVC: Robert Redford is explicit in underlining the story’s resonance with current events: the use of military tribunals, the suspension of habeas corpus. How important was that aspect of the project to you?
KK: Well, to use a French expression, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” [“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” —ed.] It resonates with the whole post-9/11 reaction, and the military tribunal, and that Latin phrase that Danny Huston quotes: “In times of war, the law is silent.” That’s a universal truth, to say, “Oh, gee, it’s just like 9/11.” It’s just like many things. It’s human nature.
AVC: The fact that Cicero came up with the expression indicates the phenomenon has been around a long time.
KK: Exactly. I mean, you look at the nuclear reactors. I was watching Bill Maher the other night, and they’re saying, “Because of these nuclear reactors in Japan, we see that they’re fallible and they’re flawed. But let’s not panic about it.” And Bill Maher said, “No—let’s panic about it. Let’s think about it.” That’s also human nature, to put off with dealing with something in crisis mode if it’s to your advantage. But the war was not over. It was officially over, but “The South will rise again” was echoing all through the South, and Stanton said, “Sorry.” Stanton and public opinion said, “These people have to go, they have to be punished severely, and made a model of, and let them be a lesson to others.”
Search For Tomorrow (1976)—“Woody Reed”
AVC: Did you end up on a soap opera right out of Juilliard?
KK: Right out of Juilliard, I was part of the acting company that John Houseman formed from the first graduating [acting] class, and I spent four years doing the classics, mostly on tour and in little mini-seasons in New York. And then, finally, I said, “It’s time to face the real world.” I went out and started pounding the pavement, and after much anxiety—I never waited tables, but I got a job, Search For Tomorrow, something I swore I’d never do.
AVC: Was it a rude awakening for you do go from touring the classics to the incredibly fast-paced environment of a daily soap?
KK: I learned a tremendous amount. First of all, to be on camera, to have a quick rehearsal, throw it up there. Even though it was taped, they said, “We don’t stop tape unless the set falls over on you.” So it’s as if it were live. This was in the days when most of the actors who’d been there for many seasons were just totally connected to the teleprompter, and there was very little eye contact. Especially when there was a name. They would say, “Well, you know… [Looks left.] Jim… [Looks right.] Doris, and I… after the accident… felt that Tommy and Billy should… stay with their grandparents… who, as you know, live in Dayton.” So the eyes are always wandering. [Laughs]. And a lot of screw-ups. So there’s a lot of ad-libbing and covering.
And rewriting—I learned a lot about writing. Two weeks into the experience, one of the actresses said to me, “You know, you can rewrite this, if you find it horribly written or just difficult to say.” I even had David Mamet help me, because I was doing a play that he wrote at the time, and he was directing me. I said, “Can you help me with this scene?” And we rewrote it together. So I learned a lot about writing. I learned a lot about cameras being on top of you. Many things that were actually useful. But I also saw that a lot of the actors that had been there for years had houses in the country and nice cars and places at the beach. And I thought, “Don’t do this for too long.” So when my year’s contract was up, I said, “I got to go.” Even though I was, happily, asked to stay on. But it served its purpose. I was able to eat for the whole year.
Soapdish (1991)—“Jeffrey Anderson”
AVC: Did you draw on your experience with Search For Tomorrow when playing a washed-up soap veteran in Soapdish?
KK: Well yeah, then it turned out to be good training, because I had some idea of what that was like. Not that it was that necessary, one could imagine. But actually, I could identify with the actor who’s been relegated to the dinner theater in Opa-Locka, Florida, doing Willy Loman [in Death Of A Salesman]. That’s the scene that got me when I read it. I just laughed out loud; that whole idea is so funny. [Laughs.] “Don’t call me Mr. Loman!” It was a good experience. “This is not what I do! I’m a classical actor! I’m a serious actor!” But like anything, anything negative can be turned into a learning experience, and therefore, positive.
A Fish Called Wanda (1988)—“Otto”
AVC: There’s a real precision to your comic roles, but you’re also unabashed about going for broke and doing something broader. There’s the moment in A Fish Called Wanda where Otto has an orgasm, and you cross your eyes and adopt this incredibly dumb look.
KK: Originally we had talked about, “I think he should be having sex while he’s working out.” We had a whole barbell thing, so he’s sort of multitasking. We talked about that. But it sort of happened because no one said, “Cut.” I actually ran out of what little Italian I knew at the time, and that’s why I started going into just naming cheeses and various pastas. But once I ran out, I just launched into “Volare,” and started singing, thinking, “No one said ‘cut,’ no one’s worried about, ‘Can we afford the rights to ‘Volare?’” You have to pay for these songs you launch into. But no one said, “Cut.” And finally I just did what I thought—“This is how he would look in the moment of absolute release.” Pure idiot. [Laughs.] And pure moronic bliss. It was brilliantly scripted, but there was this playfulness on the set, and [John] Cleese, and Charlie Crichton, the director, allowed us to play. Especially because John wasn’t sure about how he’d written the Americans. You know, “Is that how you’d say it?” “Yeah, but we’d also say blah blah blah, or we wouldn’t say it, we’d just do it.” One of my favorites—originally the line [Cleese] says, “You’re a true vulgarian, aren’t you?” And I said, “You’re the vulgarian, you fuck!” Originally the line was something like, “I’ve never been to Vulgaria!” And I just did the other one. And John Cleese just broke out. [Pause.] But that’s just a self-promoting little blurb about me. [Laughs.] But just to illustrate, one could be loose. He did occasionally [Impersonates Cleese.] “Could you do one take where you actually say the line I wrote?” “Psht, sure, why not?”
AVC: Directors do that as well. “Do it my way once, and then you can do it yours.”
KK: They often say when the actor has an idea, “Yeah, oh sure.” And then after you’ve done it, they go, “Okay, so we’ve got one like that. Now…” Like, “We’ve got that, I’ll never print it, it will never see the light of day, stupid idea, but I’m glad you’re happy.”
AVC: A Fish Called Wanda gets away with some astonishing things, especially where animals are concerned: You eat every fish in Michael Palin’s tank, and several dogs meet with untimely ends. You’re never allowed to do that in movies. Even in Summer Of Sam, which is about a serial killer, the dog he shoots has to show up alive at the end. The people aren’t so lucky.
KK: Wanda had great meanness of spirit throughout. But I do remember—was it MGM? Whoever produced it said, “Can you reshoot the scenes with the dog? And take out the blood.” When I was run over by the steamroller, we had blood in the cement, but then, “Take out the blood.”
AVC: And then he somehow sticks himself to the side of a plane at the end of the movie.
KK: That was added. That was new. He can’t die. I said, “Oh, we’re working in a sequel here?” Okay. So we did the alternate ending.
AVC: I wanted to ask you generally about playing stupid.
KK: I remember Cleese said, “Sometimes, just to relax, [Does Gumby voice.] I would just do this.” To not have to be intelligent is very relaxing. To get in touch; to channel your inner idiot, which I’ve done several times. It’s very relaxing, and it’s fun. Was it Terence? Or some ancient Roman, or Oscar Wilde: “Comedy is man at his worst, and tragedy is man at his most noble.” But certainly, playing stupid is a time-honored comic tradition.
AVC: It seems as if smart actors can play stupid, but stupid actors cannot play smart.
KK: If they don’t know where the joke is… yeah, I don’t know. That’s one of those things, like, “Music really helped my Shakespeare.” A lot of actors are not smart at all, and they’re brilliant actors. Intelligence, or education especially, is not a necessary component for acting talent, and at times it can actually be a detriment. It can get in the way. It’s a real problem for me. [Sarcastically.] My massive intelligence is something I have to overcome at times. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, we all struggle with things.
KK: Well, I can see you’ve been struggling valiantly by dumbing down your questions to this moron, your interviewee.
Chaplin (1992)—“Douglas Fairbanks”
KK: That’s something I didn’t want to do.
AVC: Who talked you into it?
KK: [Richard] Attenborough. I had done Cry Freedom for Dickie, and he called and he said, “I want you to do Dougie Fairbanks, for me, will you?” Years earlier, he had talked about me playing Chaplin, I mean many years, right after Cry Freedom. But now he called and said, “I want you to do Dougie Fairbanks.” And I said, “Well, what are the dates,” you know, “Send me the script,” and he did. But before he did, I said, “Well, that’s two weeks after my first child is scheduled to be born. And I really think I should just be at home for those first few months.” There was just this pause at the other end; absolute silence. Dickie is one of the warmest, sweetest men in the world, and he can cry. The Pythons did a parody of him, just with streams cascading, or spouting from his eyes. But I heard, finally he said, “But… but Kevin, you’ve always been my Dougie.” “Well, Dickie, you know, let me talk to my wife and see…” And he said, “Let me see if we can put it off, or change the schedule so that you come later.” And he did. So I didn’t really have to go until my child was six weeks old. And it was what, two weeks’ shooting? Maybe. Originally, I was against the whole idea. But I’d always been his Dougie; I had to do it. I didn’t like the idea of doing it. I didn’t like the idea of playing a real movie personality. To me, that’s impersonation, it’s not really—it’s a type of acting, but it’s not something I’m that good at. But I thought not that many people knew him as a speaking actor, because his career suffered after the talkies came in.
I love Dickie, and I told him, “As you know, I went into alligator-infested waters for you, and I crossed the Zambezi River in Cry Freedom, so I’ll happily… Of course! Of course.” He took a big chance with me in that, so I certainly owed him one. And Sven Nykvist! I got to work with Sven Nykvist. And Robert Downey, who I got to work with again in Soapdish. I had a ball both times. It’s not like, “Oh, Douglas Fairbanks, yes, I’ve always wanted to play him.” But interesting character; all the made-up things, the way he spoke, that Boston Brahmin [accent], and he was from Nebraska or something. He worked out three times a day. He was quite athletic. So I learned some things about him. It was fascinating to know that he, Mary Pickford, and Charles Chaplin were really the very first film icons. Aside from having started their own studio, but when they landed in London, there were masses greeting the boat. They were the first superstars. A kind of curious phenomenon.
AVC: There does seem to be something about you that hearkens back to an older style of acting, in that we don’t really get a sense of you exposing yourself through your work. There’s no Kevin Kline character.
KK: Thank you.
AVC: Surely you’re drawing on your experience in all sorts of roles, but you don’t get the sense, watching a given role, “This is the real Kevin Kline.”
KK: Oh, good. Some of my favorite actors are actors who do “the same thing”—I mean Cary Grant, and some of the real movie stars of bygone days, and today. That’s acting. That’s great acting. You can do the same thing, play the same character, and that way of thinking, you know, “Well, I would never do that,” or, “I can’t play that, because it’s wrong for who I am, or who I’m perceived as,” or whatever the thinking is that goes into that. But maybe I was spoiled by repertory. In the acting company, you’d play Hamlet one night and be the furniture-mover the next night. You’d be the old villain in a Restoration play; you’d be the young leading man in a Chekhov play. It was about the actor, not about being a personality that you can develop and make charismatic and attractive. And I love the variety. It’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to doing Queen To Play. Because it’s different, and to see if well, speaking in a different language—I mean the character was different than other characters I’ve played—but in addition to that, it’s in another language. Will that make me different? Because frankly, I’m tired of seeing me do the same things. I mean, I hate repeating myself. But I’ve got nothing against it. If a good TV series came along—I’ve always been against the idea of playing the same character week after week, but if it’s an interesting character, why not?
AVC: What’s the longest you’ve spent with a character?
KK: Doing a year’s run on Broadway with Pirates Of Penzance. A lot of people ask, “Do you take the character home with you at night? When you’re shooting, or after the play, does it stay with you?” No, but it affects you, of course, and I think that with certain roles you play, you have to access certain sub-personalities, if you will, and give yourself permission during the day if you’re shooting, or at night if you’re performing. But it bleeds over a little bit if you’re doing it for a while.
AVC: It probably depends on the role. Something like Life As A House might be more likely to stay with you at the end of the day.
KK: Yeah, but on the other hand, “Whew, I’m not dying—let’s go have dinner!” Well, “Let’s go have dinner,” what am I saying? I was allowed to eat a salad, because I had to lose so much weight. “Let’s go have a salad.” [Laughs.] No, but some things you want to forget, and some things stay with you whether you like it or not. Others, you just leave it there, and you’re done.
Dave (1993)—“Dave Kovic / President Bill Mitchell”
AVC: Dave is something of a conscious throwback to the Frank Capra era. There’s an optimism to it that’s difficult to pull off nowadays.
KK: It’s getting harder and harder to do, I think, any kind of innocence, unironic, any naïveté, or beautiful ingeniousness that that character had. It was definitely Capra-esque. The fact that it’s set against the most cynical of backdrops, Washington D.C., I think rooted it in a malevolent, cynical kind of reality. But yeah, it was great, great fun to do, and I think Ivan Reitman did a brilliant job directing it and editing it, and made a really sweet, nice movie.
AVC: I wonder, would what seemed cynical then be old hat now? The War Room was an explosive documentary when it came out, but now it’s almost quaint.
KK: But Gary Ross, who wrote Dave, he was very plugged into the whole political scene. He was a speechwriter, so he knew what was going on. It was interesting doing The Conspirator for that reason. These are people. We look at them, our politicians, our presidents, our senators, any politician—however cynically or askance we look at them and don’t trust them, they are iconic. There’s something iconic about them because of what they represent. So we accord them a different kind of stature. Playing the president, that was a good experience to prepare for The Conspirator. I mean, Lincoln is an incredible icon. But you read Team Of Rivals, Doris Goodwin’s book, these were real people. And they had real issues. “Wait a minute: Edwin Stanton hated Mary Todd Lincoln?” “Yeah, and she hated him.” There were personal stories behind what was being presented publicly. That’s good for people to be reminded of, the same way that in the opening chapter of The Human Stain, Philip Roth says he wanted to hang a banner in front of the White House saying, “A human being lives here” when everyone was sanctimoniously condemning Clinton for having a dalliance. It’s like, “Well, the most powerful man in the world. Women are throwing themselves at him, probably on an hourly basis. To err is human. Get over it.” The idea that they’re real people with real needs, appetites, foibles.
AVC: And you can’t play an icon. You have to play a person.
KK: And Shakespeare’s a great teacher in that way, because all of his heroes have flaws, and all of his villains have their positive side. Great intelligence or wit, or charm: The people are complicated.
AVC: Iago is a prime example.
KK: He’s got great wit. As does Richard III, a role I’ve played. Audiences love him because, at least in the beginning, he’s very, very witty. And smart. But he has his flaws.
AVC: And King Lear, who you’ve played.
KK: Lear? Yes. He’s got flaws.
AVC: One or two.
KK: Yeah. A very difficult character; a hard nut to crack, because there’s something very stupid about him, or something very blind about him, but also something great. There’s great wisdom there, when it chooses to manifest itself.
AVC: Lear has the reputation of being one of the hardest Shakespeare plays to stage.
KK: That first scene is always the bugger for everyone. How do you do that first scene, when he asks his daughters, “Which one of you loves me most, because whoever does gets the most land?” That’s a dumb game to play when you’re announcing your retirement. I always thought that if you look at the first act of any Shakespeare, he kind of states a premise: “Okay, here’s the given: You’re washed up on the shores of Illyria” in Twelfth Night, or, “The ghost of your father has appeared on the ramparts.” Okay, that’s the premise. And then you establish, let’s get to know the characters, and then a lot of high-school kids are, “That’s so boring!” As our attention span gets ever shorter these days, it’s hard, because there are some things that have to be said. I’ve never seen a production—it’s the same with Hamlet, frankly—where you feel it has what in Hollywood they’d call a satisfying ending. It’s not satisfying. Some of the comedies are satisfying, but Hamlet? I’ve seen several Hamlets where I felt really bad for Horatio. But otherwise, when Hamlet says, “The rest is silence,” I think the audience is saying, “And thank God. Shut up!”