They don’t make them like this anymore. Dubbed the “American Olivier” by New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, Kevin Kline has embarked on a magnificently erratic film career since his halcyon Tony award-winning days.
The Juilliard and Shakespearean-trained Kline burst onto the scene with his critically-acclaimed film debut, “Sophie’s Choice.” Since then, in addition to stellar dramatic work in films like Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill” and Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” –Kline has garnered a reputation for creating some of cinema’s great oddball characters. There’s his doppelganger Commander-in-Chief “Dave,” outed schoolteacher Howard Brackett in “In & Out,” and, last but certainly not least, his Academy Award-winning turn as idiotic thief Howard Otto in “A Fish Called Wanda”—where Kline unloaded, in my estimation, the best onscreen orgasm in cinematic history.
But his latest role may be his strangest yet. In THE EXTRA MAN, Kline plays Henry Harrison – an “extra man” who squires wealthy older women around the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Harrison rises to dance daily at 7 a.m. in sweat pants in his disheveled apartment, claims Hassidic women “really get it” when it comes to sex, and is “to the right of the Pope” on matters of sexual politics. Part chauvinistic pseudo-aristocrat (“I’m against the education of women,” Harrison boasts) and part fantasist, Harrison plays mentor to Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a cross-dressing teacher and aspiring writer who sublets Harrison’s New York apartment. Harrison soon teaches Ives the ropes of being an “extra man,” and along the way encounters a cute co-worker, played by Katie Holmes, and a crazed homeless man, played by John C. Reilly. Adapted from a novel by Jonathan Ames by filmmaking duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who helmed the celebrated 2003 film “American Splendor,” THE EXTRA MAN is a demented celebration of New York’s eccentricities.
MMM sat down with talented thespian, raconteur and enunciator Kevin Kline to chat about his oddball gigolo in “The Extra Man,” the sketch-comedy state of comedy films, and his diverse array of film roles.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Paul Dano said you took your mentor role very seriously.
KEVIN KLINE: Bullshit!
MMM: [Laughs] He said you would feed him Shakespeare quotes and scold him when he didn’t know them.
KLINE: Yes. But did I ever give him acting notes? Never.
MMM: Because he didn’t need them?
KLINE: I wouldn’t say that… [Laughs] Because I don’t do that. Paul is very well read and authoritative on Russian literature. He’s quite literate, Paul. And when he claimed to love Shakespeare, I wasn’t testing him, but certain things would pop up and inspire a line. I’d say the line and then ask, “You know what it is, right?” “No.” “You don’t know what that line is from?!?” So, I was in character that way. That started the first day and carried on throughout.
MMM: Your character’s name was Henry Harrison, and all I could think of was Henry Higgins [“My Fair Lady”] and Rex Harrison.
KLINE: Oh, interesting! Similar. I wonder… I asked Jonathan [Ames] about that and he said that may have been his inspiration. Something along those lines… He’s just this curmudgeonly, perfectionistic, professorial fellow.
MMM: Your character is very odd and misogynistic, saying he’s “to the right of the Pope” on most sexual issues.
KLINE: And obsessed with sex! He says, “Well the real problem is: all sex.” And [Louis Ives is] writing for this green magazine and [Harrison] says, “Well, it’s probably just a front for pornography.”
MMM: So what attracted you to this unique character?
KLINE: Because he’s so hyper-eccentric. He’s not just a type. He takes the eccentric character another step. And probably because it’s based on a real guy. It’s very biographical. Jonathan said the things that came out of this guy’s mouth he just kept writing down and he knew he had his next novel. I find the things he says and does contradictory. There’s something quixotic and delusional in a way, but he’s created this bubble around his existence that I find quite heroic. This is a guy who came from money and now he has nothing. He just has this symbiotic relationship with these wealthy people – the world that he knows – and he’s refined this parasitic, extraneous role, “the extra man,” into an art. He’s unique.
MMM: If he’s such a master manipulator, why is he incapable of making money?
KLINE: He’s an artist. That’s the problem. He’s a playwright. I don’t think he’s going to give that up. Why do a lot of artists never quite peak? It’s a thing that’s very human that has to do with success and failure. He can manipulate people and he’s certainly a forceful personality. He could be a film director! [Laughs] Because he’s so outspoken, he alienates a lot of people. He’s a very talented writer but an impossible human being.
MMM: Is it difficult to play such a curmudgeonly, unattractive character?
KLINE: I love characters who, however unattractive and unbearable they can be at times, speak their mind. That’s one of the joys of acting in these roles. You’re given license to be as cruel, as honest, as destructive as you want… with impunity. And you love him because he’s not trying to be nice. He doesn’t care if you like him. He’s a struggling artist and his own man.
MMM: And so fleshed out.
KLINE: Oh, that’s just a part of my genius. [Laughs] Layering, yes. [Laughs] In retrospect, yes, you get a good script, do a scene, give it it’s due and trust your instincts. You try to find the right tone and not make it one-note.
MMM: On an independent film like this, do you just get two takes to nail a scene and then it’s on to the next one?
KLINE: Two takes? We were rushed so much on this movie. There’s one scene where I’m painting my ankles, and we had to stop at nine o’clock because the man from the bond company was there saying, “You can’t go to 9:05. You must stop at 9:00.” So it was 8:40 and we had to do the scene. I ran over to my dressing corner, changed and did the scene. We had time for maybe two takes and I was painting my ankles and I had to start at the top of each ankle so we didn’t have to wipe it all off each time. It’s a guerrilla filmmaking style you don’t have a lot of time to overthink it. You hit the ground running. It’s raining so let’s use it. We can’t use the windshield wiper because there’s a lighting rig, so do a squeegee. And it’s perfect for the character.
MMM: So when you have two takes, does the spirit of your theatre background really come to the fore as opposed to a big film like “Wild Wild West,” where you get many, many takes to do a scene?
KLINE: Yes, you have the luxury of added schedule. I know working with Ivan Reitman on “Dave,” he’d say, “Just do something different.” Bob Altman would say, “We’re supposed to do a scene here in the dressing room but, you know what, let’s go out into the lobby of the theatre and you and Maya [Rudolph] just improvise a scene. As long as you get the important plot points. Maybe open a bottle of champagne.” “OK.” So I actually popped it and it hit Bob across the lobby who was sitting by the monitor. And it was so much fun!
MMM: Speaking of Ivan Reitman, you’re working with him again on this secretive, ‘Untitled Ivan Reitman Film.’ What’s that about?
KLINE: Yes, the ‘Untitled Ivan Reitman Film.’ It was really quick. It was a week’s work. It was fun. He loves actors to just “do whatever you want.” I play Ashton Kutcher’s father who we find out is having an affair with Ashton Kutcher’s character’s ex-girlfriend, who is 23. I play a Hollywood actor who had a big hit television series and is now taking a lot of drugs. It’s a Hollywood-type. [Laughs]
MMM: What was it like working with two directors on “The Extra Man?”
KLINE: Twice the fun! [Laughs] I wanted desperately to pit one against the other. I’d say, “Well, Bob told me to do just the opposite.” But they never really [went for it].
MMM: You’re a fixture on the NYC theatre scene and Paul said you went to a few Upper East Side restaurants to try and spot ‘extra men’…
KLINE: We went to one! [Laughs]
MMM: [Laughs] Well I’m just wondering if you have encountered any ‘extra men’ in real life?
KLINE: I never met Jerry Zipkin but I did my research. I read about him. Interesting stories about him. But he was wealthy and very generous. And women loved him! He went down to Washington once a week to have lunch with Nancy Reagan, but he could say things to women not unlike Henry could say – “your ass is too big,” etc. This outspoken quality. I’ve seen men over the years who were companions to wealthy widows but I don’t think they live quite under the conditions that Henry does. That’s one of the great things about New York City. You could look in a restaurant, stop, and ask, “How many of you live in a really crappy apartment and have a roommate?” But they’re all dressed up and look great. They put on the fancy costume and go to the restaurant like we all do. But what do they go home to at night? We don’t know.
MMM: And your character, Henry Harrison, really seems to be from a bygone era. In this new era in comedy films, where everyone comes from sketch comedy backgrounds, do you ever film you are, as a theatrically-trained actor, from a bygone era?
KLINE: Yeah! Sure. I know when I’m doing a film, I’m not going to work with a lot of actors who do Shakespeare. But you work with a lot of actors who’ve never done theatre period. I once worked with a director who told me, “You know, I worry that, in my lifetime, theatre is going to be like vaudeville. It’s just going to die.” Everyone always says, “Broadway is dying.” But it’s not going to do in our lifetime – the theatre. In fact, it may flourish the more people stay at home in front of their glowing screens, downloading, uploading or sideloading any number of things onto their computer. They need to go out and see live theatre. But the short answer is, yes, I do feel like I’m from another era. Well, I am from another era!
MMM: Was “A Fish Called Wanda” improvised at all?
KLINE: Well, there were some adlibs, but no. The writing was wonderful. I used to add things. Actually, he encouraged me and [Jamie Lee Curtis] to do that. The whole line about the uptight British came from improvisation.
MMM: You’ve got some interesting upcoming projects lined up. Did you recently wrap shooting on Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator?”
KLINE: Oh, that was months ago. That was two weeks work. I play Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. I just heard last week it’s going to be at the Toronto Film Festival.
Robert Redford called me and told me about this project and the he spelled it out it sounded interesting and like nothing I’d ever really done.
THE EXTRA MAN opens on June 30th in New York and Los Angeles.