'Darling Companion' Star Kevin Kline: An Appreciation

Darling Companion Kevin Klein - H 2012
Sony Pictures Classics

Darling Companion Kevin Klein - H 2012

It's that time of year again, folks, when unmitigated dreck -- big-budget, formulaic, soulless remakes, sequels and adaptations of comic books (and now even boardgames!) -- not only takes the place of the prestige films that competed for Oscars just a few short months ago, but often earns more in a single weekend than their ambitious predecessors films earned during their entire theatrical runs. (Case-in-point: this year's best picture winner The Artist has grossed $44.25 million since it opened last November; The Avengers, meanwhile, had a marketing and publicity budget of more than twice that amount, and made $207-plus million between Friday and Sunday.) Like thinking that Mitt Romney might become president or Mariano Rivera might never pitch again, I find this to be incredibly depressing.

But still, every once in a while, something gives me a glimmer of hope that there remain at least a few people out there who still care to make and watch movies that are less like a Big Mac than something you wouldn't eat in your car.

Like what?

Well, for starters, the delectable Emily Blunt can now be seen starring in two highly enjoyable films, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and The Five-Year Engagement. The crème-de-la-crème of aging British actors -- Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton -- will soon be seen in an ensemble production worthy of their talents, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a magnificent documentary that I caught on the festival circuit, continues to find audience in art houses around the country.

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What provides me with the greatest light in these dark times, though, is the return to the screen of one of our most skilled and beloved actors, Oscar winner Kevin Kline -- the man who former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich once called "the American Olivier" -- in tandem with the director who has directed him more than anyone else over the years, Lawrence Kasdan.

This dynamic duo of sexagenarians -- Kline in 64, Kasdan is 63 -- previously brought us the dramedy The Big Chill (1983), the western Silverado (1985), the crime-comedy I Love You to Death (1990), the drama Grand Canyon (1991), and the rom-com French Kiss (1995). They reunite after 17 years to make Darling Companion, a film about marriage, getting older, and dogs that also stars the great Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard, Mark Duplass, and Elisabeth Moss. (The film had its world premiere at January's Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where Kasdan was also honored with a special tribute, part of which included a 45-minute Q&A I moderated with him and Kline, available to watch here.)

Sony Pictures Classics has been slowly unveiling Darling Companion in different cities over the past few weeks with the hope that it will appeal to adults who are craving counter-programming at this time of the year, and that those adults who do check it out will encourage others to do the same. It's far from a perfect movie, but, in my opinion, it is one worthy of an audience. I would submit that there is not a male actor in the world today who is better at his craft than Kline. In recent years, he hasn't always picked the greatest parts, but he has always made the parts that he has picked the greatest they can be. And buying a ticket to see this labor of love is, it seems to me, the least fans of quality movies can do for a guy who has given us so many of them: in addition to his collaborations with Kasdan, there's Sophie's Choice (1982), Cry Freedom (1987), A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Soapdish (1991), Chaplin (1992), Dave (1993), The Ice Storm (1997), In & Out (1997), Life As a House (2001), The Emperor's Club (2002), De-Lovely (2004), and the list goes on.

I recently had a fun conversation with Kline about his life and career, the transcript of which you can read below...

The Hollywood Reporter: Did you go to the movies or the theater as a kid? And, if so, were any productions or actors particular favorites?

Kevin Kline: Yes. Yeah, I loved the movies, and went frequently. Yeah, I used to love—gosh—all sorts of movies. From Jerry Lewis, to W.C. Fields, to Laurence Olivier in Richard III, to Paul Newman. I’m just trying to think. Alec Guinness—I was a big Alec Guinness fan. You know, I saw a lot of movies on television in those days—some of the, you know, Ealing comedies, etcetera. Yeah.

THR: I know that not everything that’s out there is accurate, but, from what I’ve read about you, I gather that music was actually more of your first love than acting…

Kline: Yes. Yes. I loved going to movies, but I didn’t think of being an actor ’til, oh— I think when I did a play. I went to a small prep school—all boys—and they did not have a drama club or anything, but they did have a senior play, and, when I was a senior, I was in the senior play, a play of Plautus, which the headmaster urged us to do in Latin, convincing us that it would get more laughs, possibly, than in English. [laughs] So that was my first experience, and I quite enjoyed it. So it was in the back of my mind to take an acting class when I went off to music school at Indiana University. And I, sort of, got intrigued with it, and disenchanted—not with music, but—with my music ability. And so I, sort of, over the first couple of years of college, drifted away from the music school, and got into acting full-time. I was always in at least one play, acting on the main stage at the university and as part of a group that we formed off-campus in a little coffee house. So I was always acting. It’s a wonder that I graduated, ’cause it really consumed me.

THR: You must have really stood out, though, because I know that you went from there to what I gather was then a new program at Juilliard for drama. When you started there, I would imagine that you were committing yourself to the pursuit of acting as a career, or at least trying to. Was that something that you were confident about? That your parents were thrilled about? You know, what was your outlook at that time?

Kline: The outlook was, “Wow, I got in to Juilliard!” Which I was, sort of, thrilled and shocked by. And then that became, yes— Well, by my last year in college, I had focused on acting, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to act in the theater. That was it. That was all I wanted to do. And then Juilliard—I happened to be in the first graduating class, and John Houseman decided to keep us together and formed The Acting Company, where I spent four years doing short scenes in New York and mostly touring eight or nine months out of the year.

THR: At that point, were you thinking that you were going to have purely a theater career, or did you harbor hopes of venturing into films, as well?

Kline: Gee, at the time, we were like missionaries, bringing classical theater to, you know, the hinterlands. Not the hinterlands [laughs], but, you know? We had a very idealized notion of trying to bring repertory—classical repertory—back into the theater, trying to bring it back, because that kind of regional theater movement was just beginning to take root. We were the only permanent repertory company in America that was touring. And it’s still going strong, The Acting Company. So I think my aspirations were pretty much focused on that. But I must have had it in the back of my head, because I grew up going to movies, and watching things on television, and being really excited and stimulated by movies that I’d see and thinking, “Gee, I’d love to do that sometime if I could.” But, really, when I started out, I did not have much hopes; it was something I was just dabbling in college, and it became more and more compulsive, until it was all I wanted to do. I really focused on it.

THR: You had really achieved quite a lot on the stage by the time you got into the movies, not least of all winning two Tony Awards. How did the first film opportunity come about? And, while I know that your first released film was Sophie’s Choice, I had read—and it’s possible that this is B.S.—that, years earlier, you had met with Steven Spielberg about Jaws?

Kline: Yes. I think he was maybe the second—or third—director I’d ever met for a film. My agent would send me out, you know, to meet various directors, and I did meet with Spielberg. Yeah. I tried to convince him that he should cast a friend of mine who was also an amateur oceanographer—he was an actor in my class at Juilliard. I said, “He is an oceanographer!” He said, “Why are you trying to cast someone else?” He was charming, and, you know, he was wearing blue jeans and a work shirt, as was I. He was, like, my age. Yeah, I had a very nice meeting with him. But, yeah, I was offered a couple of films, but they didn’t interest me—and TV series and things like that once I left The Acting Company and was doing Broadway. When I agreed to do Pirates of Penzance—which was not the first time I’d thought about doing a musical, because I’d done On the Twentieth Century with Harold Prince—I didn’t want a career doing musicals. It was not what I really wanted. And then, of all things, Pirates of Penzance sort of caught fire, and moved to Central Park and Broadway, I said, “I guess this is maybe what I’m gonna do.” And then Alan Pakula cast me in Sophie’s Choice. He saw me in Pirates of Penzance—and he did see me in a play by Michael Weller called Loose Ends, which I’d done the year before, which was a very naturalistic, almost cinematic play. But, the fact that he saw Nathan Landau, the character in Sophie’s Choice, in The Pirate King, of all things, showed extraordinary imagination and great courage on his part. He thought it was important to have an unknown actor so that there was no baggage, so that the character could be unpredictable and you didn’t know where this guy was going. And I think the fact that I was an unknown was why he took a chance with me. I lucked out.

THR: Did you, at one time, think about passing on Sophie’s Choice? I thought I’d seen in one article that you almost were not going to do it…

Kline: God, no. One of my agents thought, you know, “Oh, I don’t know if this is the right first film for you to do,” or something like that. And I think I said, “Great news.” I was completely bowled over by the book and then the screenplay, and, you know, it was definitely the right thing to do, it felt to me. You know, agents tend to say, “Well, I don’t know how commercial this will be, or whether this—” You know, they’re looking out for the future; I’m looking at it project by project, I think, and thought, “Yeah, I have to do this.”

THR: Was the transition from theater acting to film acting challenging? I’ve heard other people talk about how, sort of, modulating the scale of the performance can be difficult, and stuff. I think I’ve read something in which you said that Meryl Streep was of help, in some ways, with that being your first screen role. But did you find it to be an easy transition?

Kline: Ultimately, easier than I thought. Because, going into it, I had been filled with the same, sort of, notions that any actors are—that it’s a different medium; it’s a different technique; different skills are required. And I was very fortunate to have Alan Pakula and Meryl Streep. Not only had Meryl come from the theater; I had seen her in the theater. And she really held my hand through it. And Alan, God bless him and rest his soul, he said, “Think of it as rehearsal. We’re shooting one scene.” That’s how you rehearse a play; you work on one scene one day, and work on another scene another day, and then you put it all together. And he said, “I want you to do it just the way you rehearse a play—experiment, explore, try it a bunch of different ways, surprise me, surprise yourself,” you know? “I’ll tell you when you have to match; don’t even think about matching.” He gave me tremendous freedom and spoiled me for life, because I really enjoyed working that way. On that film, the actors would meet on the set before anyone else, with the director, to, kind of, work very roughly, so that you could always save it for the camera; just to, kind of, sketch out a rough, sort of, working area. And then the cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, came in and figured out how to light it; and then we would do it, with this, sort of, exploratory method of working. It was a very liberating experience. And I trusted Alan’s taste; and I knew that, you know, he would use the take where it worked best; and he invited me to dailies, and I would go to the dailies, and, almost invariably, at the end of the dailies, I would say, “Well, I would use, sort of, the beginning of take two, and then the last half of take four,” and he would say, “Absolutely.” We just— We agreed when it was working, so I knew we were on the same wavelength. No, it was a real spoiler, yeah. You know, another director, years later, said, “There’s no such thing as being too big in the camera as long as it’s fooled,” you know what I mean? And I think it’s the same on stage. I think bad acting on stage— I think some people think they can get away with more artifice, in a sense, because of the conventions of the stage. I disagree. I think it has to be just as real because it’s acting. It is really much more similar than different—much more than I had thought. Originally, going into it, I had thought, “Wow, so my ten years of working on the stage will be of no use.” Of course they were. It was an absurd fear that I had going into it. And I learned, you know, just quite a bit. But, yeah, actually, in the first couple of weeks of Sophie’s Choice it was difficult—because I had made it difficult for myself, you know what I mean? I wasn’t trusting myself. But then I was given assurances from the director. And I took some criticism; those were back in the days when I actually read reviews, and I was lambasted by a couple of critics who said, “He is clearly a theater actor and he will never be on screen again.” That was a little discouraging. But, I mean, the character was— I mean, you know, Alan and I talked about it—this guy is acting a part. He’s a delusional-esque paranoid schizophrenic, you know, pretending to be something he’s not really, and deluded into thinking maybe he’s not. So there was an element of performance, in a sense. A few of them just thought I was too theatrical. But no! It was a couple of those quirky reviewers like Pauline Kael and someone—Vincent Canby, maybe—from the New York Times. No! It was the New York magazine—David Denby—who wrote that. But, anyway, I forgive them!

THR: It seems to me that, after that point, you came upon a number of forks in the road where you were, sort of, forced to choose whether you wanted to focus on being an actor or on being a star—not that you can’t be both, but which was more important to you—and it seems to me that, based on which projects you chose to do and to pass on, the former was always more important to you than the latter. Is that a fair assessment?

Kline: I think yeah, from the outside looking in, it probably would appear that way, and I think there’s veracity to it. Maybe, you know, years of doing great plays in repertory—which is about the actor, not about playing the same person, but about stretching the actor as far as he can go, and playing a variety of roles in a variety of different styles and periods and tonalities, from modern American to European to Shakespeare and Marlowe, Restoration comedies, whatever—that variety, I think, sort of, led me to— I was spoiled by that variety and wanted to keep pursuing it, so the idea of doing a TV series or something and playing the same character was not attractive to me when that came along. But I always just do the roles— I mean, I’d love to have been paid millions of dollars, but it was never paramount, particularly once I had children; then the idea of having a nice payday became more of a reality. But I was really just, sort of, leading a chintzy life for so long, getting by without a lot of money, that I continued to just choose roles that interested me, and not what, you know, agents— They would suggest, “Oh, this will be a very commercial film.” “You know, it’s just not that interesting.” But I have been credited with having turned down things that I never did turn down, like, apparently— They say, “Now, you were offered Batman—” I say, “I don’t think I was offered Batman.” I remember my agent saying, “They’re making a film of Batman. Would you like to meet the director?” And I would say, “No, I don’t think so. No.” But it was hardly an offer. Not like, “Be Batman?”

THR: So the whole “Kevin Decline” thing is overblown?

Kline: Yes. I think actors are much more selective -- we don’t do everything we’re offered. Only if we can make something of it. Do you remember Michael Caine, when he won an Oscar for Cider House Rules or something, said, “I’ve done a lot of crap”? It reminded me of my favorite video store in London, where there was one shelf—a small shelf—with about twenty films, and the genre was “Films without Michael Caine or Brian Dennehy.” [laughs] That was the category! There are actors who like to work all the time, and, you know, the number of their successes in the end may be more than the actors who let years go by between each project and carefully, you know, produce, and hone, and perfect each time out. I don’t think there’s one way of doing it, except to follow your instincts. And sometimes things seem like, “Well, this will be interesting,” and turn out to be a big hit. I mean, A Fish Called Wanda? “Oh, that’s very British; that’s not gonna work.” I said, “I just don’t care if it works or not. I want to work with these guys. I can’t think of anything more fun.” But none of us thought it would catch on the way it did.

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THR: I have to ask you about your collaboration with Lawrence Kasdan, which now spans 29 years and six films, from The Big Chill to Darling Companion, amongst which there’s such a variety of genres and subject matter. How did you two first meet? And why do you think you hit it off to the extent that you’ve each worked with the other on more films than you have with anyone else?

Kline: We first met when Larry was seeing actors in New York. We met on Body Heat. And I just liked him so much. He seemed like such a real guy—so unpretentious and kind. And then I forgave him, of course, for not casting me, but then, on The Big Chill, I met him again, and he was just kind again. I really liked him, and he offered me a role, and we just hit it off. And it’s always been great. I’ve never, you know, thought twice about working with Larry. It’s a wonderful experience; I’ve always enjoyed it. And some of the films are, you know, more popular than others, but each one— There’s this variety, as you say! I mean, the difference between Grand Canyon and I Love You to Death? I mean, one is a dark black, sort of, farcical comedy, and one is—I don’t know what it is—sort of, a novella set to film, a presentation on, you know, the gap between the fortunate and the less fortunate. And French Kiss, you know, this romantic-comedy. Silverado, a Western. I mean, in a way—and I think Larry has talked about this—Darling Companion is, sort of, a companion piece to Big Chill and Grand Canyon, and I can definitely see that. It’s the same generation; it’s the same, you know, sorts of people, in a certain economic class, social class; and his explorations— I mean, I’ve likened it, in my own mind, to— I mean, Chekhov wrote about, in his plays, this particular group of intelligentsia at a moment in time—whether it was Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya or Three Sisters or The Seagull—and explored this drama in what seemed to be— You know, “I don’t see what their problems are. They’ve got it pretty good.” It wasn’t Gorky’s Lower Depths or these, you know, dregs of society that have been swept under the rug. And, yet, they have a social conscience; a psychological character. That’s what has always drawn me to it; “Chekhovian” is such a pretentious word, but it’s about people and the little, quiet, imperceptible tragedies and comedies, heroic and failed, that factor into their lives.

THR: That kind of range, though, has, sort of, defined your career. On the one hand, you can do the most serious Shakespeare; and, on the other, you can do crazy comedy like A Fish Called Wanda. You did Soapdish and Grand Canyon in the same year. You did In and Out and The Ice Storm in the same year. Do you feel just as comfortable doing drama or tragedy as comedy, or do you find one preferable to the other?

Kline: I don’t think they’re preferable. I think comedy is seductive because, I mean, there’s a binary aspect to comedy, as Richard Attenborough pointed out. He said, “You know, darling, it’s either funny or it’s not!” And there’s something to that, which is, maybe, why it’s gratifying if you catch lightning in a bottle with something; or if it’s funny and there’s just an immediate response; or, if you’re on the set when it happens, you know it’s funny. Now, that isn’t necessarily an audience responding, but, when it works, it’s gratifying. But it’s the same with drama. It’s just more subtle—“Yeah, that was good. I really got that.” But, no, I really love— I have been so fortunate to get to go from one to the other, and I find them all equally challenging and stimulating. It’s just comedy is, maybe, more fun; everybody is happy when you’ve got it.

THR: All film actors have, in a sense, a “screen persona” with which they’re associated in the minds of moviegoers—

Kline: I have one?

THR: Well, that’s what I want to ask you about. It seems to me that, while you’ve played your share of jerks or flawed characters, you, like very few other people—Jimmy Stewart and Martin Sheen come to mind immediately—are almost immediately associated with decency. A fundamental decency. Maybe that’s because of the characters that you played in The Big Chill, or Silverado, or Grand Canyon, or Dave, or The Emperor’s Club. I’m not saying at all that you play the same character over and over again, but that there is a common thread there, and that one almost can’t help but like you, even if you are playing a jerk. Is that something that you’re conscious of or, alternatively, that you disagree with? I guess I’m just curious to know what you see as “the Kevin Kline screen persona”…

Kline: You know, it’s funny you say that, because, a couple of years ago, a director said, “I really want you to play this part because you’re so good at playing, you know, characters that are flawed, but we like them. There’s something just likable and decent about you that comes through.” And I thought, “Oh, really? That’s interesting.” I mean, I hadn’t thought about it. And I don’t know how much it has to do with who I am, or what I project, you know what I mean? People look a certain way or act a certain way and you think, “Oh, yeah, he’s a good man.” But I don’t think I’m a good man. [laughs] I think I’m okay, but, you know, I have my flaws. But that’s my persona? I was actually a little annoyed. I thought, “Wait a minute. Well, can’t I played a flawed person that you don’t like at all? I hate when people appreciate myself or I endear myself! I hope I’m not doing that!” There’s obviously a subtext, but I think that my job, or any actor’s job, is to tell the truth. And, when you have good writing—like Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Lawrence Kasdan—the characters are not either heroes or villains; they are human beings, and so they have, you know, their decency, their good qualities, and their flaws, and shortcomings, and villainies even. And you can’t give short shrift to either; you gotta, in a sense, try to create a whole person. So, no, I don’t know. If I thought that I had a “screen persona,” I would worry. Do you know what I mean? I think people don’t know what to make of me. That’s the way I like it. That’s why I don’t like to talk about my personal life. The less we know about an actor’s life, the better, because then it’s easier for us to suspend our disbelief and go with whatever the story is, the character is.

THR: Well, this was great. Thank you so much...

Kline: It’s always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.