All the world’s a stage…
And “actors used to be called players,” shares Academy Award winner and Tony Award winner, Kevin Kline, who still feels a part of that classic era.
Kevin Kline trained at New York’s Juilliard and knows how to play a scene with the same artful mastery as one plays an instrument. So, NYCastings leapt at the chance to sit down with the actor and learn from his fine tuned wisdom about creating award worthy characters…
To start, Kevin Kline looks for scripts that relate to him. He looks for, “some quality that he finds intriguing, that he knows how to do.”
“I look at the script and know that guy, know I have enough of that guy in me to empathize to such a degree that I can succeed and bring something to it,” Kevin shares.
“At other times, it may be a good story, not a flashy character, but a story I want to help tell. It is about something important that I want to be in on. And… at other times, the script is just funny.”
“It starts with the script, then the director, then the location and then the catering,” shares Kevin Kline with his usual subtle humor.
In one of his latest films, The Extra Man, filmed in New York and distributed by Magnolia Pictures, Kevin brings his theatrical mastery and dead on humor to a unique role… a character named Henry Harrison who once knew riches and now richly lives as a penniless yet wildly eccentric escort.
Kevin Kline felt attracted to this character because “he is beyond eccentric, not just a type. He takes the eccentric character another step further. The character’s words we so contradictory. And there was something self delusional about him.”
This character, “created a bubble around his existence that I find heroic,” Kevin says. “Because he is a guy that came from money and now has nothing. He has this symbiotic relationship with these rich people, in a world that he knows and now plays the parasitic role of an extra man. And he is witty and can carry this off while living in squalor.”
The character also hits home to Kevin Kline because “the character (a playwright) complains about having a play stolen by someone and he does not move past that.” Kevin sees this type of “inability to move on as very human”, and sometimes the exact mental roadblock that actors can face.
“Why don’t artists just go back to square one and start over?” he says. There is something very human about the way artists face success.
Despite the outrageous nature of Henry Harrison, Kevin Kline got the audience to love this character because he loved it.
“I love characters who are unappealing at times but speak their mind,” Kevin shares. “And that’s one of the joys of acting is that you are given license to be as cruel and as honest and as destructive as you want… with impunity. I think, ‘My God what an awful thing to say, but how funny,’ and the audience loves him because he does not care if you like him, he is not trying to be nice. He is like Cyrano De Bergerac who is this poet man with no money who gives all of his month’s pay to an actor just because the idea of a gesture has panache. It is that artistic side of Henry… He knows he is cut down so many pegs and he is not where he should be, that he is the struggling artist, but he lives on his own terms. ”
When it comes to finding the many complicated layers of characters…
“That’s just part of who I am, a genius.” Kevin Kline says with such panache he makes everyone laugh.
“The layering, in retrospect,” he says with more seriousness, “is that you get a good script and you do each scene, give each scene it’s due and trust your instincts. Trust that your judging, one hopes, is finding the right tone for each scene and when it’s all put together you won’t be one note.”
Over the years, Kevin Kline says, “It’s little things that you learn. You learn economy. You learn not to use muscles that you don’t need.”
“If anyone has tried skiing, the first day someone tried to teach me to ski I could not walk the next day because I was using way more muscles then I needed to. It’s the same with any activity, you learn. You learn that its more pure, if you don’t give it too much.”
“You do justice to a line or a scene or a character. You just try to judge it and trust your instinct. It is about getting better at it, the more you do it.”
And, with practice, you learn to role with the time crunches.
In Extra Man, “we were rushed so much. In one scene, where I was painting my ankles black, we had to stop at 9 o’clock because the man from the bond company was there saying we had to stop at 9 and it was 8:40 and I literally ran to my dressing room, without rehearsal, and we started filming from the top of the ankle and then down so we didn’t have to wipe it,” Kevin says. “And in a way, that’s good because this guerilla filmmaking style does not give you time to over think things.”
“If it is raining, well ok – lets use the rain. If we can’t use the windshield wipers because there is a lighting instrument attached to it and it’s now raining, then ok – get a squeegee. And it’s perfect for the character. The scene now starts with me and the squeegee and its fun.”
When asked about his secrets to success, Kevin laughs… “You’ll get nothing out of me.”
Though Kevin Kline does give us a glimpse into his award winning formula. As an actor, “he brings what he thinks is appropriate of himself and subtracts from himself or adds to himself as the recipe calls for it.”
His classic style of acting is not the norm in today’s heavily improvised world.
“When I do a film, I know I am not going to work with a lot of actors who do Shakespeare. You work with a lot of actors who have never done theatre, period, and have no desire to,” Kevin says. “I worked with a director once who said, ‘I worry that theatre is going to be like vaudeville. We are going to see it die.’ Because for years it seemed as if Broadway was dying. But it will not die in our lifetime. In fact, it may flourish. The more people stay in their homes, uploading films on their computers, the need to go out and see live theatre may increase. But I do feel like I am from another era. I am from another era.”
Even though Kevin Kline feels from another era of training, he knows how to improvise brilliantly in the moment…
“Even on huge budget films there is still someone there saying, ‘we have another scene scheduled we have to do this,'” Kevin says. “But you have padding on either side to try an alternate. I remember working with on DAVE and after several takes we would get to ‘try anything’ and it ended up being something so different that the director saw something in it.”
“That’s how Bob Altman worked all the time too. In Prairie Home Companion, he had us improvise the scene, as long as we got the plot points. To be afforded the opportunity to play, just like how actors used to be called players, and play rather extravagantly… is fun.”
Whether a player is in the foreground or the background, Kevin Kline still stresses the importance of bringing in sound judgment.
“I am so distracted by bad extras,” Kevin shares. ” You can tell bad extras when you are doing a restaurant scene and supposed to be miming speaking but two people are talking at the same time and no one is listening. You have to act well, you have to be good and you have to judge your part in the same way that the actors in the foreground are bringing sound judgment to their part. You see people at the table behind a love scene and they are doing King Lear back there.”
“And, like Henry Harrison, you take whatever hand life has dealt you and make something of it. But don’t make a meal of it, even if it might me a restaurant scene. You have to sit there with the same piece of meat they put on the table at 7am and pretend to eat it and have a conversation,” Kevin says. “But you have do justice to it, that’s my advice.”
Next up on Kevin Kline’s play list… No Strings in which he portrays a Hollywood actor (Ashton Kutcher’s father) -and – The Conspirator… which plays at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival.