Kevin Kline has carved out a career playing lovable weirdos and loony eccentrics, from the psychologically scarred (Nathan in "Sophie's Choice"), to the criminally insane (Otto West in "A Fish Called Wanda"), to the philandering and titanically self-absorbed (Joey Boca in "I Love You to Death") to the laconically offbeat (Howard Brackett in "In and Out"). Still, perhaps none of Kline's roles has been as wildly, aggressively idiosyncratic as Henry Harrison, the character that the Oscar-winning actor brings to sparkling life in his new film, "The Extra Man," which opens in New York City July 30 prior to a nationwide launch.
Based on the comic novel by Brooklyn writer Jonathan Ames, "The Extra Man" renders Henry as one of those quintessentially New York characters that Manhattanites seem so familiar with — charming and likable despite an air of faux sophistication and a propensity for grand pronouncements. While he has no obvious employment or easily discernible source of income (and tools around town in a dilapidated Buick), Henry manages to live the life of a man of far greater means — sneaking into the opera, wrangling invites to posh parties, and wintering in South Florida. A failed playwright, the stentorian-voiced Henry serves as "an extra man" (or "an essential man" as he prefers to call himself), escorting wealthy dowagers to society events and parties and keeping them company.
"In a way, Henry is living an illusory sort of life, playing a role of a man who's part of the haute noblesse of New York City. But he's living in destitute-like, squalid conditions. There's an element of performance to his life," Kline said during a recent press event in Manhattan while promoting "The Extra Man," which is directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman ("American Splendor").
Henry, of course, has more quirks than the most peculiar character in a Wes Anderson film. He uses a marker to color in his ankles when he runs out of clean socks; he urinates clandestinely in public while standing in his trench-coat between parked cars; and he rubs a small dog all over himself to try to transfer the fleas he's been told he's infested with. When he takes in a young man, Louis Ives (Paul Dano), as a border in his cramped apartment, the two bond as a couple of kindred outsider spirits. A recent New York transplant and a bit of a wayward soul, Louis could be viewed as a more reticent and shyly eccentric version of Henry, with a desire to dress in women's clothes and aspirations to become the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Both of them have these artistic temperaments," said Kline. "And Louis' experimentations are probably driven by a need to understand himself deeply. He's searching for his identity more assiduously than a mere mortal might search. So he's out there. I think it's because he wants to be an artist or has an artistic temperament, like Henry."
While Louis becomes an accidental protégé to Henry, Kline said that he has never experienced a mentor-protégé relationship with a young actor before. However, he did encounter what he calls "mentor-ish" figures early on in his own career. "I have had strong men under whose wings I was taken," he admitted. While most of these men were stylistically worlds apart from Henry, what they did share was a larger-than-life stature and a dynamic ability to attract others to them and mold people to their way of thinking.
The first was John Houseman, his (and Patti LuPone's) former instructor at the Juilliard School's Drama Division in the early 1970s, who formed Kline and his first graduating class at Juilliard into a seminal touring repertory company. "He was a sort of mentor in that his philosophy governed the whole way of the Juilliard School," said Kline.
|photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures|
Another mentor was Joseph Papp, the dynamic, mercurial, and fiercely combative founder of the Public Theater, a company that he transformed into one of the country's most important centers for the development of new plays — and renowned for its free outdoor stagings of Shakespeare classics in Central Park. "I worked for years for Joseph Papp," said Kline. "While obviously they're very different men, they share this enormous life force. As quirky, as outrageous, as contradictory as Henry is, his spirit is what I find so attractive — this indomitable will to survive, to surmount whatever iniquities or depredations of time and the culture and his financial situation have wrought. And yet he rises above it in a quixotic sort of way and has great style and panache and joie de vivre."
One of the qualities that Kline loved most about the character was what the actor calls "his opacity" — the sense of mystery and unknowability that surrounds him. "He's so of another period, one that's antithetical to the confessional, transparency-riddled culture that we now live in," said Kline. "There was a piece in the New York Times recently about Greta Garbo and about the bygone days where [famous] people had a mystique. Those are the days that Henry misses, I think. And I do, too."
Still, Kline is unsure whether the character is grotesquely self-delusional, or if in fact he's truly self-aware. "I mean, you could say he's a big phony, but I don't think he is. There's something in his essential spirit that is very true to himself. There's certainly a degree or inventiveness and invention and self-delusion, but it's to survive...He doesn't see windmills; he sees giants that have to be conquered. He has this poetic imaginative streak...I don't know if he's redefined himself, or if he's just stayed true to who he is, in spite of the fact that his circumstances have changed. But is it a willful self-delusion? I think he's also very realistic. He knows he's living in these conditions, and he knows that there's something parasitic about his existence, in a way. But he has refined it into an art. He's made himself not supplementary, not extraneous or extra, but in fact crucial, essential to any social gathering of any intellectual weight. He's like great characters in literature who are improvising, who are making what they can out of what comes their way, but doing it with panache and style and extravagance — whether it's living utterly above your means or what have you."
For a 62-year-old guy who's played his fair share of narcissistic jerks and loud-mouthed lunatics, the St. Louis-born Kline is surprisingly soft-spoken and initially reticent in person — slow to come out of his shell. But before long, this born performer, who's dressed casually in a bright green polo shirt and dark pants with cropped salt-and-pepper hair, displays flashes of his robust intellect and sharp wit — offering up funny anecdotes, silly vocal imitations, and pithy one-liners.
During the casting process, the filmmakers immediately zeroed in on Kline to play Henry. Because of the character's outsized personality, they wanted someone with an equally commanding presence on screen. Still, they were concerned because they'd heard that Kline had earned a reputation for turning down so many roles, his nickname in Hollywood has become "Kevin De-Kline."
The actor, however, scoffs at such a characterization, while acknowledging that he remains discerning about what parts and films he chooses to work on. "Somehow I got that reputation. And my middle initial is D!" he said, with a good-natured laugh. "But you can't do every script that's offered. And I don't know if I'm more or less choosy. I just do what I like and what I think I'll find stimulating and/or fun or be challenged by it in a way that if I fail, I'll fail beautifully. I really don't know what my criteria are."
So have the quality of scripts that Kline has been offered taken a tumble in recent years?
"They go up and down, and you never know what's going to come across your desk. I mean, with some scripts, you'll read two pages, and it's just unspeakable," he said, tossing his hand over his shoulder in mock rejection. Despite the filmmakers fear that Kline would turn them down, he launched himself into the role with gusto. "I was just dying to do it," he said. "I was just so tickled by the script."
|photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures|
He even showed up for a lunch with Berman and Pulcini in the kind of dated, fraying suit that Henry might wear. During the film shoot, he spoke off-camera with Henry's stentorian voice, seemed to be just as loose with facts as Henry himself, and made himself an "expert" in all the things that Henry was. Cast and crew members even started picking up the mannerisms and vocal intonations of the character on set. When one journalist points out that this fact is written in the press notes for the film, Kline cautioned, "Don't believe what you read in press notes — any more than what you read on IMDB," earning laughter from the assembled throng.
So was it also true that Kline even took on Henry's habit for clandestine public urination during the shoot, as sort of practice for playing the character? Kline flashed a look of mock disgust, then smiled, explaining, "When you're doing a low-budget film, you need to go back to base camp, as we call it, which is ten blocks the other way. Instead of waiting for my driver to take me back in a heated limousine to the toilet, it's like, 'No, we have to get the shot, and we have to get it in the next 20 minutes.' So, well, I have to pee, so I'm just going to walk down the street here, and I'm wearing my raincoat, and I'd like to see if [Henry's trick] actually works. And it does! … But I didn't constantly urinate in public!"
Both Berman and Dano insist that Kline was the consummate professional. While Dano had worked with Kline before on the 2002 film "The Emperor's Club," in which he played one of Kline's pupils, he said he didn't really get to know the actor until prepping for "The Extra Man." "We hung out a bunch before doing the film, and I think it was good that we got to know each other," Dano says. "He's such a spontaneous and alive actor. And he's not afraid to try things and put himself out there. I had so much fun working with him. He's hilarious."
Did the duo end up fostering the same kind of mentor-protege relationship that Henry and Louis develop in the film? "I'm still young, but I feel like more of an adult. So, you know, Kevin is now like a friend to me, when before [on "The Emperor's Club"] he would have felt more like a parent, or something like that. So it's totally different," he said. "You do feel a little safer. It's nice to have a connection with the other person. It's just a jumping off point. But this film was totally different, totally new. We didn't keep in touch before. But now we're buddies."
While the versatile Kline has shockingly only scored one Oscar over the course of his stellar career (for "A Fish Called Wanda" in 1989), he's been a magnetic presence on the big screen throughout the past three decades — from his breakthrough years as a screen actor in the 1980s ("Sophie's Choice," "The Big Chill"), through his '90s high points ("Dave," "The Ice Storm" and "In & Out"), and his recent tour-de-force performances in the aughts (as composer Cole Porter in "De-Lovely" and a dying, regretful father in "Life as a House"). He has two new films in the hopper that are due out in the next year, Robert Redford's "The Conspirator," in which he plays Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and a new untitled Ivan Reitman film co-starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher.
Kline discusses his role in "The Extra Man" in this interview:
|photo by Michal Daniel|
Despite those big-screen triumphs and his wide acclaim as a film actor, Kline is perhaps most revered for his work on stage. The classically trained actor (a Juilliard grad) won two Tony Awards early in his career, for the musicals On the Twentieth Century and The Pirates of Penzance. His three-decade-long association with the Public Theater found him playing leading roles in everything from Hamlet to King Lear to Richard III and Henry V, not to mention acting with longtime pal and screen icon Meryl Streep in Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children and Chekhov's The Seagull. In 2007, Kline returned to Broadway as the title character in Cyrano de Bergerac, for which he received an Outer Critics Circle Award.
Still, there must be some great role in the theatre canon that Kline hasn't played but still wants to tackle?
"Before dying?" he jokes.
Is there any chance we'll ever see the actor in a Broadway musical again?
"The problem with Broadway musicals is they're so expensive — unless you're doing Urinetown or something Off-Off-Broadway," he said. "They're so big, and they need a year's commitment, and it better be a great musical, because that's eight shows a week for a year. Whereas, you can do Hamlet for 12 weeks at the Public Theater or King Lear — or Cyrano. Cyrano was really an unusual thing for Broadway. A limited 12-week run of a classic play with 30-plus people in the cast. That's very expensive. But the backers actually got their money back. That's a rare thing. So it's unlikely you'll see me in a musical on Broadway." As the actor got up to leave, he left us with one choice nugget, but declined to offer any specifics: "I'm sure I'll do something else on stage soon...In fact, there's something — a play — that I'm considering doing this season. On Broadway!"
|photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures|
"The Extra Man," which was filmed around New York City, features a slew of top acting talent that's regularly seen on stages across the city. In addition to Mr. Kline, the film co-stars Marian Seldes, a grande dame of the New York theatre who was, in fact, one of Kline's instructors at Juilliard. Other stage actors in supporting roles include John Pankow, Celia Weston, Lynn Cohen and Jason Butler Harner. John C. Reilly, who plays Henry's hirsute neighbor with the fluttery voice, got his start as an actor on the Chicago stage, acting in numerous productions at the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre. He starred in True West opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2000 and in A Streetcar Named Desire with Jessica Lange in 2005, both on Broadway. Even the younger actors have done serious theatre. Katie Holmes, who plays a co-worker that Louis has a crush on, was on Broadway in All My Sons in 2008, while Dano has experience acting both on and Off-Broadway.
The film's directors and co-writers, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, who cast Paul Giamatti, another theatre veteran, as the lead in their 2003 film "American Splendor," said they always look out for actors with a stage resume while casting a film. In fact, they prefer that type of experience.
"I really like actors that come from the stage," said Berman. "I really feel like it completes you as an actor to have spent time on stage. And I really do look for theatre-trained actors. It's weird, I don't even have to know it. I feel like I can tell it, too. When you audition an actor, I think you can sense whether they've done theatre or not. So you know, I definitely lean towards New York stage-trained actors."
So what's next for husband-and-wife duo? While the couple got their start in documentaries and used non-fiction elements in their indie hit, "American Splendor," about comic book artist Harvey Pekar, they're currently shooting a narrative film about the making of another very famous documentary — the landmark early 1970s PBS series, "An American Family," which has been dubbed the very first reality TV show ever filmed, centered on the Loud family of Santa Barbara, CA. The film, titled "Cinema Verite," stars Diane Lane, Tim Robbins and James Gandolfini.
|photo by Carol Rosegg|
Best known for his nearly silent portrayal of the sullen, Nietzsche-worshipping teenager in "Little Miss Sunshine" and the wily preacher in "There Will Be Blood," Dano actually got his start as a stage actor. Even before "L.I.E." thrust him into the indie spotlight as a teenager, he had juvenile roles in Broadway productions of Inherit the Wind and A Month in the Country in the mid-1990s. In recent years, he co-starred in the Off-Broadway production of Jonathan Marc Sherman's Things We Want, directed by Ethan Hawke. In that play, he met his current girlfriend, Zoe Kazan, who's become a regular presence on the New York stage herself (The Seagull and A Behanding in Spokane and the dawning Angels in America).
"I sort of grew up doing theatre," said Dano, dressed casually in a white and purple plaid flannel, his longish hair pulled back from his face. "And that's how I got into film, actually. But I've only done one play in the past however-many years. It was almost three years ago now."
Yet Dano said that he's eager to return to the stage, while also acknowledging the emotional and physical strains of doing eight shows a week.
"I'm potentially doing something soon, I think. I want to," Dano said. "It's just that it's a big commitment. Theatre is hard, you know. So I just want it to be something I feel really strongly about — because you kind of have to go to battle every night. You know, you really got to want to kill. You gotta feel fierce about it."
Does Dano ever get butterflies or stage fright while performing on stage in a play or with his rock band, Mook?
"I get really excited before I go on stage," Dano said. "Usually it's a good nervous. I mean, you feel like you have to pee — you really do. Or you might even feel a little sick to the stomach. But usually, it's a good thing. It means that you're going to put yourself out there. It means you feel like what you're doing is a little bit dangerous, and you might fail. I think it just makes you go harder. Then once you're out there in front of people, it's a blast. It's a rush. It's a thrill."
While Dano met Kazan acting in Things We Want, they also wrapped filming last fall on a new film, "Meek's Crossing," by maverick indie director Kelly Reichardt, who made the minimalist yet moving films "Old Joy" and "Wendy and Lucy," the latter with Michelle Williams. "Meek's Crossing," set in the mid-1800s, centers on a group of pioneers whose lives are threatened as they cross the Oregon Trail. The small-budget shoot, said Dano, was much more treacherous than he first expected.
"It was probably the hardest shoot I've ever been on," he said. "We were out in the real locations in the desert of western Oregon, and it was brutal. It was just brutal. People were getting heat-stroke one day and then frostbite the next. We had to shut down for hypothermia. Like, crazy 'Fitzcarraldo'-type of shit was going on. But in retrospect, it was awesome, and I think it could be a really good film."
"Extra Man" featurette with Paul Dano, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman:
(Christopher Wallenberg is a Brooklyn-based freelance theatre and film journalist and frequent contributor to The Boston Globe, Playbill, American Theatre magazine and the Christian Science Monitor.)