Kevin Kline stars in The Extra Man as an escort. Jace Lacob talks to Kline about his weirdo character, the HBO project he's working on, and having "no regrets" about parts he's turned down.
In person, Kevin Kline fulfills your expectations of who you imagined him to be.
It's a breezy recent afternoon in Los Angeles and Kline, who stars in Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman's quirky indie comedy The Extra Man, based on the novel by Jonathan Ames, delicately places an empty teacup on a table at the Four Seasons Hotel before asking whether he can smoke a cigarette.
“If it ain’t on the page, I won’t do it,” said Kline.
The trailer for Kevin Kline's newest film, The Extra Man.
It's a polite request, the kind that stars of Kline's caliber don't normally make. But Kline has made a reputation for being a rather untraditional movie star. He's also known for being highly discriminating in choosing his roles, earning him the amusing nickname of " Kevin Decline" in The Hollywood Reporter.
"It's not that I turn down things that I think are all going to be terrible," said Kline, between drags on a Marlboro Light. "I've turned down some highly interesting and ultimately quite successful [projects] in the commercial sense... I have no regrets because at the time it didn't excite me."
Kline is the sort of actor who follows his heart as much as his head. As he shoos away the wisps of smoke as though they was intruding into the conversation, he describes his role in The Extra Man as a character that could only have sprung from the twisted mind of Manhattan author Jonathan Ames.
"He marches to his own drummer," said Kline of Ames (who also created the HBO comedy series Bored to Death), "as does the character of Henry Harrison."
Kline plays Henry Harrison, a fallen aristocrat and failed playwright who supports himself as an "extra man," a professional companion to wealthy older women. But Harrison is no mere hanger-on. This self-made "rosen knight"—or, chivalrous escort—is wildly eccentric, between his penchant for painting on his socks or putting mascara in his hair. Then there's his obsession for Christmas balls, sneaking into the opera without paying, and discreetly urinating in the street. The film was released on July 30 in New York and will come out this Friday in Los Angeles. In The New York Times review, Stephen Holden wrote Kline "imbues Henry with an unquenchable gaiety (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) that makes him weirdly endearing."
Kline likened Henry both to Don Quixote and Cyrano de Bergerac (whom Kline won an Emmy for playing in an episode of PBS' Great Performances), as well as Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff. "He reminded me of Falstaff as a great misleader of youth," he said. "I think there is a natural gentlemanly, genteel quality that he has, although he can be terribly, terribly rude… He doesn't want to live in the squalid reality that he is confronted with on a daily basis."
When Henry meets the oddball Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a young man who views his life as the embodiment of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, the two fall into something resembling a friendship, albeit a rather twisted one. Henry takes Louis—torn between being a perfect gentleman and straying toward cross-dressing—under his shabby wing as they encounter a never-ending parade of eccentrics and grotesques.
"They both want to be something they're not," said Kline of Henry and Louis. "They're outsiders who instinctively feel a kinship. Louis is still trying to find himself in a way. Henry has pretty much completed his self-identification, which makes it all the more poignant that he doesn't change… They both bemoan the kind of present vulgarity in the state of our culture and yearn for a time which was much more elegant or chivalric, both seeing themselves as these sort of chevaliers."
One could say the same about Kline himself. Dressed in shirtsleeves and clean-shaven, he gives off a professorial aura, peppering his dialogue with lines from the Bard himself. While he's specific in his choice of roles, Kline also doesn't get misty-eyed when looking backward.
In an age where everything is remade, he has no problem with anyone remaking his past films, bringing up the fact that John Cleese was developing a stage musical version of A Fish Called Wanda or one producer who wanted to transform the political comedy Dave into a song-and-dance extravaganza.
"I do a lot of classical theater and you know you're just one link in a long chain with many actors who have played that part," said Kline, "so I'm not proprietary about anything."
Even if that means a remake of Soapdish?
"Why not? That's fine," he continued. "Really, I don't care. I think it's a tribute to the original film. Well, it could be a tribute. I think the best remakes are the ones where the film didn't quite work so they're trying to improve on it… but people thought [ Soapdish] worked at the time."
Kline has several feature projects in the works but he's also looking to make the jump to series television—he's developing an upcoming HBO drama with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn ( Proof).
"The movies that are being made of any quality are few and far between and a lot of the quality things I've seen recently have been on HBO," Kline said. "You can do more creative cutting-edge, original work [there]."
Kline, who is also attached to executive produce the untitled project, would play a top cardiac surgeon who is convicted for the murder of his mistress and loses everything, including his family and medical license, and must rebuild his life. If it goes ahead at the premium-cable channel, it would mark Kline's first regular series work ever.
"While the idea of playing the same character week after week has always kind of repelled me, I've also thought, well, if it's a good character, you can do it and it's not 22 weeks a year, it would be 12 or something," said Kline. "I've always loved and admired David Auburn's work in Proof. It's a very interesting and challenging character but it's only in outline form… It's a whole different process responding to an idea."
Which makes it all a bit of a leap of faith.
"If it ain't on the page, I won't do it," said Kline. "It's a new process for me, reacting to an outline or a story idea. It remains to be seen what the final product will be. I mean, everything is a leap. Even with a script that you love, on the page there is 'many a slip twixt cup and lip.' It can always go awry, so it's always a leap of faith."
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.