An Interview with Kevin Kline

Near the end of his “Classic Conversations” visit with Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, actor and sometime movie star Kevin Kline noted that he loved the big parts, the scary parts.

“Why are we here if not to do the hard parts?” he asked.

Why indeed. Kline, who is a gifted Shakespearean actor and a fair-sized movie star, has done his share of the hard parts, done them more than well and risen more often than not to the challenge of being Cyrano, Falstaff, Hamlet, Richard II and Richard III, Henry V and, in his first movie role no less, the quicksilver, charismatic and doomed Nathan opposite Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” among other roles.

His old Juilliard compatriot introduced him as the actor who has been called “the American Olivier,” high praise in indeed, once issued by New York Times Drama Critic Frank Rich.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said. “I mean, Olivier, good God.”

“And remember, when I was a kid, I hated Shakespeare,” he said.

But then, when he was a kid in a Catholic private school which included corporal punishment, he didn’t like a lot of the things he grew to love. “Actually, I wanted to study music. I had a rock band, if you can believe that.”

He probably didn’t imagine himself to be a movie star, either, or traveling the country with the Acting Company, the creation of John (“We make money the old fashioned way. We earn it”) Houseman, a stern original from film and theater times past. “That was the best experience you could possibly have, doing the different plays in different places, small towns one night, big city the next, a college campus, and so forth. I loved that. And you learn from that.”

Kline has always returned to the stage—it’s his main love, it’s where the biggest tasks, those Moby Dick-size challenges await him.

Kahn and Kline are obvious old friends. “Remember, next year you’re going into, I don’t know what decade in theater and acting. Maybe you could do something special. Maybe we’ll give you another Will Award.”

“It has been a long time,” Kline noted. “I like always going back to the stage. But the movie industry—I have to say I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the audience. It’s teenage boys. I mean I have a reputation as being very, very careful in the roles I choose. I have a nickname to uphold. They call me Kevin Decline. Or Doctor No. I’m known for turning down roles. I even turned down Nathan at first, not to mention Dave.”

“Dave” was one of his more popular movie roles, in which he played a man who is forced to impersonate a president. He worked with director Lawrence Kasdan on “Grand Canyon” and something he thoroughly enjoyed, the star studded improbable western “Silverado” and the iconic “The Big Chill.”

That’s when he was bonafide catnip for the ladies, a movie star as well as a grounded, gifted, talented actor. “I was scared to death on “Sophie’s Choice,” he said. “But Meryl was so generous. She said don’t be intimidated. Improve. Don’t be scared to throw me around.”

Kline got an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the cultish “A Fish Called Wanda.”

Kline these days seems to lead the most normal of lives, married to actress Phoebe Cates for over 20 years with a grown son, Owen Joseph Kline, who had a major role in “The Squid and the Whale.” “Time Magazine called it one the best performances of the year and he was a teenager. But he said he didn’t care to become an actor. Can you believe it?”

He always comes back to Shakespeare, to the parts that are big and scary, including his embrace of Cyrano, which is French, but still big and scary.

When Kline, still boyishly and elegantly handsome, walked into the room, a woman in front of me whispered: “His hair is white.”


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