Kevin Kline must be the most eclectic actor in the business – he effortlessly moves from dramas to comedies, from movies to the stage, winning an Academy Award and two Tony Awards.
In his new comedy The Extra Man, based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames, Kline portrays Henry Harrison, a penniless, eccentric, but brilliant playwright in New York who rents out a room in his ramshackle apartment to a young man named Louis (Paul Dano).
When Henry’s not dancing alone to obscure music or singing operettas, he is a social escort for the wealthy widows of Manhattan’s high society – the ‘extra man.’
Once again, Kevin Kline gives a stellar performance in another unforgettable role. He spoke with us about the movie and what attracted him to the character of Henry Harrison.
What was it about the script or the character that caught your eye?
I found it so original, Jonathan Ames’ voice is original. The character’s original, even though you could compare him to other eccentric characters in literature and film.
He was so outrageous, flamboyant, extravagant, contradictory and complicated, but funny. And so unpredictable, you just never knew what he was going to do or say next. I knew immediately I wanted to be him in this movie.
Do you know anyone like him?
Working in the theatre in New York one can meet flamboyant men-about-town, but I didn’t base him on anyone in particular. I just took it from the novel and from the screenplay.
It’s a very specific New York-type, but it’s a sub-type, it’s not a type you really see much of, and that’s what was part of the attraction (of playing him). Part of the charm of the novel is that if there is a species of ‘extra men,’ this guy is a standout, he’s an original. New York has the opera and there’s always an art opening.
Not only is he feeding on that, he’s literally feeding on art openings at galleries and museums and all these social events. It’s very specific to New York. You can actually live off the wealthy people of New York without working. That’s part of the story.
When you have this much mystery with the character, do you have to understand him to play him? It seems you have a firm grasp of him, but we only get bits and pieces of him.
That’s a very good question, and the answer is no. He is a mysterious character, he’s full of contradictions, there’s a side of him that’s very theatrical as if he’s playing a role. He says, ‘Are we having a conversation? Well, it has to stop. I don’t want you to know me, and I don’t want to know anything about you.’ And part of that is he wants a mystique, and part of it is there are things he doesn’t want to talk about.
I think that’s part of his charm too, that he’s living, as is Paul Dano’s character, kind of a loser fictional life that harkens back to the 30s, that F Scott Fitzgerald era, where there was elegance and charm and wit. This is a guy who came from money who has now fallen on bad times but refuses to give up his aristocratic self-delusions.
There should always be some unanswered questions about characters. So I think a bit of mystery is good in any role, but especially with this character.
Your character dances alone – can you talk about shooting that sequence?
In the book he dances in a much more foxtrot movement. He says, ‘I try to move whatever I think is rotting.’ So we took that to the next step where everything is rotting, so I’m moving pretty much everything. And a brilliant choreographer and an old friend named Patricia Birch, was brought in and we tried different choreographic things and finally she said, ‘Why don’t you just do that goofy modern dance, Martha Graham meets Frankenstein dancing. Just do your own thing.’
It was pretty freeform and it was much longer, it was about a five minute dance and they just took a little piece of it. They took what they thought was visually the funniest, weirdest bit. In the book he dances to Ethel Merman singing Cole Porter, but I think that was too expensive to get the rights for us, so we chose Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. I was actually dancing to nothing and they added the music later. That’s the magic of film.
Is there any unique challenges to approaching comedy that you wouldn’t find in a more serious role?
I did a film with Richard Attenborough once, and I went off afterwards to do A Fish Called Wanda, and he said, ‘Oh comedy’s so difficult because it’s either funny or it isn’t.’ With drama, if it becomes silly or funny then you’re in big trouble. With comedy, sort of funny doesn’t work – you’ve got to thread the needle and get it exactly right.
With this film I think the challenge was to find the right tone, especially when you’re playing a character that is flamboyant, extravagant, outrageous, unpredictable and mysterious, you have to make it as real as possible and to give him as much dimension as you can.
I think the tricky part of comedy is to keep it real and still be funny. That’s always the challenge, no matter how outrageous or implausible the character or the story is, what’s fun is to try to make it plausible.