Kevin Kline on MY OLD LADY, THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD, and His 26-Year-Old Self
Kevin Kline has studied at Juilliard, played Shakespearean icons like King Lear and Hamlet, won two Tony Awards, been nominated for 5 Golden Globes, and, justifiably, won an Oscar. He has two new films out this month, My Old Lady and The Last of Robin Hood and gives two vastly different but incredibly inspiring performances.
In My Old Lady, Kline plays Mathias, an American who moves to Paris to claim an apartment he’s inherited. He soon discovers Mathilde (Maggie Smith), a tenant who still lives in the home and refuses to budge. Her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) is insistent on their right to the Parisian home and although she creates initial conflict for Mathias, she soon propels him into a journey of self-discovery and family reflection. The film is an adaptation of the play by Israel Horovitz, who also directed.
Kline also plays Errol Flynn in The Last of Robin Hood. The film centers on the scandalous romance between the aging movie star and young actress Beverly Aadland.
Kline discussed what drew him to these roles, the importance of his training, and his first time on Broadway.
MA: “We think we’ve been cursed by God; we’ve been cursed by our parents.” This line from My Old Lady really illuminates the core of the story, moving past relying on your family. Was this an avenue for you into the project? Did it strike a chord personally?
It’s indicative of the kind of lines [Israel] writes. [The play is] very serious about parental curse and fate and the narrative we compose for ourselves: these merciful revelations that we find out, life isn’t what we thought, which is part of any good story. Israel had done something unique in this particular mix of comedy and drama and romance. You don’t get to see characters in movies that say, ‘‘I’ve been cursed by God!” This guy is very self destructive, flagellating while blaming everyone else for all his woes, and then eventually, strangely reconciling what he thought his past was with his present. It was unusual, with recognizable, human characters. MA: So much of Mathias’ turmoil lies in the Viager, this elusive French equity-release contract. How does that illuminate the American-European divide?
KK: It’s an old thing. It dates back to the Napoleonic era. They are still very popular. There are similar situations where you can buy an apartment cheaply but you can’t take possession till the person dies. It is characteristically French and says something about their culture. Mathias says cynically, “So you’re betting on somebody dying soon?” You can also look at it as buying a place and giving money to someone who can live out their years there. There’s something quite positive about it, too.
Mathias is an aging man, but at the same time so much a child because he hasn’t coped with his past. How do you begin developing him? Do you pull a Stanislavsky and give yourself specific given circumstances from his youth?
KK: I think a lot of it’s instinctual but so much of it dredges up, it’s right there on the tip of his tongue, the edge of his consciousness. That’s easy to give voice to. He’s got all his opinions about what his life has been. A lot of that is spelled out in the play. Of course you had to visualize and think through more detail about what his childhood was like, but [Horovitz] spells it out.
MA: What enticed you about both of these roles? Both Mathias and Errol Flynn have such psychological complexity.
KK: It’s hard to make a comparison but you could say both of those characters had messy lives. In My Old Lady the psychological complexity, to be 58 and really kind of lost and trying desperately to make some sense of his life, that was the attraction. With Errol Flynn, this was a man who was the highest paid, most successful movie star and now he’s at the tail end of his career, and it’s caught up with him. That character was determined to be Flynn no matter what and was defiantly himself to the very end. With [Mathias] there’s still hope for change, which happens. Both of them are complicated fellows. And especially with My Old Lady there was something about that second chance, still learning. Young people think that old people have it all figured out. (Joking) I’ve got it all figured out, most of us don’t!
MA: With more robust roles like Errol Flynn or Falstaff, which you’ve played, is there a physicality that allows you do build a character from the outside in?
KK: Very similar characters! Very Falstaff-ian! Flynn is very funny, very witty and a jokester and a prankster and a life force! With Falstaff, he is a corrupter of youth! They played by their own rules. With Falstaff you put the fat suit on, but this appetite that Falstaff and Flynn had, enormous, sensuous appetites, there’s another physical transformation. Flynn was a great athlete. In his youth he was a boxer and a diver and a swimmer! He would spar with professional boxers! He broke his back a few times. There’s physicality to that. It’s working from the outside in and inside out, and then you meet somewhere. Because you’re shooting out of sequence, there’s not a lot of time for experimentation.
MA: Given there’s not that time for investigating on set, training is obviously important in films. How crucial was your time at Julliard? What set that apart from just being on set and learning from actual experience?
Training can be important for some actors, for other actors they don’t need it. Film acting is not stage acting. If you’re interested in classical theatre, the training is helpful and you have to learn to forget some of the things you’re taught in school. You have to find your own way. Julliard provided a place to practice, although it was very competitive. Give me an opening night on Broadway with all the critics there any day over an acting class! But if I had just gone from college into a sitcom, and just played the same kind of role over and over, I would never have had the confidence to try Shakespeare or comedy! I was usually the leading man! It’s understanding what style is and tone and differentiating and stretching yourself as an actor. In terms of the confidence, I know how to work with this elevated language because I’ve done it and come to a certain reconciliation.
You made your Broadway debut in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. Looking back now, what would you tell yourself on that first opening night?
KK: It’s funny because I remember that opening night! I was 26 years old in The Three Sisters, which may be my favorite play in this world to this day! I was having a go at it. John Houseman was backstage, saying “Don’t do that melancholy Midwestern thing!” A half hour before I’m going on in the first preview! I think he was saying that my Midwestern upbringing made me bring some melancholy aspect to the character. That’s something you say during the 6-week rehearsal process! That’s a producer for you! What advice? Don’t be dissuaded by bad reviews. I performed four plays in repertory in a period of four weeks, and was reviewed by all the first string critics during this time. Some actors take 10 years for that horrific experience! Don’t be too hard on yourself. One thing they don’t teach you in drama school is how not to let a director screw you up in a performance. That’s something you learn. Where you’ve compromised yourself. It’s pleasing the director but not me. It’s not what I’m really here for. That takes years to learn. You have to be patient! It’s also what William Goldman said about Hollywood, “No one knows anything!” No one knows. Doubt everything. And find your own way. And don’t stop going to the theater!
Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview show, “All the Way with Alloway,” where she scoops the latest up and coming industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing for film and stage.
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