I was too young to understand Harold Cooper (The Big Chill) or Otto West (A Fish Called Wanda), but the hazy memory of both characters still resides in my database of movie images. By the time Jeffrey Anderson or Dr. Rod Randall (both from Soapdish) came around, clarity and a smile crosses my face as I remember the many times I’ve enjoyed watching the soap-operatic shenanigans. And then there was Luc Teyssier (French Kiss) whose rugged charm and French accent stole my heart. I have always been a fan of Kevin Kline—even before I could truly understand and appreciate his amazing talents, something about his face and voice resided with me from my youth. And after having attended the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Classic Conversation with Michael Khan and Kevin Kline at Sidney Harman Hall, learning that he is also a Shakespearean only served as confirmation of my love for this actor.
Kevin Kline has often been named the best actor of his generation—deemed our American Olivier. From his vast filmography to the host of theatrical productions that he’s blessed, this Tony and Academy Award winning actor most certainly lives up to the accolades bestowed upon him. During this Classic Conversation, Kline is reunited with the renowned Michael Khan, the current Artistic Director with the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the former Richard Rodgers Director of Julliard’s Drama Division during Kline’s attendance there.
The conversation began with the audience’s laughter and enjoyment at Kline’s serious face and comedic moans of acknowledgement as Khan rolled out praises that Kline has received over the years from countless writers and reviewers. From there we were immediately witnessing the tale of Kline’s rise to fame from an all-boys Catholic school where the headmaster, after having experienced Kline’s candor, thought the student would follow a career path in diplomacy or linguistics. Taking a totally different direction at the age of 18, Kline decided that he would be a musician and played in a band called The One-Eyed Jacks, because “Jacks are wild,” said Kline matter-of-factly, causing another round of laughter. His passion for music took him to the Indiana University’s School of Music where Kline admits to having not been a “great student.” There, he’d even taken an acting class where he obtained a final grade of a “C.”
Kline’s first memorable encounter with a Shakespearean play was a University of Washington production of King Lear where, in his seat, instead of enjoying the thespians before him, he made out with his girlfriend. Though his father loved Shakespeare, Kline didn’t really give him a thought. It wasn’t until he was taking an English literature course studying Othello that his path to becoming a Shakespearean actor began. His professor told him to go to the audition for the school’s production of Othello—to study. While there, he was randomly picked by the casting director to read. Begrudgingly—after insisting that he was just there per class requirement, not to audition—Kline took the stage. His performance landed him the role of first sergeant. And it was his study of the play, his research to learn and understand the language, his quest to know the play, that spawned his love of Shakespeare.
Armed with this devotion to Shakespeare’s work and language and this once dormant talent that he hadn’t realized existed until he was a first sergeant, Kline went to New York City to attend Julliard. At the school, he met Khan who directed him in a number of productions. Kline joined an acting company and toured the country, performing in countless theaters and playhouses. Khan referenced Kline’s path with the company as his having experienced a British-like path to actor growth and success; and developing a repertoire—honing skills, adaptation, dedication to the craft. Kline spent four years with the acting company before setting off on his own. He said he had nine months of “starving” (vowing never to do that again) before landing a part on a soap opera for a year while, at night, he would be an understudy on Broadway.
Kline’s first big Shakespearean play was Richard III in Central Park and he speaks of it being an amazing experience. To prepare for this role, he memorized the big speeches, took scene and speech classes and made it a point to watch Laurence Olivier’s film of the same play. “Olivier was my idol in college,” said Kline, leaning back with legs crossed and chin resting on hand, “so I only look up to myself” he jokes and, again, there’s a rumble of laughter from the sea of spectators. After great success in this play, Kline performed in Henry V. Thoroughly bitten by the bug, Kline then performed in countless Shakespearean plays to include Hamlet (which he did three times), Measure for Measure, and (one of this writer’s favorites) Much Ado About Nothing. Kline references his role as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing as the “most fun” because its “prose mixed with version” and just a “screwball comedy.”
Kline’s transition from stage to film was initially easy. Khan asked Kline if he wondered what it “would be like making an intimate film” for a “stage actor with stage energy.” Kline responded that he knew it would be different, so imagine his surprise when his first role was that of a mad person where the director encouraged him to use his stage acting because this character was supposed to be over the top. Kline was grateful for this freedom and would rehearse in front of the camera as he would on stage. Within his comfort, he performed in the film with his stage presence and met terrible reviews. Kline laughs about it now, citing that the reviewer said he was “clearly a theatre actor who should never do film.”
But film he did, and did so well. The conversation goes on to site his work in Silverado where Kline said of his choice to do the film: “There was an entire generation that grew up on Star Wars that didn’t know what a western was!” Regarding The Big Chill, Kline says he initially wasn’t going to do the movie. So in debating his declining the role for The Big Chill, he consulted his friend and colleague with whom he’s done movies and Khan has determined they are a great team, Meryl Streep. “Do it,” she advised him, “and don’t prepare. Just roll out of bed and do it.” We all know, he did. Khan shares with the audience that Kline has earned the nicknames “Kevin De-Kline” and “Dr. No” in considering the number of roles that he turns down. Khan then asks “What makes you say ‘yes’?”
“You know when you read it and you feel like, this story should be told and I want to be a part of it. [or] I like this character.”
Khan remarked that Kline’s career is the kind that he feels an actor should have: success in film but returning to the theatre with increasingly challenging roles. Plays that Kline has returned to in the theatre during his film success include King Lear and Cyrano. One must admire the challenge of these roles in the midst of an Oscar award-winning performance in A Fish Called Wanda and an amazing performance in Dave (yet another role he almost De-Klined).
Following this amazing trip through Kline’s life and world, the audience members (both in-house and online) were invited to ask questions:
Audience Member: “How do you play stupid people so well?” (This was a question from someone online that made Khan giggle like a 13 year-old upon reading it to Kline).
Kline: “That’s my shadow self. I’m stupid and I know it.”
Audience Member: “Was there ever a time when the reward wasn’t worth the risk?”
Kline: “I learned at Julliard that the great roles are how you grow.”
Audience Member: “Are you ever going to do another musical?”
Kline: “The problem with doing musicals [. . .] they’re so expensive. They require a commitment of nine months to two years to recoup the money. [Now that my kids are grown] I would consider it now.” (Kline is married to the actress, Phoebe Cates, and has made a lot of role sacrifices in order to spend time with their children). “I tried to be realistic.”
Khan: “What advice do you have for want-to-be actors?”
Kline: “It’s different now. I don’t pretend to understand. I wait for something [. . .] scary or fun or fun-scary.”
This amazing conversation between two icons of theatre and film was perfectly concluded with a spectacular performance by Kline of a Benedick monologue from Much Ado About Nothing that cascaded upon the audience and filled us with a joy as sincerely solidified as the smiles on our faces as we watched and enjoyed a Shakespearean actor at work.