ARTS: WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY, KEVIN?

They used to call him De-Kline. Then he said yes to Chekhov's 'Ivanov' and Ang Lee's 'The Ice Storm'. Matt Wolf meets Kevin Kline; and Maggie O'Farrell talks to Lee
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The Independent Culture
NOT EVERY interview with an actor includes a free massage, but then not every actor is Kevin Kline. The massage, one must quickly add, comes not from Kline himself but courtesy of the chair in his dressing- room at New York's Lincoln Centre, where the actor is winding down a 12- week run as Chekhov's Ivanov. Press a button and the chair gyrates into action, kneading up and down the neck and back until, as Kline says, "you may get more mellow than you care to be." The result: his dressing room, 20 feet from stage right, has become "very popular. I've never had this in a trailer or on a movie set because with movies, the producer says, 'you need a massage - we'll get you a masseur right away.' But in the theatre it's BYO". I've had the massage chair ever since I first did Hamlet in 1986."

How many actors on either side of the Atlantic can speak of multiple Hamlets? Especially Oscar-winners so acclaimed for their knockabout physicality and athletic invention? But Kline, like his Big Chill co- star Glenn Close, is an American film star so rooted in the stage that one feels he does movies to subsidise an immersion in Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Shaw. "My aim is to play every male role in The Three Sisters until I end up as the one who keeps following Andrei around." (Ferapont? I proffer. "Very good," says Kline.) And in the other plays? "Trigorin and Lopakhin and Gayev and Vanya and Astrov, I just want to play them all." With one exception: Konstantin in The Seagull, for whom, at 50, Kline is far too old anyway. "I've always sided with the mother," he notes drily.

But it's movies that make the man, commercially at least. Last autumn, Kline opened in two films that are about to premiere in a similarly back- to-back fashion here: In and Out, a Paul Rudnick comedy directed by Frank Oz, in which Kline plays a straight-arrow midwesterner who interrupts his wedding ceremony to announce that he's gay; and The Ice Storm, Taiwanese director Ang Lee's greatly acclaimed adaptation of the Rick Moody novel about the overt chill cast across Seventies suburban America by wife- swapping, Watergate, and freak weather conditions whose metaphorical meanings are all too obvious (see Lee interview, right). Add in David Hare's adaptation of Ivanov, and the actor known within the industry - because of his extreme choosiness - as "Kevin De-Kline" can suddenly be seen firing on all fronts.

Kline, one senses, is anxious not to be known forever and solely as Otto West, the hilariously macho partner of Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda (1988) and one of those rare comic performances to be rewarded with an Oscar. Flamboyance has always come easily to this actor, as his ability to cut loose in In and Out makes singularly clear. Playing high- school English teacher Howard Brackett, Kline lets his limbs reveal the character's sexuality long before Howard does so verbally, notwithstanding his fondness for what wife-not-to-be (played by an increasingly exasperated Joan Cusack) calls "the Streisand thing".

In conversation, Kline emerges as equal parts showman, entertainer and intellectual, sometimes all three at once. Use of the word "peregrination" (in the context of his Fierce Creatures co-star Michael Palin's global wanderings for the BBC) leads to an extended comic riff on the (unrelated) prefix, "peri-". "Peripatetic, perimeter, peristalsis," muses Kline, before concluding drolly with "periwinkle, Perry Mason, Perry Ellis." Later, comparing Hamlet to Ivanov, Kline says, "What they share is certainly a reflective nature; they're self-reflective." He pauses. "Is that a pleonasm? Is that redundant? Reflective: does that mean that light sort of bounces off of him or that you can see yourself when you look at him?" And then: "Greece the country? No, Grease, the musical on Broadway!"

As for British-isms, Kline, no infrequent visitor to England, knows the local lingo and talks of "punters queueing up and plunking down five quid" to see The Ice Storm. Small wonder, then, that Kline's delight in language leads him often to the stage. The playwright he should really be pursuing is Wilde.

"IT'S JUST the hardest fucking thing I've ever contemplated doing: dredgery, not drudgery, every night," Kevin Kline is saying of Ivanov, a picture of a 25-year-old Chekhov on his dressing-room mirror. Nearby are sketches from Greta and Owen, Kline's three-year-old daughter and six-year-old son by his actress wife Phoebe Cates (the couple have appeared together on stage in Much Ado About Nothing - she was Hero while he was Benedick, with the result that "I danced with her in the masque before I ended up with Beatrice" - and on screen, with Stephen Rea, in The Princess Caraboo).

It's Boxing Day, and Kline is dressed in a T-shirt, khaki trousers and trainers, a greying beard the only sign of the landmark birthday just gone. (At 50, the actor's age required some rewording of Hare's version of Ivanov, since the character was a relatively pubescent 35 when Ralph Fiennes played him in the original production at the Almeida last year.)

Kline scoffs yoghurt and a cookie before vaulting around the dressing room in search of a cigarette which, once found, propels him to the loo in a mock-guilty secret smoke. Unlike some other stage actors - who go into monastic seclusion prior to a performance - Kline chats animatedly up to a scant 40 minutes or so before he is due on stage, offering up a split of champagne to share. "These days," he says, "they're asking actors to rehearse without cigarettes; why don't they just ask them to do it without coffee while they're at it? Let's just die here all at once. Next, they're going to say, you can't wear a black turtleneck any more. How can we legitimately call ourselves actors, for God's sake? We won't recognise ourselves. We need those props."

For a St Louis-born actor who made his Broadway debut at the age of 26, "rather foolishly playing Vershinin" in The Three Sisters, it's easy to see the falling-off that the film world could represent if one were less selective than Kline. A member of the first graduating class of the drama department of Juilliard (New York's Rada or Lamda) in 1972, Kline fell under the sway of another supporting-actor Oscar winner, the late John Houseman (The Paper Chase), who, according to Kline, said that it was "criminal to set you all free and let you all go do stupid television and films and all the things that he was just beginning to do himself." As a result, Houseman formed a touring troupe, still in existence, known as The Acting Company, in which Kline got to play "half the parts of dramatic literature" - Mirabell, Macheath, and Charles Surface in The School For Scandal, among many others.

The company included Kline's then lover Patti LuPone, seen most recently in the West End as Maria Callas in Master Class. It might have provided a permanent home. Instead, laughs Kline, "I thought, this Acting Company life is way too sensible and pleasant to be real; I've got to go and be a real actor: be unemployed, face absolute uncertainty." That's how, after a start in the classical canon, Kline was understudying Raul Julia in The Threepenny Opera at the Lincoln Centre by night and accepting commercials and soap operas by day - "all the things I vowed I'd never do while in the protective womb of drama school."

He achieved early renown not in Chekhov but in musicals. In Hal Prince's 1978 Broadway production of On the Twentieth Century, Kline won a supporting- actor Tony as the deliriously narcissistic matinee idol Bruce Granit; his pratfalls in the role have become the stuff of Broadway legend. "I hadn't worked for nine months, and I just literally threw myself into that role," he recalls. "I thought I could be the straight man or outrageous; I tried outrageous, and Hal let me go. It was the most desperate performance of the season, though they didn't have that category at the Tonys."

Two years later, he won his second Tony, this time for his roisterous turn - Errol Flynn meets the Keystone Kops - as the Pirate King (Tim Curry's subsequent West End role) in director Wilford Leach's all-stops- out production of The Pirates of Penzance, souped-up Gilbert and Sullivan boasting a high-adrenaline sheen and a rock superstar leading lady in Linda Ronstadt. Then Alan Pakula, who had seen both Pirates and an earlier Kline performance in a Michael Weller play called Loose Ends, offered Kline the part of the charismatically psychotic Nathan Landau in Sophie's Choice. It launched his film career. "What a movie, what a script, what a book," says Kline, eager to correct the impression often given in the press that it was Meryl Streep who got him the part. ("I was cast before she was; when she picked me, I'd already been picked.") Sophie's Choice was followed by The Big Chill and Silverado, and by then Kline's fate was sealed: like it or not, the cinema liked him.

"That's the American way: you do a Broadway show as a springboard to the movies," Kline notes wryly, and one could point to numerous actors of his generation (Streep, Kathy Bates and Jeff Daniels among them) who haven't returned to the theatre since gaining film renown. By contrast, says Kline, "what I miss from the movies is certainly the language. You just don't get Chekhov or Shakespeare-quality writing in movies, unless you're doing Chekhov or Shakespeare." Which, in fact, he will, if plans go ahead for a new screen version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, to be directed by Michael Hoffman. Kline would play Bottom.

Also on offer, though Kline says he remains to be persuaded, is the part of the lawyer Billy Flynn - Henry Goodman's current West End role - in the film version of the musical Chicago, adapted by Larry Gelbart (Tootsie) and set to co-star Goldie Hawn and Madonna.

"Chekhovian," Kline says, "is one of the most overused words" - and yet it tends to apply to the film ventures of which he's particularly fond. "I remember using it when I met Larry Kasdan on The Big Chill in terms of anything with an ensemble, and about people talking about how they feel, and especially how miserable they are. That's the Russian motto: thank God I'm miserable." The adjective pertains once more, Kline feels, to The Ice Storm, a film as subtle and restrained as In and Out is amiably paper-thin and populist.

"IT'S RARE you get something like The Ice Storm, where you do see an inkling for the yearning for a better life and also that bewilderment, befuddlement, if we could only know, if we could only know." (As Olga says at the end of The Three Sisters.) "My agent said, 'I've just read the bleakest, darkest script,' and I said, 'Oh, send it,' because I was in the middle of a comedy [Fierce Creatures]. I thought, what is the tone of this, it's just weird, but that's before I knew what Ang would do with it. With this man, film can be art, if art is lending an expressiveness and an eloquence to sounding obliquely every human chord."

"You look at Kevin, and you forgive whatever he does; he has that quality," director Lee says of his star, returning the compliment and praising him as "a movie star who's also a good actor, who's also a romantic lead." To many, Robert Duvall is the American Olivier, but one could make a similar claim for Kline, and it's no surprise that the late impresario Joseph Papp was keen to groom Kline to take over the reins at the New York Shakespeare Festival, the off- Broadway powerhouse under whose aegis Kline played Richard III, Henry V, Benedick, the Duke, and his two Hamlets (one of which he directed). "I said, 10 years from now I would be interested; right now I'm not interested in running a theatre on that scale, that puts on 15 plays a year. Joe's whole legacy was about developing new playwrights and keeping the classics flourishing, and there was no way I could undertake that without giving up acting completely."

Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that Kline offers the closest America gets to a British actor's career. "No American goes off and does classical rep for three to four years and then comes to New York and does soap opera and waits tables until he gets a Broadway show," says Kline, aware that more people will have seen him attend this year's Golden Globe ceremonies (where he is up for a prize for In and Out) than over his entire life in the theatre. "I get great enjoyment out of making movies; they're fun: that idea of being able to do it until you get it right. But when you get tired of playing heroes and villains and you want to play someone close to life in all its bewildering befuddlement, there's nothing like Chekhov. He's so even-handed with his characters, so forgiving; there's just so much mercy."

! 'The Ice Storm' (15) opens 6 Feb. 'In and Out' (12) opens on 13 Feb.

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