Greg Kinnear - 'We all lead double lives'

Greg Kinnear used to be a journalist. Gill Pringle hears why that makes the actor extra careful of his own privacy

Greg Kinnear wears an abject look as he apologises for not living up to the accepted image of a movie star. Despite his Oscar-nominated portrayal of a battered gay man in As Good As It Gets, and a nuanced performance as a failed motivational speaker in Little Miss Sunshine, among other memorable roles, Kinnear rejects any accolades.

"A movie star, to me, sounds like some guy who takes champagne jacuzzis, wears a boa and has a pet monkey that he carries around the house, so in that respect, I'm not a movie star," he frowns.

"All I know is that I work in movies, and I like that. I've never felt like my career has been on fire. Besides, I don't know what the term 'movie star' even means. I don't consider a lot of actors that I really admire to be movie stars."

Having famously parlayed his prior job as a celebrity TV journalist and talk-show host into an acting career, Kinnear, the actor, has become his former self's worst nightmare – he is reluctant to share any personal insights and he buries himself deep within his screen personas.

"I certainly try my best not to be a terrible interview subject. But I am tortured. If you've been acting all your life, you can just talk about yourself without ever thinking about what's going on inside the head of the person that's interviewing you. But for me it's different, because I'm constantly seeing it from both sides.

"I don't think there's any connection between my journalism career and my film career. They are two totally different mediums and very different skills," he sniffs. "Obviously during my years in TV I got to interview some really good actors but I don't know if I learned anything from them or if my old job provided any kind of segue into acting. There's plenty of other jobs people do before acting, like driving cabs or waiting tables. Ultimately, I'm not so sure that, as a person, I'm all that interesting. We all have to lead double lives, not just celebrities. The face we put on publicly with our jobs and certain situations. I think that's part of the human condition."

In his latest film, Flash of Genius, he plays the man who invented the intermittent windscreen wiper. But this is no happy rags-to-riches biopic. Instead it's a harrowing portrayal of how the inventor Bob Kearns paid the ultimate price for success; losing his wife and family as he fought a 20-year legal battle against the car companies who stole his design.

Getting inside Kearns's head was a challenge for Kinnear, who insists that for nothing – not even all the success in Hollywood – would it be worth sacrificing his own happy family life with British former page-three model Helen Labdon, and their two daughters. "I have kids and the part of Kearns, as a father, who ended up setting his children aside to make this thing right, was troubling to watch, and kind of troubling to read, when I first read the script. For me, it's still kind of a difficult aspect of this story to swallow," says Kinnear, who came to the project shortly after Kearns died in 2005.

"I like to delve into more complicated characters because that's what life is about. Human beings are never simple and I'm drawn to flawed characters. It's not like I seek out the shortcomings of the people around me but I am observant and acutely aware of my own shortcomings," muses the Indiana-born actor who spent his childhood travelling the globe with his diplomat father, living in the Lebanon and Greece.

While at school in Athens, he decided he would become a talk show host, launching his own high-school radio show, School Daze with Greg Kinnear. After studying broadcast journalism at the University of Arizona, he headed to Hollywood where he failed an audition to become an MTV VJ. He was hired instead as a reporter for the channel, before fulfilling his original dream by becoming the first host of TV's Talk Soup in the early Nineties.

His move into the acting world came in 1994 with a turn playing a talkshow host in the comedy Blankman. This in turn led to his first major break when Sydney Pollack cast him in his 1995 remake of Billy Wilder's Sabrina starring as David Larrabee opposite Harrison Ford's Linus Larrabee and Julia Ormond's Sabrina. Subsequent roles in the romantic comedies You've Got Mail (1998) opposite Meg Ryan and Nurse Betty (2000) with Renée Zellweger threatened to typecast him as a romantic leading man, although he escaped that mould with his poignant portrayal of a gay man tormented by Jack Nicholson's character in 1997 in As Good As It Gets.

During the course of his 15-year dramatic career, Kinnear, now 45, admits to having grown in confidence. "I used to be a lot more insecure – a certain amount of tearing my hair out. But being married and having kids has given me a greater sense of security; an acceptance that I'm in it for the long haul. That said, there's still a part of me which struggles between striking a balance between being consumed by a role and then returning to family life. In that sense, playing Bob Kearns in Flash of Genius was possibly one of my most difficult roles to date."

A Detroit university professor, Kearns invented the prototype for the intermittent windscreen wiper. After Ford stole his design, he took his case to court, and while eventually finding justice, it was much too late to save his marriage: "His obsession was akin to somebody with a drinking problem," says Kinnear.

"In normal circumstances, you might tell someone like that, 'You know what you really need to do? Stop drinking!' And I think that his family, and the Ford motor company and a lot of people around him, were unsettled by the idea that he couldn't just work his way through this: they offered enough money. What I was intrigued by with this story was his inability to do that. And the idea that ultimately it's not about money but the real principle. But he wasn't a perfect character; he was abrupt and prickly and self-destructive in many ways. And in spite of all of those qualities, I really felt myself championing his journey," says the actor, who gained 15lbs for the role.

For a man who has actively sought out a dramatic career, he confesses a reluctance for his own children to follow in his footsteps: "I'd call Will Smith first and ask him what his experience was like," he smiles. "But ultimately, I would think not. I certainly wouldn't want to deny my kids if I thought it was something they really wanted to do but... I have a pretty strong desire to protect them."

'Flash of Genius' opens 27 March