Kevin Kline: He gets a kick out of Cole

Kevin Kline's latest role is as the writer of some of the most passionate love songs. It may be a departure for him, but as he tells James Rampton, he's an actor, not a type
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The Independent Culture

The actor Kevin Kline has only ever had a single, fleeting "one-night stand" with a major-league Hollywood blockbuster, but he still wound up hating himself in the morning. He shakes his head at the memory of Wild, Wild West, Will Smith's 1999 Western outing, which proved such a self-basting giant turkey that Bernard Matthews might have coveted it.

The actor Kevin Kline has only ever had a single, fleeting "one-night stand" with a major-league Hollywood blockbuster, but he still wound up hating himself in the morning. He shakes his head at the memory of Wild, Wild West, Will Smith's 1999 Western outing, which proved such a self-basting giant turkey that Bernard Matthews might have coveted it.

Wearing clothes that make him look like the avuncular, respectable private-school teacher he played in 2002's The Emperor's Club - black slacks and shoes, a blue woollen tank-top over a white shirt and a red tie, and a pair of glasses dangling on a string round his neck - Kline is holding court at the Dorchester, in central London. He has just flown in from the States and says the jet-lag is making him feel like a soda-bottle that has been vigorously shaken. He's undoubtedly fizzing.

Despite protestations that he may not be talking sense, he seems perfectly lucid to me. Indeed, when discussing the thorny issue of Hollywood blockbusters, he is bang on the money. Returning to the clearly painful subject of Wild, Wild West, Kline sighs: "It was great fun to make, but it wasn't in the end very satisfying. By its own admission, the whole thing was designed as an event." So why did Kline do it? "I don't want to defend it," he smiles. "Why I did it is indefensible. But when I accepted the part, it was being rewritten and there was potential there. My character was supposed to be a master of disguise, but that was never developed, and it was eventually all cut anyway."

He adds, with commendable honesty: "I deluded myself into thinking the film could be an interesting challenge, but basically it was money." The way he articulates this last phrase makes him sound rather guilty, so I ask if he now feels ashamed about appearing in the movie. "Sure, I feel ashamed about it," Kline says with a self-mocking laugh. "I was raised a Catholic, so I'm ashamed about everything. I'm ashamed when I do make money, and I'm ashamed when I don't!"

But in a way, Kline was able to turn the evident horror of his time on Wild, Wild West to his benefit. The experience clarified what he felt about the mainstream studio system. It made him even more determined not to be marketed as a commodity, a "movie star". "I've purposefully avoided the typecasting that Hollywood is known for and is comfortable with," asserts Kline. "A studio just asked me to play a role, and I had to say: 'But I've just done something exactly the same.' Their attitude is: 'We know he can do this, therefore let's have him do it ad nauseam.'

"But if I always played the same role, I'd soon get bored, and, more to the point, I'd be afraid of boring the audience. The imagination of Hollywood leaves a lot to be desired." Kline goes on to cite an example from one of his biggest hits, Dave, an amusing 1993 comedy, in which an ordinary guy is asked to impersonate a president who falls ill. "The studio originally wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger for the leading role. So the director, Ivan Reitman, had to politely explain that you can't come from Austria and be the president of the US. But the studio bosses weren't interested - all they knew was that Arnold was box office."

This fear of repeating himself has encouraged in Kline an enviable versatility. After graduating from the Juilliard School, the highly regarded drama college in New York, this native of St Louis, Missouri, spent four years in repertory theatre. He recalls: "We travelled the US, living on a bus and doing the classics with the emphasis on stretching the actors - fairly thinly! - across a broad spectrum of styles. So, if you were Hamlet one night, you'd be Yasha moving the furniture in The Seagull the next. It was there that I developed the idea of being an actor, rather than a type. I got spoilt by the variety." Kline went on to become an acclaimed Broadway actor, winning Tony awards for On the Twentieth Century and The Pirates of Penzance, before landing his big movie break in 1982 with the role of the tortured Nathan Landau in Sophie's Choice.

In the aftermath of this immense, Oscar-winning hit, Kline resolved to remain versatile. "After Sophie's Choice, I made the decision to accept no more schizophrenic Jews - at least for a while! That's why my next movie, The Big Chill, in which I played an earnest, stolid, decent, upstanding citizen, was the perfect antidote." Kline confirmed his range in 1988 with A Fish Called Wanda, in which he dazzled as the quite frankly deranged robber, Otto "don't call me stupid!" West.

Although he picked up an Academy Award for the film, the actor characteristically downplays the achievement. "The reason I won an Oscar was less to do with my performance and more to do with the fact that I surprised people. Everyone at that stage thought I was - in inverted commas - a terribly serious actor. 'We thought he was serious, but he's funny - let's give him an Oscar!' I don't want to name names, but there are a lot of other Oscars given for their novelty value."

Kline went on to produce such diverse work as Chaplin, Dave, and The Ice Storm.

Always eager to keep the audience guessing, the actor has now come up with another surprise - playing the composer Cole Porter in De-Lovely. Although Irwin Winkler's biopic opened to decidedly mixed reviews - one critic sneered that " De-Lovely dances with two left feet" - Kline's performance in the lead was praised. He brings a subtlety to the complex character of Porter, a man who led a byzantine double life: by day, happily married to the ever-loyal Linda (played by Ashley Judd); by night, carousing with some of the more exciting young men Hollywood had to offer.

Kline, who has been married for the past 15 years to the actress Phoebe Cates, by whom he has two children, Owen and Greta, reckons that "like Picasso or Mozart or Modigliani or Pollock, Porter fits into the mould of the artist with a rapacious, voracious appetite for life. He certainly had an enormous appetite for sex, socialising, drink and cigarettes - there was a lot of oral gratification going on there! - yet at the same time, he was able to put out a prodigious amount of work.

"The man worked with that same indefatigable thirst for life. He seemed to have more hours in his day than the rest of us. The movie deals with that intensity, that gem-like fling, that lust for life. It makes you wonder whether Van Gogh would have been Van Gogh without going mad."

All the same, the composer's promiscuity might take some audiences aback. "Porter clearly went Hollywood and had all the chorus boys from the MGM musicals hanging around his pool every weekend. The older generation who revered him might be shocked by all that," Kline concedes, "but it's not handled in a sensationalist way."

The other strong point of De-Lovely is, of course, its music. You can't go far wrong with songs such as "De-Lovely", "Let's Misbehave", "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love", "Begin the Beguine" and "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" - performed in the movie by, respectively, Robbie Williams, Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow and Natalie Cole. Williams expresses the hope that "the film brings another audience to these songs, because they should never die."

Kline echoes that sentiment. "Alan J Lerner said that all Broadway composers could write a nice love song, but what distinguished Porter's work was that it contained great passion. His songs are filled with such yearning and pain and loss." The actor, who studied music at Indiana University and plays all his own piano pieces in De-Lovely, enthuses that "what was great about this part was that I could just immerse myself in music. I felt like I was going underwater in one of Leonardo's submersible devices... Jesus, I'm so jet-lagged!

"You can't say that music is transformative because no words can adequately describe it. You can't eff it because it's ineffable! That's the whole point. It speaks directly to the soul." Kline says that playing Porter reminded him "there is still a piece of me that wishes I'd become a musician. But I know I was mediocre, and I would have ended up as a rehearsal pianist off-Broadway or composing jingles for commercials."

Warming to his theme, Kline continues: "I could have written one for the Metropolitan Museum in New York - 'Let's go see some art,/ It'll make you feel smart./ It's down on Fifth Avenue,/ It'll be our pleasure having you.' That was off the top of my head. Maybe I've chosen the wrong profession after all!" Kline will be seen next as Dreyfuss, the nemesis of Inspector Clouseau (Steve Martin) in the eagerly awaited new Pink Panther movie, but beyond that he doesn't have firm plans. All he's sure about is that he won't be starring in any Hollywood blockbusters.

"Kevin Kline," he deadpans: "coming to a theatre near you. In something or other. Perhaps."

De-Lovely is out now