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Kevin Kline: a real smoothie

They wanted Gerard Depardieu. They settled for Kevin Kline. And they got more than they bargained for. By Sheila Johnston
Dashing, glamorous, undeniably talented - a decade or so ago Kevin Kline had New York, and very possibly America, at his feet. He had won a Tony award for his electric Pirate King in the Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance. He was tipped for an Oscar for his second film, Sophie's Choice, in which his cruel charmer came close as a whisker to upstaging Meryl Streep.

Profiles during this period described him as, potentially, the leading actor of his generation. Theatre reviewers routinely invoked Olivier. Film critics called him the new Errol Flynn. Kline didn't much care for the latter comparison which, when it came up in interviews, ruffled his usual poise. "I guess I wanted to be taken terribly seriously as an actor," he says now. "And Errol Flynn was more of a movie star."

Perhaps the Flynn thing was inspired by his Pirate King. Or perhaps it was his moustache, a rarity in Hollywood these days. The moustache was a good move. It lent a firmness and definition to a face whose features were, otherwise, a little blurry. It was neat and clipped for Sophie's Choice, and thick and bushy for Otto, the mad hitman in A Fish Called Wanda. It was positively Zapata-like for his exuberant Italian womaniser in I Love You to Death. In Silverado it sprouted into a fully fledged beard.

Today he is clean-shaven. "You've shaved off your moustache," I say inanely. He jerks his hand to his upper lip with mock surprise. "So I have. I usually grow various forms of facial hair for a role. For myself, I'm unmoustached. Moustache-less." He is getting into his stride here. "Demoustachioed."

Kline is sharp and articulate, with a penchant for wordplay. He will discourse fluently on Stanislavsky and Stella Adler, on film-writing, on the difference between Shakespeare's characters and on the nuts and bolts of his acting craft. ("As Jiminy Cricket almost said, 'Let your unconscious be your guide'.") His new film is a romantic comedy called French Kiss. "Like tongues lunging down people's innocent throats," he says, mock-fastidious. "I find the title a little cute for my taste, but it serves."

Seems the movie started life as Paris Match. But American litigation is an advanced art and someone had already copyrighted the word Paris. "Forget Paris was scheduled to open around the same time, and one day we had a call from a lawyer saying they had put an injunction on it. They were there first, they had registered their title before we did. And I can sort of understand it. I don't think Billy Crystal wanted people saying, 'Hey, let's go and see that Paris movie,' and then end up at the wrong one. So we ran a pool for the person who could come up with the winning title. They chose French Kiss and about 40 people claimed the prize."

Kline plays a scrofulous but likeable French thief (moustachioed and bestubbled) who seduces Meg Ryan's uptight American. When the cast was announced in Cannes in 1994, the gathered locals all threw up their hands and cried "Zut alors!" Kline would be, they thought, yet another American actor recycling a silly Gallic stereotype.

In fact, the script had originally been developed by Ryan as a vehicle for herself and Gerard Depardieu (who, one imagines, would have made a supremely slobbish leading man). But he, one-man juggernaut of the French film industry that he is, turned out to be booked solid for the next 12 months. So the director, Lawrence Kasdan, turned to his old friend Kline; after all, they had already made four films together. And he spoke French, another rarity in monoglot America.

"A little. Oui. I studied for six years at school and then two years at university. And couldn't speak a word because it was all grammar and literature. So for the role I went for two months to the Alliance Francaise in New York." The crash course appears to have worked. When I remark that his character was supposed to come from the south, but had no regional accent, he promptly proceeds to deliver one of his lines in polished Parisian French and then with a perfect, Jean de Florette provencal twang. "My character would lose his accent immediately he came to Paris," he explains. "And he was a fast learner. His English was pretty good, that was a decision we made early on. He couldn't do the kind of 'euuugh, 'ow do you zay'. Inasmuch as it was a comedy, it needed to go at a certain clip."

Still, after impersonating three comical Mediterranean types in short order (the third was in Princess Caraboo, in which he played a Greek butler opposite his wife Phoebe Cates), one feels Kline's talents are, perhaps, not being utilised at full stretch. "I wouldn't want to play too many more foreigners," he says. "And, in fact, accents are not something that come easily to me. I wouldn't want to be the Anthony Quinn of the Nineties."

Or the male Meryl Streep?

Kline looks momentarily stricken. Apparently, for him, being the male Meryl Streep is worse, much worse, than being the new Errol Flynn.

Some feel that he has yet to fulfil his early promise. In the theatre he has won a cabinet full of awards and, lately, has been beavering away at a series of acclaimed Shakespearian productions. But on screen he has had few heavy-duty dramatic parts or the romantic leads for which he seemed, once, uniquely suited. Instead, he drifted towards character roles. His Oscar was not, finally, for Sophie's Choice, or even for the Donald Wood role in Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom. It was for Otto.

But Kline likes the quirky parts and the cameos. And he has always given a fine performance, often better than the film deserved. "I spent four years in repertory, where you'd play a variety of roles, the leading man one night, the old butler the next. That spoiled me. It became my definition of an actor. Besides, the era's gone where Cary Grant could just be Cary Grant from movie to movie and always be brilliant."

Kline, Kasdan says, is that consummate rarity: a first-rank actor who isn't also a star. "It's an old, civilised idea of an acting career, which is that you do a variety of parts. You are not famous for your personality, you are famous for your portrayals. I grew up loving movie-stars like Steve McQueen. But times were different then and it wasn't so crazed.

"Kevin has had a really charmed actor's life. He has gone back to the theatre repeatedly, he works in the movies when he wants to; he makes a very good living. He's not hounded by the public. And yet he's recognised everywhere he goes; when he walks into a restaurant they're thrilled to have him. If I had to choose an actor's career, it would be that, where you get to live a life, too. It would not be some media-hot superstardom."

In Kline's next film, provisionally titled Fierce Creatures, he is reunited with the whole Wanda gang. It was once facetiously known as Death Fish 2, but will be nothing as corny as a sequel. "Wanda was an intimate movie. This has a big cast and a much larger canvas. And it's a different story, different people. But John Cleese has written the roles for us, so I suppose he's playing to what he thinks are our strengths. My character's values are not exactly ... what you would call ideal. He's not a psychopath, though.

"You have to brace yourself because Wanda was so popular. I've come to grips with the fact that I can only go down. I'm sure John would say, 'This will be much better.' But for me, I'm just playing little psychological tricks on myself and saying, 'Nah, it's going to be bad, and I'm going to be bad in it, and that's fine.' " Cleese, should he read this, may rest assured, however; such an event is unlikely.

n 'French Kiss' is released tomorrow and is reviewed on page 11