Kevin Kline is tired. He’s so tired that, in the middle of tea at the Carlyle, he pauses to pour himself another cup of Earl Grey, but mistakenly pours the tea into the small silver basin for the strainer instead of his teacup. Without missing a beat he switches into a British accent: “See, this is the way they do it in England, first you pour it in here,” he says, gesturing with a flourish, then segues into an impression of Maggie Smith, his co-star in the new film My Old Lady, teaching him the proper way to make tea on the set. “The teapot has to be PRE-warmed, and then POST-warmed, and then the tea COZY…” he breaks off, dropping the accent, shifting in an instant from playful to serious. “I did not sleep well last night.”
He was up, he says, thinking about Robin Williams, who died the day before. Though he hadn’t seen Mr. Williams in 20 years, the two actors had much in common: both were from the Midwest, both studied drama with John Houseman at Juilliard, and both shifted fluidly between comedy and drama. They also, when unshaven, shared a remarkable resemblance (try Googling ‘Kevin Kline, Robin Williams, beards.’) They never acted together, but knew each other slightly, and read for a Neil Simon movie once. “Robin said about four or five lines Neil Simon had written,” Mr. Kline recalls. “The rest was Robin, it was jazz improvisation on a script.” Like Mr. Williams, Mr. Kline is an inveterate improviser, and in the best of his performances, his love of playful exploration leads him to unearth unexpected comedy in tragic moments—the bemused smirk that flits across his face in the middle of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Even when not “acting,” he is a natural-born entertainer with an athlete’s gift for using his body to tell a story. Over the course of our lengthy tea, despite his sleep-deprivation, he is at constant play—a ceaseless river of accents, faces, dramatic pauses, sotto voce asides and gesticulations. No wonder he’s exhausted. As his My Old Lady director, Israel Horovitz, says in an observation that could apply equally to Mr. Williams as well as Mr. Klein, “It’s no easy thing, being a clown.”
Once Mr. Kline successfully pours the tea into the proper receptacle, he reflects that the business with the cup and the strainer might actually be quite useful for a character. He had a similar scene in My Old Lady, where his character, Mathias, wakes up with a hangover. Mr. Kline acts out the scene, ranging across the booth to show Mathias fumbling with a painkiller, swooping to the floor to retrieve the pill, sweeping his hand across the table to mime knocking over his water and drenching some important legal documents. He is perfectly in control depicting a man wearing his body like a David Byrne suit circa Stop Making Sense. It was his favorite scene in the film, but, alas, didn’t make the final print. By now, Mr. Kline is sanguine about seeing some of his most inventive moments before the camera not make it to the screen. The first 20 minutes of the 1997 comedy In & Out were sacrificed for the sake of plot efficiency, as was a running gag in 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda that had his character shooting cats and collecting the tails as trophies. “John [Cleese] said, ‘Well, we’ve cut all the cat business,’ ” he recalls, mimicking a different British accent. “I thought, ‘Awww, that was the key to the character.’ But you get used to it. Once they’ve cut it, it becomes your favorite thing.” Also left on the My Old Lady cutting floor: a running gag involving Mathias, who, Mr. Kline says, “has terrible door karma,” wrestling with every door he comes across, and rarely winning. “It’s door shtick,” he admits. “But it’s part and parcel with what Israel had written—that he had trouble with physical things. Which to me indicated that he’s someone out of tune with himself.”
My Old Lady in fact opens with a door, one that leads to an apartment in the middle of Paris that would make even the most jaded New York real estate watcher quiver with envy. Mathias, a psychically rumpled New Yorker, has arrived to take possession of the apartment, which he inherited from his father. The only catch is Mathilde (Ms. Smith), the titular old lady, whom Mathias not only inherits as a tenant, but must also pay a monthly stipend to as long as she is alive. Living with Mathilde is her adult daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), and neither is inclined to make Mathias’ occupancy easy or pleasant. Hilarity briefly ensues, as Mathias begins selling his tenants’ possessions out from under them, before the film turns into a more subtle and ambiguous exploration of family secrets. “It gave me a chance to do a real estate comedy to sucker the audience into a more serious kind of film,” says Mr. Horovitz, who adapted the script from his own play. “I immediately thought of Kevin, because the actor has to do both comedy and tragedy.”
For Mr. Kline, the movie was a chance to return to France, where he’s worked before, (an inside joke of the film is the way Mathias brutalizes French, while Mr. Kline is fluent.) The actor also appears in The Last of Robin Hood, out this month, playing Errol Flynn at the end of his life, as he dallies with an underage starlet and matches wits with the starlet’s ambitious stage mother. He wears his involvement in both films lightly, happy to make the requisite promotional chit-chat, but just as happy to talk about his first love, music. “I did some interviews yesterday, and Israel said, quoting Beckett, that a writer trying to explain his work is like a snail trying to explain its shell,” he says. He believes the same is true of acting. “You don’t want anyone to know how little you understand what you do.”
Mr. Kline grew up in St. Louis, the son of a record store owner with a passion for opera. He describes his father as having a great sense of humor and unafraid to be silly. His mot her was “hysterical—and I don’t mean funny,” he deadpans, then reverses. “I do mean funny. There was also something very dramatic about her, the way she carried herself.”
As a boy, he studied piano, but took equal pleasure playing the class clown. “I think many people develop a sense of humor as a way of coping with their parents,” he says. “Or teachers.” At his Benedictine-monk-led prep school, he routinely clashed with authority. “I got thrown out of French class so many times, it got to the point where the French teacher would walk in and I would say, (gesturing towards an imaginary door), ‘Should I?’ ” He remembers that same teacher berating him for not having a handkerchief, and sending him to the head office to have his hands paddled. “You had to hold your hands out and take your punishment. Whack! And I remember my ears ringing, and thinking, ‘So much for the piano.’ My hands were just red, throbbing.” Years later, the school would invite him back to inaugurate the Kevin Kline theater, and he would take special pleasure in having to borrow a handkerchief from one of the monks. Towards the end of high school he decided to study music in earnest at Indiana University, but, he says, by then it was already too late. “After one and a half years in music school, I could see my future. I thought, one day, if I work really hard, I might become a really mediocre musician. So let me try acting.”
At Bloomington he played the lead in a production of Prometheus Bound, (“Comedy was always fun, but instead I got cast as Prometheus.”), which led to Juilliard, which led to Broadway, where he won Tonys for the musicals On the Twentieth Century and Pirates of Penzance, which led to Hollywood. For his first film role, he held his own as the mercurial, troubled Nathan opposite Meryl Streep in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice, and has worked fairly steadily since then, on both screen and stage, moving between Shakespeare’s All-Stars (Lear, Richard III, Falstaff and Hamlet, twice) and comedies like Wanda, for which he won an Oscar in 1988. Onscreen, he occasionally plays loose-screw nutcases, like Wanda’s trigger-happy, tropical fish-swallowing Otto, but more often depicts mensch-y husbands and fathers who serve as the films’ moral centers, like the sensitive, ’60s throwback Harold in The Big Chill, or the reluctant adulterer Ben in The Ice Storm, or the ruefully dying house builder George in Life As a House. He met his wife, the actress Phoebe Cates, when she auditioned for The Big Chill; the couple married in 1989, and have two children, Greta, a musician, and Owen, who acted in The Squid and the Whale and just finished film school at Pratt.
If there is a through-line to Mr. Kline’s life and work, it is his bristly relationship with authority, which has both inspired and thwarted his performance. In school, he recalls, the penalty for smoking was “six on the ass”—the six referring to the number of hits with the paddle. Of course, he snuck cigarettes whenever he could, once coming whisper-close to being caught by—you guessed it—the French teacher. “No cigarette has ever tasted as good as that one,” he says. “The more forbidden, the sweeter taste the pie.” Has this been a problem with directors? “Oh yes. It’s a big problem. Directors can really screw you up.” The first time he performed Hamlet was for the Romanian director Liviu Ciulei, who conceived of the play as a parable for Romanian politics and had very specific ideas about the staging. “The first day’s rehearsal, I picked up a chair and moved it a few feet, and he said, ‘No, no, Hamlet would never do that, he’d never move a chair himself, because he’s a prince.’ I said, ‘I’m the prince, I can do whatever I want.’ ” The next time he played Hamlet, he directed himself.
Other directors are more sympathetic to Mr. Kline’s style, like Lawrence Kasdan, who directed the actor in The Big Chill and several more films and encouraged him to experiment with multiple takes. For My Old Lady, Mr. Horovitz says he was happy to indulge Mr. Kline’s flights of improvisation, perhaps because, unlike in the theater, any off-notes could be easily corrected in the editing room. But he also enjoyed the way Mr. Kline’s interpretative, American approach to the script rankled his co-stars. “From my point of view, the fact that Maggie and Kristin were so British and prepared was really good compared to Kevin’s improvisational bent, because he had to be an outsider, and they had to react to him in a certain way,” says Mr. Horovitz. “I was able to keep them separate, to never tell Maggie what was going to happen in a scene, even though I knew what he was going to do. Especially the early scenes when she looks at him like he’s from another planet. She’d never break character and say, ‘Where is this coming from?’ But after the scene was over she’d say, ‘Oh dear.’ He kept her off-kilter when she needed to be.”
So how did Mr. Kline get on with the very British, very exacting tea-maker, Ms. Smith? “How was it working with her?” The actor levels a glance across the top of his teacup, holds it for one beat, two. “I think I just told you how it was working with her.” In fact, he says, the actress told Mr. Kline he reminded her of Mr. Williams, with whom she had worked on Hook. “She said, ‘He would never say what was written and you’re doing it now. Will you just nod at me when you’re finished so I know it’s my turn?’ ” he says. “I said, ‘I promise you I will say the last line as written. I can’t promise you what I will say before that.’ ”
Mr. Kline spreads jam on a scone, returning briefly to his tea shtick: “Now the sugar you put actually into the jam, you mix it up and you strain it so you get the pure sugar with a hint of strawberry … I can’t believe I did that,” he says, about his earlier gaffe with the strainer. “Now see, if I’m in a film and I do that, and the director says, ‘Cut, no, that’s not where it goes,’ it’s like, ‘Thank you, but something wonderful could have come out of that.’ ”