Interview: Kevin Kline, from Stage to Screen

By Welsh, James M | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 1986 | Go to article overview

Interview: Kevin Kline, from Stage to Screen


Welsh, James M, Literature/Film Quarterly


Perhaps some acting talents are simply too big for the screen. Laurence Olivier, for example, has directed and acted in some splendid motion pictures, but the best of these are theatrically based. Olivier has been considered an actor's actor, and the stage is and has been his proper medium. Other British actors have made smoother and more complete transitions to the screen, but not all. The late Richard Burton's greatest film roles-Look Back in Anger, The Taming of the Shrew, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, for example-were generated by theatrical vehicles. On the other hand, Nicol Williamson's Hamlet is splendid on film, arguably more plausible than Olivier's, but as an acting performance, matched by his later portrayal of Merlin in John Boorman's Excalibur.

Kevin Kline represents a new generation of American actors trained on the stage but also highly effective on the motion picture screen. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Kline studied music and drama at Indiana University, where the Bloomington campus boasts one of the strongest programs in the country in music and opera. He first majored in music at Indiana University but eventually got hooked on theatre when he took a course in acting and then got involved in campus productions. He is still an accomplished pianist, and has said that "playing the piano is my therapy."

The melding of his musical and theatrical talents eventually was realized during the summer of 1980 with his highly acclaimed rendering of the Pirate King in Joseph Papp's The Pirates of Penzance in New York's Central Park, after Kline had moved on to the Julliard Drama Center and after he had gained much theatrical experience as a founding member of John Houseman's Acting Company. During his four years with The Acting Company, Kline played lead roles in a classical repertoire that included The School for Scandal, She Stoops to Conquer, The Three Sisters, and The Lower Depths.

More recently Kevin Kline played Shakespeare's Richard III and Henry V to very good notices. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote, for example, "Mr. Kline is a grand King," against whom "most other American actors of his generation are mere pretenders to the throne." Kline won his first Tony Award for his Broadway debut in the musical On the Twentieth Century (with Imogene Coca, Madeline Kahn, and John Cullum), then was featured in Michael Weller's play Loose Ends that opened at Washington's Arena Stage before moving on to Broadway. In Los Angeles he played with Marurice Evans, Sally Kellerman, and Marisa Berenson in the Ahmanson Theatre revival of Philip Barry's Holiday, first introduced in 1928.

Kevin Kline's breakthrough performance, however, was with Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, and George Rose in The Pirates of Penzance, first in Central Park, then, later, on Broadway. That performacne won a second Tony Award for Kline as Best Actor in a Musical Comedy and assured him of a role in the motion picture version of Penzance. After director Alan J. Pakula had seen Kline's Pirate King on Broadway, he was so impressed that he signed Kline for the role of Nathan in his screen adaptation of William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, with Meryl Streep and Peter MacNicol. Kline told The New York Times (12 December 1982) that he prepared for that role "by reading up on subjects ranging from the Holocaust to the work of R. D. Laing." His mother was Roman Catholic and he was educated by the Benedictine monks in St. Louis, but his father was Jewish, and this biographical link helped him to understand Nathan "in terms of understanding what it meant to be a Jew in 1947, when people were finding out about 'The Final Solution,' the guilt of survivors," he told The New York Times, and "Nathan's guilt about not being part of it, about being safe and sound in Brooklyn while his people were being annihilated."

Kline's next movie was The Big Chill, directed by Lawrence Kasdan in South Carolina, a larger popular success than Sophie's Choice, one supposes, because of its story and often nostalgic 1960s ambience. …

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