Veteran actor Kevin Kline plays to his strengths as an eccentric East Sider who adopts a protege (Paul Dano) in this winning new comedy, which also features the return of Katie Holmes.
No one would deny that many contemporary actors channel the ghosts of movie stars past. Tom Hanks is routinely compared to Jimmy Stewart, Bruce Willis to John Wayne, Brad Pitt to Rudolph Valentino. But few contemporary stars are able to channel the combination of vaudevillian, screwball wackiness and utter aristocratic charm that dominated the silver screen in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s an era, filled with peculiar etiquette and WASPy demeanor, that is foreign to our sensibilities today. Yet Kevin Kline embodies it fully. Coming from a theatre background, with a pronounced baritone almost made for radio, Kline is consistently able to combine elegance with wackiness in a way that few actors can.
These qualities are the reason it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else playing Henry Harrison, the second lead in Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s latest, The Extra Man. As something of a fop/dandy pseudo-aristocrat who sneaks into the opera, bottom-feeds from the upper class and covertly urinates in the street, Henry Harrison is as vaudevillian a combination of upper- and lower-class characteristics as they come. Kline, naturally, knocks the role out of the park, yet unassumingly so—how could he not?
Katie Holmes and Paul Dano
The film, based on the novel by co-screenwriter Jonathan Ames (who is also the creator of HBO’s Bored to Death), revolves around Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a recently laid-off English teacher who moves to New York City to try to “find himself.” What he finds is a ratty apartment uptown, cheap and with only one roommate: the aforementioned Mr. Harrison. As Louis takes a job at an environmental publication (where he falls for Katie Holmes), he begins to bond with Henry over their shared interests: literature, art, the “good life” as romanticized in 1920s culture. Henry eventually takes Louis under his wing as an “Extra Man,” a seemingly bygone trade in which a gentleman accompanies an older woman to a dinner party or event, in order to preserve the couples symmetry as her date. As they become closer, their friendship starts to take some strange twists and turns.
We sat down with Kline a few hours before the film’s premiere, at the Crosby Hotel, to ask him about the project.
Kevin Kline Tribeca: A lot of the film’s thematic content concerns romanticizing anachronistic culture and values. Was that one of the elements of the project that appealed to you, initially?
Kevin Kline: Probably, yeah, aside from the fact that the movie is these two outsiders living in an era that they don’t feel suited to. One didn’t experience the 20s or 30s, but he experienced the 50s and 60s, living in Europe, a bohemian, bourgeois lifestyle. He’s now living in a vulgar, crass world. We’re getting more and more casual, as a culture.
But on a metaphorical level, it works because it’s generational. It’s the same way every dynamic between parents and children functions. I have two teenage children, and their world is a different world from mine. The natural propensity for the older generation to condemn these newfangled things, and the younger generation to eschew whatever the older generation says, because they have to define their own time—that was the resonance that I related to. Even if Henry were born the same year as Louis, his take on the current culture—while Louis is of his period, but has some kind of nostalgia for a period he never knew—I think Henry would be as critical of the vulgarity of present-day American culture. Because he spent years in France, he’s well traveled, and because he lives in his imagination.
Tribeca: He’s a Don Quixote sort of character.
KK: Exactly. He fancies himself an artist, too, and he’s a good writer. But there’s something of the chivalrous values, regardless of his age—they’re what he’s been steeped in, and steeped himself in.
Tribeca: One of the interesting things about Louis is that he’s both of and not of his time—the crossdressing fetish is very much of his time, not anachronistic—so he has that internal tension.
KK: Right, it’s much more out there. That would’ve been done more discreetly. It’s interesting—it’s mentioned in the film—Henry says, “I’m not as old-fashioned as you think.” In the book, he might even say something along the lines of “been there, done that.” He’s been around, crossdressing’s not a big deal.
Marian Seldes and Paul Dano
Tribeca: In terms of his backstory, how much—
KK: He has Sciatica.
KK: Oh I’m sorry. That’s the story of his back.
Tribeca: How much did the book help?
KK: The book is laugh-out-loud funny. The movie is the tip of the iceberg. There are so many escapades these two go on around the city. And this is largely autobiographical; [it’s] Jonathan’s story. So just reading the novel gave me—my homework was done for me.
Tribeca: Jonathan Ames seems to have a great ability to blend genres in a very quirky way.
KK: He’s managed to synthesize these disparate things that are in play, he’s found his voice. That’s what Louis is looking for. It’s really Jonathan’s own voice. Very unique.
Tribeca: Was he on set at all?
KK: He came to the set a few times—maybe a dozen times. And he said, “It’s just so weird, watching you, because it’s exactly the guy.” The guy Henry was based on. And I thought, oh, good, because I had no idea.
Tribeca: So the book helped a lot, getting into character.
KK: Yes. Getting the clothes helped, too. There’s a chapter in the book where he tells Louis, “I’m going to take you to the Brooks Brothers of the north” —the thrift shops on the Upper East Side. He gets his furniture from what people throw out on Park Avenue; he gets his clothes secondhand. He has that kind of aristocratic hauteur— “We don’t worry about things like that.” He’s always improvising something in a rather imaginative way.
Tribeca: There’s something terribly romantic about that aristocratic “we’ll make do” ideal—the family that will drive the old Mercedes before they buy a new Toyota—that comes across.
Kevin Kline KK: Yeah. He’s come from money. The other characters—the fabulously wealthy can afford to be fabulously eccentric. He’s of that world and still in it, but also has this other life. He yearns for something greater, this idea of moving to Russia he harbors. There’s a wonderful blend of the pragmatic and the quixotic.
Tribeca: How would you say he reconciles those two worlds? The upper-class world and what he lives in—I wouldn’t exactly call it squalor—
KK: In the book, in order to avoid going through the other room to go to the bathroom, he pees in old wine bottles. He says, “Don’t touch the wine bottles under the sofa.” There’s much more about the roaches—it’s squalor. In the movie, it looks kind of bohemian.
Tribeca: I have friends who would probably pay a decent amount to live in that apartment.
KK: I bet. I think it’s rent-controlled. And it’s funny because I’m sure his roommate is often paying more than he is. There’s one line we cut where he says, “Don’t answer the door, it could be the IRS. And if the landlord shows up, just tell him you’re my illegitimate son, and we’ve recently reconciled. Because I’m not really allowed to be renting you this room.” He’s a rogue and scoundrel in many ways, yet he’s making it all work.
Tribeca: Yet you don’t get the vibe from him that he’s a social climber—
KK: [in character] Social climber? I’m at the top of the social ladder, why would I need to climb? He’s an aristocrat, he can piss in the street. He doesn’t pay for opera tickets. He misses the first act but… operas are too long anyway!