Saturday, November 10, 2001

Good things in life can 'distract' Kevin Kline

By Marshall Fine
Gannett News Service

        Some people never stop to smell the roses. Actor Kevin Kline has the opposite problem.

        “Oh, yeah, to the point that it annoys my wife,” he says with a laugh, referring to actress Phoebe Cates, his spouse since 1989. “Talk about distractibility. I think I've always been that way.

        “We'll be sitting in a restaurant and I'll stop in the middle of a conversation and say, "Listen - it's the third Brandenburg concerto.' And she'll say, "It's just Muzak!' I guess I'm easily distracted by beauty.”

        The character he plays in Life as a House, opening slowly across the country, has the opposite problem. In the film by director Irwin Winkler, Mr. Kline plays a divorced architect who discovers he has a terminal illness and only a short time to live. So he uses his final months to reconnect with the people he cares about most, including his ex-wife and teen-age son.

        The film is about one man's journey back to contentment, after years of striving and frustration. For Mr. Kline, 54, the character's moments of happiness were the most touching to him.

        “It's so sad when you see him realize that he's happy,” Mr. Kline says, sitting in a hotel suite at the Toronto International Film Festival, a couple of days before the World Trade Center attack. “He hasn't been happy for 10 years and he realizes that, at that moment, he is.”

        How long has it been since Mr. Kline had a similar moment in his life?

        “Well, it hasn't been 10 years,” says the actor, who has two children. “In fact, it happens a lot. Of course, my nature is such that, as soon as I realize I'm happy, I start to worry that something is going to fall on me because my life is too good. I'm more concerned with feeling that I deserve to be happy.”

        For the role, Mr. Kline lost 15 pounds, giving his 6-foot-2 frame an emaciated quality. He could have lost more, he says, but “I didn't want to do one of those things where it becomes about the weight.”

        “I think that would be distracting,” he adds. “Just as we never really talk about what's wrong with him: It's not about the pathology. It's not even about the guy dying. It's a dramatic conceit. It's about a guy finding out that he's got an expiration date and that he has to start living. He's got four months in which to compress the lessons it takes a lifetime to learn.”

        The film required Mr. Kline to do carpentry work, wielding hammers and chainsaws as his character first demolishes his house, then rebuilds it by hand, as the final act of his life. It's a part of acting that Mr. Kline looks on as a form of continuing education.

        “You learn these skills that people dedicate their lives to,” he says. “I learned a lot. For example, there's a way you hammer a nail when you're framing a house. There are even a couple of whacks in the film when it looks like I know what I'm doing.”

        Life as a House is the actor's first film in two years. Mr. Kline, who won an Oscar for 1988's A Fish Called Wanda, took the time off to deal with personal matters, including family deaths: “I had more important things to do,” he says. “Also, I never read (any scripts) that particularly excited me. I had a lot on my life plate and nothing compelling enough to distract me from that.”

        One project he did agree to was this past summer's all-star theater production of The Seagull, in which Mr. Kline appeared with, among others, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken and John Goodman, under the direction of Mike Nichols.

        “When they asked me, I said, "Chekhov? Outdoors? That's insane!' ” he recalls. “In fact, I tried to convince Mike and Meryl that it couldn't be done outdoors. I remember I wouldn't do Hamlet there.

        “I couldn't have been more wrong. It was an inspired idea. They'd refurbished the sound system so that you could talk at the level you normally did and be heard clearly. What we wound up with was an intimate production in a 2,200-seat theater.”


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