Interview: Kevin Kline connects to the spirit of 'The Extra Man'
An interview with Kevin Kline about the outrageous character he plays (Henry Harrison) in the film "The Extra Man," adapted from a novel by Jonathan Ames. The movie opened Seattle International Film Festival in May 2010 and now returns for a regular run.
Seattle Times movie critic
'The Extra Man'Opens Friday at the Metro in Seattle. For showtimes and a review, pick up a copy of Friday's MovieTimes, or go Thursday to seattletimes.com/movies.
In Jonathan Ames' novel "The Extra Man," the character of Henry Harrison is introduced by his distinctive odor: "unwashed shirts and sweet cologne; a smell of salt and a smell of sugar." (Later in the book, it's described as "like flowers dipped in a locker room.") The narrator, a young man who hopes to rent a room in Harrison's apartment, describes his new acquaintance as perhaps in his late 60s, with a handsome face and a confident chin. And yet "there was something about the deep lines around his mouth and the wild, curious look in his dark eyes that was reminiscent of an old street bum lit up with drink, though I smelled no alcohol."
The actor Kevin Kline hadn't read Ames' 1998 book when he was given a screenplay for the movie based on it, but he was instantly drawn to Henry. After meeting with filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, he sat down with the novel. "It leapt off the page," he said of the character. "By page 3 I knew I wanted to be that guy." The film, opening Friday at the Metro, was the opening-night gala at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year. Kline stars alongside Paul Dano, who plays Henry's young roommate Louis.
Henry, who lives in a squalid Upper East Side apartment, is a part-time teacher, failed actor, would-be playwright, and frequent escorter of elderly, wealthy matrons — the better to cadge free dinners and entertainment. Reading the book, Kline felt that "my homework was done for me" and reveled in the rich description and detail of the character. (Henry, for example, touches up his gray hair with mascara — which causes an unfortunate crumbly effect — and believes that his literary masterpiece was stolen by a Swiss hunchback.)
In a subsequent meeting, Berman and Pulcini asked Kline if he had any favorite lines from the book that didn't make it into the screenplay, saying they could perhaps add them. "But there was one on every page of the book!" said Kline, saying that they were ultimately able to add "only a few more."
A true eccentric, Henry is based on a real person: Ames, when he first came to New York, had just such a roommate. "Jonathan told me that he moved in with this guy and wrote down everything he said," said Kline. "He was so outrageous and funny, [Ames] knew that would be his next novel." Kline said that Ames hasn't seen the real-life "Henry" since moving out of the apartment years ago. During the film shoot, Kline said, Ames expressed interest in dropping by the old apartment but never got up the nerve, concerned that "Henry" might not have liked the novel. "As far as we know, he's still there," said Kline.
Kline immersed himself, during the filming, in Henry's world, learning to discreetly urinate in public (a technique Henry describes meticulously, with the help of a raincoat — "very doable," said Kline) and practicing Henry's trademark dance moves. In the book, Henry dances for exercise in the apartment, with dramatic movements described as "part waltz and part Isadora Duncan" and set to Cole Porter or Gershwin. Ames demonstrated the real Henry's dance style to Kline, but it was decided to change it to something less balletic and more elaborate, inspired by Henry's line "I move whatever I think is rotting!"
"He thinks everything is rotting, so I try to move everything!" said Kline, laughing. "We never actually had gotten the rights to any of the songs, so I just danced to nothing." Some Tchaikovsky music was added in postproduction; appropriately, because "Henry has a thing for Russia."
Kline, whose long career in film and theater includes an Oscar (for another great comic role, in 1988's "A Fish Called Wanda") and two Tony Awards (for "The Pirates of Penzance" — a role he would later re-create on screen — and "On the Twentieth Century"), will next be seen on screen in Robert Redford's "The Conspirator," a period drama about the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. (Kline plays Edwin Stanton, a member of Lincoln's Cabinet.) He's vague about his next project — he's looking at "a few films, maybe a Chekhov play" — but clearly enjoys looking back at his time with Henry.
"He's so wonderfully self-realized, self-assured, he does what he wants, he says what he wants, he has this wonderful kind of spirit," Kline said. "Certain characters you play, in the process they make you giddy and outrageous and not worried about offending people. It was nice to be in his skin."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
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