Jumping from drama to comedy with ease, the sixty-six year old Kevin Kline means different things to different moviegoers. For some, he’s the actor with pronounced dramatic chops in early films like “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Big Chill” and “Cry Freedom,” while for others he’s the comedic genius who won an Oscar for “A Fish Called Wanda,” and was similarly terrific in films like “Dave,” “In & Out” and more. His latest leading role in “My Old Lady” sees him touching upon both genres, with the movie premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend.
The film marks the directorial debut of Israel Horovitz, an award winning theatre director, bringing his own play to the big screen. It finds Kline playing Mathias, an American freshly arrived in Paris looking to sell an apartment he’s inherited from his late father, but there’s a problem. Mathilde (Maggie Smith) has been living there for seventy years, and her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) is now there as well, and they have every right to stay as tenants. And furthermore, under the complex terms of a viager contract, Mathias actually has to pay Mathilde a monthly stipend until she passes away, at which point he can finally take ownership of the apartment. Moreover, as he’ll soon discover, there is more than just a lease that binds all three together. It’s a twisty dramedy, with a complex lead part, one Kline had been eyeing for a while, first as a stage role.
“In fact I’d read it many, many years earlier when it has been done in Paris,” the actor told us prior to TIFF in a telephone interview. “Some very imaginative French producer offered me the role in the French production, which was done in French and I hastened to point out to him that while I could get by in French I could not really play that part. So, that was my first experience with it. Then I heard about the screenplay, or that it was being adapted into a screenplay. I did a few readings over the years that Israel organized and watched it evolve.”
And as you might expect, as productions going from the stage to the screen often do, plot threads open up and the story was adjusted to accommodate cinematic scope. And while the tweaks to “My Old Lady” weren’t dramatic, Kline details the subtle ways in which things were tinkered with. “It’s like taking an opera and turning it into a ballet in a way. That’s a stupid, off the top of my head analogy, but things have to be altered. [The play] was done with one set, it all takes place in one room, one stage, so things are referred to or are built into the dialogue, which you can actually show in the film rather then talk about it,” he said. “And conversely, you can…leave things unsaid, or now suddenly you have to explain this thing that we just saw that you never have to deal with in the stage version. Those are just very broad technical things that were interesting to watch change.”
But at the end of the day, no matter how the movie developed, it was Mathias that Kline was fascinated by. “The character was always attractive because he was so unattractive,” the actor said. “That’s a generalization but his life was such a mess and he is such a mess as a person and so, he’s not what you call a winning personality and that was fun.”
However, when it comes to taking a character like Mathias —who schemes every which way possible to get the apartment while chasing his demons down the bottle— likeable, Kline believe that like life, it’s all a matter of perspective. “He’s much more genial than I anticipated, but you know the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us…I tend to see it objectively,” the actor explained. “That’s a lifelong discrepancy that we reckon with, the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. It’s sort of what the film is about too. Because the way the character sees themselves is not necessarily how others see him and not necessarily how he really is. You know he’s pretty screwed up and things happen and things are revealed. He discovers things and as set in his ways as he may be, there’s still something about him that’s capable of discovery and self knowledge.”
But finding room to explore a character, particularly in today’s budget restricted world of independent filmmaking, can be a difficult task. For “My Old Lady,” the shoot lasted a mere 21 days, moving at a quick pace, and Kline shared the benefits and drawbacks of working at that speed. “There’s a wonderful momentum [to working quickly] and the contrary is just endless sitting around which I’ve also done. It can be a bit wearing but I love having the time to experiment. You have a huge budget or not a huge budget but a budget that allows for [reshooting] that scene we shot last week,” he says. “That’s why the joy of working with someone like Bob Altman who is evolving the film as he’s making it and changing it as we go based on what he’s intuitively feeling about what we’ve done so far.”
And indeed, Kline experienced a similar luxury working on his breakthrough film “The Big Chill,” on which he had weeks of rehearsal before cameras even rolled. It was the start of a longterm friendship between the actor and writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, with the pair working together on six feature films to date. But we had to ask —why has Kline not managed to sneak his way into any “Star Wars” films, of which Kasdan is credited with three (“Star Wars: Episode IV — The Return Of The Jedi,” “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Star Wars: Episode 7“)?
“I think he knows that I probably wouldn’t want to be in one. I don’t think so. What would I do?” Kline asked. And when we suggested that perhaps he could wield a lightsabre, that wasn’t enough to get his Jedi mojo going. “I had one, my kids all got one. We have several of those around the house. I don’t need that. Why hasn’t he gotten me into one? I don’t know. Maybe, I will. The phone could ring in ten minutes and say listen, you get yourself over here, we need Darth Vader’s brother or his evil twin,” Kline joked. “His boyfriend, whatever, who knows.”
And it’s that feisty, playful spirit that Kline has manifested throughout his career, one that doesn’t require roles in giant blockbusters to keep him satisfied. Instead, he gravitates toward films like “My Old Lady” where the only special effects on display are his talents, which don’t seem to have dulled one iota across decades of work.
“My Old Lady” screens at TIFF and opens in cinemas on September 10th.