Oscar-winning actor Kevin Kline is the first to admit that he is very picky about which roles he plays, but one filmmaker he usually says yes to is Lawrence Kasdan. Kline and Kasdan have done several movies together, including 1983’s “The Big Chill,” 1991’s “Grand Canyon” and 2012’s “Darling Companion.” Kasdan directed and produced the drama “Darling Companion,” whose screenplay (which he co-wrote with his wife, Meg) is inspired by real-life events that happened to the couple and one of their dogs.
In “Darling Companion,” Kline plays Joseph Winter, a workaholic surgeon who accidentally loses the family dog (a rescued mutt named Freeway) while he is taking the dog for a walk during a family vacation in the Rocky Mountains. Joseph’s wife, Beth (played by Oscar winner Diane Keaton), is emotionally distraught over the loss, and she spends all of her waking hours trying to find the dog, while enlisting the rest of the family and the local townspeople for help. Here is what Kline had to say when I sat down with him for an interview at the New York City press junket for “Darling Companion.”
What drew you to this particular project?
As with other Lawrence Kasdan productions … I’ve done five other films with him and I’ve always loved the whole process. I love the way he writes, I love the way he directs, I love his trust of actors. And we all trust him, and it’s a great working relationship.
So I almost said yes without reading the script, but I also happen to really like the script. And then when the cast was coming together, wow! Diane Keaton and Richard Jenkins and Dianne Wiest — these were actors I’d loved for years but never worked with. And it turned out to be just as I’d hoped: a wonderful experience.
Did your feelings about dogs change after doing “Darling Companion”?
I’ve always had dogs. When I was young, I grew up with dogs. We have a rescue dog. My family rescued a dog 12 years ago, who’s happily still with us.
How was it working the rams in “Darling Companion”?
They were difficult. No, they were fine. Dogs are easier. But all animals, I think that’s why [there is] the old cliché of actors: Never work with dogs or children, because that’s who everyone’s going to look at. So you’re worried about being upstaged.
How about the snake?
I like animals. Snakes I’m a little concerned with.
And what did you think about where you filmed the movie in Utah? What is it about that location that you discovered that you didn’t know about before doing the movie?
Well, I’d been there because it was sort of around the area that the Sundance Film Festival is, but the Sundance Film Festival is in the dead of winter. This was fall, which was beautiful and not nearly as populous as during the festival. It was fun. It was beautiful. A beautiful place to work, beautiful people to work with.
At this stage in the game when you’ve done every kind of film imaginable, what does it take for a script to grab your attention?
I don’t know. I just trust my instinct, and it has to do with taste and upbringing and genetic things. There’s not a lot of rational thinking that goes into it, really. Agents think, “You should do this now and this is going to be a very commercial film. So you need to do a very commercial film, because you’ve done two independent films in row that a total of 14 people have seen. So let’s do something big.” And I go, “OK, but have you read the script?”
And they haven’t?
No, no, they have, and they see dollar signs. “This is going to be very commercial.” And I have said “Yes, I have no doubt it will, because it’s going to be to the lowest common denominator ever. But it’s stupid!” I’ve done some stupid films — don’t get me wrong. But in general I don’t want to do things because they’re going to be commercial, I want to do things because I’m going to enjoy doing them and I don’t care how many people see them.
You’ve made several films with Lawrence Kasdan. Could you talk about his different approach with “Darling Companion”?
The only difference was the speed, the tempo of shooting. The budget, the schedule, the digital aspect were all good things. It kept a nice momentum. When you do a big studio picture and you have a lot of time you can become rather indulgent. There was no risk of that on this.
And Larry had never done an independent film with a schedule like this or a budget like this. I think most of us actors had, and enjoyed it. And he took to it. He was a little, “I’ve never worked this fast,” but he took to it quite readily.
What was it that attracted you to this particular role in “Darling Companion”?
The role itself I liked because like other characters that Larry has written and that I’ve done, whether it was “The Big Chill” or “Grand Canyon,” which were sort of companion pieces in a way to this, the characters are interesting and are not what they seem only. They are complex. A well-written character can have flaws and have qualities, and I like that this guy is a bit of a jerk. Or I think he’s referred to as a “prick” by his own daughter.
You’re sort of famous for declining a number of roles. Did you ever have a role that you regret declining?
I don’t regret. I’ve seen roles that I’ve turned down being very successful, and that’s fine and I’m happy for them, because that wasn’t why I turned it down. Not because I didn’t think it would be successful; I didn’t think it was something I wanted to do at that time. Either I’d done something similar or just had a funny vibe from the director.
And why this movie was such a joy is a lot of it the decision is: “Is this someone I want to spend two months or three months of very intensive rather intimate time with?” Aside from what’s their directing style, or if it’s another actor. It’s not just the script. The script is paramount, but then what’s the process going to be? Is it going to be fun to go to work every day or is it going to be drudgery?
Were you at all interested Richard Jenkins’ role as the goofy entrepreneur in “Darling Companion”?
Never. No. Larry only asked me to play this part.
What did you think of that role? Did you in hindsight want to do it?
I didn’t actually see it until I saw Richard doing it. I love Richard. I’ve known him since college, but I’ve never worked with him … It’s a great character. It’s a very colorful character.
When we did “The Big Chill” and Larry, before he cast it, he wanted me to play the part that he offered me. And I said, “But have you cast the People magazine reporter?” I love the part that Tom Berenger played and the part that Jeff Goldblum played. They were funnier, more neurotic.
They were funnier and I said, “This guy kind of is a regular guy.” But on the other hand, he said, “Yeah, but it’s good. I want you to do that.” And I thought after doing “Sophie’s Choice,” which I had just done, that it would be good to play a regular guy. Yeah I’d like to think I could have played [that Richard Jenkins role]. I would have been different, but he’s brilliant.
How you do feel about balancing your work in theater and in movies?
I stayed away from Broadway for about 20-odd years … but I never stopped doing theater. I preferred off-Broadway. I preferred working for the New York Shakespeare Festival. And I did “Richard III,” “Henry V,” two productions of “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Measure for Measure” — some of the greatest plays every written.
And then I did Falstaff in “Henry IV” at Lincoln Center, which for some reason is considered Broadway, but it’s not. It’s a limited run with a subscription audience. Broadway, a long run of a commercial play didn’t interest me as much. But I had continued to go back to the theater …
Four years ago, I did “Cyrano” on Broadway, but it was a limited run; it was 12, 14 weeks. It was a huge cast, a big production, so we all agreed to do it for very little money because it’s just a very expensive proposition for Broadway. That’s why you don’t see a lot of Shakespeare on Broadway because he wrote big casts. But it was fun.
I could have done it off-Broadway too. I could have done it in Central Park at the Delacorte [Theatre]. It would have been fun. But Broadway usually requires a more extended run, and most of the fare is commercial to appeal to tourists. And it’s so expensive! You have so much riding on it, a new musical or a new play. No, I’d rather do 12 weeks of “Hamlet” at the Public Theatre.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve been a longtime dog owner. A lot of people who’ve owned pets for a long time have had the experience of losing a pet. Did that ever happen to you? And what did you think of the psychic character in “Darling Companion” who gave advice on how to find the lost dog? Would you or your wife have been open to consulting with a psychic if you were ever in that situation of trying to find a lost pet?
Well, I love the way the gypsy psychic functions in this movie because you’re never quite sure if she’s real or not, but what you are sure of is that she believes in giving people hope. And I think she is gifted, I think she’s one of those people who has a more highly developed intuition than others. And I believe that there are people with that gift.
There are also those who turn it into a big moneymaking thing and can dupe you. But some of them are truly gifted. Whether my wife and I would have consulted one, I doubt it. If one materialized in our own home, which is what happens in the movie, it turns out our housekeeper is a psychic. Oh, OK. I tend to be rather skeptical.
Did you ever lose any pets in your life?
One of my early traumas as a child was watching my dog get run over by a car. I was all alone and he walked out of the house. So I was about to be picked up to go play baseball, [I was] about 10 years old, and my dog always chased this one truck that came through our neighborhood.
He wasn’t terribly bright and one time he just got a little too close to the wheel and I watched him get run over. And then I had to drag him out of the street and nobody was home. And I’m still recovering. So that’s a dog I lost, but in terms of one that went missing? Sure. But not for days. They’ve always found their way home.
You have a musical background and you have a musical family. Would you ever consider doing an album?
I’ve sung, but I’ve always preferred playing characters who sang. It’s funny, when I did my first musical, I didn’t know it but at the time if you’re starring in a musical — this was a long time ago, 1978 — there were all these cabarets going, “We’d love you to come and do your cabaret act.” And I found out a lot of these Broadway performers, they have a cabaret act ready to go. They have a compendium of songs.
I said, “I know one Randy Newman song from beginning to end. It would be a very short set, so I think I’ll pass.” But the prospect of doing cabaret, you’re naked. That’s like doing stand-up comedy. That’s pure singing, and I do not have the chops for that. I’ve done it for benefits and things like that, played the played the piano and sung a little ditty.
Do you still play piano regularly?
Do you read reviews of yourself?
And how does it feel to watch yourself on screen?
I try to avoid that as well.
Have you seen “Darling Companion” though?
I have seen it. I was very curious. When I was starting out [as a movie actor], I would go to dailies and watch the movie and analyze it and criticize it and myself. It can be very disruptive instead of just doing the job. When I do theater, I try to avoid people coming backstage. I kind of try to sneak out. It interrupts the work.
It’s rare to see spouses on screen who are in the later stage of their relationship and are rekindling the passion they once had. Do you think that how the movies portray older people’s romance is starting to change, particularly with “Darling Companion”?
I think this film has the potential to bring an older audience. It’s not not for the 18-to-23-year-old demographic, but it’s for adults of all ages. But it is more about sustaining a relationship than about falling in love. It’s a little more complex, it’s a little more of an adult theme. And so actually I think a lot of adults have given up on going to the movie theater, and it would be really nice if this got them out of their recliners.
Would you do TV series or a miniseries at this stage in your career?
Yeah, more and more now with films being what they are and with cable being what it is. Some of the best writing has been on HBO or Showtime or AMC.
What show do you love? Have you seen “Luck,” even though it was canceled?
No, but I did see that thing Al Pacino did.
“You Don’t Know Jack.”
Brilliant. “Angels in America” for HBO. I don’t follow series. It requires too much regular viewing. But I’ve seen bits of things. But it’s mostly I think mainly the specials.
Were you able to input some of your own personal experiences when making “Darling Companion”? Was that accepted easily by Lawrence Kasdan?
Oh yeah. Well you have to input your life to your work. You don’t have, but to me I immediately responded — and that’s part of the quality of Larry’s writing. These are characters that you can identify with, these are people you recognize, and you recognize yourself in them. So I didn’t say “You know, I would do this and therefore rewrite it.” No.
I brought myself to what he had written, but there’s a lot of me and there’s a lot of Diane [Keaton] and a lot of Dianne Wiest. I think part of our job is to learn what to bring, what to omit, what to exaggerate, what to downplay, what to focus on, in ourselves. What’s right for this particular piece.
Kind of like molding?
Yeah, and you mold to marry yourself to the part in a way. You find a place where you meet the character, and you make it personal, whether it is or not. But all of Larry’s characters, I can always relate to them in a personal way because of the same reason that audiences can relate to them: He writes recognizable human beings in recognizable situations.
“Darling Companion” has a cast that has won a lot of prestigious awards. What did you learn about any of your co-stars that maybe surprised you in the process of doing this movie? Sam Shepard alone, the stories that he must have.
Yeah, he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of plays I’ve seen since he’s started out. When I got to New York he was just sort of emerging. I read some of his fiction, seen his plays, and seen his acting. He’s a wonderful actor.
He was funnier than I thought. I haven’t seen him play a character like this. He’s not zany or anything, but there’s a comic sense in his performance that I hadn’t seen before. It was nice just getting to know him a little. We didn’t have that much together, but that was sort of revelatory.
And Dianne Wiest, I’ve known for years. I had seen her work. But what was surprising was to get to know her as a person and to get a really good front-row seat to watching her process.
Same thing with Dick Jenkins, who as I said, I’ve known since college and always admired, always been terrific. He’s starting to be recognized, but he’s one of those actors that we’ve been watching for years until [his Oscar-nominated role in] “The Visitor,” where, “Oh, he’s getting a lot of media attention.”
And Diane Keaton is an utterly unique human being. Getting to know her and to work with her — yeah, that was refreshing.
Your son Owen was in the 2005 movie “The Squid and the Whale.” Do you think you will act in a project with him?
He had fun making that movie but he expressed no desire afterwards. He got interested in writing and directing, and he’s actually in film school right now, but as a director, not as an actor.
Have you ever considered writing a screenplay or directing yourself in a movie?
[He says jokingly] I got out of film school, finally. [He says seriously] Yes, I’ve thought about writing, but I get very antsy when I’ve tried. I want to get up and do it. Same way when I’m directing. The one time I directed, I was directing myself and a big cast and we were doing “Hamlet.” I think it might be hard for me to just watch other actors. I like doing it.
What do you want to do as an actor that you haven’t done yet?
I’ve always loved “Don Quixote,” the book. If the film of that or a play version of that came along and I didn’t have to sing “The Impossible Dream,” which I couldn’t do justice to, I would probably jump at that.
For more info: “Darling Companion” website
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