For Kevin Kline, The Beard's (Sometimes) The Thing

Kevin Kline i i

Kevin Kline, who has played everyone from Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway to an animated hero in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, takes on the quirky -- and mustached -- role of playwright Henry Harrison in The Extra Man. Magnolia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Magnolia Pictures
Kevin Kline

Kevin Kline, who has played everyone from Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway to an animated hero in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, takes on the quirky -- and mustached -- role of playwright Henry Harrison in The Extra Man.

Magnolia Pictures

In the upcoming comedy The Extra Man, actor Kevin Kline plays the role of Henry Harrison, an eccentric and penniless playwright who takes in budding writer Lewis Ives, played by Paul Dano. Henry lives at the fringes of Manhattan high society, feeding off the generosity of rich and lonely widows.

Kline tells NPR's Liane Hansen that the film reminded him — albeit obliquely — of the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, in which Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo showed Jon Voigt's newcomer how to take "the enormous wealth that is everywhere in New York City and [use it], skimming a bit off the top for yourself."

Kline says that Henry's ability to live off those around him also reminded him of his days in drama school, when he would "wait for people to leave the theater and [then] go watch the second act."

On Henry Harrison's Restroom Habits

Kevin Kline and Liane Hansen talk about one eye-opening Extra Man scene, in which Henry instructs Lewis in an urban-survival technique available only to gentlemen in a particular style of trenchcoat:

Indeed, the extroverted, outlandish Henry seems like a character straight out of drama school.

"There is an element of performance in this character," admits Kline — though he points out that in many ways, this made it harder for him as an actor.

"It's easy to fall into the trap of seeming acted or performed," he says. He had to "find a way to [portray Henry] so it's performed, but it's coming from somewhere real."

For Kline, the character's extravagant persona is about Henry's loneliness and insecurity in a new and modern world.

"[He's] yearning for a bygone era when gentlemen were gentlemen," explains Kline. "He's a very complicated fellow, but I think he does come from another era."

And yet Kline tried not to turn Henry into an easily decipherable caricature. He wanted to leave a bit of mystery to the character, who at one point tells his new tenant that "We should know as little about each other as possible."

Kline notes that Henry would be horrified by "the age of confessional transparency in which we live. ... He's all for opacity, mystique, mystery and self-mythologizing."

That self-mythologizing can get pretty gritty and uncomfortable, as viewers soon learn. Dirt-poor but desperate to keep up appearances, Harrison hides the fact that he has no socks by slathering his ankles in shoe polish, and disguises his advancing age by accenting his facial hair with black mascara.

"I love that about him," says Kline. "He's always improvising some wonderful improvement on his lot, to turn a negative into a positive."

The Extra Man is hardly Kline's first film to prominently feature facial hair. Indeed, Kline's tendency to experiment with different kinds of beards and moustaches has led film critic Roger Ebert to concoct the Kevin Kline Moustache Principle, which states that you can guess what kind of film the actor's working on by looking at his chin — he tends to have facial hair in comedies, but stays clean shaven in dramatic roles.

Paul Dano, Kevin Kline i i

In The Extra Man, Paul Dano (left) plays Lewis Ives, a young writer who sublets a Manhattan room from Kline's financially strapped Henry -- and learns a few things about living large on very little. Magnolia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Magnolia Pictures
Paul Dano, Kevin Kline

In The Extra Man, Paul Dano (left) plays Lewis Ives, a young writer who sublets a Manhattan room from Kline's financially strapped Henry -- and learns a few things about living large on very little.

Magnolia Pictures

Kline says Ebert is right — to a certain extent. "I've heard about that theory, and I think he's admitted that there are exceptions," he says, pointing to a production of King Lear in which he had "quite a bit of facial hair."

The pattern of mustachioed roles isn't just a coincidence, though — or a gimmick.

"Facial hair can be an affectation," says Kline, citing his Oscar-winning role as Otto the thief in A Fish Called Wanda as an example of a character using facial hair to "desperately set himself apart in some way."

For the time being, Kline is clean-shaven — though he emphasizes that it's no indication of whether his next role will be tragic or comic.

"I'm entertaining a plethora of possibilities," he says, "and choosing which one seems the most remunerative — to the soul, of course."

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