Greg Kinnear Has 'Flash Of Genius' In New Movie

In "Flash of Genius," Greg Kinnear plays Robert Kearns, a professor who invented intermittent windshield wipers. Based on a true story, Kearns claimed that Detroit automakers stole his idea and sued them in a long, drawn-out battle. Host Liane Hansen chats with Kinnear about his movie.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

When we first meet Robert Kearns, the main character in the new movie "Flash of Genius," he's a broken man. Disheveled and depressed, he's on a bus, convinced that the vice president has called him to come to Washington. He ends up in a Maryland psychiatric facility instead. If the name Robert Kearns is not familiar to you, I guarantee that the next time you use your windshield wipers you will remember his name. Robert Kearns invented the intermittent windshield wiper and spent 12 years suing the big Detroit automakers for stealing his idea. "Flash of Genius" is a true story based on a New Yorker magazine article.

(Soundbite of movie "Flash of Genius'")

Mr. DERMOT MULRONEY: (As Gil Previck) I mean, come on Bob, it's just a windshield wiper.

Mr. GREG KINNEAR: (As Robert Kearns) To you maybe. To that bartender up there. But to me it's the Mona Lisa.

HANSEN: The role of Robert Kearns is played by Greg Kinnear, an Oscar nominee for the film "As Good As It Gets." Many of the parts he's played over the years have been comic ones. His star turn in "Flash of Genius" is very serious. Greg Kinnear is in the studio. Welcome, it's nice to meet you.

Mr. GREG KINNEAR: (Actor) Thank you. Nice meeting you.

HANSEN: How was the part pitched to you?

Mr. KINNEAR: Originally, it sat on my desk. It was titled "Windshield Wiper Man," and I envisioned a guy with a squeegee and a cape, and thought Hollywood is visually tapped out of decent ideas. And I did not know the story of Dr. Robert Kearns. I did not know of his history as a smalltime inventor. And I didn't know - I'm not even sure I knew the term intermittent windshield wiper. But I know all about it now. And he was a remarkable man. I mean, he was portrayed in the script in a very gruff way. He's obviously obsessive. But he was very - kind of a challenged guy. And he was shown warts and all in the script and the story, and I liked that.

HANSEN: The courtroom scenes where Bob Kearns represents himself, your character, are very underplayed, very subtle. Is that something that was in the script or something that you discovered about his character that that's the way he would be in front of a jury?

Mr. KINNEAR: I thought, you know, the way in which we represented him, particularly in his closing arguments, were very inspired. I found myself - again, in spite of the shortcomings of the guy, the fact that he's a flawed guy in many ways - I found myself always consistently hoping for him to find some satisfaction in all this.

HANSEN: That must have been a challenge for you as an actor, because on the one hand he is an underdog that you want to root for and you want to like, but on the other hand he is obsessed, he was addicted to this idea of getting justice, and he's like just on the edge of crazy.

Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah. And yet doesn't cross that line. And that was important not only to depict because it's not true - he wasn't crazy - just the injustice that had been done to him and the failure of Ford to recognize what he really wanted.

(Soundbite of movie "Flash of Genius")

Mr. MULRONEY: (As Gil Previck) You want to guess what I'm going to do next year if I start taking my customers to court?

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Robert Kearns) This is not about money, this is about right and wrong, and you know it. For Pete's sake, you're my friend.

Mr. MULRONEY: (As Gil Previck) That's right. I am.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Robert Kearns) Did you ask to be involved in this deal?

Mr. MULRONEY: (As Gil Previck) You need some perspective. You need to take a hard look at reality and realize what we're up against.

HANSEN: It's an interesting story because it's, you know, David and Goliath, you know, when is he going to win? But you're never quite sure if he's going to get any kind of satisfaction.

Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah, I think it's one of the great tricks of the film. And one of the nice nuances is, you know, it's not a sports movie. We're not trying to get to the end zone and da, da, da, da! It doesn't happen here. And the truth is, in real life I think Dr. Kearns' story would have been equally engaging whether he won or lost.

HANSEN: What was the most difficult scene for you?

Mr. KINNEAR: Probably is that courtroom scene - some of that courtroom stuff, you know, that was particularly difficult. And I felt like it was the words that I was saying were the culmination of what this guy always wanted to say to everybody. You know, and here I was sort of saying the words that Kearns would have, given the opportunity, have stood up on top of the mountain and shouted out. And suddenly I had the pleasure of being able to deliver some of that. And I think for the family who I met, including his wife, Phyllis, I think, you know, they all watched the movie in kind of stunned silence. And it was very emotional for them, and I think kind of cathartic to see this come to, you know, this kind of conclusion. You'd think that it was the lawsuit would be the conclusion. I don't think that was it nearly as much as having their father's story realized.

(Soundbite of movie "Flash of Genius")

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Robert Kearns) Look, I'm sure you've been thinking this is a bunch of hogwash, but this is about more than money. I always thought I was put here on this Earth for a purpose. I thought it was to be an engineer or maybe an inventor. But that's not it. And now I know what it is.

Mr. ALAN ALDA: (As Gregory Lawson) God put you here to sue the Ford Motor Company.

HANSEN: Is there something that resonated inside of you that helped bring the character to life, that flash of genius where I think I've gotten?

Mr. KINNEAR: (Actor) I'll tell you, my flash of genius is when I finished the script. But when I finished it, I felt like, oh, man, do I know this guy? And I don't know how, I don't know what to apply that to. There was some element of him that reminded me of my father. You know, he's an outsider. I've always felt that way to some degree in, you know, the business I work in, oddly enough. And, I don't know, it's just a lot of the mechanisms that made up this guy felt familiar to me. And I - in spite of, again, some of those humans flaws that we all have - I wanted what was best for Kearns.

HANSEN: Yeah. It's interesting, though, the part that you're playing in this movie. I mean, you're playing someone that nobody knows.

Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah, that's a blessing and a curse. I mean, you know, it means the character is even more up for grabs. In a way, Dr. Kearns could be whatever I wanted him to be. But I felt a real obligation to try to get across the truth in what I thought, based on all the conversations and everything that I discovered about him. You know, try and get it as close as I possibly could. But without there being a lot of information about who he was and what he was, in some ways the job is harder.

HANSEN: Greg Kinnear stars in the new film "Flash of Genius," the true story of Dr. Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. Greg, thanks for coming in.

Mr. KINNEAR: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of movie "Flash of Genius")

Mr. GREH KINNEAR: (As Robert Kearns) Makes you wonder what it is makes a man successful. Brains? Talent? Of course there's a lot of unsuccessful talents running around out there.

Ms. LAUREN GRAHAM: (As Phyllis Kearns) Maybe this is the one.

HANSEN: The movie "Flash of Genius" starring Greg Kinnear as Robert Kearns will be released nationwide this Friday. To hear more of my conversation with Greg Kinnear and to find out what happened to Verdell, the animal actor who played Kinnear's dog in "As Good As It Gets," go to npr.org/soapbox.

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