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Kevin Kline.

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Kevin Kline on Darling Companion, Pet Movies, and Rescuing Pigeons

In Darling Companion, Kevin Kline plays an uppity surgeon whose wife (Diane Keaton) adopts a stray dog against his better judgment. When the dog goes missing at their daughter’s (Elisabeth Moss) wedding, they enlist family members — and a psychic — for a prolonged search. This is Kline’s sixth movie with The Big Chill director Lawrence Kasdan, and Vulture spoke with him about doing pet movies, playing pompous characters, and his role in Charlie Kaufman's next movie (which is still looking for a start date).

I hear that Kasey the dog is at the press day.
Yeah. In fact he’s pretty much commandeering all of the interviews. I’ve not seen him yet.

I was going to ask if he recognized you, but I guess he hasn’t had a chance.
I don’t know that he would, frankly.

No?
We didn’t get along. He’s the one actor I didn’t — well, it was for the character. He was sort of indifferent toward me, and I was like, “Oh, this’ll make it easy for me because I have to be indifferent toward him.”

So you were both Method acting.
That’s what I thought. I thought, Wow, this dog was obviously a real trained Method dog.

Your character isn’t much of a dog person, but how about yourself? Do you and your wife [Phoebe Cates] own a dog?
We've had a rescue dog for twelve years, and I grew up with dogs from the time I was 5 years old.

It’s always hard to decide when to draw the line in saving a pet’s life, and the movie captured that well. Have you ever had to grapple with that sort of decision?
When to have the dog put down?

Or how much money to spend, and how long to look for a missing pet.
Yeah, I’m a real pushover for animals. My daughter brought home a stray cat about a year ago that had sort of followed her through Central Park. Clearly the cat had some health issues and I took the cat to a hospital and they kept it overnight and ran a series of tests. About $1,500 later, the cat had a clean bill of health and we found the owner. But I thought, I love this cat! I invested a lot of money in this cat! No, I’m kidding [about the money]. But yeah, you know, I’ve seen wounded pigeons on the street and tried to do whatever could be done.

Have you actually tried to rescue a pigeon in the street?
Yeah! I’ve called various animal services who will come and tend to a bird that’s wounded or something like that.

That’s very noble of you. I think a lot of New Yorkers would just keep walking.
Well, but you’re confusing me with people who have somewhere to go and something to do. Me, I just wander around looking for sick animals. If I’m not working I have the luxury to — no, I think that’s a gross exaggeration to say that New Yorkers don’t care about animals. And I’m probably not nearly as noble as I’m sounding to you.

In the movie, there is a whole angle with the psychic. Have you ever had an experience with a psychic or pet psychic, or known people who used one?
I’m similar to the character in the way that I’m very skeptical. But I’m not skeptical about the fact that some people are more gifted than others and have a much more keenly developed intuition. I think that people can actually be, not clairvoyant, but see a little more clarity than the next guy. So I’m skeptical, but I don’t rule it out.

You’re an agnostic believer of psychics?
I’m agnostic leaning toward the cynical, skeptical variety. But I think the way that character functions in the movie, and it’s sort of hinted at, is: Does she really see these images and visions? Or does she believe in giving hope to people? It’s about that force that some people can convey to give others hope when they’re losing hope, and I think that generosity of spirit is as important as whatever intuitive skills she has.

If Lawrence Kasdan wasn’t directing, do you think you might have been wary of a movie that centers on a dog? I’ve heard other actors talk about avoiding movies with animals or young kids.
Oh yeah, well that’s an old saw about acting — never work with babies or animals. But that’s mostly because they’ll upstage you. That’s part of that same school of thinking which is that actors are competing with one another and trying to upstage each other, which is nonsense. I’m sure there’s some who do that, but it’s really about being there to support each other and bring out the best in each other. But what was your question? I digress.

Did you have any worries about doing a movie about a family dog?
Had I read that script attached to a different director, I would’ve been more skeptical, sure. Being as it is my sixth film with Larry, I understand his sensibility and feel that I always have. I hate the expression, but we’re on the same page. So yeah, I do trust him and trust that, even though the writing has trappings of what can be a very sloppy, sentimental pet movie, he avoids that because of who he is and what his aesthetic sensibility is. It’s not afraid of sentiment but it does stop short of sentimentality.

I’ve already seen one critic make a Big Chill reference. Do you ever get tired of people referencing The Big Chill when a movie is about relationships and a reunion of some sort?
Not at all. In fact, I think Larry would admit that you could look at this movie as part of a trilogy beginning with The Big Chill, followed by Grand Canyon, and now Darling Companion — because those people in The Big Chill are the same generation and almost the same people. They’re people who have achieved a degree of financial success, who are living a fairly affluent life, who’ve been afforded the comforts of family and home and children and yet it’s not the American Dream fantasy come true. They are people who have their own conflicts. To make a silly comparison, Chekhov wrote about this similar class of people, the intelligentsia in Russia, who were fairly well-off and lived on country estates, but there’s a whole world of dramatic subtext going on.

You’re doing Bob’s Burgers and have done a handful of animated projects over the years. You have a perfect voice for a kind of pompous, likable villain.
There’s some that I’ve been offered that I haven’t done because it’s not what I love to do most. Bob’s Burgers is fun because it’s so improvisational. It’s scripted, but in the recording sessions there’s a lot of room for improvisation. But yes [lowers voice and adopts British affectation], I do pompous voices when asked. For DreamWorks, I did that thing with Ken Branagh where we were a couple of Spaniards, The Road to El Dorado. That character wasn’t pompous. But then I did Phoebus in Hunchback of Notre Dame — he was very pompous. “I was named after the Sun God.” Why do you think that is that I get cast, not only vocally but even physically, as pompous, arrogant, self-absorbed, narcissistic people?

Are you ever offended when people associate you with the pompous character?
Well, no, some of my favorite characters that I’ve played have been very pompous because I love making fun of pompous people. The Pirate King [in The Pirates of Penzance] was very pompous, but he kept falling down. Someone that you really like who slips on a banana peel is not as funny as someone who thinks he’s really cool. So yeah, that’s what’s fun about playing pompous people — when they get their comeuppance.

I’m dying to learn more about Charlie Kaufman’s next film, Frank or Francis. Can you tell me about your role — or should I say roles, since you’re playing a set of brothers?
There’s three roles, but it’s difficult to talk about because they keep moving the start date. I haven’t talked to Charlie Kaufman in four or five months. I’m waiting for a start date before I take it seriously. In our current economy, I’ve seen movies have start dates, have full casts, and then it all falls through. One investor pulls out and then it’s, “Well, we have to raise more money.” “Oh, we’ll do it in five months.” So I’m just waiting to see when it happens. I’m confident and the producer is confident.

I’ve heard it’s part musical. You’ve said before that you prefer not to sing professionally, but are you going to sing for this?
One of my characters does sing, in the last version of the script I read. It’s not a problem. I just don’t think I’m a very good singer. When I sang in the Cole Porter film [De-Lovely], I chose to sing live and not prerecord, when you can be made to sound better. Because Cole Porter was not a great singer, nor was he a great pianist — that’s why I did my own playing and my own singing. I can play characters who sing, but I don’t like singing in a nightclub or something. It’s not my métier. 

Photo: Owen Hoffman/Patrick McMullan