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The Impolitic Wit of Kevin Kline

By Susan Lehman
Special to The Washington Post
May 2, 1993

NEW YORK -- "I don't like talking about myself. I don't like talking about my personal life. I don't necessarily want to talk about the movie. I just came here to hear you compliment the movie."

Kevin Kline is kidding. He's also totally serious. Kline, who stars in "Dave," a political satire set in Washington that opens on Friday, has an uncanny ability to have it both ways.

Andre Gide's proviso, "Don't understand me too quickly," might well be Kline's personal motto. No sooner has Kline said something vaguely earnest about himself or the movie he's come to chat about than he catches himself and zips quickly into comic repartee. Then, several seconds into a zany, off-the-cuff soliloquy, Kline looks at his listener with a slightly quizzical expression that seems to say, "Hey -- you're not taking me seriously."

"Dave," which requires the actor to play two roles at once -- Kline doubles as President Bill Mitchell and his look-alike, a two-bit employment agent named Dave who fills in when the president suffers a stroke -- provides a perfect venue for Kline's terrific double-edged humor and talent.

An accomplished Shakespearean actor whose screen credits include "Sophie's Choice," "The Big Chill," "A Fish Called Wanda" (for which he won an Oscar for his portrayal of Otto, a psychopathic loon) and "Grand Canyon," Kline says he was attracted to "Dave's" innocence. "Innocent" probably isn't the word Washington insiders will use to describe a movie predicated on the idea that an ordinary man can run the country better than a trained politician. But Dave, the character who bumbles playfully through the rituals of power, is every bit the uncorrupted Everyman who, given an unexpected chance to run his country, does the right thing.

Complete with cameo performances by such journalists and politicians as Nina Totenberg, Michael Kinsley, Larry King, Tip O'Neill, Alan Simpson and Frank Mankiewicz -- and an especially funny performance by Oliver Stone, who appears briefly to offer a conspiracy theory about President Mitchell -- "Dave" is likely to elicit special chuckles from capital audiences. For its 44-year-old star, however, the city is clearly nothing more than the place in which his most recent movie happened to be set. Apparently intent on retaining his distance from Washington's ways, Kline won't tangle with political questions of any kind. "Nope. I won't talk politics," he says with the gracious evasiveness of a consummate politician. "I'm not equipped to talk politics. I haven't even read the paper in weeks."

The topic, nonetheless, presents itself.

Question: Wouldn't you say that "Dave" is a movie about politics?

Kevin Kline: I think among many other things there's a political satirical, satirical political thread running through it.

Q: Wasn't President Bill Mitchell slightly reminiscent of George Bush?

KK: George Bush? I kind of noticed that myself when we got the look all together and I watched the dailies. But that was a coincidence. It's in large part because the glasses I wear are those kind of executive, power glasses... .

Q: You're not surprised I'm asking you about politics in the course of a discussion about "Dave," are you?

KK: Look, your editor decides the movie is a spoof about power in Washington. You assume after seeing the trailer that "Dave" is a movie about an idiot who they let loose in the White House -- Otto goes to the White House. Well it's not.

Q: I think Dave is a movie about power.

KK: Yeah, but you could also have set it in a corporation. It's about a fish out of water. It's a love story.

Q: It's not a love story.

KK: All right, all right. It's not a love story. It's a romantic comedy. Will you grant me that? No? Okay. Whatever your editor wants. It's a spoof of power in the White House.

Q: What did you do to get ready for the role?

KK: Read up on every spoof of power in Washington.

Q: Come on.

KK: Okay, there are of course lots of political jokes in the movie. And I think the movie will play to many in the Washington, D.C., audience that way. There's going to be a lot of those laughs -- "ho ho ho, I get that joke. ..." You know those laughers who laugh a little bit before anybody else does. ... That will be a fun audience to sit with. I think the rest of the country and the rest of the world will see the movie somewhat differently.

Q: What do you mean?

KK: I think "Dave" tells a story about a little guy who gets put in this extraordinary position and rises to the occasion in a heroic manner. The movie has a Capraesque flavor without being an old-fashioned movie. It has real sentiment there at the end. ... The premise is you are a president without a political agenda. ... {But then} he actually starts taking himself, and the job, seriously. That gives the movie a kind of poignancy.

Q: Is this a movie that makes a particular kind of sense right now?

KK: The movie speaks to the same kind of yearning that was clear in the last election.

Q: Did you spend time in Washington while you were filming the movie?

KK: Just for the exterior shots. ... But we were there for election night. We -- the whole cast -- went to a party at John McLaughlin's house. He invited us because he's in the movie. He was very generous and gave a lovely speech and then we left him there alone weeping and went to a fun party -- no, never mind where I went! Okay, then we went over to the DNC {Democratic National Committee} party. ... I just went with the crowd. I didn't even know where I was half the time.

Q: Did you like Washington?

KK: Oh yes. This is for The Post, right? I love Washington! I wish I could live there! It's the seat of our country's pants. The scruff of the country's neck.

Q: Were you in town for the inauguration?

KK: No. When is it? ... Actually, I wasn't invited. Somebody said, 'You want me to get you a ticket?' I said no, frankly. What would I do there? You had to get all dressed up and everything, didn't you?

Q: Let's get back to the movie. Was it less fun to play a decent guy like Dave than it was to play a madman like Otto?

KK: Oh no. I loved being that guy {Dave}. A lot of the time when I was playing Otto, I didn't find it fun. It was just so much negative energy. That guy is a loathsome psychopath who just hates everybody. I was so angry as that character. Dave doesn't have an angry bone in his body. It was a delight to be Dave... .

Lots of people fantasize about what it would be like if they were president. ... Most think they'd be decent and wouldn't be corrupted at all, that they'd remain true to themselves. And after Dave goes through everything, ultimately he does remains true to himself, which is heroic. Which is what we hope any president would do. Which is why we love knowing that the Gettysburg address was actually reviewed badly at the time. In hindsight, that's inspirational. And it's why Bill Clinton appeals to us -- he genuinely seems to cut through all the rhetoric and actually tries to solve problems in as direct a way as he can, given the Republican filibuster.

There, I've said something political. Can I go now?

Q: No. What do you think about the {President} Bill Mitchell role?

KK: I really felt bad for the president that I played. He's just so miserable. He hates his job.

Q: What did you do to prepare for the Bill Mitchell role?

KK: I did some research on presidential tics. Then I saw some congressional tics. There's a whole movement of ticks -- they're going to take over Washington. Termites too... .

Q: Were you researching particular presidents and their tics?

KK: I really tried to avoid doing George Bush. If I had, it would have put us in the realm of impersonation or parody. And rather than do a parody of any conservative president of the last 12 years, I tried to understand the psychology of a guy whose popularity polls had hit bottom, who no longer enjoyed his job, who had bought into the whole public polling, image-creating aspect of his job and had lost touch with who he was. You know, at one time, he may have had the best intentions when he entered politics, but ultimately it got the best of him.

Q: So what did you get out of this movie?

KK: It was mostly a back-end deal, so not much up front! ... Okay, in all seriousness, I wanted to test a theory of comedy. Most of the comedies I've done have been rather farcical and extravagant. When one does farce like that, it involves a type of highly charged, energized, manic -- dare I say larger than life? -- performance. But a film like "Dave" requires a greater degree of naturalism in the acting. The audience has to believe in the character. It's a different kind of comedy. You don't have the same kind of conventions to support you. When you have satire, it has to be real. No matter how outrageous the comedy becomes, you have to believe in the characters.

Q: It seems like acting is the only thing you really like to talk about.

KK: Well, it's my only area of expertise. It's what I care about.

Susan Lehman is a producer on "The Jane Pratt Show" who frequently writes about the arts.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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