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TIFF Interview: Kevin Kline on "My Old Lady"

Don’t get too excited, but real estate seems to be a trending theme in films, mostly cast in the role of a villain.  “Love Is Strange,” already in theaters, finds a married couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina forced to sell their New York apartment.

Here at TIFF, there are at least three movies concerning the topic. Foreclosure is the hot topic is in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes.” Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton ponder selling their Brooklyn walkup in “Ruth & Alex. “

The most playful of the bunch is "My Old Lady,” opening today, in which penniless and recovering alcoholic ne’er-do-well Kevin Kline is prevented by legalities from selling his inherited Paris apartment until its 92-year-old current resident dies. 

Kline, 66, who was last seen as aging silver-screen swashbuckler Errol Flynn in “The Last of Robin Hood,” gets to duel with the formidable Maggie Smith along with Kristin Scott Thomas as her daughter. Here, in a interview conducted at TIFF, the Oscar winner for the 1988 farce “A Fish Called Wanda“ and two-time Tony winner for 1978’s “On the 20th Century” and 1981’s “The Pirates of Penzance” talks about working with both actresses as well as the current state of cinema.

I like this movie for several reasons, but I tend to gravitate lately towards movies with grown-ups, about grown-ups–even when they act like children, as is the case in “My Old Lady”–and for grown-ups.

My son (Owen, 22) came to the festival with me. We hopped in a cab to find a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. This cab driver asked, “Are you here for TIFF?” “Yeah, yeah.” “What are you, an actor?” “Yeah, yeah.” I asked, “What kind of movies do you like?” He said, “If there is a movie with, like, five people sitting around a table talking about relationships, I fucking hate that shit.” I said, “Those are the kinds of movies I make.”

What do you think about movies now? You always have stage as an option.

It’s a different release and it’s something when the film scripts are not terribly attractive.

You’ve been doing films since 1982, when you made your debut in “Sophie’s Choice.” Do you see a decline in quality?

It’s changed so much. Films that I made back in those days would not be made by a studio. But this whole independent thing, that’s brought with it this incorrect notion that, “Oh, anyone can make a movie.” Remember camcorders? Anyone can make a movie. You can make a movie on your iPhone. And the preponderance of film departments at universities has just exponentially exploded. But the fact that you can make a movie much cheaper now is a good thing. But it has a downside, too.

Can you find enough scripts that make you excited enough to do them?

Yes. I have been working pretty steadily. But good scripts, they were always hard. That is how I got that reputation of being, “Oh, Kevin De-cline.” People think that actors, like in the old days, are just assigned a movie by the studios. This is what you are going to do. No, we have to choose.

I enjoyed you and Kristin Scott Thomas together in this. You were both in “My Life as a House,” which came to TIFF in 2001. Did that tentative kiss you share take a while to choreograph?

We didn’t have a while. This was 23 days. Ideally, it would have been a 30-day schedule. It was, “Oh, the camera’s there. Well, she can sit this way on the piano bench and you can sit there.” “Didn’t you want me to play the piano?” And suddenly we’re like this and you just do it. There’s not the luxury to find it. It’s thinking on your feet.

You must have played drunk before in a movie. But in this one, your character has varying degrees of inebriation.

This guy gets really drunk. I love anything like oh, he’s drunk, he’s insane, because it frees you. Of course, there are myriad traps. The clichéd drunk, bah, bah, bomp. But there is something that gives you a permission to not do something tasteful necessarily. It’s not really acceptable. So much of acting is a privilege. Actors get this therapeutic kind of, “I get to be just awful. Or really drunk. I get to die. I get to vomit.” Something that is not your everyday kind of thing. I’m not a big drinker. I have been really crapulously drunk maybe three times in my life. I hate when the room is spinning.”

And you get to sing along with an opera singer who your character happens to encounter.

That day, Israel (Horovitz, the director) said, “Why don’t you sing back to her?” I’m like, “What?” It’s “La ci darem la mano” from “Don Giovanni.” For the truly musically observant, when I first sit down at the piano, I play the same melody only it is more blues feel. Only a musicologist would notice that.”

You and Maggie Smith met before, but she doesn’t remember it?

I had just done “I Love You to Death" with Joan Plowright, and they are very good buddies, and she was in town.  We just met them for drinks or something. When I first met her on this, I said, “We actually met back with Joanie,” and she said, “I don’t remember.”

But this is the first time you have acted together. How was it?

She doesn’t suffer fools and I would count myself among them. But she was great.

Tell me one thing about Maggie that might surprise someone who only knows her from “Downton Abbey.”

She’s wickedly funny, and droll and a great raconteur. The scene where she fainted, she just plopped on the floor. You can break your hip doing that.

Maggie, who is actually 79, has to play 92 and you get to be 57. How did that work out?

We lose a few years, we gain a few years. There was one scene where they told her, “Can you move? We have to get you quickly over there.” She said, “I’m not budging. I’m 92 years old. I should be shuffling.”

Is “Ricki and the Flash” going to happen with Meryl Streep?

Yeah, I just had my makeup and hair tests yesterday. She’s a rock ‘n’ roll queen manqué.  She’s abandoned her family 20 years previous to when the movie starts to become a rock star.  Now, she is basically playing in a cover band at a bar in Tarzana. Well, she’s good but she never made it to the top. I’m her ex-husband, remarried to Audra McDonald. We have three kids. There has been a problem and I call her and bring her back and hilarity ensues.

It is written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jonathan Demme. Sounds like it could be fun.

It better be.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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