Henry Harrison is not known for his kindness. The outspoken eccentric at the center of The Extra Man, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s buoyant adaptation of a 1998 Jonathan Ames novel, he is rather a textbook narcissist.
Thoughtless and hopelessly self-absorbed, he is a “confirmed bachelor” positioned “to the right of the Pope” in matters of bedroom politics. He is casually contemptuous of the rich, older women who subsidize his threadbare lifestyle at high-society’s fringes. And that is precisely why Kevin Kline wanted to play him.
“I love characters who speak their mind, however unattractive and unendearing they might be,” he says. “It’s one of the great joys of acting – you’re given a license to be as cruel, as honest and as destructive as you want, with complete impunity. You take a line of vicious dialogue and you do justice to it, give it a sort of purity. Don’t tear the drama to tatters, but as Hamlet says, ‘be not too tame neither.’
“You listen to Henry and you think, ‘My God, what an awful thing to say!’ But you love him because he’s funny. He’s not trying to be nice, he doesn’t care if you like him. He’s like Cyrano de Bergerac in that he prides himself on panache. He’s a poet, a struggling artist, but he’s his own man.”
In Extra Man, Harrison takes Louis, a young introvert and wannabe cross-dresser played by Paul Dano, into his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, he introduces Louis to the strange subculture that is his milieu, accompanying lonely heiresses to high-profile functions and living off the perks and the leavings.
Did Kline, 62, a 40-year stage veteran who made his screen debut in the 1982 drama Sophie’s Choice, have any inclination to take Dano, the 26-year-old Little Miss Sunshine star, under his wing?
“Did I give him acting notes? Never. Is that because he didn’t need them?” says Kline, pausing a beat for comic effect. “I wouldn’t say that. But I don’t do that.
“He’s quite literate, our Paul, well-versed in Russian literature. He claimed to love Shakespeare, which intrigued me. So when situations arose that inspired a line from Shakespeare, I’d say the line and ask him if he recognized it. And of course he’d say no.”
If Kline enjoyed putting his young co-star on the spot, however playfully, it is because he received similar trial-by-fire instruction during his time as a drama student at New York’s Juilliard School.
“I’ve had teachers who did things like that – Anna Sokolow, a movement teacher, a great modern-dance choreographer, a true genius,” he says. “She’d play something on the piano and ask us, ‘You know what that is?’ I knew, because I was a trained musician before I was an actor. But some of the other students didn’t.
“She’d always say, ‘That’s the trouble with you actors. You spend too much time hanging around. Go to a museum, go to a concert, read books, read history. Educate yourself!’ So I enjoyed playing that role with Paul, and I think Henry Harrison is like that, too.”
Kline, a classically trained two-time Tony Award winner who relished his starring roles in New York Shakespeare Festival productions of Richard III, Henry V and Hamlet at least as much as his flamboyant turns in movie comedies like A Fish Called Wanda (1988) and In & Out (1997), admits that he, like Harrison, sometimes feels like the product of a bygone age.
“I know when I do a film that I’m not going to work with a lot of actors who do Shakespeare,” he says. “It’s something I can tease them about – not knowing lines, that kind of thing – but that’s just for fun. You get a lot of street cred for doing Shakespeare, but it’s not a big deal. I just happen to like it.
“Yet you also work with a lot of film actors that have no interest in theater. I once worked with a director who believed that theater was going the way of vaudeville -- that Broadway would eventually disappear. That’s not going to happen in our lifetime. But do I feel like an actor from another era? The short answer is yes, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because at this point I am.”
The Extra Man opens tomorrow at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and the Elmwood Rialto Cinemas in Berkeley. For more information, click here.