BWW at the Movies: 'The Extra Man'
Kevin Kline and Paul Dano portray roommates in the new feature film The Extra Man, based on the 1998 novel of that name by Jonathan Ames. Dano’s character, Louis Ives, is actually the main character (and narrator of the novel), but this is Kline’s movie, as he’s got the flamboyant role and the funny lines. And he brings all of his classically trained panache to the part of Henry Harrison, a failed playwright whose kooky behavior includes dancing in his living room, painting shoe polish on his ankles to disguise his sock holes, and blurting out all kinds of reactionary opinions.
Shari Springer Berman, who co-directed The Extra Man with her husband, Robert Pulcini, says Kline was always the first choice for his role. “The first time we met with Jonathan, we were like, ‘Just off the cuff, who do you see as Henry Harrison?’ And he was like, ‘No question, Kevin Kline,’” Berman says. She, Kline and Dano spoke to the press in New York prior to the film’s July 30 release.
Although his character is conniving and judgmental, Kline found much to love in Harrison, a fallen aristocrat who moves within NYC’s high-society circles even though he sleeps on the couch of a fleabag apartment (while renting its makeshift bedroom to Louis). “As quirky, outrageous, as contradictory as the character is, why I find him so attractive [is] his spirit, this indomitable will to survive, to surmount whatever iniquities or depredations time or the culture or his financial situation have wrought,” says the Oscar and Tony winner.
“He rises above it and has great style and joie de vivre,” Kline says. “There is this poetic, imaginative, quixotic streak…he doesn’t see windmills, he sees giants that have to be conquered.
“I love his opacity,” he continues. “He’s so of another period that’s anti–the confessional, transparency-riddled culture that we live in. Those bygone days when people had a mystique, like Garbo, those are the days that Henry misses—and I do too.”
In The Extra Man, Henry gains entrée to tony restaurants, art gallery openings and winters in Palm Beach by serving as a social escort to wealthy old women without a mate. “He knows that there’s something parasitic, in a way, about his existence, but he has refined it into an art,” Kline comments. “He’s a frustrated artist, maybe, but there’s certainly a degree of inventiveness and invention. Henry is living an illusory [life], playing a role of a man who is part of the ‘haute noblesse’ of New York City, but he’s living in squalid conditions. There’s an element of performance to it.”
Harrison schools his young boarder in his lifestyle, though Louis is also preoccupied with his own interests, like 1920s-era novels and cross-dressing. Dano relished the contradictions of his character, who aspires to be a writer. “That was what I liked most,” he says. “On the outside, he wanted to please people, he wanted to be a gentleman, he wanted to look nice. And he sort of romanticized things. But on the inside, he was totally lost and didn’t know who he was and felt unlovable.”
As Louis, Dano must convey his enchantment with a man who speaks harshly to him and rebuffs his attempts to deepen their friendship. Having Kevin Kline play that man made his job easier. “He’s really spontaneous, a ‘live’ actor,” Dano says. “He’s not afraid to try things and put himself out there, so it was always fun to work with him. My character is seeing everything for the first time, and a lot of it was just whatever Kevin threw at me.”
Kline and Dano had acted together in the 2002 film The Emperor’s Club, where they played student and teacher. Dano was only 16 when that movie was made, so they didn’t become chummy off screen as they did during The Extra Man. Kline is now not only a friend but also a fan of Dano’s. “What he does in this film is quite brilliant,” says Kline, “because he could have played him much more as the straight man. But he plays him with such soulfulness and sensitivity and vulnerability. I think he made a very daring and ultimately wise choice to do that, and has the emotional resources to bring it off. That can become cloying or unbelievable, but he makes it very real.”
Performing alongside an actor of Kline’s caliber and achievements is no doubt inspiring to young actors, but Kline says he doesn’t see himself as a mentor to Dano or other young costars he’s had. He would, however, credit some of the people he worked with early in his own career for mentoring him. “I’ve had strong men under whose wings I was taken,” Kline says, citing John Houseman (head of Juilliard’s drama division when Kline trained there) and Joe Papp. He even recognizes something of the Public Theater founder in his Extra Man character. “Joe Papp shared this life force that Henry has,” remarks Kline.
Despite Henry Harrison’s attempt to maintain emotional distance from Louis, the two men sense that they are kindred spirits, even though they never admit it. “They both have these artistic temperaments,” says Kline. “They’re both outsiders.”
That was the story’s appeal to Berman and Pulcini, who were nominated for an Oscar in 2004 for writing American Splendor, the biopic of comic-book artist Harvey Pekar, another irascible soul who didn’t fit in with “normal” society. “I think it’s all right to write people that are offbeat and not conventionally sympathetic,” Berman says. “Henry’s a bit of an asshole, but he’s a lovable asshole. And Harvey Pekar was a major asshole at times, and also the most lovable, wonderful, amazing person in the world. That’s what humans are. They’re complicated, and they’re flawed. It’s okay to be nice, but it’s more interesting to be nice with an edge, or edgy with a little bit of nice.”
Embracing such characters, according to Berman, is part of a Hollywood tradition spanning many generations. “Hollywood made those movies in the ’70s—and in the ’30s,” she says. “We’re very influenced by Lubitsch. Those characters were morally repugnant on some level, but they were lovable.” The Extra Man also harkens back to some great movies about friendships between eccentrics. “Midnight Cowboy, Harold and Maude,” Berman cites. “These are weird characters, living on the fringe. Withnail & I is another…we watched that movie, like, three times before we made this.”
Kline, meanwhile, recalls a British film from 1958 with a similarity to The Extra Man: “The Horse’s Mouth, based on Joyce Cary’s novel, adapted by Alec Guinness himself, in which Alec Guinness plays a character not unlike Henry Harrison—this guy who’s getting money from rich people so that he can do his paintings. He’s a bit of a mountebank, he’ll just do and say whatever he needs to paint his murals. There’s something quite mad and madcap about the whole movie.”