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.”
The Extra Man cast includes Katie Holmes, John C. Reilly, John Pankow, Marian Seldes, Lynn Cohen, Celia Weston and Dan Hedaya—nearly all of whom had worked with Kline previously. He and Holmes were both in The Ice Storm, though they don’t share any scenes in either that film or The Extra Man. Kline and Reilly both appeared in The Prairie Home Companion and The Anniversary Party, Pankow was in Life as a House and Hedaya in In & Out. Cohen worked with Kline on stage in Lincoln Center’s 1997 production of Ivanov—which Seldes was also in. She and Kline go back even further, not just to a 1983 Richard III at Shakespeare in the Park but to Juilliard’s then-new drama school in the early ’70s, where Kline was a student and Seldes on faculty.
In the movie, Louis must help Seldes’ dowager up to her bedroom after she has too much champagne at dinner. “When I first read the script and it mentions him carrying the woman up the stairs, that’s what made me want to do the film,” says Dano. “I just loved that: to be in a tuxedo and carrying this elderly woman—it’s, in a weird way, so sweet and so romantic. It has an out-of-time feel.”
In addition to this new movie with Holmes, Dano had a role in Knight & Day, which came out earlier this year and stars Holmes’ A-list husband, Tom Cruise. Dano praises both of them—“Katie is such a sweetheart, the kindest person,” “Tom is one of the hardest-working people; he is tenacious, and he’s not jaded”—and particularly admires their aplomb in putting up with the paparazzi. “If I got photographed the way Katie did, I’m not going to be as nice a person as she is. I would be really grumpy and irritated,” says Dano. “I want to be a successful actor, but you don’t want that. It’s totally a downside to the job. We’re filming outside in New York City, so we have photographers around. I don’t know how it’s legal, ’cause we can hear their shutters going off while we’re filming a scene.”
Knight & Day is just one of several high-profile Hollywood projects Dano’s been involved in since his breakthrough in Little Miss Sunshine. But the actor doesn’t consider that hit indie, nor the 2007 Oscar winner There Will Be Blood, his most significant role. Rather, it was an even earlier film. “A big turning point for me was The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” Dano says, “because I got to play a part that’s not like myself at all, and the fact that somebody was able to see me that way and trust me to do that, that’s probably the most important thing that’s happened to me.”
Berman says she and her co-director, Pulcini, pursued Dano for the role in The Extra Man after seeing him in There Will Be Blood. “Ten minutes into watching him, I turned to Bob and said, ‘He’s our Louis,’” Berman relates. “It’s because I was watching him act with Daniel Day-Lewis. And he’s worked with Kevin and Brian Cox. They’re these magnificent actors who take up so much of the screen, and Paul could hold his own with them and not be intimidated. Also, he’s a very interior actor, a very quiet actor, and that worked really well energy-wise with Kevin.”
The screen adaptation of The Extra Man was batted around for years before Berman and Pulcini got their hands on it, with such names as Christopher Plummer and Isaac Mizrahi attached at one time or another. The couple ended up with it by accident—they read the novel after receiving it from their manager, who’d meant to send them another book by Jonathan Ames for possible adaptation. “I got this emergency call from my manager: ‘Don’t read the book! I sent you the wrong book,’” recalls Berman. “But it was too late, we were already in love with The Extra Man. And luckily at that point the rights had become available.” Ames collaborated with her and Pulcini on the script.
They started filming right as the economy began to nosedive. “If we had tried to get the money a month later, I don’t think we’d have been able to get it,” Berman says. “While we were shooting, every day the stock market was collapsing.” When The Extra Man screened at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, Berman could discern the financial crisis’ impact on the indie-film marketplace. “When I went to Sundance with American Splendor, there were, like, four times the number of companies looking to buy films,” she says. “There used to be so many outlets and so many companies financing edgy and smart and small movies, and just one by one by one they’ve gone away.”
Financing for The Extra Man came from a foreign source, which Berman says is becoming increasingly common. “It was financed by Wild Bunch, a French financier,” she explains. “The problem with that is that you get very little money. We made this movie on a little over $6 million.” The film is distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
“We were lucky, because Wild Bunch is committed to making art films,” she adds. “But there’s very few companies that do that. Now, when you try to get foreign money, they give you a list of actors they want. It’s like: Here’s $6 million, and we want Brad Pitt, Jack Nicholson and Julia Roberts. I’m not kidding, that’s where it is right now.
“It’s a really big crossroads for independent film, not just in making it but financing and distributing it,” says Berman, who is now working with Pulcini on a feature about the making of the 1970s PBS documentary series An American Life, which presaged the reality TV craze. Diane Lane, James Gandolfini and Tim Robbins are in the cast.
Photos, from top: Kevin Kline as The Extra Man’s Henry Harrison; Louis (Paul Dano) and Henry (Kline) strolling near their Upper East Side hovel; the poster for the new movie; Dano with theater legend Marian Seldes in The Extra Man; married filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. All photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.