During his three-decade film career, Kevin Kline has played all sorts of roles — from the pirate king in The Pirates of Penzance to the president of the United States in Dave. But it's his latest role that might be the most unexpected. In the French film Queen to Play, Kline puts his language skills to the test in his first French-speaking role. He plays a reclusive American doctor living on the island of Corsica, where he strikes up an unlikely friendship with his housekeeper over a game of chess.
Though he plays an American, the role required Kline to be fluent. He studied French in junior high, high school and college, but he says that he didn't really learn to speak until a 1995 movie role rekindled his interest.
"I actually had to speak a little French as a Frenchman in French Kiss," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel. So Kline went to the Alliance Francaise in New York, where a professor coached him. That encouraged him to learn "to speak it and to understand it when French people — especially Parisians — speak it rapidly."
When the opportunity to play a French-speaking American in Queen to Play came along, Kline embraced the challenge. "It was a great experience," he says. "I love that word because in French it means 'experiment' as well as 'experience,' and that's what it was for me."
But it wasn't as simple as expanding his vocabulary and polishing his accent. Kline found that he felt limited acting in a nonnative language. "I could not do extensive ad-libbing," he explains. "It was terribly difficult actually, because although I didn't have to be a Frenchman speaking French — I was still an American — he had to be very fluent."
In learning more French, the acting role exposed him to a whole new side of the language. "There were idiomatic expressions that I had not been aware of, and inflections and stresses that struck me as odd ... things that just don't translate," Kline says.
And as if improving his French weren't enough homework, the role also required Kline to brush up on his chess skills. He had been a sporadic chess player before the film, but Queen to Play helped his game tremendously. "We had a wonderful chess master coaching us and I can now predict four or five moves ahead; I can see that I'm going to lose much sooner," he jokes.
Kline can add these new skills to an already extensive repertoire. Looking back on his decades-long career, he says that he would have told his younger self to lighten up and have more fun. "I was very serious," he says of his early years as an actor. "[I] lived, ate, drank, slept acting." But now, the father of two says that things have changed. "That was before I had a life. Once you're married and you have children, suddenly it's a different level of reality," he says. "I would tell myself to live life and not be so tense."
If he hadn't been so serious, however, Kline suspects he might not have enjoyed such success as an actor. "Ironically, therein is the paradox," he notes. "One devotes one's life to something ... but one sacrifices things."
Along with plenty of life lessons, Kline's years on stage and screen have given him many insights into acting — particularly about the power of ad-libbing. He is famous for improvised lines from his 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda. "A lot of the lines that have stuck to people have been ad-libbed," he says. "[They] have just sort of emerged out of a loose directing style ... allowing the actors a kind of leeway."
Kline has a theory that ad-libbed lines mean more to actors and to audiences. "Those little improvisations ... they're more personal, and therefore more universal and therefore have more sticking power," he explains. Rather than sticking to the script, "it's a different kind of authenticity, because you own it, because you just blurted it out."
Although screenwriters can be frustrated when actors stray from their written words, the script is more like a blueprint, he says. Kline says that director Robert Altman once told screenwriter and cartoonist Garry Trudeau, "The reason you write these lines is so that the actors know who they are. The rest is up to them."
For Kline, it can be frustrating acting in French — he can't quite take off from the script like he can in English. Though he can improvise occasional interjections, "I couldn't go off on a lengthy dissertation about chess or love or island life or anything else," he says.
But it's something to aspire to. "That'll be my next level," he says with a laugh. "My next French film will be all completely ad-libbed."