Hey, Kevin, Cut It Out

He may be the best since Olivier, but . . . sometimes you really wish Kevin Kline would just stop acting

Kevin Kline during 40th Annual Golden Globe Awards at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA on January 29th, 1983. Credit: Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

Kevin Kline looks at his legs as if he can't quite figure out how they work. He's trying to cross them, but as he leans forward, stares down in deadpan bewilderment, they take on a life of their own. He watches intently as his right leg slowly rises, hovers in the air, swings back and forth from his knee. His right foot bumps lightly against his left calf – once, twice – no, that's not it. What now? Aha! He looks up and raises a forefinger – he has a plan! Slowly, he reaches down, his hands sneaking up on his leg, trying to catch it by surprise. At the last moment, he snatches at his ankle, captures it and lifts it abruptly onto his left knee. There!

Kevin Kline is sitting on a couch in a suite at the Plaza, taping an interview about The Big Chill for Entertainment Tonight. They've asked him to cross his legs, and he's not just cooperative, he gives them a little shtick, too. The woman interviewing him looks as if she's seriously considering throwing it all away on the spot and swooning into his arms. Jeff Goldblum is being interviewed, too – they're making a big deal out of the film's being an "ensemble" effort – and the interviewer asks if the two actors formed a "lasting friendship" on the set.

Kevin Kline gives an I'm-glad-you-asked-that-question smile, looks fondly at Jeff and says, "No way."

"Was there any clash of egos during the filming?"

"Clash of egos?" Kevin Kline replies, as if slightly shocked at the question but much too polite to show he's offended. "Clash of egos? Oh, not at all. Jeff idolized me."

"Then you were the spiritual leader of the group?" She's getting into it herself – where has this man been all her life?

"Oh, no," Kevin Kline says. "We took turns being the spiritual leader. Actually, I'm just kidding. We drew straws."

There's an old show-business saying about interviews – if you give them a quote, you don't have to give them the truth. Kevin Kline seems to have his own version today – if you give them a laugh, you don't even have to give them an answer. You all spent six weeks under the same roof? "Yes, now that you mention it, there was a roof." Stuff like that.

Kevin Kline has other modes of irony besides the disconnected mind and body, the suddenly reversed expectation. He'll say something that sounds utterly serious, then look around in mock wariness to see if he's managed to fool you into believing him. He'll pose in suave elegance, his chin in his palm, his elbow on a table, then suddenly slip his elbow off the table.

"There's always a danger that when you spend a lot of time with someone" – he's now telling Entertainment Tonight about Jeff Goldblum – "that you'll unconsciously pick up a lot of his mannerisms." He's scratching his neck as he talks, fondling his ears, massaging the nape of his neck – hey, that looks just like Jeff! "I think I've avoided that," Kevin says solemnly, and even Jeff is laughing.

They love it. They can't wait to air it. Kevin Kline is not only polite, cooperative, unassuming, debonair, charming, talented and handsome, he has a fabulous sense of humor, too. None of that big-star ego – he makes fun of himself more than anyone. This has got to be the least affected, most likable, most well-adjusted actor in the business. By the time they're finished, everybody in the room is half in love with Kevin Kline.

"Now I've got to do an in-depth inteview," he says as I wait to speak to him. He loosens his tie, takes off his jacket, folds it elegantly over his arm. Whoops, almost blew it, that wasn't a very tactful thing to say. But he's not flustered – not Kevin Kline. In a split second, he's recovered. "You know," he says, letting everyone know he's still just goofing, "like Jacques Cousteau."

THE PIRATE KING IN THE 'PIRATES OF PENZANCE,' the epitome of romantic swagger, the epitome of dashing grandeur – a "Give me a castle to conquer and a wench to woo!" role. He flamboyantly flourishes his sword, waves it grandly around his head, throws back his chin in piratical glee, thrusts forward his chest in brazen gusto and, with a shout of triumph, boldly stabs his sword into the ground – only to impale his boot. Kevin Kline, swashbungler. One of the most memorable moments on Broadway in a decade. He won a Tony for that role and could have retired on the spot and entered the Pantheon.

Bruce Granit in On the Twentieth Century, his other Tony-winning performance – a sleek, self-infatuated matinee idol, swooning with ardor every time he comes near a mirror, Tristan to his own Isolde. He bursts onstage for his curtain call, thrusts forward a flash camera, aims it at himself and, posing with narcissistic delight, snaps his own picture – nearly blinding himself with the flash.

Kevin Kline has virtually invented a new form of Broadway comedy – manic gallantry deflated by abrupt ineptitude, dashing self-confidence undercut by bumbling self-sabotage. Captivated by romantic legend, enamored of their own chivalrous panache, these characters are humbled by their larger-than-life aspirations – they can't quite pull it off – for at the very moment of apotheosis, humdrum humanity intrudes, and they trip over their own egos, slip on the banana peel of vanity. Arrogance has never seemed so adorable, hubris so huggable. Awkwardness has never been rendered so elegantly, pratfalls done with such grace. Both sublime and ridiculous, these characters are energized by self-love yet loved for their redeeming clumsiness.

Kevin Kline has also virtually invented a new kind of Broadway sex symbol – the heroic buffoon, the suave clown, simultaneously self-assured and self-mocking. Glamorous, courtly, devastatingly handsome, the epitome of wistful daydreams, yet at the same time amiably awkward, humanized by humor. Is it any wonder that for years almost every woman in New York has suffered from that delightful malady, the Kevin Kline crush?

A ruthless schemer, a limping hunchback who is cunning, graceless, despicable – that was Kevin Kline's next appearance on the New York stage, Richard III. This is not an actor about to let himself be typecast. This, in fact, is the perfect actor for the role of the fatally glamorous Nathan in Sophie's Choice, one of the most sought-after roles in Hollywood (Hoffman, Pacino, De Niro – all were rumored to want it; only Dom DeLuise didn't think he was born for the part). Gay and light-hearted, dreamily poetic, savagely cruel, the psychotic Nathan demanded an actor of extraordinary range, and Kevin Kline instantly convinced Hollywood of what theater people had known for years – that he is perhaps the most versatile actor in America today.

"I saw him at Juilliard in A School for Scandal," says Alan Schneider, who later directed Kline as an ex-Peace Corps volunteer in Loose Ends. "I remember going to see him afterward and saying, 'Kevin, you can do anything.' He can become the finest actor in the American theater."

"Believe it or not, I first thought of casting Kevin as Nathan after seeing him in Pirates," recalls Sophie's Choice director Alan Pakula. "I was dazzled. He had a certain capacity for joy, the life force, the humor so essential for Nathan. Another thing I liked is that he's not afraid to make fun of his own persona. As far as I'm concerned, he's a man who's just begun – you ain't seen nothin' yet."

With that technique, with that profile, what's he doing in The Big Chill, a.k.a. The Ripoff of the Secaucus Seven, a phony, where-have-the-Sixties-gone reunion film, splendidly cast but meretriciously written and filmed? He's playing a rich sporting-goods dealer who hosts the get-together and screws the spinster, that's what he's doing – a role he could have left on his answering machine. Asked to do little more than shave off his mustache, display a Southern accent and hype the result on a multi-city publicity tour – which he does, gentleman to a fault, with unfaltering courtesy – well, it's like giving Olivier a walk-on in a soap.

Olivier? Olivier? Slow down. Maybe we ain't seen nothin' yet, but what happened to irony?

I HOPE YOU DIDN'T THINK I WAS BEING FATUOUS in there," Kevin Kline says on the Plaza elevator as we leave the Entertainment Tonight shooting. "Actually, I was being" – he pauses to think of the right word – "obnoxious."

"I'm glad you've grown back your mustache."

"Uh-oh," Kevin Kline says, fingering his upper lip in mock panic. "Did I make a fatal mistake?" He segues to mock solemnity. "Actually, the studio bigwigs got together in this big powwow: Should...Kevin...Kline...wear...a...mustache...or...should...he...shave...it...off?" He suddenly segues to straightforward panic. "No, no, don't write that down! I was only kidding! They don't even know who I am."

It's the first time he's dropped his ironic tone, but the fact that he's not kidding is, in itself, ironic. Of course they know who he is, but something in him doesn't seem to believe it. Have to remember that. There's a certain kind of person who uses debonair self-mockery as a mask for insecurity. But sometimes Kevin Kline is even ironic about his irony – this is not going to be an easy man to pin down.

"Some actors like to work from the inside out," he told the crowd at the ceremonies for the off-Broadway Obie awards a couple of years ago. "I like to work" – he put on his anyone-this-good-looking-must-be-vapid expression – "I like to work from the outside out." Pretending to be vain, making fun of himself at the same time – everyone had a Kevin Kline crush that night, too.

We get a table at the Plaza's Oyster Bar. I order oysters, he orders a steak. His eyes gesture upstairs. "Entertainment Tonight!"

"Did you get to know Ann Arbor on a first-name basis?" he'd been asked.

"Oh, of course," he'd answered, with a gesture of urbane complacency. Then the stab in the boot. "I called it Ann."

"I can't believe I did that," he says now. He quickly slaps both cheeks.

A man comes over and apologizes for interrupting – he just wants to say how much he enjoyed Kline's performance in Sophie's Choice. Kevin Kline is perfectly gracious about it, but isn't it annoying? "Usually," he says with a debonair wave of the hand, "I punch 'em out. No, actually my mother warned me when I was still in my highchair that I'd have to get used to strangers' recognizing me from my movies. Shhh. Here comes the waiter again. Let's not talk while he's here – I don't want him to see how tediously boring I am. Tediously boring?" He can't believe he said that. "Do you know what adscititious means? No? Well, then I'm not going to tell you." His eyes narrow in mock wariness. "Unless we make it off the record. Off the record, okay? It's sort of like a pleonasm, it means 'unnecessarily supplementary.' Like 'tediously boring.' "

This goes on for another hour or so, this verbal slapstick, and it's immensely entertaining – even his enemies must find him likable – but as he's finishing his steak, discoursing in mock academic tones on the difference between gourmet and gourmand, I raise a question: "Do you always have this ironic, self-mocking persona, or is it just with the media?"

Kevin Kline isn't taken aback, not for a second. He pauses ostentatiously, his fork halfway to his mouth, but he's only acting taken aback.

"You mean," he says in somber, resonant tones, "who...is...the...real...Kevin...Kline?"

"You seem to have an aversion to revealing yourself."

He contemplates that for a moment. "Hmmm. I thought I'd gotten over that. But no, I wouldn't say I have an aversion. It's just that there are places for revealing yourself, and the Oyster Bar at the Plaza Hotel," he says with a hint of finality, "isn't one of them.

"Look," he continues, "upstairs just now, I knew I was being evasive. I kept thinking, 'Maybe I should actually answer this question,' but it's so much easier to make it all a joke. I wish I could have said, 'Go see The Big Chill, good night,' and have left it at that. But it's part of the business, it's expected, and of course it's easier to get good work if you're 'well known.' I suppose what it comes down to," he says, cringing in mock meekness, "is in...se...cur...i...ty."

Or maybe what it comes down to is that some people tell the truth as if they're only kidding, so you don't quite know what to believe. It's so much easier to make it all a joke.

"I shouldn't talk, I much prefer to just nod. You talk." But Kevin Kline likes to talk about not liking to talk. "Every time I do an interview," he goes on immediately, "I always think: 'Why did I say that? Why didn't I say this instead? Oh, my God, why didn't I deny it?' " Deny what? What's so terrible? "I get so upset at myself," he goes on, but he makes it clear he's not really upset, he's just acting upset. He presses his palms against his cheeks, drops his jaw – an Edvard Munch expression of silently shrieking horror. Maybe you'll overlook the anguish in his words, focus on the charming self-mockery of the gesture instead. Can he always act his way out of a tight spot this skillfully?

He mimes composing himself. "I just feel very strongly that audiences shouldn't know anything about me. They should see the character, not the actor. The less they know about you, the more likely they are to accept the roles you play. If I collected stamps, I wouldn't want people to know that. It should be mysterious. Why cloud this issue? So what if I own a big house in the Andes, I'm heavily into drugs, I have sex with Chihuahuas? Oh, my God, you're writing that down! I was only kidding! Believe me, I'm the most boring person alive! Oh, my God, now everyone's going to think...."

Kevin Kline suddenly halts, elevates his chin, closes his eyes, holds up his hand in a don't-worry-I've-got-hold-of-myself gesture. "Actually, I'm an alcoholic and deeply into transcendental meditation. No, really, really, I believe in absolute discretion – and what's more, you can quote me on that.

"The...real...Kevin...Kline," he repeats in March of Time tones. "Oh, my God. Do you get paid if this doesn't work out? Then let's invent something – say I've been doing guerrilla theater with the Living Theater in Africa, make up some gory war stories, make up some hot romances, say I've...."

Speaking of hot romances, what about this old item in the New York Post? "Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline...don blue jeans and T-shirts after each performance [of Pirates] and race over to the Museum Cafe on Columbus Avenue for dinner and drinks. They hug, kiss and neck up such a fiery storm at the restaurant that they distract other diners from their own dinners." Then there's Patti LuPone, Brooke Adams....

Kevin Kline is never flustered – never. If he feels flustered, he'll act flustered, so you'll think he's only pretending he's flustered. He's doing a splendid imitation now. "You left out Donna McKechnie and Mia Farrow," he says. "I've never even met them, but the papers said we were going out together. All I have to do is to be seen with someone and....Let me rearticulate that with greater clarity. Rearticulate? Greater clarity? Am I being adscititious?" He furrows his brow, concentrates with scholarly intensity, a pompous professorial parody.

"But all you have to do is be seen with someone? Kevin?"

"Oh, yes. I mean, there's a rumor going around – completely spurious – that I go out with all my leading ladies. Now, even denying it, I've made it into an issue, when there's not an iota of a figment of veracity in it. And even if it were true, it wouldn't be germane."

"What is germane then?"

Kevin Kline's never at a loss for words. "Whatever I can tell you without exposing myself," he says. "Look, what I could do is get into a serious actor thing, except that's so dull. I'd just pepper my discourse with sesquipedalianisms." By this time, I don't bat an eyelash. "That might be fascinating to me. But you must have figured out by now that I'm basically boring. Though I'd never admit it. Though I just did." He stops, does a deadpan doubletake, silently traces the convolutions of that last outburst back and forth with his forefinger. "Now you must think I'm psychotic."

The real Kevin Kline thinks he's telling you nothing. When he does get into his "serious actor thing," he talks eloquently about "the mask that reveals" – but now he's convinced he's not revealing a thing.

He won't let interviewers see his apartment – "it's as unfinished as I am; you'd learn too much about me." Ask him who his close friends are, and he'll vaguely reply, "A doctor friend from college, some others," and change the subject. And though he's very polite about it, he won't even tell you the name of the first Broadway show he saw. "There's a lot I don't want to know about certain actors – and I'm one of them. I believe it's an actor's responsibility" – he catches himself, pauses, plays back his mental tape with an expression of mock dismay. "No," he says, "I can't finish any sentence that begins, 'It's an actor's responsibility.' " A good part of Kevin Kline's considerable charm comes from his almost obsessive self-mockery – it's just that after a while, you begin to notice the obsessiveness more than the self-mockery.

"I'd much rather talk about Richard III than Kevin Kline," he's saying – he's suddenly off on his "serious actor thing" – and it's not dull at all. In fact, it's brilliant. He talks about the gullibility of Richard's followers and how they believe anything he says, about why Pirates didn't make it as a movie, about the causes of Nathan's psychosis – but the self-censorship is still at work. "Strike that," he'll say suddenly. "That really sounds maudlin and actorish." Or, "Don't say I said that, it's so cornball, people will think I'm [revulsive shudder] an actor." One good thing about a script – you have complete control over every word you say.

"It'd be so easy to be interesting because you're indiscreet," he says. "I live in constant fear that I have nothing interesting to say that's not discreet."

"So you express your indiscretions in your roles?" A sharp, wary glance – cat and mouse, eh? Okay, I'll play, Kevin seems to be saying. "Since I bare my soul when I act, I make up for it by cherishing my privacy."

"Then if you bare your soul when you act, which of your roles...."

"Is...most...revealing...of...the real...?" His eyebrows arch into question marks. A what-the-hell-I-might-as-well-give-it-a-shot shrug. "My friends sometimes say...but no...and the Pirate King, what a mask he is!...I think there's more of myself in...but I sure ain't that character in The Big Chill...no...I'm sorry, I couldn't even begin to answer that question."

Kevin Kline isn't flustered, but he isn't being articulate now either, and to cover it up, he puts on his now-you've-made-me-uncomfortable expression. And it suddenly seems possible that a person might become an actor if he had trouble expressing his emotions – it'd be so much easier, so much safer, to express them through characterizations. He could express them and remain distant from them at the same time, he could express them and people would think he was only acting – he could do that in "real life," too, while making it clear he was being ironic. It could actually be very charming – people would find him very likable and at the same time never know who he is. If you give them a character, you don't have to give them a person. It suddenly seems possible, in short, that Kevin Kline's greatest performance is "Kevin Kline."

"So you're saying you haven't really revealed yourself in any of your roles."

"Not in any way that would interest anyone. I warned you I was boring, but no, you wouldn't listen. I'm very analytical, it's just that I'm not self-analytical."

"But don't you think the need to hide behind roles could, in itself, be very revealing?"

"Aha! A trap! No, my not wanting to be deeply self-revelatory isn't deeply revelatory either. Hey, this is fun!"

Yes, "Kevin Kline" is one of the most charming, likable people I've ever met – it's just that I'm beginning to feel I'd like to meet Kevin Kline sometime.

ONE OF THE IRONIC RESULTS OF KEVIN Kline's versatility is that he's always being compared to other actors. The classic profile, the poetic eyes, the soulful gaze? – John Gilbert. The lighthearted, self-mocking derring-do, the rakish mustache, the almost too handsome Irish face? – Errol Flynn. Not to mention the comparisons to Douglas Fairbanks, Gene Kelly, John Barrymore, Ben Turpin. Yet in his dedication to the anonymity of his profession – to say nothing of his matinee-idol features and classical training, his versatility and awesome potential, his refusal to settle comfortably into a commercial persona – he resembles Laurence Olivier most of all.

When I ask Kevin Kline who his models are, he answers, "Alec Guinness."

"Is that the first one who came to mind?" "No," he says. "I'm editing as I go. Usually, he's my second choice. My first is such a cliché, I'm embarrassed to say it out loud." Yet he's so articulate with his expression, with his gestures – an entire thesaurus in the way he moves his shoulders, Nabokov's vocabulary in the way he raises an eyebrow or tilts his head – that it's instantly clear who he means. Olivier. "Olivier, Guinness, Richardson, Jeff Goldblum – the big four."

Kevin Kline hates the way people are always comparing him to other actors. But isn't it flattering to be compared to Gilbert, Flynn, Barrymore? Isn't it gratifying to be regarded as another Laurence Olivier? Another paradox: it seems to annoy him both because it makes him seem arrogant to aspire to that stature and because it detracts from his own achievements. It's the only time he becomes curt. John Gilbert? "What on earth for?" Errol Flynn? "I don't see the resemblance at all." He'd rather talk about his cocaine-smuggling bust, his fathering of Brooke Shields' child....

Yet for all the revved-up hyperbole, Kline's film career has yet to take off. Pirates was a bust onscreen ("The Pirate King is largely a vertical role," he says, "but all that verticality is lost on film"), The Big Chill is smaller than life, and Sophie's Choice is really Meryl Streep's film.

He's much too much the gentleman to complain, of course, but close friends say he was disappointed that he didn't receive an Oscar nomination for Nathan, and that he even shows hints of anger that many of his best scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor. Just hints? "He's too diplomatic to come right out and say it," one colleague reveals, "In fact, he's so controlled, I'm not even sure he knows himself how he feels about it. But I get the definite impression that somewhere inside, he feels fucked over."

In any case, Kevin Kline is no young man in a hurry. Out in Hollywood, there's a new variation on old gossip. Instead of saying, "Did you hear what role Al Pacino was offered?" they're saying, "Did you hear what role Kevin Kline turned down?" Four major scripts in two weeks, one source reports – integrity rather than chutzpah, most of his colleagues insist. "I need to take time off periodically," Kevin Kline replies vaguely. He can say "no comment" more politely than anyone.

He reveals a momentary sign of annoyance when asked the "theater or film" question, though. "Why does it always have to be a versus situation? I don't think actors have to make that choice anymore."

But there are those who think he'll have to make it. "He's too boldface to be a major movie actor," argues a leading film critic. "The charged theatricality that makes him so vivid onstage is just too much on the screen. It's too difficult to sustain, you need a lower voltage, you need a more inner, contemplative quality in films." It's possible, in fact, that his career may take the same route as that of another grand-manner Broadway actor who never became the major film star his talent seemed to promise – Jose Ferrer. But whether on Broadway or in Hollywood, no one disputes that he's one of the two or three most gifted actors in their thirties in America today – or that the Kevin Kline crush is here to stay.

ST. LOUIS, 1947, OCTOBER 24TH – I'm born," KK says. "I have total recall."

In fact, he almost came out of the womb with a pratfall. "My mother was in the elevator on the way to the delivery room when she felt me coming. 'Don't panic!' the doctor kept shrieking at her. 'Don't panic!' 'I'm perfectly calm,' she told him. 'I'm just telling you we'd better hurry.' They made it just in time. I've never been any trouble to anyone since that day."

KK's father, who owned a record and toy store, was German-Jewish, his mother an Irish Catholic, and as usually happens in such cases, he was raised a Catholic. Does he still practice? "Oh, no," he says. "I perfected it long ago."

From the seventh through the twelfth grade, KK was educated by Benedictine monks, standing up when the master entered the room, steeped in Greek and Latin, surrounded by students who got 800s on their SATs. And, of course, there was corporal punishment – they'd hand out daily beatings, you'd get caned if you were caught smoking, you'd have to bend over and drop your pants at the slightest infraction. What a barbaric, emotionally repressive atmosphere! It could leave you psychically scarred for life! It must have been horrible!

KK doesn't remember it that way. "It was rather fun, actually. I was the class clown, the class wit – that's what the yearbook called me. I never buttoned the top button of my shirt or tightened my tie all the way. I was the rebel. In fact, I got away with murder. I smoked every day for three years. Emotionally repressive? Look at it this way – at least I was spared the nuns."

KK's "first theatrical experience – I still remember the play," he says, was 46 x 12. Not Our Town, not The Importance of Being Earnest, but 46 x 12. "In my senior year, I was an understudy on the football team and dove and caught a pass with one hand one inch off the ground on the one-yard line. It was thrilling. The coach said it was the best catch of the season."

KK was happier playing the piano, though – he was already an accomplished pianist – and entered Indiana University's music school to study composing and conducting. In his first year, he took an acting class and was told to sit in on an audition for the school play. "You haven't read yet," the director said when all the applicants had finished.

"But I'm just watching."

"What's your name?"

"KK."

"And now, by special request," the director announced, "here's KK reading the bleeding-sergeant scene from Macbeth." KK looked around, but there was no other KK there. Well, hadn't he learned to fake it with the monks?

"I didn't understand a single word," he recalls. "Shakespeare was gibberish to me. I'd seen King Lear in high school, but I necked all the way through the first act and left before the second act began. So I used my lowest, most resonant voice – after all, this was Shake...speare," he says in a bombastic bass, his hand flattened on his chest. "I read the thirty-five lines and got the part."

It was nothing serious, just a lark, and if KK had gone back to St. Louis between his freshman and sophomore years, the person he'd be compared to today might be Leonard Bernstein. Who knows why he didn't go back? Anyway, he joined some classmates to spend the summer on a showboat on the Ohio River across from Louisville, living dormitory-style on the upper deck, swabbing the decks during the day, putting on plays at night. "It was the greatest summer of my life," KK recalls. "I fell madly in love with the theater – and with the Ohio River – and with a beautiful girl. Ah, the Showboat Majestic," and his expression of dreamy, blissful nostalgia is worth an Oscar.

He jerks his head quickly back and forth to return to the present. "The Showboat Majestic. I was not a good actor," KK goes on. "I was much too stiff. Now, I'm much too loose, but..."

"Wait. After all those years with the monks," I ask, "did you find acting attractive because it allowed you to express emotions without fear of being censured?"

KK doesn't say a word. His face recedes six inches, tilts at a forty-five-degree angle, takes on a stunned, quizzical expression: Am I to believe what I just heard? Would you care to run that by me again?

"Forget it," I say.

"Gladly. It was an all-boys school, though," he confesses, "and we were pretty cool. Emotions? Emotions? They weren't something you expressed, they were something you kept to yourself. It inhibited me as an actor for years, until I loosened up.

"Anyway, when the gang on the boat went back to school in the fall...you remember what it was like in college." He puts on a contemptuous sneer: "'The theater department sucks. They do the same old crap every year. Let's start our own theater."' So they did – the Vest Pocket Players. "We were big on sartorial uniformity. We did political satire, living-newspaper stuff, opera parodies, lots of revues, a revue a week. I was 'the funny piano player' – you know, the guy who always cracks up at the other actors' improvisations. After a while, we even got a bit of a following. I found that I liked actors better than musicians. They were so much...freer. I knew this was what I had to do. So I changed my major from music to theater, and from that moment on, there was no turning back."

The fervent years – staying up all night to write group manifestoes defining the function of theater, moving on from revues to dramatic readings of T.S. Eliot to full-scale productions of Brecht, Prometheus Bound, Deathwatch. Even improvising their own play, Entopan, Greek for "all is one." "It was about the primal evolution of man, journeying through disorder into order, walking into the light – I can't believe I'm telling you this! I played the male part of the soul – oy! oy! oy! I wrote the title song myself – or rather, I stole it from Prokofiev. Or rather, I borrowed it – I gave it back when I was through. RCA even commissioned us to do an album about urbanization – yes, I still have a copy, and no, you may not hear it.

"In my senior year, we did what is, to this day, the most exciting theater experience I've ever had – Viet Rock." He's not going to horse around about Viet Rock. "We changed people's lives. I mean that night. People would burn their draft cards after seeing it. I suppose it was a very Sixties thing to..." But no, he resists the temptation to undercut that experience with irony.

Maybe now's the time to get a straight answer. "Why do you think you became so obsessed with acting?"

KK doesn't go into a thoughtful act, he thinks. "Yeah, well, I've never really thought it through. I suppose it's something to do with...loving to see movies when I was a kid and the old cliché, seeing something you enjoy and saying, 'I'd like to do that, it's within the realm of the possible.' I'm not just being glib." But the word seems to strike a chord. "I think," he says, "that on reflection, I'd prefer to go back to being glib."

Postgraduate studies at Juilliard, the famous Acting Company tour under John Houseman's direction, with fellow students Patti LuPone and William Hurt – playing towns not even shown on county maps, dressing in guidance counselors' offices, doing The Hostage, School for Scandal, The Lower Depths, Measure for Measure, a training that allowed him to master all eighty-eight keys. Then the big break with On the Twentieth Century, The Pirates of Penzance, Sophie's Choice – KK tells the rest of the story with wit and charm, but he's done it again, he's become "KK."

KEVIN KLINE'S CHARACTERISTIC mode is to express an emotion, then act that emotion, then slightly exaggerate the acting to make sure you see he's only pretending, leaving you to wonder, in all this distancing, in all this irony about irony, where is Kevin Kline?

The paradox of acting is, of course, that you can reveal yourself precisely at the same time you're disguising yourself. If you're torn between egotism and insecurity, for instance, or between exhibitionism and inhibition ("The more repressed you are, the more exciting it is to break the rules" – Kevin Kline), acting is the best way of calling attention to yourself to avoid being seen. You can express emotions you might otherwise be afraid to express, yet you can hide behind your characterization. What better way to have complete control over how other people perceive you? And if your mode of acting stresses versatility and irony, and if you carry this mode over into your personal life, the distancing is doubled. People can find you the most charming, likable person they've ever met – without noticing that they haven't really met you. Isn't this what happens in a crush?

Kevin Kline doesn't like to talk about this, but he reveals a lot anyway. When asked if an actor has to like such characters as Bruce Granit or the Pirate King in order to portray them well, he says: "While I'm portraying them, yes. I don't have to like myself all day or after the show. It would be nice if someday I could. But for an audience to be able to watch a character who loves himself – what a joy! Because most of us spend our lives hating ourselves." Maybe sometimes when you give them a quote...maybe sometimes you inadvertently give them the truth as well.

"Acting was a release for me. I'm much more expressive of emotions than I used to be. With the monks, one didn't get points for being emotional, but the theater was a place where people were encouraged to feel. It was me against my emotions for years. Eventually, I found the simpering emotional wreck that I really am." We know he's only kidding – of course that's not what he's like at all, it's just self-irony. But when self-irony becomes obsessive, maybe it indicates that you're afraid it might be true after all. If it's you against your emotions, couldn't there be a fear that when the emotions finally break through, you won't be able to control them? Don't we all occasionally tell the truth in a joking way, to convince people we're lying? And as for narcissism, don't we all occasionally act out qualities we don't like in ourselves in an exaggerated, comic way, so people will see we're really not like that at all?

One word that keeps coming up in Kevin Kline's conversations about acting is safe. "Acting is a wonderful way to explore things, go all the way and know you're safe. It's nice to be able to go into an emotional breakdown or a tirade onstage and know you're safe." For one thing, a control freak likes to know how it turns out. For another, you're not only safe from others, you're even safe from yourself.

But why the need to be safe? Everyone, everyone who meets Kevin Kline agrees he's not just polite, cooperative, unassuming, debonair, charming, talented and handsome, he has a fabulous sense of humor as well. Those who know him a little better add "well adjusted," "unspoiled" and "modest." (When asked to name some other members of the Vest Pocket Players, for instance, he's reluctant to answer – "I don't want to seem like. I'm name-dropping." This from an actor with two Tonys! Or, when praised for his mimicry: "I'm really a terrible mimic. If you saw my John Wayne, you'd swear it was Richard Burton.")

No one dislikes Kevin Kline – not even people who don't particularly like him. Even the few reserved reviews of his performances in Sophie's Choice and Richard III said he seemed too "nice" a person to convincingly portray a character's dark side. ("Oh, yeah?" replies an old flame, but she hastens to add that he's also polite, cooperative, unassuming, etc.) "Bullshit!" responds John Houseman, who feels that Kevin "has all the makings of a great classical actor, including range and intelligence." Houseman recalls that at first he thought Kevin was a talented but "basically conventional and well-behaved actor" – until, performing in The Knack, "he suddenly went wild and revealed a dangerous side of his talent none of us had seen before."

And even those who'll tell you he's not all that perfect still seem under his spell. "He seems so well adjusted on the surface," says someone who's known him for years, "but actually I find him very neurotic. Have you ever noticed how much he stresses the suffering of acting? He was always carrying on about how performing the Pirate King was so painful – of course he was right, but it was as if he were doing penance for something. And for all that famous modesty, don't forget he won his first Tony in a role that was a nothing part in the script – he made that part into a showpiece himself – and he won his second in a role that had never been considered the lead, not until he got through with it. I always sense an enormous amount of guilt and insecurity in him. But still," he adds, shaking his head and smiling, "you won't find anyone as charming."

Another colleague: "The slightest criticism can deflate him for days. And he'll never tell anyone except his close friends that he often hates his performances – he'll go into fits of anxiety because he felt he was so far short of what he could have done. People who see him as self-confident just don't know how much he frets. I adore Kev."

"Even though he seems like such an uninhibited, energetic, loose actor," adds an old classmate, "it's always under rigid control. He's the most cerebral, most protected person I know. I couldn't tell you why – that Catholic upbringing, maybe, or that repressive, middle-class, Mid-western background – but my guess is that it's a way of masking hostility. It makes it impossible to feel really close to him, he's always holding you at a distance. I don't think it's any accident that he hasn't had a long relationship with anyone since he broke up with Patti LuPone [friends report that he is indeed living alone these days] – in other words, since he became a star." Yet this classmate has a Kevin Kline crush, too. "Maybe it'd only be a one-night stand," she sighs, "but what a one-night stand!"

Guilty? Insecure? Neurotic? Protected? "Oh, it happens all the time," say one of his oldest friends in exasperation. "When you're that talented, that likable, that successful, some people become jealous and start putting you down, exaggerating your perfectly natural weaknesses, taking the smallest thing and blowing it all out of proportion. Kevin's only human, he broods about these things, but what can you do? As far as I'm concerned, it's good to see one of the healthy ones become a success, it's good to see someone become a star who actually deserves it." But don't you sometimes wonder if that obsessive self-irony could be a bit of a facade? "Not at all. All that shows is that he's a modern, intelligent person."

"Sure, he's insecure," adds an especially close friend. "Who isn't? But that's only because he's so committed to his work. That's one thing people never understand who see him goofing all the time. But he's incredibly ambitious, in the best sense of the word. He knows he has enormous talent, he just wants to use it well." But don't you sometimes wonder if goofing isn't a way of keeping himself at a distance? "Of course not. He knows that actors tend to become too self-absorbed, especially if they're successful early in their careers. His sense of humor is the perfect corrective to that – if anything, it shows that he's basically serious."

Intelligent, serious – more adjectives to add to the list! Where is Kevin Kline in all this string of superlatives?

"And don't forget," she adds, "on top of everything else, he has a burden none of the rest of us have – people always expect him to live up to 'Kevin Kline.' "

"Did you put quotation marks around his name?"

"Isn't that the problem people who are idolized always have – keeping their sense of themselves separate from their public image?"

"Kevin Kline" – it suddenly seems possible that if Kevin Kline is "well protected," he has every reason in the world to be. An intelligent, serious actor, desiring more than anything to do good work, afraid people will see the actor instead of the performance, painfully aware that the gossip columns feed on crushes, his every normal insecurity magnified by public exposure, his every lapse scrutinized for hints of his "secret life." Self-mockery? It could be the least neurotic way for an intelligent, serious actor like Kevin Kline to adjust to fame, to keep his balance, to keep his sanity. Irony? Every good Catholic learns the need for a memento mori, and Kevin Kline, in fact, keeps a skull in his apartment. Well protected? Maybe Kevin Kline is going to need it.

KEVIN KLINE IS GOING IN THE other direction, toward Broadway. We're standing on the curb. It's time to say good night. "You mean we've done it?" he says with delight. "You have everything you need and I haven't told you anything? My first in-depth interview, and I actually managed to reveal nothing of myself whatsoever? Hey, this was easy!"

Kevin Kline suddenly loses his balance, lurches forward, stumbles off the curb – but he's only pretending.