Kevin Kline returns to IU, where his acting career began

Change in majors at IU led to award-winning acting career

  • Sept. 16, 2014

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By MJ Slaby

As he introduced actor Kevin Kline, Indiana University President Michael McRobbie listed the actor’s many accomplishments in theater and film.

It’s a career the IU president traced back to the actor’s days as an IU student in the late 1960s, saying “it all began here at Indiana University.” In fact, McRobbie added, Kline’s career began in the very building where Kline was about to receive an honorary doctoral degree on Monday afternoon.

Kline was receiving the honor in the IU Auditorium -- attached to the IU Cinema, which was a theater for live productions when Kline was a student and the first stage he was on at IU.

But the idea that IU was the beginning of his award-winning career?

“Oh, that’s all nonsense,” Kline said he thought at first. Then, he paused. “I thought, no, it did all start here.”

Kline said the skills he learned studying theater at IU were polished at Juilliard in New York.

The Academy Award- and Tony Award-winning actor is the latest to receive an honorary degree and be part of the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture Series. In April, actress Meryl Streep also received an honorary degree and was part of the lecture series.

Kline and Streep were in “Sophie’s Choice” together, and Kline said the two are working on another film starting in a few weeks. As Kline talked about his career, he said there were many roles that almost didn’t happen.

He almost turned down the stage production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” for which he won Tony and Drama Desk awards, but was riding his bike through Central Park in New York and changed his mind. And he wasn’t sure about “The Big Chill,” but it was Streep who encouraged him to do it.

“There’s a long story behind everything that usually starts with me turning it down, getting talked into it, and then winning awards,” Kline said with a laugh.

Then, Jonathan Michaelsen, chairman of the IU department of theater, drama and contemporary dance, asked about the story behind the film “Dave.”

“I turned it down,” Kline said.

“You turned it down?”

“Of course,” Kline laughed.

And it was even a change of his mind that led Kline to theater at IU. He came to campus to study music, but then enrolled in an acting class and found a passion for acting.

“Mr. Kline’s path is like many others’. … He came to do something he didn’t end up doing,” said IU Provost Lauren Robel. “Mr. Kline’s future found him.”

Ashley Dillard, an IU student in the audience who is working toward a master’s degree in acting, said she was excited to hear how Kline’s career evolved from his time at IU.

“It really put the nail in the coffin of why I came here,” she said.

Kline said it was his time as an IU student -- and later experiences -- that taught him to develop a role. When he first started, he said, he would imitate what he thought acting looked like, but then learned he could interpret a role.

“Oh, wait a minute, you can be an artist,” he said. “You’re not just imitating other imitators’ imitations.”

It was at the Brown County Playhouse that he tried comedy and realized he could be funny. That led to later films such as “A Fish Called Wanda.”

And it’s a different approach with every role, he said. “There is no such thing as a right way and a wrong way; there’s just a good way and a bad way,” Kline said.

He said some roles are mostly improvisational. But others take years of preparation. Kline said he carried a copy of “Hamlet” for 10 years before actually acting in the Shakespeare play.

“Each role, I think, requires its own preparation,” he said.

However, there’s one thing, Kline joked, that he didn’t learn at any point in his career: how to choose a script. Take “The Big Chill,” he said with a laugh.

“I thought, nobody is going to see this,” Kline said, smiling. “So I can really pick ’em.”

Upcoming Kevin Kline films at IU

• Tuesday, 7 p.m.: “The Ice Storm”— 1997 drama, rated R. Directed by Ang Lee.

• Sept. 30, 7 p.m.: “Dave” — 1993 comedy, rated PG-13. Directed by Ivan Reitman.

Films are at the IU Cinema, 1213 E. Seventh St. Tickets are $3.

For more information, call 812-856-2503or email