Greg Kinnear: No More Mr. Nice Guy
Greg Kinnear came from humble beginnings as the host of the basic-cable clip show Talk Soup. It’s something of a minor miracle that he ever made it to the big screen much less threatened to become a movie star. Kinnear fell short of leading man status, but he has carved out a pretty impressive career with supporting roles and independent films. In the October 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, Kinnear discussed his upcoming biopic Auto Focus about the debauched life of “Hogan’s Heroes” star, Bob Crane.
Greg Kinnear is acutely aware that after seeing Auto Focus, in which he plays out the tragic rise and fall of “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane, few moviegoers could possibly ever look at him again in the same way. “In fact,” he says, scrunching one eye and grinning playfully, “some who’ve seen the movie aren’t entirely sure they even want to shake my hand.”
Perhaps that’s not so surprising considering that, in director Paul Schrader’s new film, Kinnear goes right for the groin in playing the TV star of the hugely popular WWII prison camp comedy. Crane’s life took a fatal nosedive once the series was canceled after six seasons. He had straight-arrow good looks, political conservatism and family-man ethics, but in the past few years it’s been revealed that he was in fact a relentlessly sexual outlaw who entangled himself with a thousand women in all sorts of erotic smorgasbords, many of which he photographed and videotaped. Hollywood insiders weren’t shocked when in 1978 he was found brutally murdered in a motel room.
Auto Focus is strong, sad stuff and, as a career move for Kinnear, marks a bold about-face for an actor who, in an era of attention-grabbing movie stars, has enjoyed a relatively non-showy stardom. In person, Kinnear emits the same wry, faintly disreputable breeziness that propelled him from his three-year stint as the host of TV’s “Talk Soup” to scene-grabbing roles in Sabrina and As Good As It Gets (for which he was Oscar nominated), good work in You’ve Got Mail, Nurse Betty, The Gift and We Were Soldiers, and occasional side-trips into what have become known pejoratively as “Greg Kinnear roles” in Loser and Someone Like You. But these days, Kinnear, nearing 40, seems primed to show deeper stuff underneath.
“I was never the class clown,” he says, “or the person who got the most notice. And that’s transferred into my career. I’ve been lucky in a short space of time to have worked with great directors and actors. Like many actors, there have been lots of frustrations in terms of opportunities. But reading the script for Auto Focus, I thought, ‘Wow, something to really sink my teeth into.'”
Was he at all afraid to delve into such dark territory? “Sure,” he says,“I had a split-second of, ‘Do I want to open this door?’ because as thrilling as it was to consider doing, it was also a little frightening. After that split-second, though, it was just something I desperately wanted to do.”
Kinnear was the star of choice for producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (screenwriters of The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon) for both his acting chops and his resemblance to Crane. But the actor himself takes pains to point out the dissimilarities, between himself and the actor “I’m not Bob Crane and we didn’t tell Bob Crane’s life,” says Kinnear. “We did a two-hour interpretation of what happened at a certain time in his life. I’m happy to say that I believe there are huge dissimilarities between me and Bob, not only in terms of his lifestyle but also in terms of his career. I have a tendency to anguish about events in my life, but Bob was made of Teflon. He was doing all this damage and it just sort of rolled off him. I’d be very conscious of the idea of hurting someone. His unshakable optimism fueled his decline. And, of course, there was a kind of high school quality about his approach to sex. Some seeing the movie might say that Bob had a sex addiction as serious as alcoholism or that he was a celebrity who had sex thrown at him, so he took advantage of it. I’m aware that stuff goes on but the notion of where Bob went with his private life is very foreign to me.”
Indeed, Kinnear has gone about his personal life as quietly as he has his career. Although married for the past three years to Helen Labdon, even in his bachelor days he never earned a reputation as a ladies’ man, let alone as an over-the-edge pleasure-seeker as Crane was. Still, Hollywood is Hollywood. So, when I ask how he handled being around beautiful women all the time, he cracks up. “There never was a great deal of handling to do. Are you confusing me with Heath Ledger? Which happens all the time, by the way, so I don’t blame you one bit. I’m the kind of guy who does Michael Keaton imitations for friends, but that’s not exactly the kind of thing that drives women crazy, is it? Yep, I’ve got a clean record. But, really, I was fortunate to fall in love 10 years ago and I’ve been with the same girl ever since.”
With Kinnear receiving such strong reaction to his performance in Auto Focus, is he turning his back on the flip romantic roles? “I have lots of dreams at night where I’m being chased,” he admits, “so I’d love to do a thriller. I don’t know what’s happening next. All I know is that we’re opening Auto Focus at the Telluride Film Festival and I hope it’s like my experience with my first film festival at Cannes with Nurse Betty, which was thrilling because they didn’t boo or throw anything at us.”