Kevin Kline Felt A Bit Spoiled On The Set Of Sophie's Choice

After a decade of sensational work in New York City theater (for which he won two Tony Awards), Kevin Kline was at last ready to make his motion picture debut. He couldn't have chosen a buzzier project than Alan J. Pakula's "Sophie's Choice," a shattering drama based on the National Book Award-winning novel by William Styron. Pakula had been wowed by Kline's bravura performance in the 1981 Broadway revival of "The Pirates of Penzance," and believed the effervescent actor could capture the alternating charm and terror of Nathan Landau, a seemingly brilliant chemist engaged in an abusive love affair with Sophie, a Polish immigrant haunted by a horrible sacrifice she was forced to make during the Holocaust.

For the part of Sophie, Pakula was torn between the brilliant Norwegian actor Liv Ullman and the unknown-in-the-U.S. Slovakian performer Magdaléna Vášáarová. Unfortunately for these two, Meryl Streep had serious designs on the role, going so far as to throw herself on the ground to beg the director to cast her. Pakula was not about to turn down the most sought-after actor in Hollywood, so he relented. Peter MacNicol, another young artist new to the big screen, rounded out the cast as the film's protagonist and narrator Stingo.

Having assembled an explosively talented trio of performers, Pakula was determined to wring every last drop of inspiration from them. In doing so, Kline felt spoiled at the outset of his film acting career.

A theatrical style of filmmaking

Stage acting is markedly different from movie acting. In the theater, there are weeks if not months of rehearsal. You drill deep down into your character, and, if the show is to be any good, form an unshakable bond with your co-stars. When you're making a movie, you often spend time alone in your trailer, emerging only to shoot your specific scenes. Most of the time, there is no rehearsal process. You just show up, learn your lines and go to work.

Pakula, best known at the time for masterfully crafted thrillers like "Klute," "The Parallax View," and "All the President's Men," prized authenticity above all else. He wanted this strange love triangle, most of which transpires in Nathan and Sophie's cramped Brooklyn apartment, to carry a sweaty, erratic charge. So, according to Kline, in an interview for Inside Jersey, the director worked out scenes on set with his actors before rolling a single frame of film.

"Most movies, I soon discovered, you'd come on the set and the director would tell you, 'OK, well, we're starting out with a tracking shot and you're going to cross here and then we're going to cut and go on to the next setup.' That wasn't how [Pakula] worked, no. He didn't even allow anyone on the set before the actors. We'd come on, improvise, try things out — but never full out, save that for the take. And then, once we were comfortable, then he'd bring on the cinematographer and figure things out."

Too charming to trust completely

You cannot argue with the results. Stingo may be the audience's surrogate, but Nathan is its volatile center. Stingo and Sophie are both subject to and victims of his unpredictable whims; they get high off his dizzying flights of grandeur, and brace for his abusive bouts of depression. Kline is such an expert performer that he could have nailed this role with zero rehearsal, but the extra space granted by Pakula allowed him to find the rarest of grace notes.

Kline quickly became the epitome of the suburban American dad thanks in large part to Lawrence Kasdan's trio of "The Big Chill," "The Accidental Tourist" and "Grand Canyon," but he was and still is at his best when spiking his natural charm with a stiff shot of danger. We want to love Kline so much that it stings something awful when his characters do something despicable. The full range of his greatness is on display in "Sophie's Choice."