The Split Personality of Greg Kinnear

Posted on 02. Oct, 2008 by Administrator in hCovers, Profiles

words by Jen Kay, photos by Robert Todd Williamson

art direction by Laura Ann, styled by Amit Gajwani, groomed by Helene Macaulay

True to his Gemini persona, Greg Kinnear is a man divided. Half grounded family man, half industry veteran, he makes the most out of his dual persona. He continually surprises us with his film roles, in which he has a knack for exploring the flawed cracks of the All-American façade. Chatting with Kinnear while he readies his five-year-old daughter for school, he once again finds himself in contrary roles as he engages in an in-depth interview while attending to breakfast duties. By the way, Kinnear makes a badass smiley-face pancake that would put your Mom to shame. Now that’s multitasking. 

It’s been a long voyage from Kinnear’s frat boy humor to serious character development, not that one necessarily excludes the other. However, presenting one’s true self makes it more difficult to close the curtain of mystery and regain the public’s imagination. Kinnear is either arrogant in thinking he can master all tasks – or incredibly humble to resist taking himself too seriously in any one particular endeavor. Evidence and testimony would lean toward the latter. Although born in Indiana as the son of a world-traveling State Official, Kinnear only looks the part of a nice Midwestern boy. More international than Middle America, Kinnear’s upbringing trotted him around the globe, including Greece, where he broadcast his first radio show, “School Daze with Greg Kinnear”. By the time he turned thirty, he had amassed formidable experience in producing and performing and was well on his way to becoming a diverse force to be reckoned with.

ACT I: Greg Kinnear, Television Host 

Greg Kinnear came into public focus in 1991 as the host of Talk Soup, a program on E! with a rabid following of both the mainstream and cynical elite. Kinnear was the mastermind behind this project, which featured video clips of then current talk shows in perfect harmony with Kinnear’s sardonic witty commentary. Talk Soup was ahead of its time in realizing the mass appeal of reality television, and the show offered a hosting style never before seen in television. As we follow him down an incredibly diverse career path, Talk Soup may offer the clearest sense of the true Kinnear. As the main writer and host, the concept was largely his. The show featured banter and tom foolery with the production staff whose personalities were as individual as they were essential in the innovative platform to make the show more interactive. 

Says Tom McNamara, Talk Soup’s rarely seen, but always heard stage manager, “The crew would hang a cloth over his chair unbeknownst to him and when he would say the key word, we would cut the string and it would dump a pile of spoons and other assorted goodies onto his head, oh the fun!” Perhaps it was Kinnear’s hazing into the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at Arizona State University that prepared him for such antics. In terms of Kinnear’s strength as a writer and host, McNamara reflects: “Greg WAS Talk Soup, he set the rules, and if something wasn’t funny or didn’t work he would rework the joke or come up with a new bit on the spot.  As for a comparison to other hosts, he was the standard by which all others were measured.” Audiences agreed, as the show never quite reached the level it achieved during the Kinnear years. Finding an equal replacement with a unique voice has proved an elusive task, and to be fair, is due in part to the fact that the show was conceptualized with Kinnear’s specific humor in mind. Talk Soup gave him the initial opportunity to showcase his strongest assets. It may have seemed surprising that Kinnear, whose initial presence came across as so natural and effortless, would go the way of an Oscar nomination. But when examined more closely, his seeming good luck is actually an impressive range of talent. Kinnear wasn’t simply in the right place at the right time. He is another survivor of the typically unglamorous fifteen-year-overnight-success plan

In 1994, Kinnear was drafted as the replacement for Bob Costas on the talk show Later with Greg Kinnear on NBC.  After years of observing the talk show circuit from the couch perspective, Kinnear was on the flip side of the screen. His casual style, dry humor, and comic timing proved a good fit. His ability to relate to and provide commentary on outrageous talk show fodder and its melodramatic ring leaders was sharpened to precision on E!. Kinnear proved he could handle his subjects with the trifecta of sarcasm, charm, and spontaneity like the seasoned vets – without having to endure the brutal stand up circuit boot camp like most of his contemporaries. He is simply and likeably himself. His willingness to be self-deprecating in the process gave Kinnear creative license to unleash his natural born sarcasm on his guests without seeming overly smug, while keeping the delicate balance between reverent and familiar.

ACT II: Greg Kinnear’s Alter-Ego, The Serious Actor 

After two successful years, Greg left Later to pursue a promising film career - practically shape shifting throughout incarnations that would keep people guessing for the next decade. This zig zag professional journey is only that in the eyes of the public. Those who know Kinnear well know better than to be surprised. 

There is one magical factor to be considered in Kinnear’s rise to respected fame and mainstream stardom - a fairy Godfather by the name of Sydney Pollack. The late and great actor, producer, and director called Kinnear with a life changing movie offer in 1993. The role was that of David Larrabee, originally portrayed by William Holden, in the remake of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. In a case of “it takes one to know one” Pollack may have seen a mirror of his own wildly unpredictable career in Kinnear’s. There was a certain paternal quality that Sydney reserved for Greg, which was evident in his heartfelt praise which clearly and charmingly embarrassed Kinnear at the time. Kinnear’s upbringing was cultured, but not necessarily artistically understood or connected in any way that would afford him special privileges. A seasoned mentor was exactly what Kinnear needed at that time to give him the confidence and credibility as a movie actor in whom studios would feel confident in investing. 

“He’s one of the greats,” says Kinnear. “And by the way, (he’s) the guy who gave me a great opportunity with Sabrina and took a risk in a business that’s not always known for taking risks. He was a real maverick, and obviously I’m grateful to him for having done that. And to this day how he happened to see a clip of Talk Soup, and think, ‘That’s the guy for my movie Sabrina,’ I’ll never know.” (laughs) 

By all accounts, Pollack thought Kinnear had a “charm and naturalism” that would serve him well to convincingly play the lovable cad David Larrabee. Although the film itself didn’t change the landscape of filmmaking, Kinnear unexpectedly found one of the most respected players in the game to champion his big screen ambitions. Kinnear’s natural talent amplified by Pollack’s advice and direction served him well beyond this particular film. “Sydney had a remarkable gift at simplifying. He simplified it real quick for me, ‘Listen to what everyone’s saying around you.’ That was really the crux of his guidance to a young guy on a new movie set.” 

The next major chapter in the book of Kinnear began with a film offer from writer / director / producer James Brooks. The stellar casting of As Good As It Gets was a major factor in the critical acclaim the film received. With an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Simon Bishop, Kinnear’s thoughtful interpretation of this multi-faceted gay artist was recognized as real, compelling, and thankfully not stereotyped or condescending. Simon’s relationship with Melvin (played by Jack Nicholson) is darkly comical, and ultimately moving as the two characters’ lives become unwittingly entwined. The arc of their relationship is brilliantly explored and grounded in the incremental, believable changes that play more true to life.  Simon Bishop has a line in the script that coincidentally describes Kinnear’s gift at being able to find the relatable, human qualities within his characters. “If you stare at someone long enough, you discover their humanity.”  

One can’t help but wonder if years of struggle have something to do with Kinnear’s particular strength at playing guys down on their luck. Kinnear has certainly paid his dues, and there were likely many man hours on the ready for “the call”. It is only imaginable that this kind of extended waiting game would inform his portrayal of Richard Hoover, (Little Miss Sunshine) a man at the end of his rope, praying for a miracle. Painful to watch, Hoover’s desperation is so compelling because of his attempts to control it, which we see unravel at the seams. Kinnear’s portrayal is brilliantly multi-layered. There is the panicked Richard Hoover who we observe as a fly on the wall in his prison of repeated failure and, alternately, there is Richard Hoover the family man with a veneer of optimism who mistakenly believes he’s got everyone fooled. The charm and sincerity of this role seems to have been the evidence needed to support the assertion that Greg Kinnear, the serious actor, was a bonafide talent, and that his success was decidedly not a fluke. 

In his new gray-skied character-driven film, Flash of Genius, he explores the obsessive mission of Robert Kearns as he grapples for the rightful recognition of having invented one of the least thought about gadgets of modern times – the intermittent windshield wiper. The film was originally titled Windshield Wiper Man, which prior to reading the script, Kinnear thought was the “last of the bad superhero movies.” Luckily for him and the movie going populous, it’s the furthest thing from a vapid comic book personification. Instead, the movie is a gritty tale about an everyman’s lifelong battle - against not just the insatiable corporate cookie monster, but more so, the status quo itself. Kinnear’s interpretation of this story documents Kearns’ supreme tenacity, which both gained and cost him everything. “Whether or not he could or couldn’t stop what he was doing, I don’t know,” says Kinnear. “But he fought the good fight all the way to the end…I can’t imagine taking on the fight that he took on. I mean, I have two kids - and you can’t wrestle around the fact that while he was being marginalized by this company, he was marginalizing his family.” The performances, including Lauren Graham, who co-stars as his adoring but exasperated wife are natural, believable, and thankfully not manipulative. Kearns’ incremental journey into madness is played brilliantly by Kinnear. Although this film is a familiar concept, it doesn’t patronize the audience with cheap plot ploys, glamorized depictions, or pat explanations. Kearns, the man, was not overflowing with charisma, yet Kinnear manages to find his humanity –largely through the relationships with his six children, which is a particularly important element to establish in this case. Kearns’ life-sucking battle with Ford Motors at the expense of his family is inarguably selfish. In a poignant moment, his wife is watching their children play and realizes that her husband’s happiness as a father and husband weren’t enough to satisfy his more grandiose desires. Kinnear’s interpretation is most remarkable in his portrayal of Kearns’ gradual and overwhelming dissension into borderline madness and obsession. However, he notes that this is not a madman gone wild: “Even though he suffered an emotional breakdown and went through some tough times, he always stayed on this side of crazy for me. I was reading the script and I thought, ‘Please don’t go crazy on me, Bob. I would be so much less interested in the story then – it would just be some crazy guy who wouldn’t stop. But it isn’t that.” 

There are moments in Flash of Genius when Kinnear literally morphs into character. Beyond simple aesthetics, the blurring of line between reality and fiction to such a physical degree is no small accomplishment for any actor. Kinnear points out that director Marc Abraham was particularly successful at showing, in a subtle way, the physical effects of what such a fight would do to a man. Kearns did in fact struggle with mental problems during his litigation, which raises the chicken and egg question. Did this battle make him crazy, or was he crazy to have even started it? The fact that most wouldn’t make such a sacrifice doesn’t mean that someone shouldn’t. Personal sacrifice, even at the expense of family, is sometimes a painful and necessary step for those rare individuals who do so for the greater good. 

Nearly two decades have passed since Greg Kinnear dished Talk Soup, not that anyone has forgotten. He is living proof that rules are made to be broken. Talk show hosts can grow up to be serious actors and garner Oscar noms.  There is success waiting on the other side of thirty and a normal Indiana dude can keep it real in the movie biz. After spending some time with Kinnear, it’s clear that his sense of humor and charm are on command, which is not to say they aren’t genuine. As a natural part of his personality, I imagine his wit and social graces have paved the way for him to aggressively pursue his ambitions and clearly Kinnear is nobody’s fool.  If Hollywood reputations are to be believed at all, he is known to possess regular guy charm in spades. With no crazy divorces, stints in rehab, or stories of bad behavior, he is reportedly an amiable character, more down-to-earth than social climber, despite his remarkable ascension into the high brow crowd. With his wife Helen Labdon by his side for almost 15 years and being daddy to two young daughters, maybe Greg Kinnear is that nice Midwestern boy after all – well, at least half of him. 

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