When Greg Kinnear flashes his broad smile, you could be in for a pat on the back — or a knife in it.
Kinnear showcases his ability to play lovable and loathsome with virtually the same demeanor as a sleazy dead guy in the romantic comedy “Ghost Town” and an honorable but fanatical inventor in “Flash of Genius.”
Though his roles have largely come in comedy-tinged films, Kinnear rarely plays things just for laughs. Beneath his deceptively boyish demeanor, Kinnear inhabits characters with a lot of dark corners his grin can never completely conceal.
“I don’t think they call me when it comes time to do a guy who doesn’t have some prickly behavior. I don’t seem to see a lot of those,” Kinnear said in an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where both “Ghost Town” and “Flash of Genius” played.
“A lot of what I see tends to be, by accident or design or default, just tends to be characters that do have a bit of a rub, a little duality to them. And I’m perfectly content with that. Not that I’m trying to create an oeuvre of films where I have these prickly characters or anything, but I find that those kinds of characters are very human.”
Kinnear, 45, shows off that duality in both his fall films. In the supernatural comedy “Ghost Town,” which opened Sept. 18, he plays a smarmy, selfish spirit haunting and taunting a dentist (Ricky Gervais), Kinnear’s ghost eventually finding the soul he lacked in life.
In “Flash of Genius,” opening Oct. 3, Kinnear stars as Bob Kearns, the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers, a decent family man who lets his home life fall to ruin by pursuing claims against automakers whom he accused of swiping his idea.
Blending the good and the badKearns, who died in 2005, obsessively spent decades on his legal battles, winning multimillion-dollar judgments against Ford and Chrysler but destroying his marriage along the way.
Though Kearns eventually reconciled with his family, the film shows him essentially abandoning the care of his six children so he can work on his lawsuits. Kearns declined huge settlement offers from Ford to drop the case, insisting his fight is not about money but acknowledgment that his idea was stolen.
“Without compromising with Ford, he ends up compromising his family,” said Kinnear, who has a wife and two young daughters. “As a father, it’s hard to imagine getting so preoccupied with something that it distracts from the importance of being a good father. But at the same time, I’ve never had something so blatantly wrong happen to me. ...
“It’s easy for me to sit on the sidelines and say, ‘Hey, man, you need to let it go.’ Try telling an alcoholic, ‘You know what you really need to do? You need to stop drinking. Seriously, if you just stop drinking, you’ll be fine.’ I don’t know how deep or how far down the rabbit hole he was with this, but all indications were, there just was not a button he could hit to let it all go.”
As he did with the desperately optimistic dad in “Little Miss Sunshine” or doomed actor Bob Crane in “Auto Focus,” Kinnear blends the good and bad so seamlessly that you never see where the light side of Kearns ends and the dark begins.
“He’s an actor who can play a real person in a way that doesn’t turn you off and doesn’t make you judge them,” said Lauren Graham, who plays Kearns wife.
“He plays him very truthfully, and he’s full of surprises,” said Alan Alda, co-starring as a lawyer who takes on Kearns’ case. “All of a sudden, this strange, obsessed guy has a sense of humor and he plays jokes on other characters and on the audience. You never know whether he’s kidding or not. He’s very inventive in this part.”
‘He’s like the perfect actor’“Ghost Town” star Gervais marveled at Kinnear’s ability to disappear into his characters.
“He’s like the perfect actor,” Gervais said. “In everything I’ve seen him in, he becomes that man.”
A dapper moment in Kinnear’s real life gave “Ghost Town” writer-director David Koepp the look he wanted for the character. In the film, ghosts appear eternally in the outfits they died in, and Koepp happened to catch a TV show where Kinnear was in a tuxedo giving out an award.
“I’d been looking for a visual idea for the main ghost to set him aside from everybody else. I toyed with, maybe he’s in black and white and the rest of the movie’s in color,” Koepp said. “Then I saw Greg in this black-and-white tux, and I said, ‘No, he’s our host! He’s the host of the film.”’
So Kinnear’s character parades around in formal wear through the entire movie.
Playing host is nothing new for Kinnear, who studied broadcast journalism and got his first taste of celebrity poking fun at show business as the glib star of the TV entertainment show “Talk Soup” in the early 1990s.
Kinnear later replaced Bob Costas as host of the late-night talk show “Later.” He had dabbled in acting but was content to settle into a career interviewing stars when Sydney Pollack cast him as Harrison Ford’s playboy brother in the 1995 remake of the romance “Sabrina.”
Two years later, Kinnear co-starred with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in “As Good As It Gets,” earning an Academy Award nomination as a gay artist who suffers a savage beating.
Kinnear has gone on to a mix of dark comedy such as “Nurse Betty” and “The Matador” and heavy drama like Mel Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers” and the upcoming war-on-terror tale “Green Zone.” The latter reunites him with Matt Damon, his partner in the Farrelly brothers’ conjoined-twins comedy “Stuck on You.”
Back in the ’90s, it was a fluke that Kinnear leaped from small-screen TV host to big-screen star in a single stroke. Nowadays, he figures there’s a lot more give and take between media.
“The lines are a hell of a lot more blurry today than they were. There’s people from reality shows now who do movies and movie stars who go and do talk shows,” Kinnear said. “I don’t think I was necessarily greeted with open arms when it came time to getting other opportunities. I feel more like an actor today than I did 10 years ago, certainly. But it just never felt that easy. It still doesn’t.”