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Pure ‘Genius’: Greg Kinnear Q&A

[IMG:L]Greg Kinnear knows a little bit about beating the odds.

He did it first by standing out among the pack of bland on-air personalities by making an early name for himself as a TV host and writer, becoming a pop culture smash by snarkily skewering the turbulent talk show tribulations of the early 90s on E!’s Talk Soup and chatting up A-list actors on the intimate late-night chat fest Later. 

Kinnear could have easily settled in behind the desk for the rest of his career, but he instead chose to pursue an even more ambitious dream: to show off his own considerable acting abilities. He converted his affable charm into a breakthrough film role in director Syndey Pollack’s remake of the classic Sabrina and followed up with an Oscar-nominated supporting turn as a troubled gay artist in James L. BrooksAs Good As It Gets, more than holding his own against powerhouses co-hosts Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. Since then, Kinnear has demonstrated a significant range with a diverse film resume that includes Nurse Betty, Auto Focus, The MatadorLittle Miss Sunshine and Baby Mama.

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And now Kinnear tackles one of his most front-and-center roles yet, appearing in nearly every scene of Flash of Genius in the role of Robert Kearns, a Detroit academic who in the 1960s realized his dream of creating an innovative invention with an everyday use–the intermittent windshield wiper–only to have his idea unceremoniously, unjustly swiped by a major automaker.

Kearns’ long, torturous battle to reclaim proper credit–more a matter of pride than money–against seemingly impossible odds, a megalithic, deep-pocketed opponent and the toll the fight takes his long-suffering family and even his sanity fuels one of the actor’s most dark and demanding challenges to date. But if Greg Kinnear wasn’t just as willing as Kearns to make unsafe, unexpected moves, he’d still be sticking it to Jerry Springer.

[IMG:R]Hollywood.com: You’re someone who took big gamble to achieve a dream in your own life to succeed as an actor. So how much did you relate to Bob Kearns’ fight, and how much did want him to just take the check?
Greg Kinnear:
Well, I have kids, and obviously the part of him as a father that ended up setting his children aside to make this thing right was troubling to watch, troubling to read when I first read the script and is still kind of a difficult aspect of the story to swallow. But how do you ever put yourself in this guy’s shoes? This was an idea that was manifested out of a personal handicap. I think obviously this was something deeply personal to him and the way in which he had been marginalized in all of this created some sort of behavior in him that, I wouldn’t call it obsessive, but it was obviously something that he couldn’t let go of. It’s akin to saying to someone who has a drinking problem “You know what you really need to do? Stop drinking. If you don’t drink anymore you’ll be fine.” I think his family and certainly the Ford Motor Company and a lot of people around him are unsettled by the idea that he can’t just work his way through this. They offer him money. I think it’s funny how the audience in a way their sense, as they’re watching it, kind of mirrors the Ford Motor Company. It’s like, “Come on, take the money. It’ll just bend and it’ll be okay.’” We live in a world where there are game shows now about taking the money. So I think people really feel like “There’s a way out of this. Why don’t you take it, Mr. Kearns?” What I was intrigued by all along in the story was just his inability to do that very thing, and why. It’s the idea that ultimately it’s grounded in principle, not about money, but real principle. I thought that was pretty incredible. And he’s not a perfect character. He’s not a guy who doesn’t have his own shortcomings. He’s abrupt and prickly and self-destructive in a way. But in spite of all of those qualities I really found myself championing his journey. I wanted him to find some satisfaction in all of this.

HW: How did this film affect your view of the automotive industry – or big business in general?
The automotive corporations, including Ford, I think are in the business of trying to make cars that people will drive. I think the fault with the automotive companies right now is just the fact that we’re not getting as many miles for every gallon of gasoline in the year 2008 that I think all of us hoped we would be by this point. But in terms of the way that Ford is portrayed in this movie, I liked the representation of them. I didn’t feel like these were guys in black hats twisting their mustaches…I mean, Ford felt like they had maybe done something wrong here and thought buying him off, like any corporation off does today, paying money, could take this off, remove this from their plate. Of course they came across the worst possible kind of adversary: a guy who’s not driven by money, but a guy driven by principle. I’m not sure that this kind of story could even exist in 2008 right now. If a friend of yours told you that they were going to fight Google, you’d give them a bottle of Prozac and put them to bed if they were going to try and represent themselves. In a way, it’s a nostalgic story. I think the Bob Kearns story is kind of the last chapter of an individual being able to take on a corporation. Today it would be about a class action suit. It would all be about money and settlements and stuff, but this guy had the audacity to do what he did and at a great cost. I think he lost a lot in this. This is a story that I’m not sure could ever happen again.

[IMG:L]HW: Were you ever able to meet Bob Kearns?
He died the year before I got involved in the project. I would’ve liked to have met him. I really would’ve, but I did not get to. I met his family, his wife Phyllis. She came by the set and his son Dennis was very helpful actually. I talked to him quite a bit before we started the movie and he was the oldest son, obviously, and the other kids came by and that was all very interesting. Marc [Abraham] showed the movie to the family. It was very emotional, I think, and maybe some sort of cathartic process having this realized as a film. I think that was in some ways more satisfying than even his lawsuit was, to say, ‘Aha. There’s the story of our dad.’

HW: He was determined to get Ford to take an ad out in the newspapers and admit they were wrong. Did they ever do that?
Never did, no. I mean, that was the thing: he never got the thing that I think he wanted the most. I didn’t really fault him for this. I kind of feel like if this was a guy who needed his ego stroked or needed to be on the front of the cover of Reader’s Digest or Inventor magazine or on whatever the Entertainment Tonight of the day was, I would’ve felt less strongly about the character. I don’t think that’s what he was looking for. There’s no indication of that. I think he really needed just the smallest identification of this idea having been his. That’s really what he was chasing and they wouldn’t give it to him. I still don’t understand why not. Talking about corporations – they’re so big. There’s not a person at a corporation. A corporation has rules and ideas and I’m sure that part of it is just the idea that out of policy they wouldn’t do that.

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HW: You’ve been in some great films over the last few years and got an Oscar nomination, but do you consider yourself a movie star?
No, I don’t. Well, I never know what that term means. I don’t consider a lot of actors that I really admire movie stars. So I don’t know. A movie star to me sounds like some guy who takes Jacuzzi and champagne baths and wears a boa and has a pet monkey he carries around the house. So in that respect I AM a movie star, yes. [laughs] But movie star?! I don’t know. I mean, I know I work in movies, feature length motion pictures as I call them. I like that part of it.

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