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Kevin Kline and Israel Horovitz – Looking In On Their Old Lady

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Israel Horovitz and Kevin Kline discuss "My Old Lady" at Cohen Media Group in New York.

Israel Horovitz and Kevin Kline discuss “My Old Lady” at Cohen Media Group in New York.

Kevin Kline and Israel Horovitz

Looking In On Their Old Lady

by Jay S. Jacobs

Kevin Kline has spent a lot of time in France in his long career as an actor.  He has done everything from French Kiss to The Pink Panther there.  He even made the film Queen to Play in which he did his role almost completely in French.

Therefore Kline jumped at the chance to go back to Paris and star in the film version of the play My Old Lady by famous playwright Israel Horovitz, co–starring Dame Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas.  Beyond writing the screenplay for the film, Horovitz also took the artistic leap of becoming the film’s director.

Horovitz is not to be confused with famed classical pianist Israel Horowitz.  “I met him once in my life,” Horovitz explained.  “I got onto a plane and they put me in his seat….  He was staring at me like I did that on purpose.”  Ironically Kline knew Horowitz as well.  “He lived on my block,” Kline recalled.  “He used to hang out with one of my doormen.”

Mr. Horovitz has had a long and impressive career in the theater, writing and directing such plays as Line, Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, The Primary English Class, The Widow’s Blind Date, What Strong Fences Make, and The Indian Wants the Bronx.  He has also written several films, including James Dean, Sunshine and the Al Pacino hit Author! Author!

My Old Lady was another popular play from Horovitz.  However, the stage somehow felt too small for the writer, he decided he wanted to bring it to the big screen.  The film is the story of Mathias Gold (Kline), a man in his late 50s who is just about out of money and at the end of his rope.  When he inherited an apartment in Paris from his estranged late father, Gold flew directly to the City of Lights, planning to quickly sell the place.

When he arrived, Gold found out that the apartment was a viager apartment, a French system where you have to pay the person who currently owns the place to live in the apartment, and eventually when they die, you get full ownership of the place.  Living at the place was Mathilde Girard (Dame Maggie Smith), a 90-some Englishwoman who turns out to have been surprisingly close to Gold’s father.  Her neurotic daughter Chloé also lives there.

Suddenly stuck in Paris with two unexpected roommates, Gold goes on a journey of self, coming to like his odd new acquaintances, and hopefully eventually learning to like himself.

A few weeks before the American premiere of My Old Lady, we were one of several media outlets who were allowed to sit down with Kline and Horovitz at the New York headquarters at the Cohen Media Group.  We were able to discuss their experience in making the film, their careers and life in France.

Kevin Kline discusses "My Old Lady" at Cohen Media Group in New York.

Kevin Kline discusses “My Old Lady” at Cohen Media Group in New York.

Kevin, how familiar were you with Israel’s play before you got involved in the film?

Kevin Kline: Ooh!  I read it in French.

Israel Horovitz: Oh, that’s right.  I gave it to you in French.  Or somebody did?

Kevin Kline: Somebody, some crazy French producer thought I could actually speak French well enough to play it when it was done in Paris.

Israel Horovitz: You didn’t see it in Europe, though?  In French?

Kevin Kline: No, I didn’t.

Israel Horovitz: With Peter Friedman.

Kevin Kline: Peter Friedman.  One of my favorite actors.

Israel Horovitz: Good actor.

Kevin Kline: Great actor.

In that version, was the character French?

Israel Horovitz: No, he was American.

Kevin Kline: They wanted me to play this American, but he spoke French.  I obviously didn’t.  It was no version with the idea that he couldn’t speak French.  This was something new.

Israel Horovitz: The play has been done in – I don’t know – 15 or 20 languages around the world.  It was most popular, very popular in France.  It was done in a 1,200 seat theater and played a couple of years.

Kevin Kline: What year was that?  Do you remember?  The original production?

Israel Horovitz: Uhh… I should remember and I gave the New York Times lady my thing with [those facts…].  Five years ago?  I would say…  Six years ago?

Kevin Kline: I saw it.  I thought it was longer.  Okay.

Israel Horovitz: No, it was six years ago and it was played by Line Renaud.

Kevin Kline: That was the original?  Line Renaud?

Israel Horovitz: She was the original French star.  Maybe it’s six years ago?  (ed. note: The French production started performances in January 2009.)  She was a huge, huge singing star in France.  When she was a kid she was on The Ed Sullivan Show.  She sang with Dean Martin.  She had a little thing with Dean Martin.  She was 87 when she did the play.  Smoked cigarettes and drank champagne.  She was great.

Israel Horovitz and Kevin Kline discuss "My Old Lady" at Cohen Media Group in New York.

Israel Horovitz and Kevin Kline discuss “My Old Lady” at Cohen Media Group in New York.

How did you encounter the concept of viager purchasing? What was your reaction to it?

Israel Horovitz: I’ve had 50–something of my plays translated and performed in French.  I’ve spent tons and tons of my life there.  And I couldn’t believe it when I first heard of it.  Then I started to research it.  I saw these real estate agents that specialized only in viager apartments.  It’s much more complicated than I made it in the movie.  You can buy a viager apartment that has – they say deux têtes, two heads – and you’re buying a husband and wife.  So you have to outlive both of them.  At first I thought, man, this is the most barbaric thing I’ve ever found.  Then I realized, you know, it’s not so bad.

Kevin Kline: You’re giving them an annuity.

Israel Horovitz: If somebody is old and they have no money and they don’t have kids to leave their apartment to, somebody gives them a bunch of money and pays them to stay in the apartment.  Pays them a little something.  They know they’ve got a roof over their heads for the rest of their lives.  It’s fine.  It’s not so much a gamble for that person as it is a real security.

Why did you decide to expand your play to a film?

Israel Horovitz: I should say this, to start with, the play is a three character play.  Three actors in one room.  I’ve seen the play all over the place.  I’ve seen it in Moscow.  It was at the Moscow Art Theater.  I don’t speak a word of Russian.  The old actress who played it must have been a great star sixty years ago, but I missed the whole career…

Kevin Kline: A friend of Chekhov’s.  (ed. note: He is joking, Anton Chekhov died in 1904.)

Israel Horovitz: … so I was just looking at somebody who looked vaguely like Elvis Presley at the end of his life.  I started to daydream.  It really hit me that Paris was the missing character in the play.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t get Paris.  It was always just three actors in a room.  Really, wouldn’t it be beautiful, this story, if you really saw this?  I started to see the movie.  At the same time, I knew I was heading towards my 75th birthday.  I thought: I want to really do something in my life that scares the living shit out of me.  For me to do another play… it’s important to me.  It’s exciting to me.  But moving from one to two is a lot more exciting than moving from 73 to 74, let’s say.  So I thought directing this movie – writing and directing this movie – would really be a buzz.  It would really be important in my life.

So I talked to my daughter Rachael, who is a film producer.  She did Moneyball and About Schmidt.  My five kids, we all live in the same neighborhood.  We’re like a little team against the world.  She thought it was a good idea.  I wrote the script.  Won a prize, and part of the prize was going to Paris for six weeks in an abbey, a 16th century abbey.  The prize was given by Île de France Film Commission and Writers’ Guild of America, looking for screenplays that had French and American cultural exchange.  It won the prize.  The French part of the prize, the Île de France Film Commission sent a car every day and took me location scouting for my movie.  It quickly became clear to me that this was a great idea.  Once I started looking at Paris as what will be in the movie, and also realizing that if I don’t have the apartment, how the hell would you make the movie without the apartment?  (chuckles)

Ultimately, they found that apartment for me.  It was this derelict old place.  It was really ramshackle.  Nobody had lived in it forever.  Our deal was we’ll fix it up.  When we leave it, you’ll have a beautiful apartment again.  It was in a complex that allowed us to park our trucks.  It was a place that employed 6,800 people 300 years ago for the manufacture of tapestries for the great castles of Europe, including Versailles.  Now it’s empty, really.  They give some government people cheap apartments.  But that apartment was absolutely empty.  We created… just about everything you see in the movie was in this complex.  If you know Paris, it’s in Les Gobelins.  It’s near the market.  It’s not a distinguished neighborhood at all.  There is a museum that shows the tapestries.  School kids are dragged there and they just hate it.  That’s everybody in Paris’ relationship with that place.  Behind that museum is all of this unused space.  The park was actually the park that they own for their workers.

Kevin Kline: It became our back yard.

Kevin Kline stars in "My Old Lady."

Kevin Kline stars in “My Old Lady.”

How did the casting come together?

Israel Horovitz: Kevin was the first… I didn’t want to do a movie that had, I won’t say unknown actors, but less than great actors.  Because, some years ago, the Pope came to Paris.  There was a big to do with French writers saying, “You must have a division between church and state.”  They went out to the airport with signs, protesting.  The Pope was this little old man about to die and the first thing he said, he got off the plane and there were microphones.  He said, “It’s a pleasure to arrive somewhere in this life as an unambitious guest.”  I directed this movie as an unambitious guest.  I wasn’t trying to build a big film career.  That’s not in any way, by any stretch of the imagination – even mine – [going to happen].  I just want to make a beautiful movie.  I settled on that story, because I thought that the story could be funny and it could be serious at the same time.  It could be possibly the same kind of movie that I would love to see if I didn’t know.  If I didn’t do the movie.  And we shoot in Paris.  What’s wrong with that?  My daughter would be the producer.  What’s wrong with that?  My friend would be the star.  I asked Kevin, who is famously Kevin de–Kline (laughs).  And he said yes.

Kevin Kline: (laughs) I did it for the money, which I haven’t seen yet.  But I’m waiting.

Israel Horovitz: I wrote him in and we did readings at my house.  And really… (he knocks on the table) he really knew who he was playing and helped me refine it.

Had you worked with Kevin before?

Israel Horovitz: I don’t think so. We certainly knew each other for a hundred years.

Kevin Kline: I was in Juilliard, and my class was doing The Indian Wants the Bronx.  I wasn’t in it.

Israel Horovitz: That was kind of the dark ages, a long time ago!

What happened after Kevin signed on?

Israel Horovitz: Then Dame Maggie [Smith] said yes.  I flew to London and had a lunch with her and she said, “I’ve had 25 scripts offered to me and I’ve chosen yours.  Do you want to know why?”  I go, oh my God… I said, okay, why?  She said, “Because I don’t have to die at the end of your movie.”  (They both laugh.)  I hope I’m not ruining it for your readers.

Kevin Kline and Dame Maggie Smith star in "My Old Lady."

Kevin Kline and Dame Maggie Smith star in “My Old Lady.”

What was Dame Maggie like to work with?

Kevin Kline: Oh, she’s lovely.  She’s magnificent.

Israel Horovitz: I knew I wanted to get great actors.  I was too old to do a movie that might come and go without anybody seeing it.  I wanted it to be really significant.  So Kevin was my only choice, and Maggie was my only choice, and by God, they said yes.

Had you ever worked with her before?

Kevin Kline: No.  No, no, no.  She’s probably the first Dame [I’ve worked with]… no, I worked with Dame… actually Lady… Lady Olivier, Joan Plowright, who is maybe her best friend.

Israel Horovitz: Actually, Judi Dench is Maggie Smith’s best friend.

Kevin Kline: Ahh…

Israel Horovitz: They’re both 79, turning 80, and they’re both terrified to turn 80.  They talk to each other on the phone every day of their lives.

Kevin Kline: She was great, when I stopped finally boring her, pleading for more theater stories.  I wanted to hear about all of her experiences in the theater.  She’s the ultimate, consummate professional.  (to Horovitz)  Remember the day when she faints in the movie?  Even if a 30 year old faints…

Israel Horovitz: … there’s a mattress by you…

Kevin Kline: … you’ll fall out of frame onto a nice, soft mattress.  We were like the first take and she just fell on the floor.

Israel Horovitz: She scared the hell out of us.

Kevin Kline: All of us.

Israel Horovitz: I did three takes and she would have gone on.  I thought, I can’t be the man who killed Maggie Smith.  And I said, “I’m very impressed that you can do that.”  She looked at me with this kind of sexy voice and said, “You’d be amazed at what I can do.”

Kristin Scott Thomas and Kevin Kline star in "My Old Lady."

Kristin Scott Thomas and Kevin Kline star in “My Old Lady.”

Kevin, you’d worked with Kristin before on Life As a House.  What is she like to work with?

Kevin Kline: I remember on the first day on Life as a House… her first day, we’d been shooting for a week or two.  I love it when the director doesn’t say “Cut!”  The scene’s over, but let’s see what happens after the scene.  Maybe there’s some little bit of improvisation that could end up being usable.  Kristin was over, and I’m still talking.  She’s looking at me, and she looks at the camera and goes, “Aren’t we finished?”  (whispers)  I said: “We’re still shooting; just see what happens.”  Then she adapted to that and she said, “Oh, I see.”  But she hadn’t worked that way before, apparently.  Maggie, also, slightly different generation.

Israel Horovitz: Yeah, just a different training.

Kevin Kline: Yeah. But the British school of acting, I find be they stage actors, or working on film – very professional. No nonsense like: “Let’s talk about inner monologues and subtext.”  Just: “Let’s get on with it. Put the show on. Let’s go.”  I like that.  I had British teachers growing up, so maybe that English work ethic.

Israel Horovitz: Kevin was really an American in the film, and so he could be quite different from Maggie and Kristin, who played mother and daughter three times now, actually.

Israel Horovitz and Kevin Kline discuss "My Old Lady" at Cohen Media Group in New York.

Israel Horovitz and Kevin Kline discuss “My Old Lady” at Cohen Media Group in New York.

Did having theater in common make things easier for you?

Kevin Kline: I remember when I was working with [director] Irwin Winkler when we did De–lovely [ed. note: a bio film about songwriter Cole Porter] in London – all theater actors, all British theater actors, almost entirely.  He was saying, “You know, it’s great working with theater actors because you know they’re either trained for the stage or at least housebroken.”  I don’t know, it’s such a cliché to say, “Well, there’s a shorthand with stage actors.”  There isn’t.  You have a day in between takes, whereas we have ten seconds between takes. “Let’s do it again!” and we only have time for two or three and then we got to move on.

So it’s tricky.

Israel Horovitz: The thing I noticed is: we all knew each other’s work from theater for so many years.  Establishing intimacy took about 12 seconds.  We all had stories to share, and friends and all. Then this trust that everybody knew what they were doing….  There was no movie star who happened to have had a role that matched them so perfectly and then they couldn’t do anything else. Everybody could do it.

Kevin Kline: Though Maggie wouldn’t come out of her trailer that one day. She didn’t like the dessert that the caterer had.  (laughs at his joke, shaking his head)  [No], there were no movie star tantrums of that nature.