By Ted Shen

In the soon-to-be-released indie feature The Young Girl and the Monsoon, Terry Kinney plays a divorced photographer who almost manages to keep his twentysomething girlfriend and rambunctious teenage daughter from learning about each other. It’s the first movie lead in 13 years for the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member. “A Walk on the Moon in ’87 was the last one,” he says, “not to be confused with the movie of the same title that came out last year. Mine never got past the festival circuit.”

A native of Lincoln, Illinois, Kinney says he’d wanted to be in the movies since he was eight. “The first job I had was in my hometown, putting up movie posters,” he recalls. The theater occasionally showed art films. “I used to go up to the projection booth to watch Truffaut and all these really intense films.” At Illinois State University he met Jeff Perry, who introduced him to Gary Sinise. The three were quickly bound together by their passion for acting. In the summer of 1974 they collaborated with a Highland Park High School group in a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. “That was when we pledged our faith together,” Kinney says, “and so the Steppenwolf was born.”

Sinise and Perry turned out to be movie fanatics too, and so have most of the actors and directors who’ve joined Steppenwolf over the years. “We’ve always wanted to do cinematic things in our plays,” Kinney says, “bringing the light down to a certain focus, using music to connect scenes. If we had any signature in the theater world, it’d be our cinematic approach.” He wasn’t surprised when plum TV and movie roles went to fellow troupers Sinise, John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, and Joan Allen. “Movie producers look to us as a training camp,” he points out. “They may not find star material, but they’ll get real good actors who already know a great deal about film.”

In 1984 Kinney turned 30 and moved to New York City hoping to jump-start a career as a film actor. “It was right after we took Balm in Gilead there,” he says. “Besides, I had a theater company in Chicago that I could return to for the periodic charge of my creative battery.” He didn’t want to deal with the rat race in Los Angeles. “I loathe that place.” Soon he made his film debut in a low-budget movie that never saw the light of day.

Undeterred, he began accepting character parts, figuring that he might be too old for the romantic leads he coveted. He appeared briefly on the TV show Thirtysomething and followed that with some minor roles in cable movies. During the 90s he had a string of supporting roles in such Hollywood movies as The Last of the Mohicans, Devil in a Blue Dress, The Firm, and Fly Away Home. For the past three years he’s portrayed a prison warden–“the meanest son of a bitch, a force of darkness”–on the HBO series Oz. But the big roles have eluded him until now. “Luck may be part of it,” he says, “but if you’re going to be elevated in that business, you’ve got to have something to showcase what you do really well. And I hadn’t been given that.” He didn’t like most of the scripts that might have offered him that opportunity.

One script he coveted was Being John Malkovich. “I first read it in treatment form and liked its concept right away,” he says. “I thought I’d be up for the part of the puppeteer. John told me he’d mentioned me for it to the producers. But in the end, they needed a bigger name, and they got a very fine young actor for it.” The role went to John Cusack. “Those are the breaks.”

Around the same time, Kinney was handed the script for The Young Girl and the Monsoon, which New York playwright James Ryan had adapted from his own play. Kinney liked it well enough to request a meeting with Ryan, but Ryan insisted that Kinney audition first, explaining that “after having eight plays produced he knew that casting could be tricky.” Kinney agreed–an unusual concession for an actor with a proven track record–and the two clicked. Ryan had based the play on his own life, drawing on his own guilt feeling when he was living in LA, far away from his daughter. Kinney, who has a four-year-old daughter with his wife, fellow Steppenwolf ensemble member Kathryn Erbe, says he “identified totally with the guy.” And it was a lead role. “What’s more, it’s an ingenious exercise in structure, in shifting back and forth in time–something that’s inherently cinematic.”

Kinney, who’s back in town directing a Steppenwolf revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, says he was pleased to be directed by a dramatist with whom he saw eye to eye, even though “the long hours of a $400,000-budget shoot” were a challenge. Like other members of Steppenwolf, he’s divided his time between directing and acting. But unlike his friend Malkovich, who directed himself in the film version of The Libertine, Kinney isn’t interested in directing and acting at the same time. “I’d get self-conscious that way,” he says. “I can’t be the arbiter of my own performance. I’d like someone to guide me.” He did direct an episode of Oz and found himself cutting his own scenes. “It’s a good thing that I don’t have any yearning to be in Cuckoo’s Nest at all,” he jokes. The play–which stars Sinise, whom Kinney directed in Steppenwolf’s memorable A Streetcar Named Desire four seasons ago–opens in April.

As he grows older, Kinney is becoming more interested in film directing. He says his experience with Ryan has given him the desire for more control over the final product. “I understand storytelling, understand what great acting is,” he says. “It’s time for me to put things together. It’s always brought me a great deal of pleasure to be responsible for the entire story onstage. The same will be true of film after the time it’s taken me to learn about cameras, lighting, lenses, framing.” He’s pretty sure he’ll get to direct an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Found in the Street sometime this year. “The money people liked the latest draft of the script,” he says. “Malkovich will be in it. And Russ Smith, the producer, has said to me, ‘It’s going to be your first film.'” If successful, the movie would speed up Steppenwolf’s plan to start a feature-production arm focusing mostly on Chicago subjects.

But Kinney still enjoys acting. The Young Girl and the Monsoon will be shown in a sneak preview at Pipers Alley this Wednesday as a benefit for Steppenwolf, and Ryan, who’ll join Kinney for a discussion after the screening, thinks the film will bring bigger and better roles. “I can’t wait to work with him again,” Ryan says. As for Kinney, he’ll be content with a long career of meaty supporting roles. “I’m not itching for those Harrison Ford leads, which won’t come my way anyway,” he says with a shrug. “However, if something bigger happens in my later years, as unusual as that might be, I’d welcome that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.