Kinnear finds his niche in characters with nasty side

By David Germain

The actor can be seen in two movies this fall, including ‘Ghost Town.’

TORONTO — 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 Friday, 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.

Kearns, 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.”

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