An interview with Greg Kinnear about his role in "Flash of Genius" as obsessive inventor Robert Kearns.

Share story

“The first time I watched the movie,” says actor Greg Kinnear of his new drama “Flash of Genius,” “I wanted to shout to my character, ‘Take the money! Get over it!’ “

Those words, more or less, are likely to pass through the minds of almost anyone who sees Kinnear’s performance in the film as Robert Kearns, the real-life, quirky inventor who spent many self-destructive years trying to sue the Ford Motor Co. for patent infringement.

Kearns, after losing his family, job, home and nearly his sanity, turned down multimillion-dollar settlement offers because he wanted credit for creating the intermittent windshield wiper in 1967.

That’s right: the intermittent windshield wiper. The fact that Kinnear — watching his own performance — could feel the same exasperation as anyone watching Kearns implode for a dubious cause says a lot about how offbeat “Flash of Genius” is as a story of principle.

“Even now,” Kinnear says, “it’s a little unsettling. The movie provokes a reaction.”

It certainly does. Visiting Seattle on a multicity press tour along with producer-director Marc Abraham, Kinnear, who starred in “Little Miss Sunshine” and does fine work as a roguish spirit in the current “Ghost Town,” looks tired but is quick with his familiar, ironic wit.

“The script got to my agent, though I wasn’t being asked to play the part,” says Kinnear. “It was originally called ‘Windshield Wiper Man,’ so I wasn’t that hooked. I finally read it and thought it was remarkable. Against all advice, I called Marc. Of course, you’re not supposed to do that kind of thing because it looks, I don’t know, sweaty.”

The counterintuitive appeal of Kearns’ brand of heroism was important to both Kinnear and Abraham. Kearns is presented in the film as an obsessive misfit vying for a place in history. He destroys his relationships by taking on Ford, which installed intermittent wipers in new cars after studying his design.

“The idea,” says Abraham, “was that this man fought an epic battle over the intermittent windshield wiper. That makes people laugh, but I loved the dynamic between the small thing he was fighting for and the larger issue at stake. There were deep matters of injustice, principle, dignity on the line for Kearns.

“When you watch the movie,” Kinnear says, “you can’t help but want Kearns to bend, take the money and yield. But he didn’t want money, he didn’t want anything except for Ford to admit what they did was wrong.”

Kinnear’s performance is straightforward about the less-than-cuddly aspects of Kearns’ personality. The Oscar-nominated actor has brought a comfortable charm to a variety of characters, from innocents (“As Good as It Gets”) to authority figures (“Invincible”) to outright fools (the 2005 remake of “Bad News Bears”). But the driven Kearns sheds nearly all of his appeal over time, and Kinnear is true to those changes.

“The first time I read the script,” says Kinnear, “I thought, I don’t know if I like this guy. But halfway through, despite his being abrupt and prickly, I was rooting for him. We decided we weren’t going to soften him, we would show him warts and all and let the audience, like his family, forgive parts of him that were hard.”

Tom Keogh: