NEW YORK - Kevin Kline likes roles that teach him something.
The Oscar winner says he brushed up on his French to play a French-speaking American in "Queen to Play," an offbeat drama set for U.S. release Friday. Kline also improved his chess game for the film, in which his character strikes up an unlikely friendship with his housekeeper on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea.
Kline learned to play the piano for his role in the 2004 film "De-Lovely" and continues to play as a hobby.
The actor has another film, "The Conspirator," due out April 15, in which he plays Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. He says the post-Civil War drama was educating, too: He learned a chapter of American history he didn't know and discovered what it's like to work with director Robert Redford.
AP: How would you describe "Queen to Play"?
Kline: It's a unique love story that unfolds across a chess set between an employer and an employee, a married woman and widower, between an American and a French woman. We have everything not going for us, (laughs), to form a relationship."
AP: Did you speak any French?
Kline: I studied French all through high school and junior high school and a year of college but couldn't speak it because you don't — unless you learn to speak it. I learned to read it and learned the grammar, which was a great kind of foundation. But for (the 1995 film) "French Kiss," I had to take lessons with a professor, and we only spoke French, and that's where I really began to learn to speak French with some fluency ... I speak very little French in the movie ("French Kiss"), but it kind of jump-started my learning to speak it, and then this was another occasion to — not perfect — but to go up a notch.
AP: Were you a chess player?
Kline: I played a certain level of chess, but I upped my game considerably for the film. It was a great. I love learning new skills. If there's a movie — oh, well you have to ride a horse standing up or you have to ride a horse while you're firing a rifle or you learn how to drive a car fast or speak French or play chess. So I learned. I really brought my French speaking up several notches and learned a lot about chess.
AP: What did you learn from "The Conspirator"?
Kline: I learned a lot more than I knew previously about the Civil War and about (Abraham) Lincoln's team of rivals and about the end of the Civil War and what the zeitgeist was — what the fervor and the fear and the — just what the tenor of the times was and the fear that the South would rise again and learned, as the audience learns who sees the film, that sometimes decisions that are made by the people in power during a time of great stress or panic or fear or reaction — take 9/11 for example — that oftentimes it's not always constitutional, it's not always ethical, it's not always humanistic.
AP: What was it like being directed by Robert Redford?
Kline: Not at all what I expected. I thought being an actor he'd be an actor's director and just leave us alone and let us — but no ... He had great control of all his materials, knew what he wanted or certainly knew what was right when he saw it. And while he allowed us to play, he was kind of — sort of auteur — if you will. In other words, it was his vision and inviting the actors to contribute to that, of course, but it wasn't a free-for-all. It was very controlled chaos.
AP: Both roles are departures from characters you've previously played. How important is for you to find different roles?
Kline: I'm always trying. I just don't want to bore myself, and I figure if it's interesting and challenging and different to me — if I see something different in a part, it's attractive and I'm hoping — so I'm not just doing the same boring stuff.
See the trailer for 'The Conspirator':