Careers: Alumnus Kevin
Kevin Kilner has one piece of advice for anyone who thinks
he or she may want to be a professional actor: Go for it.
The 1981 Hopkins graduate and three-time NCAA lacrosse championship team member was on the Homewood campus Oct. 28 to share his experiences with undergraduates who think that they too might wish to use their Hopkins degree in a somewhat unusual manner.
Kilner's own background includes a stint in investment banking followed by time waiting tables and tending bar before finding success on Broadway, in television and, most recently, in a network movie-of-the-week.
"Back in my day there was no one telling us we could do something like this," said the former economics major to a crowd of some two dozen gathered in the Arellano Theater. "We all had blinders on. If you were into lacrosse like I was, your mentors all tended to be accountants or bankers or other businessmen who worked downtown. That was your only horizon."
Kilner's appearance was by way of a preview of a five-part career symposium scheduled for February. Covering communications, law, health care, entrepreneurial business and financial services, the annual event is designed to help undergraduates explore career paths open to them at graduation. It is co-sponsored by the Alumni Association's Second Decade Society and the Office of Career Planning and Placement.
"Ordinarily we would have asked Kevin to join the panel discussion devoted to communications," said Second Decade Society coordinator Jill Paulson, "but his schedule is crazy, and this was the only time he was free and nearby."
Kilner had just finished filming Timepiece with James Earl Jones and Ellen Burstyn, a prequel to the highly successful Christmas Box seen last year. The telefilm was shot in North Carolina. On the way back to his Los Angeles home, Kilner told Paulson he would be happy to stop by and talk to anyone who might be interested in acting as a profession.
"If you're interested in it, you should just do it," said Kilner at the beginning of his remarks, which largely followed a question-and-answer format. "I spoke here a year ago and said the same thing. Follow your heart. That's what's most important."
Kilner first won popular attention as The Gentleman Caller in the 50th anniversary Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie starring Julie Harris. He received an Outer Critics Circle nomination, a Drama Desk nomination and a Theater World Award for his work in the play, which The New York Times called "the real discovery of this production."
Last season he co-starred opposite Nancy Travis in Almost Perfect a weekly half-hour sitcom that won critical acclaim on CBS. His experience in network television could be considered an appropriate cautionary tale concerning the vagaries of show business.
"We were rated around No. 30 out of 100-some shows, which was pretty good considering at that time CBS was the third-ranked network," he said. After filming 24 episodes Kilner had just completed a two-week tour of the Northeast doing promotion for the series when he received a phone call.
It was from one of the show's writer/producers. Although everyone on the show was happy with his work, CBS decided Nancy Travis should be single, which meant Kilner, who played her husband, was out. "You're hit by the truck so hard and so fast it's like being road kill," he said of the experience. "We had worked together so closely that it felt like family. It was a tough blow."
After receiving the call, Kilner did perhaps the only thing he could do: offered to come back to film one more episode to close out his part in the story line. Although the ending was painful, the upbeat actor seemed to have few regrets. "Recently I was in Paris and I was stopped three times for autographs by people who recognized me from TV," he said. "I could work on Broadway the rest of my life and never receive that kind of recognition."
The lesson, suggested Kilner, was not that television is to be avoided, but that anyone going into the business should do so with both eyes wide open: "If you want to be part of the storytelling business it's wonderful; but it's also unbelievably cruel."
To the students in the audience, Kilner urged an open mind and healthy curiosity as the best preparation for any career in the arts. "I did no theater at Hopkins, I was so engrossed in lacrosse and in doing my classes," he said. "All my drama and all my comedy was happening on the Homewood field."
Not giving himself time to explore, Kilner gravitated toward a career that others around him chose for themselves. After graduation he went downtown to work as a credit analyst at the First National Bank of Maryland. Soon, he was promoted to a Fortune-500 lender. At the age of 26 he was at work at a mortgage bank with a staff and serious responsibilities.
"I was miserable," he said of the experience. "I knew I'd made a huge career mistake, but I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do." He began taking night classes as a way of finding himself. One of them was a class in acting. Before term was over, Kilner knew he was hooked.
"In 1985 I moved to New York and entered a formal studio program. I studied Shakespeare. I studied the Meisner technique. I spent a lot of time in classes." To keep body and soul together, Kilner turned to waiting tables, tending bar and working for a caterer. "I was working for a while at R.J.'s Ribs where we had to wear this sort of cowboy outfit, when an old roommate and his wife wandered in," he said. "They looked at me and said, 'What in the hell are you doing here?' "
In the world of show business, Kevin Kilner was paying his dues. "I remember being frightened because I was just finishing my acting program, and here I was 30 years old," he said. "I thought for a while that maybe I'd made another huge mistake." He persevered, however, and gradually small parts on stage and occasional gigs in training and industrial films gave way to larger, meatier roles.
"I think of acting in the way Ray Bradbury describes being an author in Zen and the Art of Writing," Kilner told his audience. "You have to do it every day, so it becomes part of your body. Just like an athlete has to train. And the more you do it, the better you get. It's a feeling of falling through these levels like Alice through the looking glass. Each new level brings new challenges. But you have to keep at it to get there. You just have to do it."
After his talk Kilner mingles with his audience, answering questions and trading good-natured banter with students feeling some of the uncertainty he once felt. Eventually, a young man who missed the presentation approaches.
"You're Kevin Kilner, right? The actor?"
Kilner admits that he is. They shake hands. His new acquaintance, it turns out, is also a lacrosse player, and has just switched his major from economics to psychology. "I'm a musician at heart," he admits, "but my parents won't adjust to that. I can't imagine abandoning it all and going off and playing guitar somewhere."
"Well maybe you should consider it," suggests the actor at once. Somehow, it seems just what the student was hoping to hear. Without doubt, it is just what Kilner came all the way from North Carolina to say.
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