BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Once considered the indie queen, actress Catherine Keener has become a ubiquitous presence in movies ranging from “Capote” to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “Into the Wild,” to “Synecdoche, NY,” the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).
Keener also appeared in “Being John Malkovich,” Kaufman’s big-screen debut, and with “Synecdoche,” follows him further through the portal between commercial cinema and something else - something disconcertingly, touchingly surreal, about a director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose entire life is reduced to an act of theater.
Keener was being very supportive of her director - and what promises to be an audience-challenging movie - when she and John Anderson sat down in Beverly Hills.
Q. I’m not sure I heard correctly, but did Kaufman say he gave you an 856- page script?
A. I’m not sure that was literal, but it was a big, fat script. The first time I saw the film, it was four hours long, and I thought, “I can easily watch this for four hours” - that’s how engrossed I was. It felt very much like a dream was made into a movie, and so I don’t know - I was riding the wave of it. I was so interested in what was going on. It felt like everyone was singing out their dream with no boundaries.
Q. Your part - as the artist wife of Caden (Hoffman), who leaves him, and takes their daughter - wasn’t that big on the page, but don’t you sort of resonate throughout the film?
A. I didn’t realize that was going to happen. I didn’t know I’d be recalled so much, or that she instigates the trauma by which - and this is my perception - that the rest of Caden’s life is informed by. Which happens with things that are traumatic. So yeah, my role was pretty small, but it felt like I had to hold that up for everyone else to keep going.
Q. Common wisdom says that parts in movies for women get scarcer as they go along, but you seem to be working more.
A. I guess, yeah. I’m in too many movies. (Laughs) I work a lot because I work in a lot of these smaller-budget movies. I don’t make a lot of money, consequently, so I do have to work more often. But that’s my choice - to seek jobs that don’t make me want to kill myself after three months of hell. For me, there has to be a reason, for me to pull myself away from my family. Otherwise, I’d stay home and find a job.
A. Something! (Laughs)
Q. I think of you as a New Yorker, but you’re not anymore.
A. I moved to Santa Monica because it’s kind of a slowed-down life. My son is 9; he doesn’t know any famous people I know. Or he knows them and doesn’t know they’re famous. So he’s grown up with an appropriate appreciation of what it is I do, and isn’t dazzled by the other stuff. I didn’t tell him about being an actor for so long - I must have some shame in it; if I were a I’d be showing him cameras, and I’d be doing this and that, so I had to really re-evaluate what I was hiding from him.
Q. Did you conclude what it was?
A. Fame. Such a premium is put on fame, a lot now more so than a lot of other things. But he’s this young kid, and I should have trusted he didn’t care about that stuff.
Q. Can you tell me about “The Soloist” (the upcoming Joe Wright movie about a homeless cellist, played by Jamie Foxx, and a reporter, played by Robert Downey Jr.)?
A. I’ve not seen the finished product, but I have great love and respect for Joe Wright, especially for how he choreographed this complex set of circumstances. We shot on Skid Row, in very difficult circumstances. We became friends with a lot of people who actually live there, got to know them well. Joe’s a crazy, generous, kind person. I would say the same for Downey. The first day on set, we had this circle, where the actors were up front, and everybody else was around, all the denizens, and Downey, of course, sat in the middle, and when they got to him, he says, “I’m Robert Downey, cell block number ...” and they all just melted.
Q. You have a real affection for your directors.
A. Most of these directors, if they asked me to stand on my head for two hours, with no lines, I’d do it. Honestly. That’s why I’m careful about who I work for. I really need a director. I think most actors do, and they feel they don’t, but I do. I don’t see the overall picture. I’m a hired gun. And I just want to hit the ball when it’s my time up.
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