Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Catherine Keener to talk about her upcoming film, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York. Catherine seems to be able to play any character you throw at her. Reuniting her and Philip Seymour Hoffman was a joy to watch. Their relationship is one in which Keener dreams of her husband dead and Hoffman looks for recognition in a woman who thinks nothing of him. The two of them together are so wonderfully painful to watch.
Keener was a joy to sit down with. She intelligent, witty, and very charming in her own special way. So without further ado, Cathrine Keener…
In many of the Kaufman scripts that you’ve worked on, you’ve played extremely strong women with artistic careers, how did you approach these strong female roles and which one was your favorite to play?
Catherine: Well I didn’t know Bennett Miller (Director of Capote), so that was more difficult, and also it was a real person. There wasn’t a lot to be found on Harper Lee, she’s pretty reclusive. I never saw any footage of her, I just went by the couple of essays, which were really informative for me, and a couple of still pictures, which say a lot, when your just looking at those you can interpret them, it’s subjective in a way, but they can tell you a lot. So that was more difficult, and I came into it so late, and I didn’t know Phil, it was much scarier thing. But Charlie and I had the benefit of a friendship, a true friendship. I had worked with him before, and as soon as he said you can do this, I thought oh okay, if he believes it I’m gonna go with that.
What was it like reuniting with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a completely different character than last time you worked with him in Capote?
Catherine: I think our language is more shorthand with each other. I can recognize when Phil needs me to get away from him… for real… and I also recognize that when that happens it’s not personal, it’s what he needs for his work. We still have incredible kindness towards each other, and with Phil, I don’t get hurt with those things. Unless someone is a complete jerk, and then it’s like “ok I’m calling this,” but otherwise there’s a lot of room for it. You have to be thick skinned but ultimately extremely thin skinned when you’re working.
Is it easier to work with someone you’ve already worked with?
Catherine: It’s a plus in that your doing it, because if I we’re having a bad working relationship with someone it would take a lot for me to continue to repeat it. I’d rather have an experience that’s memorable than one you have to grit your teeth through no matter what.
By the time we see the marriage between you and Phil is appeared to be loveless, do you feel like your character ever loved him and how did you bring that to the role when it was not in the script?
Catherine: As actors, you do go into it with your own feelings, regardless of whatever character you’re playing, you can’t eliminate the you in it. Phil and I have a great relationship and great love for each other and respect, and you couldn’t take that out of the equation, and for us it definitely existed, and with may marriages it goes. But in that last scene between us you see the memory of it.
How do you feel your character, leaving Caden behind, affects his life and his work?
Catherine: I would imagine that it affects Caden, that his wife who he respects is an artist, I would say has a less than positive reaction to the play.
Both Phil and yourself spent a lot of time in this film depressed, how does that effect you as an actor, does it take a toll on you?
Catherine: I’m speaking for Phil, I don’t think it’s a game plan for him, it’s just inevitable. Often in movies thing start happening the way they happen in a story. It starts echoing itself for no reason, you don’t expect it, you just start feeling the way your character feels. Even if its not intentional, but for some people it’s unavoidable.
It seems as though in many of the Kaufman screenplays there is a central male character, surrounded by strong female characters, do you find in Charlie’s scripts, there’s an understanding of the female voice?
Catherine: I never read them that way. I don’t read this movie as Caden’s movie, I think he’s an integral part of the story, clearly, but I think that the story is so much bigger than that. I could see myself having an existential crisis like Caden easily. But I also feel that a woman who would leave her husband and take her daughter, what would that mean. Or a woman who lives in a house that’s burning, who would she be. I don’t separate them by gender with Charlie. I do with other movies. But I find that his voice is very generous and not specific. I don’t look at it in terms of the breakdown between sexes. But I think he’s particular in that way.
You seem to be in a variety of different films, from “40-year-old Virgin” to “Capote” and more. Do you set out to do something new that surprises you with each film?
Catherine: I’m very comfortable with not knowing the answers, with just having the question there thinking this will be the excitement in the play to sort of solve these things, and its always personal anyway. It’s like doing crossword puzzles, I’m ok with walking away from things for a couple of days, and then going oh yeah. It make sit more fun for me not to be so anxious about the solution right away.
Thank you very much Catherine for your time!
Photo via IMDB.com