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Catherine Keener and 'Friends with Money'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Actress Catherine Keener got her second Academy Award nomination earlier this year for her portrayal of Harper Lee in "Capote," a performance which showcased the talent film buffs have been talking about for a long time. As our critic at large John Powers recently put it, 'Over 15 years, Catherine Keener has built up a reservoir of affection from those who go to the movies regularly. She's sharp, vivid and emotionally real. All her characters have filigrees and edges.'

Among Keener's many films are "Being John Malkovich," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "The Interpreter" and two films by director Nicole Holofcener, "Walking and Talking" and "Lovely and Amazing."

Keener's latest film, "Friends with Money," is also written and directed by Holofcener. Her co-stars include Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack and Jennifer Aniston. It's about four women, all longtime friends, whose relationships are affected by differences in their financial standing. Keener's character is part of a husband-and-wife screenwriting team. In this scene, she argues with her husband about a script they're working on.

(Soundbite of "Friends with Money")

Ms. CATHERINE KEENER: (As Christine) I have a problem with this line. I really think Elliot would believe her.

Mr. JASON ISAACS: (As David) Why would he believe her? He saw his father yesterday.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Because it's--Melanie just doesn't joke like that. It's not in her character.

Mr. ISAACS: (As David)) I don't agree.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Guy, how did we even get this far? It's like we're writing two different scripts.

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) Every time we disagree, you fall apart.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Oh--what?

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) You're eating a lot of (censored) lately.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) What?

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) I said you're eating a lot of (censored) lately.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) So what?

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) So I can see it on your ass. I'm just telling you, you know. I thought you'd want me to tell you if I noticed something like that.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) What made you think I'd want you to tell me if my ass was getting fat?

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) Because I guess I would want you to tell me if I was gaining weight.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Really, you'd want me to tell you?

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) Yes, I would.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Hmm, would you want me to tell you, for instance, that you always have bad breath? Would you want to know that?

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) I guess.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Well, now you know. You know how I'm always trying to get you to drink more water? It's not because it's healthier. It's because your breath smells like a dead man.

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) Why didn't you just tell me? I would have gotten my teeth cleaned or something.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Because I didn't want to hurt your feelings.

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) It wouldn't.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Really?

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) It's not like it's my fault, per se.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Man, I wish I had that mechanism.

Mr. ISAACS: (As David) So not only do I have bad breath always, but I'm a (censored) because I don't take it personally.

Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) I can't work anymore. I'm out. No more.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Well, Catherine Keener, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

In "Friends with Money," you play a woman who is part of a husband-wife screenwriting team.

Ms. KEENER: Yes.

DAVIES: And by the time we meet you and your husband, played by Jason Isaacs, you're already arguing a lot. You're having a lot of trouble. And I'm wondering--you know, we don't learn in this scene that we see how you're character Christine married...

Ms. KEENER: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...this jerk...

Ms. KEENER: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...and kind of, you know, the backfill to a relationship that's clearly gone bad. And I'm wondering, as an actress, do you kind of feel like you need to fill in those edges to give the performance? And how do you do that?

Ms. KEENER: Well, with this, I didn't because I kind of--I mean, Nicole said that it was--they're done, you know, that it doesn't matter. It's irrelevant. Sort of like when a marriage does come to an end, it's kind of irrelevant what happened and who did what. So I just--yeah, I think my impulse definitely is to say, 'Well, why and how did she'--you know? But that's just sort of the questions that you ask from an outsider. But from her perspective, you know, she just buried herself so much in trying to fix everything externally and materialistically that it didn't really matter. It was pretty much gone.

And he's not. I don't think that's he's such a jerk. I think he's just done with her and her, you know, her ways. I mean, she's pretty self-absorbed and stuff. I kind of don't blame him in a way, too. He just--there was--the kindness was gone, if it was ever there, it no longer exists between them. And some people should just, you know, not be married anymore.

DAVIES: Yeah, you know, one theme of this film is how money changes relationships. You have one couple who is very rich, and others who are, you know, different circumstances in life. And it occurred to me that, I assume, you probably have a lot more money than you did 10 or 15 years ago as your career has really taken off. Has that changed your relationships with old friends? Is that something that occurred to you as you made this film?

Ms. KEENER: No, I haven't been that. I do, I have more money definitely than I've had, especially growing up. I was, you know, pretty poor, but I don't have that, comparatively, I don't have that much money. I mean, I make little movies that are great and so fun to do but, you know, they're not the big paychecky movies that people can--people make. So I think maybe if I were living high on the hog, maybe that would have some sort of impact on my friendships. But my friends are such old friends, and, you know, they're just friendships that have stuck, and I can't imagine them changing for any reason.

DAVIES: Your most recent Oscar nomination was for your role in "Capote," where you played Harper Lee, the accomplished author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," who is sort of Truman Capote's sidekick. And I thought we might hear a clip from that. And this is the scene very early in the film where you and Truman Capote are riding a train from New York out to Kansas to investigate this murder. And a porter has just brought your bags and said something to Truman Capote. So let's listen to this.

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Unidentified Actor #1: Thank you greatly, sir.

Ms. KEENER: (As Harper Lee) Thank you.

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) You're welcome.

Actor #1: It's an honor to have you with us, sir, and I hope you won't mind me saying but I thought your last book was even better than the first.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Hmm, thank you.

Actor #1: Just when you think they've gotten as good as they can get.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Thank you very much.

Actor #1: Ma'am.

Ms. KEENER: (As Lee) You're pathetic.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) What?

Ms. KEENER: (As Lee) You paid him to say that. You paid him to say that.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) How did you know?

Ms. KEENER: (As Lee) "Just when you think they've gotten as good as they can get."

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) I thought that was a good line. You think that was too much?

Ms. KEENER: (As Lee) A little bit.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: My guest Catherine Keener with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the new film "Capote."

You know, what's fun about that scene is you have Capote here paying a porter to impress one of his oldest friends. You know, the interesting...

Ms. KEENER: It's pathetic.

DAVIES: Yeah, right.

That film, you are playing Harper Lee, who is the childhood friend of Truman Capote, who is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And so much of your role is being around him, reacting to him, because he has this huge, huge oversized ego. How did you...

Ms. KEENER: Right.

DAVIES: Did you do anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman to develop the kind of relationship that worked on the screen?

Ms. KEENER: Well, I hadn't met Phil until I got there. I was sort of the late comer to the party because everybody else had sort of been placed and they were looking for a Harper. And--but it was very quick that it all kind of--I had to go to Winnipeg and start rehearsals. And so I was a little kind of out of my water at first. I just thought, 'Oh, gosh, these guys have been sitting with this and, you know, it's going to be a good movie.' You could just tell. Everybody was so committed and smart. And we did a couple of days or one day of rehearsal, and then I went to the train station there in Winnipeg, and then I went and bought two tickets for the next day to--coach tickets--for a train ride out. The first stop was about an hour and a half outside of Winnipeg, and so I asked Philip if he wanted to do this. And he said, 'Sure.' You know, we really didn't know each other at all, but we ended up getting on the train. And it was a really long train with a lot of classes, you know.


Ms. KEENER: And they kept sort of--I don't know if you've seen Phil, but he's got pretty much, especially when he's working, he's pretty much a uniform of sloppiness. And so no one recognized him, you know, he's just in working mode and he's just, you know, already pretty dark. And we just kept getting shuttled and seen to, you know, they kept sort of passing us off from class to class to make sure that we got into our safely ensconced seats of like general seating way in the back, last train. And so...

DAVIES: You mean you were being downgraded, put in your place, so to speak. Yes.

Ms. KEENER: Yes. Like we were in our place. So, but it was funny, because we actually kind of, our characters sort of, we started mimicking our characters. Which often happens on movies, all of a sudden, you're adopting the same kind of behaviors that your character would. And we sat up in the observation car, you know, and just watched the sunset. And, you know, sort of breaking the ice. I mean, I don't know, I was nervous.

DAVIES: Well, you've played so many movies that are modern, you know, you're a modern woman, that kind of self-sufficient, educated person. Here you are set in the '50s, where everybody has, you know, women wear perms and everybody smokes everywhere. Was it kind of--was it fun to inhabit that world?

Ms. KEENER: Yeah. I never really thought of it in terms of--I wasn't conscious of it being, you know, in the past. I wasn't aware of trying to do that. But it was more like people I know, like, my dad is from North Carolina, from the mountains, and his sisters, they were sort of the people I was thinking about while I was working on that movie because they're just--they're lovely and of a certain time and place and, you know, storytellers, but very good listeners and very--you know, they see that--to their guests. And it's just the way they are. And that was what I was more conscious of in trying to just do these people justice that I care a lot about and stuff.

DAVIES: In "Capote" you're playing Harper Lee. I wonder how you--did you research her life? Did you try and meet her?

Ms. KEENER: I did research as much as I could. There wasn't a lot there. And, yeah, well, I didn't try and meet her. I never got to that. I thought about it, and then I asked, you know, 'Oh, can I just--maybe I'll just go to Alabama and, you know, see if she'll just have some coffee with me or something.' And everyone told me that she's superprivate and that would not be a good idea.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KEENER: So I just--that kind of--that was a little daunting because I thought, 'Oh, God.' I mean, not that I expected her to do that, but that just made me feel that maybe she wouldn't want this kind of, you know, look at her. And then I never want to--you know, I never want to do that to anybody. I'm not into prying if somebody doesn't want you to, you know. So...

DAVIES: Yeah, it's very clear that you--that respecting privacy is a high value for you.

Ms. KEENER: Right.

DAVIES: Did it feel weird to be playing somebody who is still alive? Did you think about it?

Ms. KEENER: It did only in terms of just I didn't want to disrespect her and, you know, her choice that she's made in her life, which is to lead a private one. And, all of a sudden, I was party to, you know, the contrary. Secondly, I didn't really know what she was like. There's not a lot of available material for that, so I just thought, 'Oh, God, I hope I don't'--you know, I wasn't trying to get it right. I just wanted to get it so it didn't--it wasn't wrong, you know.

DAVIES: My guest is actress Catherine Keener. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actress Catherine Keener. Her new film is "Friends with Money."

A lot more people got to see you then in some of your films when you starred with Steve Carell in the "40 Year Old Virgin." I thought maybe we'd play a little clip from that. This is your second date with Steve Carell who, as the title suggests, has no experience with women. And we'll--just to set up the scene, we can note in your first encounter you were about to get physical, but before Carell's inexperience in the bedroom was revealed, your teenage daughter interrupted and ended the whole thing. Now you're getting together for a second time and getting to know each other.

(Soundbite of "40 Year Old Virgin")

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Listen, Andy, I don't want to send you running for the hills or anything, but I really feel like if we decide to do this again, then we should hold off on the physical part for a while.

Mr. STEVE CARELL: (Andy) That is a fantastic idea. Why didn't I think of that?

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Really?

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Totally.

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) No sex?

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) No. Why do that? Because here's the thing, from personal experience, I have found that sex can really complicate things, and what we should be doing right now is getting to know each other.

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Yeah. I never thought you'd go for it.

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) I'm going for it. That just is a great, great notion.

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Are you serious?

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Look at my face. Look at how serious I am. You see my nostrils?

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Yes.

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) That's serious or for angry.

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Yeah. You know what? Most guys would be saying yeah right now, but by the third date, it would be, 'Hey, baby, I really need to physically express how I feel.' That stuff.

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Well, hey, baby, you know, three dates, make it 10. Ten dates.

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) How about 15?

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Fifteen, 20 dates.

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) OK, 20 dates.

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Twenty dates.

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) OK.

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) This is genius.

Ms. KEENER: (Trish) It's going to hurt.

Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Yes.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's my guest Catherine Keener appearing with Steve Carell in the "40 Year Old Virgin."

Is it funny to hear that scene again?

Ms. KEENER: Yes. I don't often sit here laughing at something I'm a part of, but he is so--yeah, that was a blast. That was really so fun to do, so wonderful.

DAVIES: Yeah, I mean, different than a lot of these independent films you've done. Was there a lot of improvising on the set with that wacky crew of guys that he works with at the electronic store?

Ms. KEENER: Yeah, well, that crew of guys, they're actually friends of Judd Apatow, the director and co-writer. He and Steve wrote the movie. And that was part of what was so exciting to me that he was just making this movie with all his friends, and it was based on an idea that Steve had. And then when I talked to the director before we started, he said, 'You know, there's going to be a lot of improvising.' And I thought, 'Oh, God.' You know, I'm used to doing movies where I just have so much respect for the writer that I don't--I'm not a writer, so I don't want to be expected to come up with some alternate lines. But with them, I mean, it was just you kind of wanted to jump in. It was like, 'OK, let me try, let me try.' And I have said that the director wouldn't yell cut, he would just--they would just reload the film because we just kept going and going and going. But it was such a different experience for me. I learned a lot on that movie about--well, I got a lot more confident about improvising, which I hadn't because those guys are like top, top drawer.

DAVIES: Yeah, it seems like you're somebody who likes to laugh a lot. I mean, in some ways, you really fit here.

Ms. KEENER: I do like to laugh. I think people just, you know, probably--sometimes I go on these talk shows or like the Jon Stewart show I went on, and it was basically five minutes of me laughing. In fact, a friend of mine did an interview of me in Interview magazine. My friend Sarah Vowell. I don't know if you know her, but she's incredible.

DAVIES: Yeah. She appears on public radio a lot.

Ms. KEENER: Yeah.

Well, so Sarah said that her one stipulation with Interview magazine was that they wouldn't parenthetically write "and she laughs," you know. Because it would take up the whole interview. But I can't help it. I think people are funny.

DAVIES: You've been described in--it was interesting to me as I read a lot of pieces about you and the descriptions of you and your work. Here are some of the things said about you and kind of your persona. Described as "the coolest mom in the playgroup," "instantly familiar," "the woman at work you wish you knew," "brilliantly, gorgeously mundane," "capable of grinding a man to sawdust." And then one described your roles as a "spectrum of sexy, neurotic, bitchy, needy, goofy and sweet. It's somebody who just doesn't have a mold."


DAVIES: That must be a nice thing for an actress, right?

Ms. KEENER: Yeah, I think it's a nice thing. I'm not--yeah. I think that you--nobody wants a mold. I mean, a mold is just something, I think, that's, you know, you don't invent. Other people do. But, God, "grinding a man." I could grind my teeth to bits, but not...

DAVIES: Well, I think that character in "Being John Malkovich" ground John Cusack to sawdust more than once.

Ms. KEENER: Yeah. Yeah, but, come on, he deserved it.

DAVIES: He was asking for it, wasn't he?

Ms. KEENER: Yes, he was.

DAVIES: All right.

Ms. KEENER: No. I mean, I do appreciate. I'm glad that that is the perception. You know, I don't--I'd rather that than somebody who is, you know, can't work outside that box that they're put in or they've put themselves in.

DAVIES: Now, I read once that you described yourself as not movie star material. You said you're co-star material, and those are the roles that you like.

Ms. KEENER: Yeah.

DAVIES: Do you still feel that way now that you've gotten two Oscar nominations and, you know, well-known on the red carpet?

Ms. KEENER: I'm well-known on the red carpet?

DAVIES: Well, yeah. I think people know who Catherine Keener is when she shows up. Don't you?

Ms. KEENER: You should be with me when I followed, let see, like at the Oscars I came in--I was right behind, oh, Charlize Theron or right in front of her, when I was invisible. And that was the best because I could just bolt right through. So I would say I'm moderately known on the red carpet. But I think that--and that's my--that's kind of what I meant is like some people are really movie stars, and they're great at it, and they don't mind it. They kind of understand that that's part of what their place is. I'm not. I'm not that person. I'm not comfortable that way. I'm not perceived that way. I mean, I've just sort of been a working actress who's done--who's doing pretty well. And I think the "40 Year Old Virgin" definitely sort of broadened my public, you know, visibility or whatever a little bit. But it goes away. You know, you just kind of just go back to your life and lie low for a little while, then that wanes, and then somebody else will come along who can deal with it better.

DAVIES: Well, Catherine Keener, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Ms. KEENER: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

DAVIES: Catherine Keener. Her new film is "Friends with Money."

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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