Not for the first time, Catherine Keener laughs her appealingly dirty laugh and nods and swears. "Fucking A, man," says the affable 58-year-old.
If the Coen Brothers ever get around to making a gender swapped Big Lebowski, here is their Dudette.
Keener has never worked with the Coens, which is a little surprising as her screen career co-evolved with the brightest talents of 1990s independent cinema, notably Tom DiCillo, Nicole Holofcener, Spike Jonze, and Steven Soderbergh. All the cool ones, basically.
“I think that those people who are authentically cool have a real nerdy part to them,” says Keener. “They’re willing to be themselves. They’re not playing any games or trying to look cool. That’s the secret. That and good luck.”
Her current colleagues are no less hip. The two-time Oscar nominee (Capote, Being John Malkovich) is shooting opposite her chum Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen and in a new Amazon sitcom from the creators of Master of None. After that, she'll join Jim Carrey and producer Michel Gondry for the TV series, Kidding.
Her CV makes for exhausting reading. She appeared in four feature films last year, and appears in another four this year, including Sicario 2 and Pixar's The Incredibles 2.
“I never sleep,” she says of her scarily busy schedule. “I love daytime. I was off yesterday after shooting nights and I literally slept all day which is unusual for me. But of course, I got up at one o’clock in the morning to do laundry. So that might explain it.”
In Unless, Irish director Alan Gilsenan's adaptation of Carol Shields' final novel, Keener plays a feminist writer and translator who is perplexed and dismayed when her daughter suddenly drops out of university and begins begging outside a department store. The cardboard sign she holds features only one word: "Goodness".
“I didn’t know the book until Alan sent it to me,” says Keener. “He’s so smart and well-read and I’m not. Mostly, I wanted to work with him. He’s a very compassionate man who you want to work hard for. It was one of those sets where the movie started to mirror the working environment. There was a tenderness that took over the entire movie, from our conversations about the nature of goodness over tea in the morning, to a kind of peace around the cast and crew. And all that came from Alan.”
She laughs: “I hate to give him that much credit because he can be such a little fucker, too.”
Gilsenan, who has previously directed documentary portraits of Gore Vidal, Roger Casement, Paul Duncan and Liam Clancy, is not the first Irish filmmaker to direct Keener. She previously starred alongside Daniel Day Lewis in Wicklow resident Rebecca Miller's Oedipal drama, The Ballad of Jack and Rose. In 2013, she essayed Mark Ruffalo's estranged wife in John Carney's musical-comedy, Begin Again.
"Alan makes a very interesting counterpoint with John Carney, " she notes. "But I love Carney. He's just a wild man. Alan is a boat down the river, with lights dancing on the water. Carney is a rollercoaster that's about to go off the rails. And he's driving."
Keener was born in Miami, Florida, the middle child of five born to Evelyn, a mother of Lebanese descent, and Jim, a father of Irish descent. She was raised Roman Catholic and, for a time, planned to be a nun. She dressed conservatively, attended the Monsignor Edward Pace High School, and studied the movie The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. It was all going swimmingly, until her rebellious tendencies got in the way.
“They kicked me out of Catholic school,” recalls Keener. “It was probably an accumulative thing. There was a school mass held in the gym and I was talking. So the principal said: ‘you’re forbidden from attending another mass at school’. And I was thrilled. I went to public school for half a year: where I skipped school most of the time and still didn’t fail. But the dean of the Catholic school really believed in me and fought to get me for senior year. I went back. But I was still trouble. I just had a real problem with how punishment was meted out and why. It never added up.
“I still love churches and cathedrals. I love the quietude. I used to skip recess and go stare at the Stations of the Cross. So one day they found me on the altar. Because I wanted to check it out. And I was punished for skipping recess and not for standing on the fucking altar! The girl is bad, boy is good thing really started to piss me off, too. That’s the problem with most organised religions. The patriarchy. I just didn’t buy it.”
Between run-ins with authorities, she and her father would go to the rep cinema that was just behind the mattress store where he worked.
“I loved movies,” she says. “My father was from the mountains of North Carolina. He was super country. So we’d watch westerns all the time. I loved the escape of it. In the movies, everything was so different from my upbringing. I mean, I was this street kid in Miami. Movies and the World Book Encyclopedia were the only things that exposed me to life outside of being a Catholic girl.”
She dabbled in acting while reading English and history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. After graduation she worked as an intern for a New York casting agency, before transferring to Los Angeles to work with the casting agent Gail Eisenstadt.
“It’s a long story,” says Keener. “She got very sick. And we were very, very close. I was with her all the time during the last year of her life. Before she died, I told her that I did plays at college. I had no idea if I had any knack for it. But I liked acting. I was embarrassed to tell her. But she said: ‘Honey, I don’t think that’s a pipe dream’. Because I would always read with other actors as they auditioned. So she called another casting director and I got my first pilot right before she died. She was my angel.”
Keener's career got off to a slightly rocky start. She was a one-line waitress in About Last Night and in an episode of LA Law and Seinfeld. Her role as Harvey Keitel's wife in Thelma & Louise ended up on the cutting room floor. She was a sidekick to Pat Morita in Ohara, a short-lived cop show about a Japanese-American detective who used meditation to solve crimes.
“I played a character named Cricket for the first season,” recalls the actor. “And then I wasn’t renewed for the next season. Meaning I got fired. It wasn’t that it was humiliating. Well, actually, it really was humiliating. But worse was that I couldn’t even watch myself. I remember meeting with a junior casting agent. She wanted to see some episodes. And I said, no, because then you won’t hire me. She must have thought that was pretty funny because I’m still with her 27 years later.”
When Keener and Dermot Mulroney, her husband of 17 years, signed divorce and custody papers in 2009 (their son, Clyde, was born in 1999), they didn't use lawyers. She has never had a manager or a personal assistant. Her career, however, has an extraordinary shape and depth. In the same year she was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Harper Lee in Capote, she deflowered Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and hoovered up various critics' awards for her work on Sydney Pollack's final thriller, The Interpreter.
Actors and directors seem keen to work with her again and again: she's made three movies with Sean Penn (Into the Wild, What Just Happened, The Interpreter), three with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Synecdoche, New York, A Late Quartet), and six with Nicole Holofcener, a director who has described Keener as her muse.
She's worked on studio films, including Captain Phillips, Out of Sight, and (improbably) Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, but the independent sector that brought her breakout roles in Johnny Suede, Being John Malkovich, and Your Friends & Neighbours is still, she insists, a better fit.
"I was never going to get cast in a studio movie," says Keener. "I was lucky to find this place which was independent cinema. It wasn't really called that at the time. It was just a bunch of quirky little movies. But that place was welcoming. It was when I was working on Johnny Suede, I got a feeling. I was working with a director – Tom [DiCillo] – who was so spirited, who had a vision and conviction with his material. And it was such a good feeling I thought: I want some more of this. It was kind of like plays I had done in college. It was a woman's college. So they weren't popular plays. They were plays for all female casts that said something about women. But they had depth to them. And that shaped the work I wanted to do after."
Her rebellious streak would turn out to be rather useful, in professional terms. Not long after she came to Los Angeles, there was an unpleasant incident with a director.
"I got rejected for something. I had got rejected a bunch. But this one thing: the audition was solid and everything went well and the director turned around and said that I just wasn't sexy enough. But that was good thing for me. Because I left town. And this was during pilot season when no actor leaves town. I thought: I can't do anything about that; I can only do the best audition I can. And I packed up my boyfriend's cello and drove for 21 hours to Roswell, New Mexico and ended up working with Sam Shepard. It was like getting kicked out of church again."
Sexism, she says, may be rife in the film industry, but it’s important to see it as systemic issue, not an isolated one: “The #MeToo thing is a subset of what needs to happen. If you were rock climbing, it’s a nice foothold. But we’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to get to the root of the problem. We need economic parity in the workplace. Because money makes things happen.”
As the sometime queen of the indie sector, Keener has worked on plenty of titles that were either produced or distributed by Harvey Weinstein. Was she shocked by the series of revelations and allegations late last year?
“Thing is, I did not know about Harvey Weinstein at all. And I worked for him. I met him a bunch of times, I received nice notes from him. I wasn’t close to him or anything like that. But I had not heard anything like that about him. Was it shocking when it came out? No. Because I think for women – for anybody – our business is not a meritocracy. I’ve been in it for so long. I’m not afraid to put up a fight or to engage in one or to finish one.
“What’s great about #MeToo is that it stopped people from being complacent. The women who started it are fucking heroic and I love them all. And I know a lot of them. Before, the worst thing I would hear about anyone was: ‘what a sleaze’ or ‘what a perv’. Which is such a mild, innocuous way to describe a rapist. We overlooked so much. Look at Trump. The things he said were unacceptable. But they’re written off as jokey and locker room. So I love #MeToo. I love Black Lives Matter. I love that groups that were once considered radical splinter groups don’t seem so radical anymore.”
No wonder she was so pleased to freak out most of the planet with her turn in the very post-Trumpian Get Out last year.
“I got to page six in that script and was like: ‘Whoa, what in the hell is this?’ Did I know it was going to rattle the whole country? No. But I wasn’t surprised when it did. It was just exquisite timing. What really resonated for me was that idea of the sunken place: that feeling of having your head shoved underwater and feeling powerless and unable to breathe. That’s the heart of the movie. And we’ve all had that feeling. And people are just done with not fucking fighting back. Just look at the kids in Parklands, Florida. They’re done with this shit. We know who the enemies are now. They’re no longer hiding in the shadows. They’re proud of the shit they’re doing. And here comes the fightback.”
Unless opens March 16th