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Catherine Keener on Making Music With Philip Seymour Hoffman (and Her Biggest Oscar Priority)

Catherine Keener. Photo: Getty Images

Catherine Keener doesn’t get to do a whole lot of laughing in her new film A Late Quartet, but in an interview setting, she more than makes up for it: Nearly every sentence she speaks is followed by a throaty cackle. It’s all the more impressive, then, that she’s been able to play down that inherent cool-chick vibe in a host of character roles over the course of her career, from John Cusack’s icy co-worker in Being John Malkovich to the quiet Harper Lee in Capote (both parts earned her Oscar nominations). In A Late Quartet, she’s again reunited with her frequent co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman as two members of a string quartet (another member is Christopher Walken) whose long marriage begins to unravel, and she talked to Vulture about both her co-stars and her musical acumen, while confirming a fun bit of Oscar-night trivia.

You’ve worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman several times now. What do you remember about the first time you met?
Well, I met him at a rehearsal for Capote, and I came on late, so I think I was overwhelmed and trying to force myself to be strong, but I didn’t feel it. The first night I was in Winnipeg, I went to the train station there — somebody had told me it was the same architect who did Grand Central, and it’s gorgeous — and I looked at the schedule and saw there was a train coming. Now, Truman and Harper have this big thing where they take the train together … so I bought two tickets. [Laughs.] I bought one for Phil without even knowing if he’d be up for it. I didn’t even know him! I had no idea! But then I asked him if he wanted to go, and he said sure.

We had the most extraordinary ride out there. But when we first got there … well, you know that Phil dresses very “casually.” [Long laugh.] And whatever, I was dressed very casually, too, but not as casually. And I think the people working on the train were suspicious of us! In fact, I know they were: They basically followed us to the last car when we walked in. By the end, it was like, “Fuck you!” [Laughs.] We were so insulted. But it was great, and I realized we were going to become great friends, and we still are.

You learned to play the viola for A Late Quartet. Is that the sort of thing that attracts you to a role, or is it more that you want to do the role, and you’ve got to overcome this obstacle?
I guess a little of both. I think what attracts me to a part is that it gives me something to think about and work on. I don’t think people just want to go in and cruise through something. The funny thing is that when we were working, often, the focus is on getting the playing right, and you kind of forget that you’re supposed to be acting, too!

Does the physicality of learning to play help inform the character?
Definitely. But it works on you unconsciously. Everything will affect a performance: the mood of the crew that day, who you’re working with, your costume. Everything counts, but that informed a lot. Because I got to know the instrument mildly, I felt like I could play at being an expert at it emotionally, rather than just feeling like a dilettante.

And there are long takes of you playing. The film doesn’t cheat or cut around you, so there’s nowhere to hide.
At times, it seemed insurmountable. You’d just go, “Oh God, I can’t do this. Please, just cut to somebody else” … who was Phil. Phil knew how to play [the violin] so well! He was outrageously adept at it. Which is surprising, because he sucks at most things. [Laughs.]

How much of that playing skill have you retained? Can you still bust it out at parties?
No, because I wouldn’t have an instrument! I think the viola they gave me was, like, $500,000 from the seventeenth century. You don’t realize how important the viola is to the sound of a quartet. I love the viola, but I had never really paid attention to it.

Well, if you had any doubts about its importance, I think the moment they told you, “The viola you’re holding costs $500,000” would do the trick.
Exactly. I think that Chris’s cello was a Stradivarius or something. It was insane. The people who owned these instruments, the auction house or whatever, they would be standing by on the set and they would take them from us. But they really entrusted us with so much! They were very cool about it. One time I broke a string and it pinged against the instrument, and I freaked out. But it was fine. We were more freaked out about it than they were, I think. Well, I don’t think Christopher was at all worried about holding that cello.

He’s so unfazed in his manner, how would you be able to tell?
No, I wouldn’t be able to tell! He is so unfazed. In everything. I mean, he’s just extraordinary, he just dives in, and it’s so solid and pure in every single take. He’s really a marvel to watch.

Can you confirm something for me? I heard that the year you were nominated for Capote, you left the Oscar ceremony and headed straight to a Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert, still in your Oscar dress. Is that true?
YES! [Long laugh.] That is true. Well, I couldn’t miss it! And that is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Yeah, I looked nice at that concert.

Catherine Keener Talks Music, Fun Oscar Story