Catherine Keener must have an attraction to odd universes. In Being John Malkovich, she worked on the mysterious 7 1/2 floor. In Where the Wild Things Are, she was the mother of a boy who escapes to a magical land with Maurice Sendak-ian monsters. In last year’s Get Out, she could hypnotize victims away to the Sunken Place with a simple stirring of a teaspoon. And this fall, she can be found in two fantastical TV settings: perfecting the puppets on the children’s show depicted in Showtime’s Kidding and — major spoiler alert! — in the suburban afterlife alongside Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen in Amazon’s Forever.
During a sometimes spotty cell-phone conversation that unfolded as Keener strolled through Central Park, she spoke to Vulture about what draws her to unusual stories, her friendship with Rudolph, and whether or not her Forever character, Kase, has romantic feelings for Rudolph’s June.
When I started watching Forever, I didn’t even know you were in it because there was so much secrecy around it. I just knew that Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen were in it. Then when you showed up I was like, Oh, of course Catherine Keener is in this show.
Oh, you didn’t know at all?
No, I didn’t.
Oh, that’s so cool! I love that. They’ve been trying to keep the surprise going.
After watching this and your other work, if I ever end up in purgatory or some weird alternate universe and you are not there, I am going to be really pissed.
Well, purgatory is the place where I will be. [Laughs.] You know, when I was in third grade I actually wrote a little short story about a town called Purgatory.
Yeah, I went to a Catholic school. I think it was one-page long and I called it a short story. But it was about a town called Purgatory. It was kind of a Western.
Do you still have it?
No, I just remember because when I realized what purgatory was, I also thought — and I think this is the thing that threatens most Catholics — that would be your ultimate destination. It’s neither [heaven nor hell]. It’s straight up the middle.
It seems like you are drawn to stories with an unreal quality. Since you wrote a story like that in third grade, has something about that kind of storytelling always appealed to you?
Huh! That’s something to think about. I grew up in a city called Hialeah in Florida. It’s in Miami and it is primarily a Cuban community. It’s like where Little Havana is. Where I grew up, it was across from Main Street. There were arms stores and a bowling alley and a K-Mart. I had weird chores. I would pick up the trash that would blow in from the wind in the front yard.
I had a lot of time and with such a Catholic upbringing, I just imagined a lot of things. I didn’t have a lot of input, or I had a lot of one kind — which didn’t suit me — because I was female. I didn’t know what feminism was or anything, but I knew that I couldn’t do things that the boys could do. So consequently, what was left in my own experience — where I lived, how I lived, the money we had, and all that — there were not a whole lot of choices. My immediate family is nuts and beautiful, but on the outside, what I was given, I felt, Why doesn’t this work for me too?
Do you remember the World Book Encyclopedias?
We didn’t have a full set of encyclopedias, we would get them every month. They had the two volumes of dictionaries and in the back, they would have these vocabulary tests. I couldn’t wait for them to come. I learned everything from the World Book Encyclopedia. For real!
That was our internet.
That was our internet, yeah! That’s what I can do, is search — everything else I don’t know how to do, which is kind of a metaphor.
To answer your question, I think I always felt like the other because there wasn’t a place for me in the group I was put in or elected to be in. I just felt, like, other in it. Which is interesting, because you are right, that is sort of where I gravitate towards.
I also read you wanted to do Forever because of your friendship with Maya Rudolph. Is that true?
Oh hell yeah. It is all about Maya, my God. And Fred, I’m crazy about him. I don’t know him very well, but he is just wonderful. They are just so sweet-natured. Everybody is so — I don’t know, it’s a very gentle vibe with [co-creators] Matt [Hubbard] and Alan [Yang] and the other writers. Even though they are sharp and completely irreverent, they come from a really good heart collectively.
Maya and I have been friends for a really long time. We actually did this movie together — it was called Can a Song Save Your Life? and the title was changed to Begin Again. Sweet Maya Rudolph. Yeah, I would do anything for Maya. Literally anything. With her, for her, whatever. I was so happy when I found out [the role] was for her best friend, it was just too exciting.
We learn a little bit about Kase in Forever — what her job was, how she died. Did you try to create even more of a backstory for her, or does that not necessarily help you as an actor?
Well, it depends because every part is so unique and hopefully radically different. Scenes with [Forever], I worked on with Maya. I’ve been friends with her for so long that I counted on the fact that it was going to be with her. And the guys, Alan and Matt, are just amazing with that stuff. If I am in a hole, they will help me out. So for this, no, I did not create a big backstory.
[Kase] didn’t fit in the living world, and went into the other one, where I guess you’re alive — I don’t know if you would use that word, but you have a presence there. It’s your opportunity to correct, you know? We all have the “make the correction” of opportunities in life, but sometime don’t opt for it.
To me, this show is really about how hard it is for people to break their day-to-day habits.
Yeah, we have this template that is totally wired before you even know what it is. Kase recognized it. June, I think, didn’t really recognize it.
Maybe I’m blowing smoke, and you can tell me if I am, but there is so much talk right now about change: trying to change our politics and trying to change the way things are being done in Hollywood. It feels like Forever is attacking the idea of how hard it to change things, from a different angle, in a way that still feels relevant.
Pretty relevant in terms of how to try not to be nihilistic, you know? That’s a kind of resistance. Even though [Kase] is a lot of talk, she doesn’t really know how to break that. And then, she sees June and it is just utter love and and it’s unavoidable. Forget rationalizing everything. Forget hammering it to death. Sometimes you just say love.
That’s another question I have: Fred’s character, Oscar, suggests that there is a romantic relationship between Kase and June. Do you think that Kase’s feelings towards June are romantic?
I don’t think they are classifiable. I don’t think she identifies yet. I think she is craving somebody like that in her life. If it’s “the one,” I think yeah, June is the one for Kase. Even your soul mate, something like that. But not with the sexual relationship. I did not really see that much there.
When they go to Oceanside, it seems like Kase really wants to stay. Why do you think that is?
Because Kase hasn’t worked out her shit yet. She is hoping that this is it because this is the dream, and I don’t think she’s had dreams for a very long time. But sometimes you see that through and think, Oh man, that was a mistake. But yeah, Oceanside is too weird for her. For me, it is a little more … not immature. It feels like a younger person than Kase, emotionally, would be into that. Because it exposes you to the alternate. She was so square in her previous life that it’s sort of, What is this world? People are like this? I have never seen anything like this. She is looking for a way out, but there is no way out.
They are very different shows obviously, but I was wondering whether you think Deidre from Kidding and Kase from Forever would find some common ground.
After a hugely rocky start, I think they would go at each other and then maybe they’d begrudgingly respect each other. I don’t know if they are ever going to be friends.
This interview has been edited and condensed.