The first time most of us witnessed the off-road combustion of Catherine Keener in action was in Tom DiCillo’s Johnny Suede (1992), embodying the essence of neurotic, bullshit-intolerant New York womanhood lost in confrontation with Brad Pitt’s spacey, would-be postpunk. Bearing lynx-woman eyes and Cadillac cheekbones like they were loaded firearms, Keener branded herself on our movie-minds with startling authority. Who isn’t a fan? Actually a
Miami native, Keener has become a New York indie-film brand name, even if sometimes the roles have been unworthy and the movies forgettable. (DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion, Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking, and Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors are notable exceptions.) For eight or so years now, finding out that Keener was in a movie was the moviegoing Scooby snack we got for putting up with the likes of, say, Patricia Arquette.
As the sardonically amused bitch goddess amid the matter-of-fact squirreliness of Being John Malkovich, Keener has to make love to Malkovich while cooing passionately to Cameron Diaz, who is watching through JM’s befuddled eyes-not a scene you could train for. “When I first read the script, I said, ‘God, I’d love to be in this movie, but I’ll never get to be in this movie,’ ” Keener says spiritedly, her conversation jackhammered with bashful guffaws. “I’d heard about it, and about Spike, and I thought the whole thing would be just too cool for me. I thought, too, what is wrong with this writer? Are they seriously going to make a movie of this? Is anyone actually going to pay for this movie to be made? Is Malkovich actually going to be in it? It was all rumor-I didn’t know anything firsthand.”
The process of making such a movie could never seem as odd as watching it (“By the third week, even the 7 1/2th floor felt normal”), but Keener didn’t miss the thematic projectiles. “For me, I really pulled out of it that whole thing about coveting someone else’s life, and what people imagine celebrity to be like, and even the assumption that 15 minutes inside someone’s skin would tell us what their life is like-you know, actors do it too, we have this two-month job in which we think we inhabit peoples’ lives, and it’s analogous to the 15-minute ride in the film. John [Malkovich] would be the first one to say there’s nothing particularly fascinating about his life, so in that way the film does kind of reflect who he is, but in reality, all of the factual stuff was made up. His middle name is not Horatio, he wasn’t born in Evanston, Illinois!” Pause for yuks. “Really, the whole thing is such a riot to me.”
Keener’s first film was actually an Outward Bound?ish thriller called Survival Quest, directed by Don “Phantasm” Coscarelli, but she likes to offer Johnny Suede as her real debut, which led to roles in DiCillo’s three other films. “It was the first movie I made wherein I felt the difference between making a good movie and making a movie that meant nothing. Honestly, I think my performance had a lot to do with Tom. I don’t know, maybe it was based on someone he knows very well, but he took a lot of care with me. A lot of the time, actors are only as good as their director, and I know with me that’s often the case. I don’t think I’m in his next one. I think he’s moving on! I get to work with other people, he can, too.”
So where does Keener stand in Hollywood? (Next on the agenda is the new film by Nicole Holofcener.) Do roles in studio fodder like 8mm bankroll the low-paying indie lifestyle? “8mm wasn’t a payday for me, although I did get some money on it, but ‘money’ to me is anything above scale! Not that I’m opposed to making money-at all. No, I went into that a little naively, maybe-I think Nicolas Cage is a wonderful actor and always wanted to work with him, I met Joel Schumacher and I liked him. I don’t know, I’ve never seen the movie, but I
only worked on it a week, and had a great time with Nic. It was a little job.
“But I don’t want to work just to make some change. I never have, and I honestly have never had the opportunity. I’m not offered those kind of roles-if someone offered me a lead in a big studio movie, maybe I’d do it. I hate to think that I would, but it’s never happened. I get to do good movies, c’mon. If I ever got involved in that
other system of making movies, it wouldn’t be as much fun. Being John Malkovich was great, you couldn’t ask for a better movie to be in. After that, I did Simpatico, from the Sam Shepard play, and worked with Albert Finney and Jeff Bridges, and Nick Nolte and Sharon Stone are in it. From my perspective, what else is there?”