Catherine Keener: 'At Some Point You've Got to Call Reality'

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This week's Please Give returns Catherine Keener to the fraught, funny world of Nicole Holofcener, marking their fourth collaboration since 1996's Walking and Talking. This time, the crisis on hand is as social as it is personal -- the epidemic of white liberal guilt that wallops her Kate into a new, unusual variety of midlife crisis. Making matters worse, Kate's daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) has bad skin and a jones for $200 jeans, while husband Alex (Oliver Platt) has only slightly more compunctions about the affair he's having with his neighbor's granddaughter (Amanda Peet) than he does about waiting for the neighbor to die so he can expand their apartment.

Such are the concerns of Holofcener's frazzled elite, and few -- if any -- know them better than Keener. Ahead of Please Give's Tribeca premiere, she spoke with Movieline about her relationship with the filmmaker, the sublime appeal of working with young actors, and the psychological advantages of splurging.

I generally start by asking actors how they got involved with a project, but when it's you and Nicole Holofcener, I think the more appropriate question is: At what point of Nicole's process does an idea or character come to you?

I'm not really sure. Let me think about that. With Walking and Talking, it was when the thing was completed. When I got to it, the script was already written, but she had seen me in... I think it was Johnny Suede. She responded, and it was early. And then with Lovely and Amazing and Friends With Money, I think those probably came during the process of writing. And this as well. I've heard her say sometimes that she can hear my voice when she's writing.

What do you think of that as actor? Does it add pressure?

It doesn't add pressure. But it adds... Well, maybe that is pressure. Maybe it adds anxiety sometimes: "What the heck did you think writing about me? Are you out of ideas?" But it's not really for me or with me. I'm not her muse at all. I'm just her sort-of live voice from her imagination. Her life, her pages, you know? Maybe that's what she means. But I really don't think of it as writing inspired by me at all. It's more kind of her very keen way of looking at things: her open eye all the time. She's attentive.

With that in mind, to what extent did you relate to your character in Please Give?

A lot. I related a lot. I think about things that I hope are not as narcissistically concerned, although I might be. I don't know. But I think I've gotten past that kind of guilt and self-absorption about being a "have" person, and I shouldn't complain because there are so many have-nots and that whole thing. But I definitely understand it. And I think in this day and age we're definitely more aware of it. Sacrifices have to be made.

I talked to Nicole about this yesterday, and she said that she sensed a heightened realism for you with this character. The emotional stakes that Kate lives with every day, and particularly the scenes where Kate attempts to do things like volunteer. Did you sense that as well?

Not in the approach, but when we were doing it, definitely. I could feel it was more invested. It was heightened. It was sort of doubled -- not literally by two, but there was another layer on top. I think it's because of the subject matter and everything. At the time, I guess it struck me as though the situations were more important or grave or dire or something or necessary. Attention must be paid, in famous other words. But I think that's way the movie was. It's not like I took it there; Nicole invested that much feeling, and I felt it when I was doing it.

Do you think Kate made the right decision at the end of the film? Do you think she caved with her daughter?

No. I think she did the right thing. Why? Do you think she caved?

Not necessarily. But at the screening where I saw it, people were actually muttering at the screen: "Don't buy her the jeans. Don't buy her the jeans!"

Really? I've never heard that! That's an interesting thing to think about. But look: At some point you've got to call reality. And she walks around in these beautiful clothes, and she wants to give this homeless man $20, and her daughter's there saying, "You want to give this away? Why not to me?" It's like she's teaching her a lesson: It feels a little contradictory. Like, what's the big f*cking deal? Just give her the jeans. It's not about having expensive jeans. It's about walking out and feeling like a beautiful girl who's growing -- who's in the pharmacy looking at things privately, looking at things that are part of her maturing into adulthood. It's beautiful. And the jeans are symbolic of that.

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