Which of her screen characters do you think Catherine Keener resemble most? Floatie Dupree (Box of Moonlight, DiCillo, 1995), a carefree, easygoing flirt or Maxine Lund (Being John Malkovich, Jonze, 1999), a sassy company woman who wears irony on her sleeve? I’d go with the latter although doing so would be to overlook her ability to play both character types—and everything else in between. With an Academy Award nomination for her turn as Maxine and a recent role in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Keener has achieved what many actors dream of: recognition and a string of critically acclaimed films.
Success did not come easily for Keener. Before her turn as Nelle Harper Lee in 2005’s “Capote” (Bennett Miller), she struggled for years to land a memorable role. She got supporting roles in several Tom DiCillo films, like her Nicole Springer in 1995’s Living in Oblivion, a tale about how everything that can go wrong when you shoot an independent film will. She had played opposite Brad Pitt (before he was Brad Pitt) in Johnny Suede, her first feature film ever and first collaration with DiCillo. She later acted in Box of Moonlight, a very much underrated film by the same director which starred a then-unknown Sam Rockwell. DiCillo also gave Keener parts in The Real Blonde and Walking and Talking. She came into her own, I would venture, when she played Ben Stiller’s wife in Neil Labute’s Your Friends and Neighbors (1998). Who can forget her role as Terri, Ben Stiller’s acerbic wife? Catherine Keener’s exposure to the disturbing world of Neil Labute might have had some influence on her later roles.
Later characters appeared more mature and nuanced, like her turn in Capote. She harnessed all of Nelle Harper Lee’s character tones, a still yet forceful thoroughness and a mild motherly intuition–Capote’s doppelganger. It was a complex role because it demanded presence as much as invisibility and the actress hit all the right notes. Keener later commented on how skittish she felt about taking on the role since there was little information concerning Lee besides some still photographs and having read To Kill A Mockinbird. In her own words, however, her breakthrough role was as Maxine Lund in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (but then, how would any actor being handed a part in such an imaginative script not count it as a personal milestone? It was a breakthrough role for Keener in what turned out to be the most memorable film from 1999).
2005 was an important year for Keener. It tested her ability to perform consistently in several multi-million projects. She appeared in four films, namely The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a bittersweet ballad on family and sexuality, The Interpreter, Capote and the Forty Year Old Virgin, a major departure for Keener who had never played with improv actors before. Takes for the “Virgin” shoot seemed to go on forever, which is how improv filmmaking goes. It was brand new experience for Keener, as was being in a chart-topping box-office grosser (as of this writing, $ 109M). What happened in 2005 helped to chart an impressive course for Keener as the projects and parts became more enviable.
Keener has four projects in development or nearing completion early in 2009, including acting in the Maurice Sendak-inspired “Where the Wild Things Are” to be directed by Spike Jonze. Actors will perform the role of the wild things and Jim Henson’s company will be making puppets for the film.
About the labels and the expectations placed on her by others Keener muses, “I’ve never seen myself as a character actor.” “I don’t really know what that means. I’m a tweener,” ie., she sees herself as being somewhere between leading and supporting actress.” Keener enjoys traveling and plans on taking her son to Scotland next year.