Catherine Keener on playing viola and mining emotions with Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'A Late Quartet'

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Image Credit: Valerie Macon/Getty Images

Catherine Keener has acted in dozens of comedies and dramas, from playing author Nelle Harper Lee in 2005’s Capote to a single mother in The 40-year-old Virgin, but she’s never played a violist, as she does in drama A Late Quartet, out in limited release on Friday.

Keener takes on the role of Juliette, who plays in an internationally known classical quartet with her violinist husband Robert, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, violinist Daniel, played by Mark Ivanir, and father figure cellist Peter, played by Christopher Walken. The foursome are hit hard when Walken’s Peter announces he has Parkinson’s, and must end his career. In the movie, Keener wavers between tight-lipped emotion and deep, fitful explosions of expression, arguing with Hoffman and seeking solace from Walken. It’s a part the actress critics have called “an indie queen” relishes. EW spoke to Keener by phone about the movie, working with Walken and Hoffman (her co-star in Capote), and loving that her own 13-year-old son plays the cello.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your character, Juliette, is so contained in the movie, keeping her emotions at bay. There’s a moment when Philip Seymour Hoffman is going on a tangent, pouring his heart out, and you just stand there, then unleash at him later.
CATHERINE KEENER: I always remember working with Phil, every moment, like “Don’t come near me right now.” A lot of what you do is informed by what your acting partner is doing. Phil, he gives so much, you can kind of just follow it that way. I thought of her, Juliette, like that. In that moment, on that day, that’s what the feelings were. I remember thinking, “I love you, but f–k you.” You realize, if you do love somebody, and you’re in a standoff with them, and the circumstances shift so drastically, you realize “I have to say it. I have to do it now.”

Do you love classical music already? 
I did, before this, but not in my youth. It wasn’t my upbringing. I always had a yearning for being exposed and knowing things outside my surroundings as a child. I knew there was a world out there. I always like being a student. As an actor, you’re a perpetual student. My son plays the cello, and his dad plays the cello, and that was incredible, to be in that household. My son, 13, was doing trilling on the cello last night, and it was beautiful and accomplished, and the fact that I know what that is. It’s something you learn at whatever period in your life that is so valued. There was a dearth of it growing up. I still kind of dig it so much.

So what kind of music were you into growing up?
Stoner music [laughs]. I was really into punk, growing up, and I really love the Stones. I was listening to them the other day. I love hip-hop. I have a huge music collection on iTunes, and my kid put it on his computer. Part of his education is exposing him to music. The other day I played reggae for him all day.

How was it learning to hold and play a viola? It’s a difficult instrument.
Viola is so hard to play. It’s big. It’s such a beautiful sound. I think I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. It’s not one of the flashy ones. It took me two months to hold the bow, and that was hard. After that, that bolstered my confidence. Music has always been something, a companion for me. It’s just there, it’s available. It’s like this dust that’s free in life. It was comforting to me, or grounding. I could go on these trips for nothing.

What was it like working with Christopher Walken? He’s a surrogate father to you in the film.
For any actor, it’s a dream to work with him. I had the best time with him. He made me laugh so hard all the time. He’s a kind, gentle, hilarious person. He’s not so hilarious in this. He’s very dedicated. When we were working, he wasn’t goofing around.

What’s great about A Late Quartet is it hammers home that there’s no age limit on music, whether playing it or listening to it.
It lasts forever, and it’s such a gift. It’s a privilege we all have, to share music. If you have access to it, it’s something that’s in everyone. It just does something to your body.

For more film news

Read more:
‘A Late Quartet’ trailer: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Christopher Walken make complicated music together

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