Catherine Keener: Oscar success within her sights

Catherine Keener is nominated for an Oscar for her role as Harper Lee. James Mottram meets a versatile actress who first caught the eye in 'Being John Malkovich'
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As Thandie Newton collected her Best Supporting Actress gong at the Baftas last Sunday, she paid tribute to her fellow nominees - in particular Catherine Keener, who was up for her role as Harper Lee in Capote. "The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Capote in the same year," enthused Newton. "Who'd do that?" If it was meant as a compliment about Keener's diversity - a studio gross-out comedy followed by an independent study of the author Truman Capote - it didn't quite come out right. An embarrassed smile on Keener's face testified to this when the camera cut to her in the audience. Newton had inadvertently suggested an eccentricity on the part of Keener that failed to take into account just how cultured her film choices have been to date.

A darling of the independent film world, Keener has worked twice with Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Full Frontal) and three times with Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing and the forthcoming Friends with Money), who admits that she was instantly drawn to Keener when she saw her on screen. "I just fell in love with her as a person. I thought she was so beautiful but really funny - tragically open in a beautiful way." Then there's Tom DeCillo, who gave her a first significant role opposite Brad Pitt in 1991's Johnny Suede before casting her as the frustrated actress in his classic low-budget movie comedy Living in Oblivion. They collaborated on two more films in the late 1990s - Box of Moonlight and The Real Blonde - though neither won her the acclaim she deserved.

It took Keener's role as the bitchy Maxine in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich in 1999 to put her on the map, winning her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. It proved what the director Rebecca Miller says, that "she's very good at playing disgruntled".

When I put this to Keener, she lets out an infectious, throaty laugh as if to prove how far removed she is from her characters. "Anger is not a bad thing," she argues. "There's a stigma about the angry woman. But it's actually made me more comfortable with that thought. It doesn't go hand in hand with the mode of behaviour that's ladylike or proper or dignified. Who the hell in this world now isn't raging with good reason?"

Since Being John Malkovich, the studios have woken up to the 45 year-old described by one interviewer as "gorgeously mundane". That said, most of her Hollywood roles have barely registered: a cynical TV presenter in Death to Smoochy; a studio head in S1m0ne; the gun-toting secret service partner to Sean Penn in The Interpreter. Only The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which saw her play the object of affection for Steve Carrell's sexually inexperienced salesman, put her centre-stage. As the eBay entrepreneur Trish, she was natural, vivacious and refreshingly sexy.

It helps that Keener appears to be getting more attractive the older she gets. She has a lithe figure, rich curls of dark brown hair that fall over her shoulders and blue eyes that cut right into you. If her nose is less than delicate, giving her a steely edge, she has a wide smile that would melt an ice-cap.

Keener is finally showing a more insecure, caring, side. Never has a nomination for Best Supporting Actress been more appropriate than for her performance in Capote, as her Harper Lee spends much of the film emotionally propping up Truman Capote. "They had a really strong love for each other," says Keener. "They were best friends as kids, and she protected him." As Truman begins to fall apart under the pressure of writing his seminal non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, she becomes a literary star for To Kill a Mockingbird, yet she never loses her generosity of spirit.

While she was unable to meet the real Lee, Keener consumed whatever she could on her real-life counterpart. She says she was a big fan of To Kill a Mockingbird as a child. "It was so significant for me, in my life anyway, in my childhood. My father's a Southern man, and it was reminiscent of things that meant a lot to me in my upbringing... There wasn't a lot of material available. Just still pictures of Lee in dungarees, smoking and laughing. And some essays she had written about how she felt about things, compassion and love and justice. The rest I just sketched in. She's very private and I didn't want to bug her."

Keener is almost as private as Lee. From her clippings, you'd think she invented her background, so fuzzy is it. The middle of five children, Keener was brought up in Hialeah, Florida. Her father was in the navy, but spent enough time with his daughter to leave her with a cultured film taste. "He would bring me to see old movies he liked. I just loved all the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn screwball comedies." After high school Keener moved to Massachusetts to attend Wheaton College, an all-girl liberal arts school, where she majored in English and history. She developed an interest in actingand took a film- making course at New York University, though "I never even thought of pursuing it and making a living from it."

After she won an internship in a casting agency, she began to change her mind. "That was useful. Seeing the reality of an actor's world made it somehow less intimidating." It led to a job offer in Los Angeles to work as an assistant to the casting director Gail Eisenstadt, who convinced Keener to act. By the time she was 25, she had made an appearance as a waitress in the Rob Lowe vehicle About Last Night, though her other roles "were so bad, I don't even mention them at home". By 1990, she had met her husband, the actor Dermot Mulroney.

They separated in September and, with one child, the six-year-old Clyde, Keener now finds herself in the position of her character in her other new release, The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, it stars Miller's real-life husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, as Jack, a single parent living on an abandoned island who becomes increasingly aggressive towards the world around him. Keener plays his girlfriend, Kathleen, also a single mother, who finds it impossible to get close to the man. "My take on it is just that Kathleen does love Jack," she says, calling Jack's treatment of Kathleen "very hurtful". Shot on the remote Prince Edward Island, the experience was "magical", says Keener. "Daniel's performance in that is extraordinary. For me, he and Phil [Seymour Hoffman] were in a separate place this year with their performances."

Miller says Keener "felt vulnerable" playing the role, an emotion we have rarely been allowed to see in her work. While she admits she "has a tendency to be fearful", she is also "pretty controlling".

I wonder why she takes such risks in her choice of roles or directors. "It's always paid off well in terms of a creative experience," she answers. "There's still this unapologetic pursuit of art that you're not embarrassed by. It feels like when you were in college, and you were still, 'do you guys know James Joyce?' or whatever. You get to be exhilarated and happy working."

'Capote' opens today. 'The Ballad of Jack and Rose' opens on 31 March