“A Late Quartet” star Catherine Keener talks about making beautiful music with Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Reel Breakdown
Catherine Keener
Catherine Keener

Lust, competition, mortality: they all come together in "A Late Quartet." It's the magnetic star-driven story of a fictional famed string quartet that implodes when its cellist, Peter (Christopher Walken), discovers he suffers from Parkinson's. After 25 successful years touring the globe, this marriage of musicians, and the marriage of the viola player, Juliette (Catherine Keener) and the second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) come to a crescendo. Meanwhile the first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) mentors the couple's daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) all the way into her bedroom.

Betrayal, harmony, ambition, belated coming of age and dedication become variations on themes that transcend musicians and result in a stirring chamber piece impeccably played for four terrific actors. I talked to Keener ("the 40-year-old Virgin," "Friends with Money") about keeping the beat, the great Christopher Walken (Oscar nomination please!) and playing Philip Seymour Hoffman's wife — again:

Thelma Adams: Did you have musical experience prior to playing a musician?

Catherine Keener: I play the viola now. The only instrument I ever picked up was for this movie. In my upbringing, playing an instrument wasn't afforded me. We had a radio and I could always turn on the radio and nobody could stop me from that. I'm very connected to music. Today I'm listening to Mojave 3 because I'm in a mellow mood. Yesterday I listened to A Tribe Called Quest. I love hip hop. I love gangster rap. My thirteen-year-old son thinks it's hilarious.

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TA: What about your co-stars: can Christopher Walken play the cello?

CK: He doesn't play the cello but he loves music. He's a graceful person. He's a dancer. If you see him in that Spike Jonze video, his partner is the music.

TA: Contemporary audiences have become used to the wild-man, "Seven Psychopaths" Walken, and this performance is so much richer. He deserves a supporting actor nomination. The last time he won was in 1979 for "The Deer Hunter."

CK: It's such a complicated role — and that's who Chris is: an elegant eloquent gentle man. He also has a very good sense of humor. Whenever I say I'm working with Christopher Walken to another actor, they say, "That's prime!" Everybody wants to work with him. He has the utmost respect no matter what the role is, how crazy the character. He is just pure. Though the character is unusual for him, Peter is actually very close to who Chris is.

TA: And then you play the wife and quartet partner of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who seems like a lock for a best supporting actor nom for "The Master," although he's brilliant in "A Late Quartet":

CK: We've worked together before. We're great, great friends. I'm always excited to go to work when Philip's there. We feel very safe with each other. When you feel that way as an actor you can go as far as you can.

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TA: Playing husband and wife seems to carry its own freight. Last summer, I interviewed Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones for their marriage counseling movie, "Hope Springs." During the interview, Jones had his arm protectively over the back of Streep's chair. When he was prickly, she gave him a gentle chiding look, as if they were still a married couple.

CK: Phil and I have played best friends. And then we played husband and wife, and I wasn't the nicest person on the planet in "Synecdoche [New York]." In "A Late Quartet," it was very loving. We feel a lot of love and fondness for each other. When the stakes are raised in the piece, Phil and I will go there together. We're committed to each other; in a marriage it's theoretically very much like that. In this movie, we had to deal with commitment: are we or aren't we? Whatever the deal was, it's now off, it's run its course. So, are we committed beyond that, as intense as that was? Our daughter has grown up and moved on. His character is cheating. And then there's my character's withdrawal and my inability to come out and engage and be vital to Robert, in a way that I can with Peter and with my instrument. That's an utter commitment. You're all in. There are so many similarities with the music and the quartet:  you have to rely on each other so much.

TA: To me, the scene where Hoffman's Robert asks you if you still love him, and the tie between you is so strong and your answer basically cuts it like letting go of a rope in a game of tug of war. It was remarkable.

CK: Theirs is a long marriage. I feel like when I have relationships with people over that long of a period of time, you do feel like, "This is it? Is our time up?" Not all relationships last. Is the time up for their marriage as well as the quartet?

TA: The movie is about such a pivotal moment in the lives of the quartet members.

CK: Yes, my life is shifting in every way. Robert and my character were connected through the group, and I was connected to Peter's character. It was all so integrated from the music. We shared everything together.

TA: And then Peter's illness threatens that beautiful thing that brought you together, the quartet, and the ripples are felt by each member of the group.

CK: It was all fallout from Peter's announcement that he will retire due to illness. It's a big reckoning, especially when people become older and feel like their time has come with what they do professionally. It's that horrible feeling you have for someone who you want to tell, "No, you're still vital." And then what's frightening is the feeling that one has about oneself: don't start down this path toward mortality. Please don't!

TA: And how does this impact your character?

CK: It's a state of absolute confusion, or rather a time where Juliette's taking stock. I'm not sure she ever had. Everything in her past has been made — from music school, the quartet, they toured, she had a kid, this and that. Then, all of a sudden the kid's not the kid any more. She's doing her own thing, which is also blowing my character's mind. She just has to right herself and figure out what that is.

TA:  What larger issues did "A Late Quartet" raise for you personally?

CK: For me, it says a lot of things about how time passes. You better come to grips with reality and you better not waste time. Love the people you love actively, and don't waste time behaving like you don't.  Show it. Say it. Feel it.

"A Late Quartet" is out in limited release now.

Watch the trailer for 'A Late Quartet':

'A Late Quartet' Theatrical Trailer