"We had some really dark laughs"

Catherine Keener on Capote and how In Cold Blood scared the crap out of her

How difficult was it playing a real person on film?
I think I was sort of naïve about playing Harper Lee initially because I wasn’t probably as fearful as I should have been because there’s not a lot of public record of her. Phil had it worse because he had so much imitative stuff to do as well as the soul of the performance – which he did accomplish beautifully. For me, I played a woman who’s still alive and who I respect greatly and I don’t know anything about her. I don’t know what she sounds like and there’s very little written about her. I did happen onto a couple of essays that she wrote which informed me a lot and they outlined the important things to her – compassion, love, morality and justice. So I wasn’t trying to do an impression of somebody because there wasn’t anything to really model it on.

Did you research the relationship between Harper and Truman Capote?
Well, there’s correspondence between them and you do know that when she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, she based the character of Del, the next door neighbour on Truman – they were friends from childhood.

Although Truman enjoyed moving in glamorous circles, Harper wasn’t as keen on that was she?
According to our movie she wasn’t comfortable with that no. I think it’s pretty evident that she didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight especially after her novel was published, then the movie was made and she became so famous that she retreated into reclusion. I extrapolated an impression of her as a person from her writing and it was shaped by the director Bennett Miller and obviously the writer Dan Futterman. They’ve been dealing with this material for so long and know it very, very well – they are a tight knit unit, they’re old friends and I sort of crashed into them, so they helped me a lot with this.

Did you read In Cold Blood and To Kill A Mockingbird before filming?
I read In Cold Blood in my early teens, I mean I was a young teenager and it scared the crap out of me. I know kids nowadays see the scariest things so early on and they’re aware that they’re watching a movie – I was very naïve when I read this book. I remember reading it at night under the covers and it just freaked me out, very frightening… Mockingbird is such a beautiful, beautiful novel which I re-read after I got cast.

The movie is based in a time when journalism was very different…
Yes, actually it was, because I feel especially now the journalist is part of the piece and Capote kind of contributed to this new journalism. I’m talking specifically about this celebrity kind of journalism, not necessarily all over the place but I think everybody’s objective is so clouded by celebrity right now – both readers and journalists. People are buying a magazine that has an interview with so and so where they talk about the most banal, trite and gossipy things.

Where does the blame lie for that?
It’s not the journalist’s fault. I think it’s part of what we’ve all established and it’s gotten crazier. I would love to see more of a contribution from everybody, all the people involved – from the publication, the subject and the journalist to the people buying and reading, you know? If the bar could be raised a little bit, it would make for some interesting journalism like in those days. People were able to articulate and observe and express themselves whereas now it seems so simple-minded.

How do you feel about being pegged as a supporting actress?
The lead has this onus that they have to be beautiful all the time, the premium is on looks even if they’re kick-ass actors – they can’t be that alone. Character actors get to be just that, they don’t have the burden of having shiny hair and glowing skin, so it can work the other way. Sometimes it gets in the way, you get pigeonholed as a character actor and so I don’t get such good jobs. This one was a good job but I don’t know if Bennett would have considered casting someone who was classically considered a lead actor in my role – maybe he would have but I have nothing to complain about.

You also appeared in The 40 Year Old Virgin last year – there are a few subtle differences between that and Capote…
Oh yeah. Even when people perceive my parts as being similar, which I’ve heard before, it feels different for me inside, you know? For example, The 40 Year Old Virgin was a great learning experience for me. I’d never done a movie where I improvised so much. The director Judd Apatow would say to me “okay, now say anything you want…” and you’re working with people who are brilliant at it. Steve Carrell, Seth Rogen and all the guys are incredibly talented and spontaneous, so I was really playing.

What was the mood on the Capote set like?
We had some really dark laughs but it was a very hard job, especially for Phil and Bennett. These guys are so amazingly committed to it no matter how much it hurt and I know it did because I watched it. This was a wonderful experience for me, just working with people who are unrelenting in their pursuit – they never gave up and it was amazing.

Most Popular