Ten Minutes with Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener
The actors discuss their latest film, A Late Quartet.
RKO Pictures / Everett Collection
The Toronto International Film Festival, cranking into action right after Labour Day, tends to hit more summer than fall: Interview runs result in sticky, sweaty reporters engaging in conversation with air-conditioned talent pressed for time, being almost blindly routed from one hotel room to another to face an often repetitive list of less-than-insightful questions.
Which is why A Late Quartet is such a break from the heat. First of all, it’s not one of those flashy, quirky-character films for which some of the top-line actors within it have become known. Writer-director Yaron Zilberman’s drama stars Christopher Walken as the leader of a string quartet that has been together – through affairs, hidden obsessions, ambitions fulfilled and unfulfilled – for 25 years, but is about to hit the wall.
Walken’s mentor-leader Peter is acknowledging the encroachment of Parkinson’s Disease, letting the rest of the quartet know that he may only have one farewell concert within his abilities. Catherine Keener’s character Juliette, who has viewed Peter in a fatherly way, has great difficulty handling news that puts unforeseen stress on everyone, including Juliette’s quartet-husband Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who have never acknowledged fully the failings of their relationship, and start seeing that reflected in their rather willful daughter (Imogen Poots).
The delicate suddenly has to contend with the unavoidable hard.
These aren’t the easiest issues in life to deal with, especially at the biggest film festival in the world. And the busy publicists guide reporters up a long set of stairs, one-by-one, for short appointments with Walken and Keener on a windy rooftop in downtown Toronto to try and hash it out.
So, here we go: Ten Minutes with Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener.
Keener joins at a wood-seated corner of the rooftop, while Walken ambles a bit in conversation and the publicists reiterate the time limit and ask if we’re cold. We’re not. Keener in real life looks every bit the fab combination of winsome, serious and smoulder that she has shown on the screen in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and has included Oscar nominations for Capote and Being John Malkovich.
“We’re comfortable!” the 53-year-old actress calls out to the clipboard crew. “We don’t have to wait for heaters! We have to wait for Walken. It’s usually me. He’s an interesting man. Have you ever met him?”
Other than a pass-by, co-sleepy “Good morning” downstairs a half-hour ago in the washroom, nope.
“Aren’t you excited?” she asks. “Join everyone.”
Walken (almost impossible to conceive that he’s 69 now) approaches and slides in next to Keener. It’s early in the morning, and he’s been busy – Walken is also at TIFF to help promote In Bruges director Martin McDonagh’s unhinged ride Seven Psychopaths – so it’s understandable that he looks a bit casually baggy. And you know that way he speaks? That sort of corn-syrup staccato that isn’t necessarily ahead of the beat or behind it, but has a pace all its own that throws time and space out of order just a little bit?
Yeah. That’s how he really talks. And it and he have a way of getting everyone and everything around to blend in to that same rhythm.
And so it begins, with a question about the truths in life that build up, that we keep under our own carpets and that – as happens in A Late Quartet, where questions of aging and obsolescence loom ever larger – can just flash up into an historical mess when pressure and fear of loss start everyone cracking.
“Absolutely,” Keener says. “I find that very true in my life. You kind of have to keep the balance. I mean, if you really exploded the truth someday, everything would just –“ She reconsiders for a second: “Maybe it would all fall into place, actually. You know? Into its right place.”
“Obviously a lot of that sort of thing has to do with relationships and children,” Walken elaborates. “I’ve never had children. And I see all the time, when I look around – and especially as I get older – that it’s kept my life relatively, you know, stress-free. My life really isn’t complicated. And I think it has a lot to do with relationships and the children. I’ve been married for 46 years…“
Keener: “Holy shit!”
“…and I have a lot of friends who have broken up with their wives, and it’s not only expensive, it’s complicated,” Walken explains. “And then they’ve got kids, and the kids are expensive. And then the kids grow up and they’ve got their problems and they have to deal with that. It’s a lot of stuff that I’ve never had to deal with. I didn’t do it on purpose, but it turned out pretty… you know.”
“I think that’s so amazingly true,” agrees Keener. “I can see it. I honestly sort of feel that in your acting.”
“Yeah,” Walken says. “In my own life. That’s fact, that hasn’t got to do with anything that I did. It’s no choices. It’s no kind of a way of living. It’s just a fact of the absence of that. It makes an enormous difference. My brothers have kids, and you know – oy vey.”
“It does jam up your mind a lot,” mentions Keener, who is mother of a 13-year-old son with actor and ex-husband Dermot Mulroney.
“There’s a lot going on there,” Walken adds. “And it’s expensive! And you have to worry about those kids, you know, and then they get on motorcycles.”
“Oh, God,” Keener blurts out. “Don’t even! And they skate without helmets. And you think: ‘That’s ludicrous that I’m letting you do that.’”
“Skating without helmets,” repeats Walken. “And there’s somebody selling them drugs, and, you know – Jesus!”
“Oh, there’s so much!” Keener confirms. “No! And then you have the satellite families!”
Walken, out of nowhere: “I have low blood pressure.”
“That’s amazing!” Keener says.
Walken, thought finishing: “And I’m sure that’s why.”
“I have low blood pressure, though,” Keener counters.
“Do you?” asks Walken.
“Always,” she says.
“That’s supposed to be quite good for you,” Walken observes.
“It is,” agrees Keener. “Yeah. I always have.”
The publicist hovers by. We have two minutes left, so there’s still time to talk about the script of A Late Quartet and how closely these marquee actors adhered to it. You can probably guess the answer.
“There was a certain amount of freedom,” Walken recalls. “And, also, Yaron, who wrote the script, he’s what? Israeli?”
“Mmm-hmmm,” Keener answers.
“You know, I think everybody took the dialogue and tweaked it a little bit to their own way of speaking,” Walken says. “And that was fine for him, right from the beginning. I know Phil did that. I did that. And I guess you did.”
“I did that a little bit,” Keener remembers.
“Take that to ‘make it your own’, as they say in acting class,” adds Walken.
“But less so than what happens as the normal,” expands Keener. “You do want to respect the word and everything. But just because there was some translation, I found…”
“We always had a sense of what was there,” Walken interrupts. “If they can make it a little more colloquial or whatever…”
Keener: “Precisely. Where we all had a common way of speaking.”
“I think that we all did – like the guy I said to here, earlier on,” Walken says, “I felt that unlike a lot of parts I’ve played, that this guy was really more like me than usual. He was from where I came from. I am a real New Yorker, born there, and I grew up with smart, talented people. My connection to the part really was the performance aspect.
“Whether you’re a dancer or an actor or a member of a string quartet, the thing you have in common is that the curtain goes up and there’s a thousand people there, and they bought a ticket. And you perform. I think performing is something that only people who do it, really understand. So that you get in front of an audience, and you really are at home.”
“Yeah,” agrees Keener. “It was within that community. It’s like – exactly.”
“You’re standing on a stage in front of people and, you know, showing off,” Walken says. “Whether you’re in the circus or in a string quartet, that element – you have that in common.”
And just as soon as it started, it is over. There’s some casual talk on the drift away about how getting older means you can say almost any grousy thing you want, and people let you get away with it. Keener is very genuinely friendly, with a wide smile, and Walken is everybody’s Christopher Walken, taking pulls from the giant coffee he brought with him and offering a warm, gradually disconnecting goodbye in the refreshing wind of the rooftop. And lingering is the thought that if Keener and Walken are examples of what getting older is all about, then, today at least, everything looks as though it will work out quite all right.