Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener talks A Late Quartet

The rarified world of four Manhattan chamber musicians isn’t where one might expect to find Christopher Walken or Catherine Keener.  

Walken’s trademark bizarro comic persona and Keener’s indie anxiety are nowhere to be found in Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet. 

M&C: There’s tremendous delicacy in their work, a mature older worldview and as we discovered, it was a big leap for them.

Christopher Walken – Of course this was a stretch.  I’m a show business kid, song and dance and a little bit of pizazz. I was raised by comics. I was in show business since I was 5 years old. And to be a cellist in a string quartet, world renowned and respected and learning to simulate playing the cello, that to me was scary.  I thought “How am I going to do it?” 

Does it seem like we all know how to play our instruments? They shot a few seconds here and there and they fit it together so it looks kind of okay.  With me I never did get the hang of the cello.  This is a different kind of part for me.  I can’t think of too many things I’ve played where I played real people.  Usually it’s somebody a bit (trails off) … this is a real guy with a wife and a career.

Catherine Keener – I could see someone other than you who would have taken that and played the part cartoonishly.  It seems like such a larger than life part. What you do of course is bring complete normalcy to a character like that and make him so stunning, so heart breaking. 

You realize oh this is another man. This is a man.  He happens to be incredibly talented at something but he’s just a guy.

CW – If there was a thing going for me it is that I am a real New Yorker and I was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where a lot of professional musicians live. As a kid a lot of my friends were professionals. My best friend who died recently was a famous cellist named Steven Katz. His whole family his father mother brothers and sisters they all played an instrument. 

They made a nice living, and lived in big apartments but they were New Yorkers, affluent cultivated New Yorkers. They talked about restaurants, went to movies, they weren’t … there wasn’t anything lofty about them. They did that for a very good living.  Like my character lives in a beautiful house, they make plenty of money.  There’s nothing high falutin’.

M&C: There seems to be a trend now to make quality films for older audiences.  Are you encouraged?

CK – I am just hearing about it and I’m encouraged.

CW – I wasn’t aware of it as a trend. Some magazine article recently I read how movies are being made for older people.  People my age like to go to the movies that may be so.  It would certainly be good news.

CK – I always get cast. They will always take; I hate to say this, this thing, about casting a woman who is now considered appropriate for middle aged roles.

CW – Everybody knows for a woman acting is much harder. There are fewer parts as they get older.  It’s always been that way, but now you see suddenly, you see Christopher Plummer.  I worked with him when I was 16.  He had it all, he was handsome, an actor’s actor. But he’s been doing it for a very long time and here he is 80 years old getting an Oscar? That’s pretty cool.

CK – I’m playing mothers of adult women.  That’s totally cool.  Now I am age appropriate to be the girlfriend of someone who is twenty years older than I am. And that’s considered an anomaly.  That’s the hook in the movie.  The normal thing would be a 20 year old older man to have me as his wife and have an affair with a younger woman.   Is this real life?  It’s as if it’s not weird for them to go for a 23 year old.  It happens all the time.

CW – You could have a much younger boyfriend.

CK – I do. In my head!

M&C: You play artists, musicians.   Did you find there is any major difference between acting, music, or is it all accessing the same energy?

CK – I don’t think so. I’m just going to say no.

CW – The whole idea of art is much more pervasive than its given credit for. There are people, art is what artists do.  It’s the result of the work of artists and that can be – someone who can make a table, a chef, there’s a bigger word for that.

CK – It’s living a more creative life, like making a table.   I went into a UPS store with an oddly shaped chair and asked if he had a box it could be shipped to LA.  And I said “It doesn’t matter”.  He looked at me as if I’d just insulted his entire … you can’t just do this.  He built a box for it that was stunning. 

I said throw it in the box, do that, and I was dismissive of what it requires to do a job like that and how he might feel about it and he was right.  I took all that shit for granted and he looked at himself as an artist.

CW – My father had a bakery and he had a guy who decorated wedding cakes that’s all he did and he flowers and the guy was amazing, knock off a wedding cake and it was all, it looked the outside of the cathedral.

What’s different is sometimes none of us get to see it. Trust for example, I was upset it sunk like a stone. How do you deal with that?

CK – It happens all the time. That’s the way it’s a disappointment, it’s a long time. I’ve done it the quarter of the movies I’ve done and I feel like I’ve made 3000.  That’s how it feels.  A lot of stuff happens that way in life, “Ah Man”, it happened and you’re not here.

There’s not a camera here and you have to be able to get off on that and not care about the other stuff so it doesn’t matter at all.

CW – And you got paid.

CK – If you can pay the bills, that’s a good thing.

M&C: Do you have any apprehension about your movies?   Is your ego entwined with the film’s success?

CK – I judge a movie by what my experience was like while I was shooting it and generally I have a great time so in my head I think it’s great. Ultimately I don’t see movies I’ve worked on, I see enough having to do looping and for content for press, but I really don’t enjoy it not because I can’t enjoy it.

I love the experience of doing it but afterwards I don’t feel so connected to seeing the film and the film itself. I have nice memories of my movies, whether they’re done well or not or were well received, it doesn’t matter a lot.

CW – I haven’t made a movie I wasn’t surprised with when I saw it.  Whatever impression I had making it, when I actually see it I go “Oh, yeah. Oh, now I see it”.  Movies are funny.  You have to get lucky.  It’s just as difficult to make a movie that’s not so good as it is to make a good one. 

As a matter of fact it’s probably harder to make one that’s not so good.  You’re struggling usually. When it’s difficult it’s not good news.   When things are good, usually there’s an ease to it.  It’s like athletes.  If it’s nothing forced, chances are it is pretty good.

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