Catherine Keener on Xavier Dolan, Charles Binamé and Elephant Song

Xavier Dolan does that other thing he does – acting – in Charles Binamé’s Elephant Song, a noir-ish psychological drama set in a mental institution in which he plays Michael, a patient who may be behind the disappearance of his psychiatrist.

The missing man is replaced by another doctor (Colm Feore) but he’s cowed by Michael’s manipulative mental powers and unable to restore patient/doctor balance. The hospital chief (Bruce Greenwood) doesn’t fare much better.

Holding it all together is Nurse Peterson, a jealous, strong and withholding caregiver with more than a passing resemblance to Louise Fletcher’s toxic Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Catherine Keener’s creation is fearsome; Nurse Peterson rules with an iron fist but has a significant weak spot where Michael is concerned. She’s an intriguing character who holds all the cards but may be at the heart of the troubles. We spoke with Keener in Toronto:

Catherine, Xavier Dolan, your co-star is a phenomenon up here, having made so many outstanding and successful films as an auteur, by the age of 25. Were you aware of him?

He’s a genius. I didn’t know anything about him. Elephant Song was the most elegant set and if you imagine working with Xavier you have to be super strong. Charles Binamé, the director was a dream, he’s the dreamiest director, he’s the easiest, so smart, and lovely and gentle and kind and funny and just the bomb. Charles is just so crystallised.

He knows and everything is filtered through his own lens.

So Xavier didn’t dominate?

Xavier just deferred to Charles because we wanted to. Charles was the smartest person in the room about the story. His way was so beautiful that you wanted to please him, not for his approval but to deliver.

He cares, he really cared, he cares about people who have illnesses such as these and he wanted to engender that in the story and have people feel hat as well. He set a bar.

How often do you get to work with someone who really gives a shit? But honestly, I get to do that a lot.

Your character had such a mixed bag of love, strong love for Xavier.

I did.

But this was her bubble and she didn’t like others coming in. It’s all in your face and stance, there is love in and contempt when someone dares to get by her. Is she a jailer or mother figure?

I think it is a mothering relationship. That’s how I felt. I felt like he’s so damaged and someone had to advocate for this person. You don’t know how to feel because what he says is vicious.

She accepted what the character did; she just made the choices to be there for him. That’s what she is doing there. It’s an avocation.

You consistently refuse to go for the tried and true in your work as with Nurse Peterson. You’re one of a kind.

I don’t know it’s that but honestly talking to you just now it feels that is the reason you want to want to work, not just collect a paycheck even though you have to out of necessity.

Trust me I’ve had to, whenever. But I try to cut my losses but at least working with someone who gives a shit; you deserve that. That really is the thing for someone to care about what they’re doing.

Elephant Song opens in Canada Friday Feb 27

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