Jake Gyllenhaal and Catherine Keener in "Lovely and amazing" (2001).
"This week sees the release of her latest film, Genova, a smaller-scale, more intimate work by British director Michael Winterbottom. It's a story about an Anglo-American family: Colin Firth, a British academic working in the US, and his two daughters (played by The OC's bad girl Willa Holland and a stunningly persuasive 10-year-old newcomer named Perla Haney-Jardine). The family relocates from Chicago to Genova for a summer, to recover from the death of the girls' mother, played by Hope Davis, in a car crash the younger girl believes she caused. Keener plays an old flame of Firth's, who is now teaching at the same university. The film is a mood piece, a movie as much about a city and its light as it is a look at grief - a slow-burning journey through guilt, agony and rage towards acceptance and peace. It has a ghost in it, too.
As with a lot of Winterbottom's work, Genova appears to have been put together without any shooting permits, by a skeleton crew. "Michael works in a very personal way," Keener says of the Blackburn-born director, who will often guide his cameraman by tugging on his shirt from behind. "As for the crew, they were virtually invisible, except for a director of photography and a sound guy. They're just like sherpas, carrying their gear alone and sweating a lot. When I got the crew list, I turned the page over expecting more names, but that was it: 10 names. Spike Jonze works a little in the same way, so you never quite know what you're doing. It shows me you don't need the extra stuff. But it takes a lot of work, sensitivity and preparation - combined with luck. Michael would just pull in extras from the people walking around Genova. I don't think we had permits. We worked on locations and got whatever we could, mostly with available light."Catherine Keener and Emile Hirsch in "Into the wild" (2007).
She says she feels sisterly towards other women actors her age, and would concur that Hollywood remains ageist and sexist, especially when it comes to big-budget material. Somehow, she has found a niche that avoids these traps. She despairs a bit of the new generation of women coming up: "Everyone seems so frigging young and naive. They had some survey of younger women and they asked them what they aspired to be. The most popular answer was to be the assistant to a movie star - not the movie star, but the assistant!"
Despite her recent forays into the mainstream, Keener is still loyal to the indie directors with whom she first found success. She has made four movies with Nicole Holofcener, including the upcoming Please Give, about life in a New York apartment building; then there's her three with Spike Jonze, including Where the Wild Things Are, out in the US later this year; Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Being John Malkovich, recently cast her as a lead in Synecdoche, New York, released here in May. "Actually," she says, "I think it's them who are incredibly loyal - to me."
After a decade of combining indie movies with more mainstream work, she still remembers the terror of her first big-budget film. "First day on the set for [Steven Soderbergh's] Out of Sight, and all the studio bigwigs showed up to watch the kick-off shot. It was a scene with me, by myself. And there's me, all alone, with people screaming instructions and shit, so I just had to scream inside." She thinks for a moment and says: "Actually, I'm always like that".