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TIFF Interview: Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener on ‘A Late Quartet’

Playing instruments in character, how not to direct them and how Walken feels about his name being misspelled in Annie Hall.

 

We booked an interview with Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener before the Toronto International Film Festival began. We had no idea A Late Quartet would be one of the standout films. It was just Walken and Keener. I mean, come on. Alas, the ten minute slot was too short. We could have gone on for hours, but I’m glad I slipped in the Annie Hall question for Walken. In A Late Quartet, Walken plays the cellist leader of the group who must retire after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Walken plays the viola player, Keener’s husband the second violin (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Mark Ivanir as the first violin.

 

CraveOnline: To begin with a basic question, what did you each get out of learning to play cello and viola respectively?

Catherine Keener: I got a big thrill out of being able to hold a bow the right way. For me, that was such an accomplishment because it’s always been some foreign language. My son’s dad was a cellist and my son plays, so I’ve always been completely fascinated by string instruments. And then actually what a very thrilling moment was when I actually showed my son that I could pull a bow across his cello. It was really big for both us.

Christopher Walken: Yeah, for me it was hard. I just scratched the surface and I relied on the editor.

 

Besides learning the instrument, how did you approach playing the instrument in character?

Catherine Keener: Well, that was the trick.

Christopher Walken: I’m never in character.

Catherine Keener: That was hard for all of us. I don’t mean to speak for you, but we did talk, Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and Mark [Ivanir] and I talked about that. Okay, we’re just so worried about fingering and bow strokes that I forgot who I’m supposed to be. But I think it just naturally came out.

Christopher Walken: That part of it, playing the string instruments, it wasn’t like simulating playing a trumpet or the piano where you just do something and you see your shoulders moving and you hear the music. It requires specific things. My hands have never been very flexible. That was much more difficult than pretending that you can ski.

 

This is quite a cast in this movie. How do each of you like to be directed?

Christopher Walken: I like to be cast well and then I like to be left alone. And good directors, that’s generally what they do when they hire you because you have something that’s useful to the part, and then they leave you alone. The times that I’ve run into trouble is when, very rare actually, but you get hired and then there’s some sort of makeover involved.

Catherine Keener: Yeah, that confuses me too.

Christopher Walken: Yeah, I’m just no good at that. I’m not a chameleon. You get what it is.

 

Why would someone hire Christopher Walken if they don’t want Christopher Walken?

Christopher Walken: It sometimes happens. Not often.

Catherine Keener: It’s very bizarre though when you get hired and then the director will say, “I know how this goes.” And you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought that I was doing this” but basically what they really want, especially if they wrote it, is they want you to do it as they imagined it. It’s virtually impossible.

Christopher Walken: I had the director once say to me, “This is the way it is.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “I’ve got it all right here.” And I thought, “So do I.” And then I thought, “Okay, I am never going to speak to you again.” So I didn’t. I didn’t tell him, but I actually turned off the volume. I never heard anything he said.

 

Have we seen that movie?

Christopher Walken: Yes.

 

And to what you said, Catherine, why wouldn’t a writer be excited to see what the actor did with it?

Catherine Keener: It is, the thing is sort of a handoff. At some point you have to pass the baton and let that person do what they do, and trust that it’s all for advancing the whole. It’s also exciting, I would imagine. It’s exciting to see, “Oh sh*t, that’s not how I imagined it, but that’s fantastic.” But some people, sometimes, it’s not often, but get sort of proprietary about ideas and stuff. It’s just really hard when someone tells you an idea and you’re supposed to enact an idea. It ceases to be an idea.

Christopher Walken: It doesn’t really happen often but it’s not good when it does.

 

Did you find a string quartet has things in common with a group of actors either on a movie set or in a theater company?

Christopher Walken: They do something in front of an audience. To me that was the big connection. That was really the only thing that I totally understood about the part was the fact that the guy, for a living, gets ready, the curtain goes up and it’s 1000 people sitting there, they all paid and you have to give them their money’s worth.

Catherine Keener: God, I wish you had told me that at the beginning of the movie.

Christopher Walken: But I think that that’s the common ground I found with my character, that sooner or later it’s all about getting ready to perform. That’s what we do that most people never have to think about. It’s the show-off aspect.

Catherine Keener: I know, it’s so funny but you do have to be willing to show off, even if your proclivity is not to do that. There’s something that you have to kind of go, “Okay, that’s part of what you deal with to go out there.”

Christopher Walken: I remember I did a benefit once at the Brooklyn Academy. It was one of those things where 200 people who did various things, celebrities, it was a big charity thing and we all shared dressing rooms. I shared a dressing room with ten people, I was lying on the floor actually taking a nap, and Bobby Short, a cabaret performer, he played for years all over the place. He played the piano and sang these old Cole Porter and Gershwin, he was very famous. They said, “Mr. Short, you’re on.” He got up and he fixed his tie and he said, “Okay, let’s go do what we do best.” And I knew exactly what he meant. “That’s what I do. I play the piano and I sing Cole Porter.”

 

Christopher, I’ve always wanted to ask, how did you feel when they misspelled your name in the credits of Annie Hall?

Christopher Walken: You know, that’s so interesting.

Catherine Keener: I never knew they did that.

Christopher Walken: It’s V-L-A-K-E-N.

Catherine Keener: No, they did not.

Christopher Walken: Christophe Vlaken. And that’s in the credits of Annie Hall.

Catherine Keener: [Laughs] They did not.

Christopher Walken: Absolutely, if you see the movie, it’s still there, right?

Catherine Keener: I’ve seen the movie 20 times.

Christopher Walken: It’s Christopher without an R and it’s V-L-A-K-E-N. But, I mean, these things get checked by 1000 people.

Catherine Keener: Was Woody Allen f*cking with you?

Christopher Walken: Maybe he was. No, but that is a very odd thing. I thought I was the only one who knew that. And I remember at the time, my agent called and said, “Can you fix that?” And they said, “No, it’s on 10,000 prints.” I could’ve sued somebody.

Catherine Keener: Do we know if any other names, any other great stories of actor’s names being misspelled?

Christopher Walken: I’ve never heard of it and it’s never been explained.

Catherine Keener: No one’s ever explained it?

Christopher Walken: Nobody, even from his company. It’s gotta be on purpose.

Catherine Keener: My God, was anyone else misspelled in the credits?

Christopher Walken: No.

Catherine Keener: That’s the best f*cking story.

 

I also like the story Jay Mohr tells about how he asked you if you’d rather have the power to fly or have a tail, and you chose the tail. Is that true?

Christopher Walken: Oh yes, I did. I thought it would be great if actors had a tail because you could be so expressive.

Catherine Keener: Oh my God, wouldn’t that be amazing?

Christopher Walken: You wouldn’t have to act angry or anything. Just go [mimics wagging furiously] or [mimics a gentle back and forth wag.] It’d be so much easier.