A Late Quartet’s Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken get string fever

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TORONTO—When Catherine Keener signed on as the viola player in A Late Quartet, she didn’t have to act like she was interested in classical music. “My son is a cellist, so I kind of have a love, obviously, because he’s a cellist and his dad’s a cellist,” Keener said. “So this was not a strange new world for me.”

Talking to a small group of reporters in a closed bar just before the movie’s world premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Keener—who was sitting alongside costar Christopher Walken—admitted that although cellos run in the family, she had never played any instrument, so even learning how to fake it was a challenge. “When you reflect on it, it’s really an amazing accomplishment, just to learn how to hold a bow properly.”

Keener, a two-time Oscar nominee (for Capote and Being John Malkovich), plays Juliette in the film (opening in Vancouver next Friday [December 21]), the literal and figurative mom at the centre of A Late Quartet’s fictional group, the Fugue. The other actors include Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Keener’s husband, Robert, the second-violin player who is tired of being in the shadow of Daniel (Mark Ivanir), Keener’s fiery ex. Walken is Peter, the cellist, mentor, and glue that holds the group together until the onset of Parkinson’s disease forces him to announce his retirement just as the group kicks off its 25th season.

British actor Imogen Poots—whose credits include supporting parts in movies like 28 Days Later and Fright Night but who looks to be on the verge of breaking big with leading roles in a half-dozen pending films—plays Alexandra, Juliette and Robert’s daughter. Alexandra is Daniel’s student and Peter’s heir apparent. Romantic complications, ego wars, beautiful classical passages, and enough intense exchanges ensure Oscar talk in Toronto (especially for Walken).

As if learning to play wasn’t enough pressure, director and cowriter Yaron Zilberman (Watermarks) insisted on the cast working with the kind of instruments their characters would play, or what Keener described as “zillion-dollar instruments”. Keener said that was both intimidating and inspiring. “You actually could draw a lot of inspiration from just looking at those things, and feeling, and then thinking about where they’ve been—they’re hundreds and hundreds of years old.”

Keener said she practised as much as she could. “I had great teachers. I was preoccupied with it for months.” She said costar Hoffman—with whom she’s appeared in several features—was equally determined to get a handle on his instrument, the violin.

Zilberman made a point of shooting in the type of stunning New York venues where string quartets perform but actors rarely do. The locations include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sotheby’s, and the Frick Collection, which had not
allowed anyone to shoot in its galleries for 75 years.

Walken and Keener’s interviews turned into a duet when asked about their real-life relationships to music. Said Walken: “It was a shock to me to be asked to play this part. If it had been some other instrument, that’s one thing: you can pretend to play the piano; you can have a piano without strings; you go like this and they can put the music in. But the string things you have to actually learn.”

Said Keener: “As much as you’re faking it, you’re not; you can’t, really.”

Then Walken harmonized: “Only to a certain extent. In fact, Catherine and Phil Hoffman, everyone but me, had to be pretty good. I never did, because I refused to practise. My teacher would come over and we’d do it for about five minutes.”

In real life, Walken confessed, his personal tastes run more toward show tunes—although he was impressed when the real-life Brentano Quartet appeared on-set to play a critical piece for the film.

“They were amazing,” Keener said.

Walken agreed. “We were in a very small room and they performed this Beethoven—big one. Anyway, they did it basically for us and a couple dozen people.”

“Like a private concert,” Keener noted. “In this beautiful space, it had all this artwork. Remember how gorgeous that was…the woman who comes in at the end, Nina? She’s the cellist for the quartet. And she’s phenomenal.”

“Amazing,” Walken added.

“They’re all phenomenal,” Keener continued. “So there were a couple moments…a lot of moments, actually…we had such a front-row seat to.”

Walken said he listened to Beethoven to prepare for his role—a lot of the themes are built around the idea of performing Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor, a major mountain to climb, apparently, in the universe of string quartets—but Keener admitted that she mostly listened to hip-hop. She said that hip-hop groups have the same sort of energy as the quartet in the film.

“There’s a give and take all the time…there’s something about coordination like that, and partnership.” Keener said that kind of cooperation is also what she experiences working with an ensemble like this one. “I feel like it’s kind of what we do. Well, hopefully it’s what we do: sort of support and, then, when its our turn, we’re prepared and supported by the rest of the group.”

Watch the trailer for A Late Quartet.
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