Private, First Class

Article excerpt

Byline: Ramin Setoodeh

You're sitting in an Irish pub with Catherine Keener, nursing your second Bloody Mary, when she leans over and asks you a question: "Do you want to walk me home?" As if anybody could refuse an offer like that. Outside, it's spring in New York, and you zigzag from one patch of shade to the next. You immediately begin discussing a number of important things. Namely, how you moved to New York six years ago and all your failed attempts at dating. She racks her brain for someone she can set you up with, all the while gently holding your arm. She's always laughing--that hearty, deep Catherine Keener laugh--and you wonder how it's possible that nobody seems to recognize her. You enter Madison Square Park, where the leaves are lavender- and cucumber-colored. Now it's time for a photo. She props up her BlackBerry camera and you smile. She loves the result: the only person in this picture is you.

Catherine Keener is one of the most prolific actresses in Hollywood; she's appeared in 14 films since 2005--among them Capote, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Into the Wild--and she's got five more coming. But what does anybody really know about her? Not much. That's incredible, considering we live in the era of nonstop celebrity TMI (and TMZ). "I feel like some things are my business," Keener says. "I don't talk about things I don't want to talk about." This is truth in advertising. Many actors limit what they say about their children, as Keener does regarding her young son, or about whom they're dating. But she also talks about her friends without using their first or last names (which is understandable but maddening, since she's pals with people like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston). When she attends red-carpet events, she often won't take a date, or even a wingwoman. "You can move faster when you're alone," she says. "I can duck easier." In a culture that thrives on sharing every detail of our existence, in streams of endless Twitter updates, isn't privacy something of a liability? You could argue that Meryl Streep hasn't won an Oscar since 1983 because we don't know much about her as a person. The way she melts into roles is less impressive because we have no real sense of how much she's stretching. Keener may be Hollywood's last character actress, the last anonymous movie star. "If she posed in Harper's Bazaar or Ladies' Home Journal, she'd be more famous," says director Nicole Holofcener. "She'd be offered more stuff. But I don't think she cares. This is the path she wants to take."

Today, Keener wants to take an unconventional path too. You start on the East Side of Manhattan, at Grand Central station, wandering around and admiring the architecture. She shares a funny story about the time she and Philip Seymour Hoffman were shooting Capote in Canada and took a train to see some polar bears. You walk a few blocks to the United Nations, where she filmed The Interpreter. She wants to go inside, just to show you how beautiful it is. As you're about to clear security, she starts digging in her purse for her driver's license, which she can't find. It eventually surfaces, and you step into the massive, vacuumlike entrance. A swarm of schoolchildren surrounds you, chatting and laughing. When you go back outside, Keener races you to beat a stoplight. "Let's run to the f--king bar," she says.

Sometimes Keener will be talking about one of her movies, and she'll suddenly draw a blank--she can't remember the title--and then she'll laugh (and laugh, and laugh) and ask for help. …