Not far from the Tribeca Film Festival headquarters, it’s happy hour at the sports bar Warren 77. A trader is telling his buddies about his new job—“div swaps, combos … ”—when Catherine Keener blunders past him, waving hello to me with her cell phone. “I’m soooo sorry—Oh!” The phone flies out of her hand and skitters under a bar stool. “I’m sorry I’m late!” she says, bending over to search for the phone. “The truth is I was asleep.” Keener laughs. “Then I thought, Yes, interview. At Sean’s bar. At least there’ll be booze.”
A sports bar filled with traders is not the place you’d expect to meet an actress known for her edgy, indie sensibilities. But Sean Avery—the Rangers star and one of the bar’s owners—is her friend. And Keener, a former waitress (and perhaps the only actress to admit that it was “one of the best jobs I ever had”), is at home here, greeting the waitstaff and managers with a flurry of hugs on her way to a table that doubles as a Ms. Pac-Man machine. She’s never played before, but four quarters soon fix that. “What am I supposed to do?!” Keener asks as her Pac-Man is gobbled up whole. She gamely takes instruction, but I defeat her anyway. Twice. “You did not,” she says, when reminded a few minutes later. “Okay, you did, but it was my first time. If there was some sliding scale, I think it would come out even.”
Soon Keener’s munching on French fries and chicken wings. She clarifies that she will not eat pork “because piglets suckle, and I’m a mama,” then segues into a description of a woman she met earlier who had an odd bump on her head: “It was like a beautiful little nut. I don’t know if it was beautiful to her, but to me it felt good.” Keener examines my own shaved (and bumpy) skull, and declares herself an amateur “what’s the word? Phrenologist.” She aims her BlackBerry at my head and takes a photo. The blurry close-up makes it look like a tumor. “Don’t say that! If it is—it’s benign.”
William Faulkner talked about the ability to tell a story “on a bevel.” That’s Keener, who’s got a cockeyed gift for the eccentric ramble, coming at you, seductively, playfully, from unexpected angles. Her particular naturalness and vaguely spacey feistiness were initially showcased in 1996’s Walking & Talking, by her friend Nicole Holofcener, who later directed her in Lovely and Amazing, Friends With Money, and Keener’s latest, Please Give (at the Tribeca Film Festival, April 27, before it opens in theaters on April 30). Please Give is a frank, surprising comedy that tries to make sense of the kind of privilege so many New Yorkers take for granted. Keener plays a Greenwich Village furniture saleswoman who makes a bundle via estate-sale ambulance-chasing. She’s got a husband (Oliver Platt) who’s eyeing a younger woman (Amanda Peet), a daughter who feels entitled to $235 jeans, and a guilt-driven restlessness that compels her to give $20 handouts on the street while also impatiently waiting for an elderly neighbor to die so she can annex her apartment.
“When you have kids, you want them to be a certain way that you weren’t: Like, don’t be a selfish little fuck,” says Keener, who knows that her character is essentially that. “She’s self-absorbed in her own troubled sense of being selfish. Which happens. Sometimes people who feel selfish really are selfish—even though they’re aware of it. Knowing doesn’t really X it out.”
Please Give smartly gets at the way selfishness is a question of degree, something Keener has been thinking about. She wonders if her desire to work so frequently with friends like Holofcener, Spike Jonze, and Charlie Kaufman is a form of selfishness. (Considering the terrific films those partnerships have produced, her fans would doubtless say no.) “If I can keep cycling through the same people, I’d be so happy, but it’s bound to stop,” says Keener. “Nicole and I have conversations about this: You need to work with someone else. It’s melancholy. It’s like you know we’re going to have to break up someday—but we’ll stay friends.”