There’s a hard, flinty edge to Catherine Keener’s voice that can turn from soothing to scary in a heartbeat.
She made a winsome and earthy romantic lead in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” but auds may remember her best as a sharp-tongued beauty in “Being John Malkovich,” for which she earned her first Oscar nomination for supporting actress. Keener received a second nomination in that category for her turn as Nelle Harper Lee in 2005’s “Capote,” in which she suppressed her voice almost entirely, choosing instead to listen — gently, wordlessly, eloquently.
In Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” Keener plays middle-aged hippie Jan, roaming around the country with her beau (Brian Dierke) and a significant amount of emotional baggage in tow when she crosses paths with intrepid young runaway Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch). In a performance played largely by the glow of a campfire, Keener’s rough, reedy voice speaks to a lifetime of travails and setbacks, even as it brims with warmth and generosity of spirit.
“She just seems so real, but not real in the sense that’s just some actor acting natural. She just seems like she is that person, and so intelligent in the way that she communicates with an audience, without even seeming like she’s trying to,” Hirsch says. “(She does) moving work — precise, concise and yet spontaneous.”
Because “Into the Wild” is McCandless’ story, Jan is seen briefly, and only through his eyes. But Keener manages to carve out an entire backstory with little more than a few sad shrugs, about a minute of murmuring monologue and one solitary walk on the beach that, when Hirsch joins her, becomes a joyous frolic in the surf.
“What I really loved about working with Catherine was I never really felt like we were acting,” Hirsch says. “I felt like we were just hanging out and talking and being with each other, and when I saw the film, it was like, ‘Oh wow, you guys were filming that the whole time?’ ”
Next: Keener has a full plate in 2008, including a co-starring role in Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened?” and Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” She’ll also do voice work in Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”