Nicole Holofcener first met her muse Catherine Keener – who has starred in every film Holofcener has directed – at the gym. When you ask them for more details, the story begins to sound like dialogue from a Nicole Holofcener movie. At first, Keener says their mutual friend Jan brought them together. “No,” Holofcener says, “a different girl. The yoga teacher.” That’s still not right, Keener says. “She was the hip hop instructor. She loved Marge Simpson or something.” Neither of them actually enrolled in the class. But, Holofcener says, “she introduced me to you while you were on the StairMaster.”
However they met, it’s lucky for Hollywood, because they have been scaling the movie industry together ever since 1996’s “Walking and Talking.” In the last 17 years, Keener has channeled Holofcener’s cinematic id in a collection of five standout performances, including the New York cubicle dweller fretting her single status (“Walking and Talking”); a married mom working at a one-hour photo shop (“Lovely & Amazing”); part of a conflicted screenwriting couple (“Friends With Money”), and a woman who resells antique furniture with her husband (“Please Give”).
In the pair’s latest endeavor “Enough Said,” Keener plays a divorced poet who despises her ex-husband. It’s fairly common for a male director and actor to collaborate on multiple projects, but Holofcener and Keener’s relationship is unprecedented for women in film. On a recent afternoon, they spoke to Variety as their new movie, released by Fox Searchlight, premiered to rave reviews.
Ramin Setoodeh: Nicole, had you seen any of Catherine’s films before you worked together?
Nicole Holofcener: I saw her in “Johnny Suede” and I fell in love with her right then and there. I thought, “That’s my girl. That’s who I want.”
NH: She was the cutest thing I’d ever seen. She didn’t want to wear eyeliner in the scene and she threw a shoe at Brad Pitt. You had dreadlocks, right?
Catherine Keener: They were cheap dreadlocks. I would just twist my hair up and let it dry that way. I’m going to ask you a question, Nic. Did you perceive yourself as not fitting in when you were growing up?
NH: Uh-huh. I felt teased and awkward. I always had good friends, but I did not feel like a cool girl, ever.
CK: I didn’t feel like a cool girl (either). I mean, I wasn’t a cool girl. I hung out with the cool people, but when I met you, I thought you were very cool. I still feel that way. But I remember my impression: I wanted to fit in with you. I would have never have thought you didn’t feel that way, except the characters you write. They are a little apart.
NH: I think growing up under the shadow of a pretty sister will do a lot to a person. But I turned out ok.
CK: And pretty.
NH: I wouldn’t go that far.
RS: Do you always know what role Catherine will play in your films?
NH: I’ve never been that decisive. I was very decisive with “Lovely & Amazing.” I wrote that character for her. “Friends With Money,” I think they were up for grabs a little bit. And for “Please Give,” that was not up for grabs. That was Catherine’s part.
CK: I don’t know about “Please Give.” I think you were trying to consider everything.
NH: I remember now. I was trying to get away from her, when the part was hers. I was trying to intellectually—
CK: To make a case for somebody else.
NH: There are plenty of good actors out there who would have done a good job. I guess I offered to a couple of them, they passed. And then it was like, “Why am I doing this? Catherine is perfect for the part.” I can’t imagine anybody else in that part. What was I thinking?
CK: You were thinking the absolute thing. It’s inevitable. I think five movies is a great run. Are there another two female actor-director operators like that?
NH: I think we’re the only two women in the movie business.
RS: But there are male directors who work with the same actors often, like Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio or Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Why is it different for women?
NH: That’s because there are only six of us out there. The world is sexist and racist.
CK: I think you would have to make your own movies to do that. You would have to be an auteur to that. I think because of Nicole, because of her unique position, I think that’s probably why. I don’t know another one like her. Not to say, everybody is alike. Nicole is so unto herself. People are so captivated. I’m just talking about how you say the things you say. It’s her very unique and beautiful way of reaching everybody.
RS: Do you see Catherine as an on-screen extension of yourself?
NH: Sure. I’d picture how she’d say something. I think she’s absolutely inspired me and is a part of the process for me. She always has been.
CK: Nicole inspires a lot of actors. I have to tell you though. But I’m not bullshitting. Everybody wants to work for Nicole. She’s very specific about casting. She’ll often say they want me to cast this, isn’t that crazy—and it’s like some big movie star.
NH: Usually it’s just in my gut. I’d much rather have the right person than the wrong famous person.
RS: Is it just easy being around each other on set?
CK: Mostly it is. There have been times when it hasn’t been. We have been together a long time and we have a real friendship.
NH: I know Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] was a little nervous to work with me and Catherine. She was afraid we’d speak in tongues.
RS: Do you ever call each other for career advice?
CK: I have called you. She’s done reading out loud of scripts.
NH: Yeah, we’d read a script out loud. She’d say, “I don’t know. Is this stupid? Let’s hear it out loud!” Then we’d decide it was stupid. And then you’d take the part.
CK: And then I’d do it, knowing how stupid it was, and how miserable I was going to be.
NH: They’d offer her so much money. Or not. I rarely need career advice, because I don’t have a career. No, that’s not true. I can’t really go far away while my kids living with me. I don’t get offered enough things where I’m in a pickle. It’s usually, “This is terrible” or “Someone else got the job.” She has seen cuts of my movies and given me a lot of notes and good ideas.
RS: Since “Walking and Talking,” how do you say the independent film industry has changed?
NH: I would say it’s harder to make a movie, but you see film festivals and they are flooded with independent movies. So somebody is getting their movies made. I feel like there’s a bigger separation. There are movies that have actors you have never heard of before and they play for four minutes.
CK: There was a time when it was so special. Everybody wanted to be in one. Now there are so many, but their status is not quite as a special.
RS: Will Catherine be in your next movie too?
CK: Oh yeah. I’m in it.
NH: She hasn’t read it. I haven’t written it. It’s starring a man, but other than that.