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Friday
Sep192014

WAR STORY: THE CATHERINE KEENER INTERVIEW

One of the great unanswered questions in recent Hollywood history has been, “Why doesn’t Catherine Keener do more lead roles?” Beloved for support turns that enhance everything and everyone around her (notably, Living in Oblivion, 1995; Being John Malkovich, 1999; The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Capote, both 2005; and, Synedoche New York, 2008), the 55 year-old actress takes on that rare central role in director Mark Jackson’s War Story, an intimate, painful account of a warzone photojournalist, Lee, left struggling with PTSD after witnessing the murder of her colleague while on assignment. Genuinely enthused about any chance to reconnect with Australia (“I was there for five months working on Where The Wild Things Are and it was a dream being there,”) the two-time Oscar nominee spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about one of the most psychologically challenging roles of her career…

Mark Jackson has been open about writing the script with you in mind for Lee. Were you immediately won over when you read it? What made the darkness of Lee and her plight so attractive to you?

Oh man, I didn’t quite realise how dark it was before I jumped into it (laughs). Sometimes I don’t realise quite what I’m getting into. I like the story and then we get into it and I start thinking, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got to be that beat-up person.’ Some characters creep up on you and that’s what happened with Lee. Sometimes you don’t want to go all in for a while, but you ultimately cross that line and admit to yourself ‘Ok, I have to do it.’

Mark has said that he cast the actress with H’wood’s warmest smile and most beautiful voice then made sure she did neither for 90 minutes. Did your exploration of Lee feel like a particularly new direction for you?

He said that (laughs)? Well, Lee comes from the same body and spirit as all the characters I’ve played, but they all feel different. Even if they appear to other people as the same, they are living a different story, a different life (pictured, right; Keener as Lee).

The war zone photojournalist makes for a fascinating film character but few films have tackled the PTSD effect. How deeply did you research both the frontline dynamic faced by photojournalists and the PTSD impact?

I was fortunate enough to hang out with journalists, one very generous and respected one in particular. I became a bit of a groupie at the LA Times in their photojournalism department, especially with the war photographers. From doing that, I just became more and more aware of the impact of PTSD on correspondents who cover violence. We are only just starting to crack open what that does to these people, that they are not just objective observers in the middle of it all. These are human beings who are doing something particularly noble who are not immune to the horrors they are witnessing. And that’s what they are doing – they are ‘bearing witness’ – and that takes its toll. Where does all that they witness go? One moment is documented and then released and then the next one comes, and then the next one. It is just a barrage of images that haunt us, the viewer, but then we can turn away. But for the photojournalist, it is never ending, just one after another, until it becomes impossible to process. At some point, they pay for that.

The key emotional element in the film is the deeply personal relationship between Lee and Hafsia. Tell me about working towards that intimacy with Hafsia Herzi (pictured, below).

I love her so much. It was very easy to establish intimacy with her because she is a very soulful, very beautiful actress. She was immediately committed and we found that we bonded from the very first day. We grew very fond of each and shared a real sense of caring for the story.

The setting and the plotting opens the door to commentary on foreign involvement issues, but the film foregoes any grand political statement in favour of a more personal, humanistic approach. Was politicising the narrative ever discussed in the context of Lee’s journey?

No, it was never Mark’s intention. I tried to ferret out certain realities, because that’s what we do as actors. We try to find these reality-based touchstones, but this was not that (film). I mean, it was sort of based upon the region of Italy that houses Libyan refugees and that was shown somewhat, so I made up a lot of stuff based on that. I made up a backstory for myself, just to help me figure out how Lee got to be where she is when the story starts. But our focus was on what happens after that.

The final moments suggest that it is Hafsia’s story that ultimately moves forward. Lee seems mired in her grief; even the camera leaves her behind. Is there hope for Lee? Is War Story a film that suggests there is no happy ending for some people?

I can see that, but I do think that Lee accomplished what she set out to do. She finished her journey, finished an aspect of her life that was connected to that war. Even if much of the life of a journalist is never ending, she was able to bring some small aspect of her pain to a point of closure. In my mind, Lee had been following the story of the refugees and I had projected so much onto her…I think she fulfilled a sort of mission, in the end. I think that’s why a lot of warzone journalists do what they do. It represents a kind of call-out, like being on some mission. My God, why the fuck else would they do it?

War Story is currently in limited release in US theatres and premieres on DVD in Australia on October 22 from Accent Film Entertainment.

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