Yaron Zilberman won the casting lottery when he snagged not one, not two, but three of the most gifted American actors alive, to star in his directorial debut A Late Quartet, a revealing melodrama about an acclaimed New York string quartet coming apart at the seams. Two thirds of the powerhouse trio, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener, who play a cellist diagnosed with Parkinson’s and a violist whose marriage is teetering on the brink of collapse, were kind enough to sit down with us in Toronto this past September, hours before the film’s world premiere. The third member, the far more elusive Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Keener’s volatile husband and the quartet’s violinist, was nowhere to be found, but that didn’t stop the three of us from discussing the challenges of portraying classically trained musicians, the benefits of working with a first time director, and why there’s no place for artists quite like New York City.
What was your reaction when you read the script for a drama set in the world of string quartets?
Catherine: I was excited because I thought, I’m going to have to play something and that it could be fun. As long as I can do it, and I can try. I did try.
What kind of research did Yaron have you do, in terms of, studying the dynamics between actual string quartets? Did you hang out with any real-life string quartets?
Catherine: Actually, no we didn’t.
Christopher: We listened to the music and Yaron got this very famous string quartet to do this performance for us and a few guests,which was very unique, and they preformed a piece that we were really moved by.
Catherine: It was amazing, actually.
Were you fans chamber of music before making this film?
Catherine: No, but I’m familiar because my son’s dad is a cellist and he plays the cello too and I grew up in a house of music. But I never played any instruments.
Christopher: But we had to take lessons.
How daunting was that considering the film relied on you looking natural with your instruments?
Catherine & Christopher: Yeah!
Christopher: Because it’s a matter of string instruments, where we are watching hands and strokes. It’s not like you’re pretending to play a saxophone, or a trumpet. It’s harder to fake.
So all those movement classes you took back in the day finally came in handy.
Catherine: All those movement classes. All of them.
Did you play any instruments before, at all?
Christopher: Not me.
Catherine: Neither, did I.
So what was the training like?
Catherine: Pretty arduous. I mean, we had incredibly great teachers basically at our disposal.
Well, that’s a privilege.
Catherine: You have no idea, what a privilege it was. Just playing on these instruments; Chris had the most amazing cello, and my viola, the story behind it was beautiful. I can’t remember it now, but it was pretty good. I went to Walt Disney Concert Hall and met Carrie Dennis, who came over to my house. Oh my god, did I ever show you her thing on Youtube? She’s the principle violist for the LA Philharmonic, she’s the Jimmy Hendrix of violists.
Catherine: You should look her up. Yeah, so the access is insane. It is what our job is, I mean its the best gig you can get. It was a world that I love, and that I really didn’t have any musical experience other than being privy to people I know who are musicians. And I know a lot of musicians. But, I knew nothing about playing the viola.
Is it easier for you to play creative types as opposed to say a banker or a lawyer?
Catherine: No, it’s not easier.
Christopher: Bankers are pretty creative.
Catherine: And lawyers are too. I think it just depends, I don’t know, I think for me everything is hard to play.
Chris, you play a man who has the ability to do what he loves but is robbed by a disease. How would you react to something like that actually happening in real life?
Catherine: Meaning that you couldn’t do what you loved because of this specific thing or uncontrollable thing?
Christopher: That’s terrible. I guess it happens all the time. You just don’t want it to happen when you’re young. You know obviously people, as they get older, they’re less able to do what they want to do. I think in the case of my character, it happens a little too soon. A person at that age should be able to continue on doing what they want to do, and in this case it kind of gets cut short.
Catherine: It’s that kind of twist of fate, that makes something have an extra…
Christopher: Suddenness. You know, it’s one thing to know that you’re sick and that you’re not getting better, but to suddenly be told this thing is coming fast…
Catherine: It’s shocking. It’s like when Steve Irwin, that Australian guy, the means by which he died, is so ironic in the same way. There’s some greater tragedy ascribed to it– I’m not sure what it is. It just becomes kind of noteworthy and you’re just left thinking that this is life. You’re helpless over all too, and there is nothing you can do. It’s shocking because Peter [Christopher Walken’s character] of all things is being cut short by this particular thing.
What was it like working with Yaron Zilberman, a first-time director?
Catherine: It was wonderful. He’s completely passionate.
How did he get a dream cast for his first feature? It’s pretty impressive.
Catherine: Well, it starts here at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival].
Christopher: I really got to hand it to him. He persevered.
Catherine: I think he did. Perseverance is the perfect word to describe him.
Christopher: I mean it’s been two years since we wrapped, and here he is. He must be very pleased.
Catherine: He just kept going, going and going.
It’s amazing when a first time filmmaker goes through so much for so long, just to have his vision realized, and then it happens.
Catherine: Yeah, exactly.
Christopher: Did you see the movie?
I did. How big of a role do you think New York City plays in the film? Why have so many artists embraced it over the years?
Christopher: Well you know, when John Lennon was asked, “Why do you want to live in New York?” he replied “Well, if it was 2000 years ago I would want to live in Rome.” Basically, its the center of the world.
How do you think the city has changed from when you grew up there?
Christopher: I don’t think it has changed. There is a reason why people want to attack it, because it’s so important.