By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, November 26, 2012 - 0 Comments
It’s an ensemble made in character-actor heaven. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener play a married couple who play second violin and viola, respectively, in a world-famous string quartet with Christopher Walken (its cellist) and Mark Ivanir (first violin). The quartet starts to become unstrung after Walken’s character announces that the onset of Parkinson’s Disease will force him to retire.
The drama is framed by a performance of Beethoven’s daunting Opus 131, a 40-minute opus with seven movements that are played without a break, even as instruments drift out of tune. The film is about what happens when lifelong relationships fall out of tune under stress. A tale of high-culture takes on torrid overtones as Hoffman and Keener’s flighty daughter (Imogene Potts) makes a play for her violin teacher, who happens to be their colleague in the quartet (Ivanir).
Making his dramatic feature debut, writer-director Yaron Zilberman casts his actors boldly against type, especially Walken. So often cast as a menacing weirdo or villain, Walken plays the quartet’s most benign and dignified character.
I interviewed Walken and Keener together before A Late Quartet’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. On a cold morning, we sat together in a corner of a deserted rooftop terrace above a grungy nightclub, where the movie’s PR team was headquartered. (The nightclub was so grim Walken and Keener had decamped to the roof to do interviews.) There we sat, talking about music and acting over the din of a high-rise construction site that loomed above us. Walken was dry and droll; Keener was warm and effusive—she almost never stopped laughing.
Q: Am I correct to assume that the most difficult part of your job was to mime the instruments?
Keener: I would say that’s true. To learn how to hold a bow was very difficult for someone who’s never played an instrument. There are little things. When you’re doing a crossword puzzle, you’ll walk away from it or you’ll stare and try to unlock it, and two days later it unlocks. That’s what happened. I tried with the bow and thought I’d never get this. Then one day I thought, ‘Am I holding this right?’ And I was. And everything sort of fell into place. That was my watershed moment.
Q: Christopher, did you have a watershed moment?
Walken: I never really did get the hang of it. I relied on cinematography and editing. Basically, it’s about simulating a craft, giving the impression that you could play the cello. It didn’t matter to me whether I could play the cello; it was about replicating the look. Continue…