"Always Work with Your Friends": Catherine Keener on Showtime's Kidding and Building a Career in the Arts

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"Always Work with Your Friends": Catherine Keener on Showtime's <i>Kidding</i> and Building a Career in the Arts

Though the who-wouldn’t-want-to-see-this premise of Kidding is that Jim Carrey stars as the Mr. Rogers-esque host of a children’s TV program who may (or may not) be wound tighter than his beloved ukulele, Showtime’s new dramedy is really a lesson in denial.

Created by Weeds alumnus Dave Holstein, the series draws on the dream-like worlds that have become the trademark of its director, Michel Gondry, in projects like his 2004 film collaboration with Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In doing so, Kidding follows Carrey’s character and his family as each chooses to process or repress the tragedy that one of his twin sons has been killed.

But while there’s plenty of time devoted to how various characters are coping with one of life’s greatest tragedies, there are other, more worldly matters that the living need to address. Jeff (Carrey) seems to have embraced the world of pure imagination, so much so that he fails to see that his manager-father, Seb (Frank Langella), is looking to cash in on the golden enterprise of Jeff’s beloved song-and-puppet show before the veneer crumbles. Jeff’s long-suffering, now-estranged wife, Jill (Judy Greer), is guilt-ridden about the loss of their son, even as it makes her grapple with the frustrating pressure that her husband’s picture-perfect public persona puts on her. And then there’s Catherine Keener’s Deirdre: Jeff’s sister and a skilled puppetry artist in her own right who long ago squashed her dreams and independence to help with the family business, protect her brother, and ignore any warning signs that her husband, Scott (Bernard White), may have had dalliances with a neighboring (male) piano teacher.

“I think she wanted to be an artist; she wanted to be a puppeteer,” Keener tells me when we speak at the Television Critics Association press tour this summer, performing her own act of suffering by chatting outside on a 100-degree day wearing all black and in full makeup.

The way Keener sees it, Deirdre was a “beautiful artisan,” but just “didn’t have the joy that” Jeff did. She wonders if “maybe [Deirdre] felt she had less to give” because “you need the depth of that [joy] to have more to give.” Maybe she was struck with the predicament that so many siblings of creative types face: Someone has to be the rock—and provide financial stability—when your father attempts to monetize the whimsical videos your brother starts making in his dorm room.

Later, during Kidding’s TCA panel, Keener elaborates: “Jeff was always the precious one that, as his older sister, I really wanted to preserve his innocence and purity and creativity.” She adds that, as Deirdre, “I thought that there was something in me that wanted to burst out, but I think that when life goes on and you realize, ‘Maybe I’m not the best mother—or not even near the best mother—and I have this creative thing inside of me that I want to express, too,’ we kind of bumped and moved away from each other.”

Deirdre does make some questionable parenting choices—not letting her daughter, Maddy (Juliet Morris), bathe until she eats her vegetables is chief among them. But she’s also the type of mamma bear who will corner the aforementioned piano teacher to ask if he “hand-fucked” her husband. (Maddy catches the men while helping Dad bring in the groceries, but hasn’t fully comprehended what she witnessed. Her mother suggests that she switch to her second-favorite instrument.) Deirdre’s also the type of sister who doesn’t trouble her grieving—possibly regressing—brother with issues from beyond his cherubic bubble when they share a mean together, eating the same style of TV dinners that have probably nourished them for years.

As to whether this was part of Deirdre’s nature before her nephew’s death, Keener tells me “that particular death” is the “catalyst” for “what that can do to someone.”

“I think that it shook Deirdre to the core and I think that there’s just an eruption happening with her,” Keener says. During the panel, she adds that someone who did lose a child once told her that “when something happens, you kind of question where you are in your life, and things can get volatile and violent. And, you know, things just break.” That’s why we have the saying that a heart is “broken”: “It’s also cracked open.”

Keener tells me that the first scene she filmed with Carrey was, in fact, that dinner scene. The meal may be reflexive for their characters, but it required the actors to dive in right away: They had to create the siblings’ emotional closeness and develop a shorthand for the language and movements that would naturally accompany a meal between two people who’ve probably spent more time with each other than anyone else in their lives. What allowed the actors to get through it? Keener says they played games of Hangman between takes. Plus, she says, it helps that she’s also incredibly close with her own three brothers.

As far as developing backstories and filing in the holes in the series’ world—Jeff and Deirdre’s mother isn’t in the picture, for example—Keener tells me it involved a lot of trial and error: “We definitely would shoot something out with each other [until we] just to sort of have a common thought.” But good writing makes it easier for actors to “step into the shoes,” she says.

When this happens, she laughs, “I often feel like, ‘Please let me just hold up my end of this.’”

At this point in her career, Keener—who has two Oscar nominations, an Emmy nomination and heaps of critical respect—says it’s the director, the writing, and the cast that make her sign onto a project in the first place. That, she says, and the chance to work with friends. (She’s mum about what exactly she’s doing in Amazon’s new series Forever, other than to say that she agreed to a role because she is friends with star Maya Rudolph.) She got involved in 2016’s groundbreaking podcast, Homecoming, because she met co-writer Eli Horowitz at a bar when she was out with her Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze—and then got Oscar Isaac, a pal with whom she worked on HBO’s Show Me a Hero in on the operation as well. (Worth noting: Amazon’s adaptation of Homecoming, in which Julia Roberts plays Keener’s character, debuts Nov. 2.)

“I tell actors who aren’t necessarily working for money, always work with your friends,” Keener says.

Oddly, despite the similarities in some of their films—like Eternal Sunshine and Malkovich—Keener and Carrey had never worked together before now. But she’s quick to tell me, with her famous dry laugh, she did audition for his 1990s sensation, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

Kidding premieres Sunday, Sept. 9 on Showtime at 10 p.m. The first episode is available online now.

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