SAN FRANCISCO - Catherine Keener likes to dig deep into the back story to get into a role. That was a problem with her part in Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are," since her character barely appears in the children's picture book.
"I had to depend on the script completely, plus I had the advantage of being friends with Spike and just talking with him about the film and the character all the time," Keener says during an interview at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel. She's joined Jonze and "Wild Things" co-star Max Records on a cross-country publicity tour to promote the film.
The film is getting lots of attention because the book is a children's classic. Keener says she felt no pressure though: "I always think everything is going to work out when I'm working with Spike."
Keener worked with Jonze in 1999 in "Being John Malkovich," which earned her a supporting actress Oscar nomination, and in 2002 in "Adaptation." Jonze says she was the first person he thought of for the "Wild Things" mother whose punishment of her son sends him on a fantasy journey.
Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers expanded the scant mention of the character into a major catalyst for the young boy's wild actions. She's a single mother supporting two children, and a new relationship in her life is causing tension.
Even with that expansion, Keener's only on screen briefly, but that didn't stop her from spending weeks on the project. When she wasn't acting, Keener coached other performers, especially the young Max.
Keener became very protective of her young co-star during the film shoot.
"Acting should be play but it can be an extreme sport, especially when kids are involved and they have to be in scenarios that are maybe dark," she said. "I think it is important for the adults around them to encourage them to understand this is not real. It is play."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6355.