Monday, October 29, 2012

Disarmed - Catherine Keener's surprise visit

            On a hectic Friday in late 2008, Amy Berg was scheduled to interview Noam for her production company, the aptly named Disarming Films.  Amy is known for her interviews with priests for a documentary on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, called “Deliver Us From Evil”.  Her crew arrived at our office at MIT’s Stata Center almost an hour earlier and asked for extra interview time from the minute they arrived - joking, hinting, practically insisting on more time, and showering extra attention on my dog.
  I held fast to our agreement of forty- minutes for the interview, which would follow a thirty-minute set-up, and they finally gave up and focused on arranging lights and cameras in Noam’soffice.  Amy and I had e-mailed to coordinate the shoot, but had never met. I liked her right away when she blew in the door minutes before the interview and introduced herself, offering first her hand, then a genuine smile as she laughed about the impossibility of her overly-scheduled day.
Amy Berg had personality and obviously the smarts and clear focus required for the task at hand, and she left me with a good feeling when she disappeared around the corner to check on the progress of her crew.  I figured they were almost set to begin filming when her production assistant emerged and asked one last time for a fifteen-minute interview.
   I felt my mother, Charlotte, bubbling up inside me. “If… I… have… to...tell… you…… more… time...” My mother’s threat had no actual ending, aside from an occasional"I will send you straight to the moon,” or she would simply pump her small fist in the air, her thumbtucked neatly inside curled fingers. (My father liked to point out that if she actually landed a punch,she would break her thumb.)  I looked up at the production assistant and held myself back from screaming out Charlotte’s famous follow-up threat:  “Now don’t make me say it again!” I asked my inner Charlotte to quiet down so I could deal with this as the full grown adult I like to think I am.
   I am not patient by nature, so it was an effort to hide my frustration as I looked her in the eye with as much sadness and regret as I could gather and said, once again, that there was nothing –nothing - I could offer them beyond the forty minutes of filming we agreed to.  I turned back to the pile of travel folders on my desk as a she retreated once again into Noam’s office, though I guessed from experience that this situation wouldn’t end on a pleasant note.
  Noam returned from a short break and sat next to me to sip some coffee, check out who was next on the roster, and chat a little about what Barack Obama, our first black president, would face as he prepared to take office in another month.  The crew finally gave us the signal that they were ready, and I ushered Noam into his office to be mic’ed.  I returned to my desk, certain that in forty minutes, when I poked my head in the door to say time was up, the crew would point to Noam and shrug their shoulders while mouthing something like, “Sorry!  This is not our fault – look! - he’s still talking!” I decided to worry about that when the time came.  My work was piling up.
  I had barely touched my keyboard when I heard a brand new, somewhat raspy, woman’s voice coming from behind me.  I felt my mother re-emerging, and checked my expression before bracing myself to turn my chair around one…last…time.
  “I’ve been told to try to get a little more interview time,” she said, her voice slightly familiar. When my chair finished its full swing, I recognized her face, but I couldn’t place her.
            “Do I know you?” I asked. ‘Brilliant,” I thought to myself, and I was surprised to find I was coming a little undone.  As if I wouldn’t have remembered this woman – she was beautiful, with thick, dark wavy hair. 
            Her smile was enchanting, and her presence conveyed freckle-faced innocence and a sort of classy worldliness.  She was both Maryann and Ginger.  I suddenly felt less like the grown woman in charge of Noam Chomsky’s well being, and more like Gilligan, the Skipper’s little buddy.  And in her slightly gravelly voice she said to me, “Some people think I’m either their cousin or a famous actress.”
            “I know you’re not my cousin,” I said, 
            She extended her hand.  “Hi, I’m Catherine Keener.”
            “Hi,” was all I could muster as I mentally listed the movies I had seen her in:  Capote, Being John Malkovich, Forty Year Old Virgin.  
            We chatted for a few minutes about how she had come to be here with Amy Berg.   "We're close friends, and when I found out that Amy was coming to MIT to interview Noam, I begged her to let me tag along.  I had to meet The Professor.” 
            It’s a double-sided surprise when someone who wants so much to meet Noam is a person I’m excited to meet – like Keener.  I hadn’t recognized her at first because I hadn’t expected to look up and see an actress in my office.  This had happened before with other people, like Peter Coyote, Wallace Shawn, and Yareli Arizmendi, another dark-haired beauty who had shown up with her hair tied back, looking more like a childhood friends than a movie star. Yareli had a lead role in the movie, Like Water for Chocolate, which I loved and had watched a few times. Her husband, Sergio Arau, had come to present Noam with a piece of his original artwork, which bore an inscription voiced by a lot of people who come to talk with him: “Thank you for helping us tell the real story.”  In fact, that’s why Berg was meeting with Noam.  To get the real story on several different issues for two future documentaries she was planning.
 I would lose my integrity if I suddenly changed my time-honored protocol.  Word travels fast about these things. What would happen to my credibility if people learned through the grapevine that I was a soft touch.  Visitors work hard to expose my Achilles heel with offerings of dark chocolate, dog treats for Roxy, t-shirts, flowers, and goodies from Dean and Deluca.  Some try to disarm me in writing: “I've heard that the schedule is very tight, and that you are a tough gatekeeper, but we promise not to go over time…" "We promise to be respectful…" "We will bring sandwiches for Prof. Chomsky…" "We have nice wine from Spain…"  "We own a vineyard in Italy..."   
             “Why don’t we see how it goes?” I told Catherine, and then she disappeared into the office to listen in on the interview.
            I never said I could grant them ten or fifteen more minutes, but my suddenly-compromised brain was scrambling to find extra time for the crew.  No bribe had changed hands – but a small request from an awesome actress had just shaken the ordinary out of my day, and I had to respond.  I had to give her something.
            In the end, they got an extra twenty minutes, but only because the next appointment was late.  That’s what I like to tell myself. While the crew packed up and prepared to clear out of Noam’s office, Noam again sat next to me to see what was up for the last hour of our day, and to collect and review the next week's schedule.  Catherine strolled over to thank Noam for the interview, and knelt to rub Roxy’s belly while Noam and I finished our conversation and turned our attention to her.  “I think you should take Roxy to a vet and have her checked out.  Her belly fells a little hard,” she told me.  I had no worries about Roxy’s health, and put her advice aside as the three of us chatted. It was interesting to sit back and watch what was happening – we were talking in an easy manner about Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the Stata Center, about Noam’s work, and Catherine’s acting.  When will I learn to carry around my pocket voice recorder?  Such a circle – I was excited to be talking with her, she was excited to be talking with Noam, and Noam was just being himself, looking down every once in a while in the middle of serious conversation to remark on the forlorn look on Roxy’s face.  I keep telling him not to worry – that is just her look.
“I’ll send you dvd’s of a few of my movies,” Catherine said on her way out, adding that she doesn't really like to promote herself in this way.      
           An hour after she left, I was wrapping up the day when the phone rang.  “Hi, Bev, it’s Catherine.”  OMG, Catherine Keener and I were in a first-name-chat-by-phone relationship.  I was definitely star-struck, though part of me felt oddly at ease, as if she were a long-time friend, I think because she was so unaffected.  “I called to thank you for letting me sit with Noam and you.  That short visit at the back of your office was one of the most exciting of my life.”
           As my friend Deb likes to say, “Are you even kidding me?”  But really, why not? 
A few days later Roxy was acting lethargic, and had an obvious belly ache.  I’ll save you the details, but I took her to the vet, and was shocked when they suggested running some tests.  It turned out she is allergic to people food, even very small quantities.  The cure was relatively simple, though more expensive than the first used car I bought in 1972.  We gave her antibiotics and put her on prescription dog food to keep her intestines from becoming inflamed again.
  I wrote Catherine and suggested that she add “Dog Whisperer” to her long resume.


  1. Catherine Keener is one of the few people by whom I would be totally, completely starstruck. Love that she is also a dog person! What a fun piece to read on this stormy, home-bound day.

    1. Thanks Maureen. I was hoping to provide a little entertainment...Catherine and I keep in touch - she's one of my muses...and she does love dogs.

  2. And I love that I'm referenced in the same post as Catherine Keener - 6 degrees of separation :).

  3. Well it's official. You're a soft touch and now the whole world knows it including pesky Italian journalists, groupies from Maine, and that guy from Mars who gets his orders from Central Command located inside of his fillings.

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