You're sitting in an Irish pub with Catherine Keener, nursing your second Bloody Mary, when she leans over and asks you a question: "Do you want to walk me home?" As if anybody could refuse an offer like that. Outside, it's spring in New York, and you zigzag from one patch of shade to the next. You immediately begin discussing a number of important things. Namely, how you moved to New York six years ago and all your failed attempts at dating. She racks her brain for someone she can set you up with, all the while gently holding your arm. She's always laughing—that hearty, deep Catherine Keener laugh—and you wonder how it's possible that nobody seems to recognize her. You enter Madison Square Park, where the leaves are lavender- and cucumber-colored. Now it's time for a photo. She props up her BlackBerry camera and you smile. She loves the result: the only person in this picture is you.
Catherine Keener is one of the most prolific actresses in Hollywood; she's appeared in 14 films since 2005—among them Capote, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Into the Wild—and she's got five more coming. But what does anybody really know about her? Not much. That's incredible, considering we live in the era of nonstop celebrity TMI (and TMZ). "I feel like some things are my business," Keener says. "I don't talk about things I don't want to talk about." This is truth in advertising. Many actors limit what they say about their children, as Keener does regarding her young son, or about whom they're dating. But she also talks about her friends without using their first or last names (which is understandable but maddening, since she's pals with people like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston). When she attends red-carpet events, she often won't take a date, or even a wingwoman. "You can move faster when you're alone," she says. "I can duck easier." In a culture that thrives on sharing every detail of our existence, in streams of endless Twitter updates, isn't privacy something of a liability? You could argue that Meryl Streep hasn't won an Oscar since 1983 because we don't know much about her as a person. The way she melts into roles is less impressive because we have no real sense of how much she's stretching. Keener may be Hollywood's last character actress, the last anonymous movie star. "If she posed in Harper's Bazaar or Ladies' Home Journal, she'd be more famous," says director Nicole Holofcener. "She'd be offered more stuff. But I don't think she cares. This is the path she wants to take."
Today, Keener wants to take an unconventional path too. You start on the East Side of Manhattan, at Grand Central station, wandering around and admiring the architecture. She shares a funny story about the time she and Philip Seymour Hoffman were shooting Capote in Canada and took a train to see some polar bears. You walk a few blocks to the United Nations, where she filmed The Interpreter. She wants to go inside, just to show you how beautiful it is. As you're about to clear security, she starts digging in her purse for her driver's license, which she can't find. It eventually surfaces, and you step into the massive, vacuumlike entrance. A swarm of schoolchildren surrounds you, chatting and laughing. When you go back outside, Keener races you to beat a stoplight. "Let's run to the f--king bar," she says.
Sometimes Keener will be talking about one of her movies, and she'll suddenly draw a blank—she can't remember the title—and then she'll laugh (and laugh, and laugh) and ask for help. This is not a ploy. She is a little scatterbrained (see her U.N. visit above, or if you see her missing cell phone, call her). But she's also been in a lot movies—four a year, on average. After college, Keener worked as an assistant to a casting director, and then, at her boss's urging, started auditioning herself. She credits the turning point in her career to 1991's Johnny Suede, a quirky comedy with an unknown actor named Brad Pitt. "She came in to audition for me; we were staying in this sleazy hotel," says the director, Tom DiCillo. Keener read her lines opposite Pitt. The performance didn't seem right: "I compared it to somebody hitting a golf ball in a small cinder-block room," DiCillo says. "It was, shall we say, kind of all over the place, but always with trajectory." He gave the part to someone else. Then, in the middle of the night, DiCillo woke up and realized he'd made a mistake. "She has this whimsical reality that sometimes ventures on the absurd," DiCillo says. "People are drawn to that. They think, 'She's a little bit like me.' "
By Hollywood standards, Keener really is like the rest of us. She says, half-jokingly, that although her friends are sometimes concerned about her making her mortgage payments, she couldn't be happier with her career. She tries to choose projects with people she knows and likes: Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and Holofcener, who has cast Keener in every movie she's made, starting with 1996's Walking and Talking. "We always toy with her playing different parts in every movie," Holofcener says. "For Lovely and Amazing"—an ensemble about a mother and her three daughters—"I wanted to give her all the parts. That would be weird. And too much split screen." Their latest film, Please Give, is their most accomplished collaboration: a meditation on wealth, aging, and beauty, with Keener playing a conflicted mom/wife/New Yorker who buys furniture from the relatives of dead people and sells it for a profit. "I understand Nicole, and vice versa," Keener says. And then, as if right on cue, she gets a cell-phone call from her director. "Isn't it funny?" Keener says to Holofcener. "We're having our interview right now, and I'm not saying anything. I'm only talking about you."
The unconfessional act could get a little tiresome, if it weren't so charming. When you officially begin your interview, she speaks half her words to you in a whisper, so that your tape recorder can't pick them up. "I'm not going to talk to this," she says. "I want to talk to you." She's like a nervous patient at the doctor's office who will throw any distraction she can to avoid getting a shot. She reaches for a discarded New York Times and asks if you want to do the crossword puzzle. She browses a menu and wants to know what question you would ask if you were ordering each entrée. "I would say," she offers of one dish, "?'Can you make that without bacon or is it pre-made?'?" Much later, she looks at your notebook and she seems absolutely thrilled that it's blank. She signs one of the pages, "Lots of luck," and then draws a stick man. This is followed by a game of hangman. "You're going to get this in two seconds!" she says. It takes longer than that, but by then, you've completely given up. Catherine Keener can keep her privacy. She's earned it.