In talking with Diane Keaton, you get the sense she is most comfortable discussing anything — her beloved mother, her impressive co-stars, the photograph she pulled from a coffee table book about poor dental hygiene she found at a flea market — other than herself.
If she were to talk about herself, there would be a lot to cover, beginning with an early career filled with New York theater, the Godfather films and a prolific partnership with Woody Allen. She has since accumulated four Oscar nominations — she la-di-da-ed her way to a win for 1977’s Annie Hall — with the films Reds and Looking for Mr. Goodbar proving her dramatic muscle, while titles like 1996’s The First Wives Club and Something’s Gotta Give cemented her as one of Hollywood’s greatest onscreen comediennes. Her most recent career arc has seen her in such features as Book Club (grossing $104 million globally), surrounded by other equally decorated Hollywood veterans of the Jane Fonda variety.
Offscreen, there’s an impressive amount of writing and photography that begat best-selling memoirs and photo books about California architecture (Keaton is a committed preservationist), and then there is her long-lauded style — trousers, turtlenecks, big belts and bigger hats.
A Tuesday afternoon phone call with Keaton is not terribly dissimilar to the experience of watching a Keaton performance. There are torrents, non sequiturs and self-deprecation, all interspersed with earnest asides about life, family and career. Ahead of the release of the Book Club sequel (out May 12 via Focus Features), Keaton wound through her career and what keeps her in Hollywood — among a multitude of other things both on and off topic.
How are you?
I’m just really happy about the weather right now because it’s so bright. The sun is — well, I don’t see the sun, but the sky’s so blue. It’s gorgeous.
I know you were raised in Southern California.
I’m never going away, you know. I lived in New York for several years; sometimes I have a fantasy that I could have both, you know? I’ve been trying for the last year to buy a house in Laguna [Beach] because my mom and dad loved it there, and you can’t do it. I’ve tried for the whole last year to buy one, can you believe that?
Did growing up in California or does being here now inspire you as a performer?
Oh, yeah. I think, yes, all of it. My mother was Mrs. Los Angeles, and I saw her onstage [when I was] a girl. [California] means everything to me. I’ll never, ever really leave here for another permanent place. I love New York, and I remember being there so much because of the acting class and things like that with Sandy Meisner, our teacher. I guess as we move along, we hold on to our past.
When I was telling people about this interview, they name-checked your movies but also your Instagram. Does being on Instagram bring you joy?
Yes. [It’s] an excuse to just go forward and try something out, play around. That’s what is so great about it.
You bring your distinct sense of style to it. People really look at you as a bellwether of personal style.
Well, I don’t know. (Laughs.)
For you, what makes a great character, one that you want to play?
It’s someone who has issues that are pulsing in her being. It’s also about the people, the actors and the directors [you work with]. It all depends. [Certain people] will let you be partially this or feel better about whatever you’re doing, as opposed to you worrying about how it’s all going to bear up. But I’ve been around a long time and I still like it. I mean, it’s really fun to have to work opposite Andy Garcia. You’re feeling good about yourself.
What made you want to come back for a second Book Club movie?
We did the first one, and it was really fun. And then the second one was going to be in Europe. I thought it worked out well. Of course, the people I was working with are brilliant, so that helped. And, you know, there are the happy parts, like where men have to like me. Those little, tiny moments when men have to like me. Not just like me — love me, care about me, find me charming and wonderful. And gorgeous, of course, that goes in there. (Laughs.) I’m kidding! Dream on, sucker.
How was it coming back together with the other women?
There are the two movies that I’ve done with the three women, and each one is a unique, amazing character. Mary Steenburgen is the kindest mother of them all. She’s really a great actress, and she’s so there for everyone. You just lay eyes on her and you feel like you’re being helped. And then of course there’s Jane [Fonda], who is always Jane. What life is that like? She’s brilliant and she’s had this brilliant life and she continues on. Then there is Candice [Bergen], who is by far the funniest. She is a character among all of us, hilarious and straightforward.
In the movie, in the middle of the various shenanigans, there is this quiet scene with just you and Jane Fonda where you talk about regrets and nearly missed opportunities. How was it to film that?
It was moving for me. It just went well, let’s put it that way. Because sometimes you’re so worried about a certain thing, especially if it pertains to emotions and feelings and concern and worry and all those. The truth is that if you just let it go and you’re with someone that you really respect, it makes it all work.
How would you define the latest act of your career?
I feel just the same way I’ve always felt about whatever comes my way. If it’s OK, then I can manage it. Or maybe if I feel like I’m not really that comfortable, I’m going to learn something from somebody.
Do you think the industry is offering good opportunities for older actors and actresses?
Not necessarily. It depends on who. But I don’t really take it to mind. My response is that I’ve been fortunate. If it’s not acting, there are other things that you can do that keep you going. I’m addicted to photographs and photography books. I have a big, huge wall with all these photographs, just things that I have grabbed around. Here, right now I’m looking at this [photo] book that I got at a man who had a very bad time at the dentist’s office and his mouth is wide open and the teeth are just in real bad shape. He’s looking at me right now. (Laughs.) Wouldn’t want you to miss out on that! That’s really fun. I saw this photograph of the back of a naked man, and a hand has been plastered on the back of the upper level of his body. So that’s very unusual, just want you to know. And then I have a picture of my sisters, Dorrie and Robin. And, of course, the dog has several photographs. It’s just jam-packed with imagery. It’s just amazing what you can find.
Like pictures from a man’s bad trip to the dentist.
Well, that’s the story of my life. I’ve had interesting experiences at the dentist’s office. Not good, but it’s fine now. I have my teeth. You should be proud of me. (Laughs.) You’re gonna pray to get off this [phone call] as soon as possible.
You have many directing credits, from Belinda Carlisle music videos to episodes of the ’90s series Twin Peaks and Pasadena and the 2000 feature Hanging Up. Creatively, what did you get from directing that you didn’t get from performing?
I thought I could do it, but really, it was rough. I don’t mean [people] were rough or anyone, it was me. Sometimes it’d be a little easier, and then other times you’d be anxious. You need to really be on it and really smart about what you’re delving into with the subject that you’ve been given. I get that as an actress more — or an actor type or whatever I am — just by being one of the characters.
Do you notice a difference on set when you are acting opposite the caliber of veteran talent like in the Book Club movies?
You do. It’s also what the day is like, and how you’re feeling that day or that morning. When you’re in the midst of it, especially with really great actresses or actors, you’re scared and worried, but then it just starts to get better. You can’t really depend on yourself all the time to have it crystal clear in your mind what you’re going for. Obviously, I love it since I’ve been doing it from the moment I had the opportunity to try it. Of course, I went to acting school, and I did all those things and I was in Hair. I had the great pleasure of singing a song, which I’m embarrassed that I sang with a couple of other women. You know what song I am talking about?
I think I do. I was reading in a Hair anniversary piece that you made the personal choice to do the musical clothed, but I couldn’t find you talking about that decision.
Oh, no. I never had a problem with my body, only my fear of singing that song. Yeah. Because there’s something about that song that’s really not right. You know what I mean? I still have bad feelings about singing (she sings): “Black boys are delicious / Chocolate flavored love / Licorice lips like candy.” I mean, really? It’s not such a good idea.
It’s probably not.
Does anybody watch Hair anymore? Is it ever onstage anymore, or is it finished? I don’t really know.
I’m not sure, either.
Interesting. But hopefully they got rid of that one little song in there.
There are probably not a lot of middle-school productions of Hair going around.
(Laughs.) Highly unlikely.
One of your films had a big anniversary recently, The Godfather. In the past, you said you felt like you were miscast in the role of Kay Corleone.
Oh, are you kidding? Of course! I was terrified. I didn’t understand why me. I mean, I went up to the audition. I didn’t even really — I hadn’t read it. See, this is bad! But I needed a job, so I got up there. I’d been auditioning around for about a year, and then this happened like that. And I kept thinking, “Why me? Why would he cast me?” I didn’t understand it. I still don’t, really.
Did you ever ask the director?
I didn’t ask because I never really had a palsy friendship with our director [Francis Ford Coppola]. He was nice. When he was working, he would say, if he didn’t like something, he’d tell me, “Try this.” That was it! It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m trouble. I shouldn’t be here. I’m supposed to be more of a comedy-type person.”
So you’ve always been more comfortable with comedy?
Yeah, of course. Yes. But it’s very important, more and more, who you’re acting with and who’s directing you.
What makes a great director to you?
A great screenplay. I think a great director needs a great screenplay.
You have these long collaborations with both directors and actors like Nancy Meyers, Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn. How do you know when you’ve found a kindred spirit in a creative? Is it a love-at-first-sight type of feeling?
No, it’s anxiety. You’re worried. If it’s the director or somebody who you’re acting with who’s amazing, it’s worrying. “How will this match that …? Can I do …? What am I …? Oh, dear.” You just worry quite a bit until it gets easier. I’m sure that most everybody has felt that way. With Goldie and Bette [Midler], on that one particular movie [The First Wives Club], that was interesting, and I remember feeling always kind of anxious and a little worried on that one.
Why were you anxious about that one?
Because they are really amazing actresses! You know, I didn’t really know them. But that changed over time — like life does. I was very fortunate, and it was great to watch them work because they both work differently from each other, and I worked my own odd way. Not that theirs is odd. Mine is odd. (Laughs.) Get it straight.
Other than “odd,” how would you describe your process?
Lucky. I’m lucky. I remember when I got that deodorant job [Keaton starred in a 1970 commercial for Hour After Hour deodorant], that was the biggest job I ever had at the time. That sealed the deal. I would be nervous, anxious, try to work and then do the job. It got more and more normal.
When are you at your most comfortable on set?
After having played around with it for a bit. And then in some cases, you never do manage to be comfortable in the situation.
Where does your greatest sense of comfort come from?
I would say it would be my mother. She was everything. She, herself, would’ve been an actress. She could have been. She was also Mrs. Highland Park. I was a 6-year-old watching my mother in Highland Park Theatre, which is still there, and I watched her win. We moved because Dad had a job in Santa Ana, so that was it for her. What I know about the choices that I made to separate myself from a life that you could say is more normal — like marriage — I noticed on that night what it meant when she had to just drop everything. It was over for her. I remember that, and it really made a huge impact on me. She was generous with us. If you had an idea, she was there. I had a career that came from my mother. And my father, too, in his own way.
Looking back over your own career, is there any one performance that still sticks with you?
The first Woody Allen movie [1972’s Play It Again, Sam]. That’s it. I was in it, I had lines. I was just totally surprised by that.
Do you feel the allegations leveled against Woody Allen or his other controversies overshadow the work you did together?
No, not at all. No. I’m proud. I’m proud beyond measure.
What inspires you to keep working in Hollywood?
A good part. A great piece of work. It doesn’t always work out well, but sometimes they’re fascinating.
My final question for you —
You’re lucky. You almost are going to be free! (Laughs.)
I’ve enjoyed this quite a bit. Is there anything that you haven’t tackled yet that you would really like to?
I’d like to just keep going.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.