Film Scouts Interviews

Diane Keaton on "The First Wives Club"

by Henri Béhar

Buy this video from

Books from
Buy The Book.

Music from
Buy The Score.

Buy Songs From The Film.

December 22, 1996

(exclusive to Film Scouts)

Actor-director Diane Keaton is an editor's challenge. Unless you've spent the last twenty years in a cave, therefore have missed the early comedies she did with Woody Allen (particularly "Annie Hall"), you know what she says is more often than not conveyed by *how* she says it. To say she has a distinctive speech pattern is a masterpiece of understatement. Her mind goes so fast that she rarely bothers to finish a sentence, punctuating it - seasoning it, rather - with a bouquet of "wells", "you knows," "I means", "uh-hunhs" and pauses perfectly timed for deadpan. In a way, she is as free-form as a piece of jazz. We hope the following interview reflects that. Sort of. A bit. I mean... Ah well. - HB.


FILM SCOUTS: Were you given a choice between the two sisters' parts, Bessie or Lee?

DIANE KEATON: Oh, no. I never was, and I never did. Because I don't think I was right for Lee's part. I never could have done it. I mean, Could I have played Bette Midler's part in "First Wives Club"? Please! I don't think they're gonna cast me as... (Meryl Streep walks into the room, they both shriek and laugh and hug and shriek and laugh some more).

MERYL STREEP: Look at you, you pretty thing!

DIANE KEATON: You cut your hair...!

MERYL STREEP: Suburbia! Lunch?


MERYL STREEP: Right. (She leaves.)

DIANE KEATON: Where were we?

FILM SCOUTS: "Bessie or Lee, Diane?"

DK: Yeah. No. I don't think that would have been a good idea. (Pause.) Yeah. (Pause) There you go. I don't know what else to say.

FS: Do you think "The First Wives Club" would have been a hit at any other time? Or is there something of the timing now that has made it so huge?

DK: That's a good question. I haven't got a clue. I don't know why it was huge, I don't get it. It beats me. It beats me. Really! Maybe... *maybe*... What do you think? What's going on out there in the world? In the United States of America with women right now? I don't know what it is... Hum... Well, if you remember [Colin Higgins'] "9 to 5", that was a hit. Not as big a hit, but it was basically, kind of essentially the same idea. Although it wasn't the husband, it was the boss. They got back at the boss. Yeah. I guess there's a lot of women out there that really are...

FS: A lot of first wives.

DK: Yeah... Maybe that title, too... The title was kind of intriguing. The idea that there could be a First Wives Club - and in fact there WAS a First Wives Club, you know, with... Who was it? Like, Leonard Nimoy's wife and... They formed a club, and I remember reading about it in People Magazine before the book. And I remember going, "Oh, wow! They must be really angry." (Laughs) "Celebrities' Wives." Something like that. I don't know why I remember Nimoy's wife out of the rest, there was, like, a gang of them.

FS: Norman Lear's wife, Frances.

DK: Yes! Yes! You're right! You're absolutely right! You saw it too, right? You saw that article. Yeah. I remember thinking, "Wow!" And I thought, maybe there's something compelling about it, because that stayed in my mind. I don't know.

FS: You read People Magazine?

DK: Oh, every time I go to the newsstand, yeah. Or at the grocery store? Absolutely. I will pick it up. Are you kidding? Of course! I look at the pictures, yeah! (laughs) We all do. (Laughs)

FS: That's surprising, considering how reluctant you personally are about opening up on your private life.

DK: Yeah. But I'm like you, I want to see it, I just don't want to be in it. I look at The National Enquirer, too. So...

FS: Which one do you prefer?

DK: I think The Star (She laughs) I think the pictures in The Star... But it's all about the photographs, you know that. It's like "Oh, God, I've got to see this". I love that fashion page. Is it in The Star that they have these big fat people wearing skimpy little somethings? (laughs) "Alright, man! Tit for tat!" I've always liked fashions... "The Worst Dressers". Yeah. There you go.

FS: You shot "Marvin's Room" after "The First Wives Club", right?

DK: No, before. That's actually how I got the job on "First Wives Club", which was also a Scott Rudin production. Scott came to me while we were making "Marvin's Room", toward the end, and presented the idea of "First Wives Club", which I did right after "Marvin". So I spent almost all of last year in New York, basically.

FS: Excuse me - this is a great leather suit you're wearing. Gotta ask: who are you wearing?

DK: Uh-hunh. This stuff is all plastic and it's... Urban Outfitters.

FS: Really?!

DK: Yeah. I got the whole outfit for $45. I loved it when I saw it. I thought, "Hey, great! I'll wear plastic."

FS: It looks so soft.

DK: It's not. (laughs)

FS: And your hair feels so free, so unlike "Marvin's Room".

DK: Oh, the whole movie was basically Wig City. But the main one, the main wig was that one you buy from Candy Stripers, that fake thing, that wonderful big bat going that way. And that was really, every morning, God!

The cancer wig, on the other hand... we called it "the chemo wig", where you have a bald cap and then you put the wig over the bald cap? That was a wig. A double wig. And then at the end, there's that short do, the beautiful cut that Meryl did. "I look pretty, don't I?" (laughs) None of them was real hair, except for that chemo wig. The other wigs were the kind you buy, you know, at candy stores, or in a hospital. Or maybe they give it to you, I don't know.

FS: Were you worried about working with a first-time director?

DK: Oh, no. I'll tell you why. First of all, there was no way I was going even to begin to worry about it. I felt just so lucky to get the part! Because it was very hard for me to get it. I mean, nobody really wanted me. I guess Jerry [Zaks], at least, was interested in me, but Jerry wasn't the deciding factor. It was really the studio and Scott and, of course, the other producers. So there was a struggle there. I really had to sing for my supper.

FS: You auditioned ?!

DK: I didn't quite audition, but I did everything BUT audition. I sent gifts, stuff, I... (laughs) Oh yes, I did!

FS: What did you bribe them with?

DK: Diet Coke and cigarettes! (Laughs) Really I did! Great gifts, hunh? (Laughs). And then I wrote this big, emotional letter about why I would like to play this - retrospectively, this is hilarious. 'Cause I really wanted to play it.

FS: Why wouldn't they consider you?

DK: I think they... just didn't like me enough. But that also happened with "Father of the Bride 1". Disney studios - Jeffrey Katzenberg at the time - didn't ever want to work with me. [Director] Charles Shyer and [writer-coproducer] Nancy Myers, who'd worked with me before, had to beg to get me into "Father of the Bride". I was very fortunate, because they were very staunchly for me.

You know, I've had times when I've not been exactly the flavor of the month. On "Marvin", too, I got lucky. I think Meryl put in a good word about me.

FS: They thought you were too glamorous?

DK: Hardly a question of glamor! I think they thought I was not going to help box-office wise. That's my opinion. Just before "Father of the Bride", I'd done a movie called "The Good Mother", which was a Big Failure. Like, BIG failure. And that was it! And that was a Disney movie. So when Charles and Nancy wanted me for "Father of the Bride", Disney didn't want anything with me.

FS: They did ask you, though, to do "The First Wives Club".

DK: Yeah. Why, I don't know. Maybe because it was a comedy? And its success certainly would help if Goldie and Bette and me wanted to do another one.

FS: Is that in the air?

DK: In my air, certainly.

FS: Yet, despite the odd relationship you say you've had with Disney, between "The Good Mother" and "Father of the Bride", they did come around and produced "Unsung Heroes", which you directed?

DK: Isn't that incredible? That was a very fortuitous event also. "Unsung Heroes" was a go, I had signed on, it was green-lit - but of course it wasn't 100% greenlit: I had to have the right cast. We were fishing around; they didn't like the cast. Jeffrey Katzenberg was there at the time, and it was like, "Go away".

Michael Richard saved us: he's the reason why the movie got made. As soon as he signed on, we had a movie, and basically we were home free.

Then Katzenberg left while we were shooting, and Joe Roth came in. It just so happened that the producer of my movie was none other than the wife of Joe Roth. So again, we got lucky! My small, kind of eccentric little movie got really lucky.

FS: Why did you want to play Bessie particularly?

DK: Because I really felt that this part is one of the best parts I've ever had. Because this person is a cipher for me. Because her life is one of those lives you overlook. When you see people like her on the street, you're not propelled to think of anything except, "That's an old maid who gave up her life to take care of her father. What a sad thing. Let me look at something else."

But in truth, her life is so rich inside, and she loves it! True, in the course of the movie, she finds out she's dying, which naturally is painful and changes everything for her. But she's a brave, courageous, giving, warm, loving person. I just loved this person who nobody else would even think about, and I'd never really played anybody like that.

Actually, she's the diametric opposite of me. I've had people like me, I've had a privileged existence in a kind of a rarefied world, earning my own living - I've just been so spoiled! Remember that scene where the doctor calls and she's told nothing is going to work and that... that's it? The fact that she can turn that around and be able to say, just a minute later, how lucky she's been to be alive and how much love she's had, and how much she's given... I don't identify with that. If somebody called me up and told me that kind of news, I'd collapse!

I also liked the issues in the movie about old people. The fact that she wants to protect her father and her aunt from being thrown in an old people's home is beautiful, and compelling to me because I really feel very strongly about that myself... That's why I wanted to play it... Yeah.

FS: Will you direct again?

DK: Oh, I hope!

FS: Anything in mind?

DK: I'm looking.

FS: TV or feature films?

DK: Oh, feature, I hope!

FS: Is it difficult to pitch yourself as a director?

DK: Well, "Unsung Heroes" didn't make a lot of money. It made its money back, that's about all it did. Maybe a teeny teeny profit. So that doesn't put me into any A-list as a director. I have gone around and pitched some things, and they said no. One that I really liked was this book called "Offside". They said no, they didn't want to do it. Maybe it was little too left-off-center. (Pause) There was no script either, by the way. So, you know... (Laughs) And maybe we didn't pitch it that great. But it's a good book.

Things have come my way to direct, but I didn't want to direct them. That's the key, you know: finding something you really want to direct. It takes so long! A whole year of your life.

FS: What comes your way, generally?

DK: Comedy. Basically comedy. Romantic comedy. It's so hard. Because they're usually so lousy. To be good in doing a romantic comedy is really, really hard. Because most are so fakey and flaky and they have no real authenticity to them... They're *cute*. They're all afflicted with some kind of a vague form of cuteness, which is vile to me. Besides, when it comes to romantic comedies, if you've worked with Woody Allen... I mean, hey!

FS: Would you direct yourself?

DK: No. One is one and the other is the other. When I go back to being an actress, I need to have all the impulses and neediness of an actress. As a director, you are across that line where you look at actors and you go, "Oh my God, what is it going to be like today? Oh, shit! Please, just do this!" (laughs) I mean, you automatically have different goals. I can't think about directing when I'm acting. Too hard. It's hard enough to act, really. As much as it seems like it isn't, it is.

FS: How was working with Meryl Streep?

DK: Transporting. Just to look at her face whips me up and whisks me onto a better place as an actress. She gives you a tremendous amount, she's THERE, she's always there. And the miracle is that... you just get lost in her eyes. I do, anyway. And that's a wonderful thing to do, when the camera is on you and you gotta say those lines and be thinking about this, and suddenly you look at her face and it's like... this attention! She's so present, she's REALLY there - for YOU!

Not like a lot of people who sort of, when the camera is not on them, just don't have the juice anymore, and then you're doing your closeups and you're not getting any help. My task, and the way I was taught in acting schools that I went to, was that you're nothing without the other actor. If the actor is not there, then you're not.

That's not necessarily true for everyone, but it's true for me. It's really helpful, when somebody is *with* you, and things happen to you because things are happening to them, and another thing happens and... So it's a thrill to work with Meryl.

FS: Where is it more perceptible? In the small detail of such and such a gesture...?

DK: The emotional depth. She's there emotionally.

FS: Like the scene where you describe the drowning, way back when, of the only boyfriend you might have had?

DK: Oh, that! That was so much fun! (laughs) It was! Yeah! Because there she is, and she's giving me the go-ahead to really go for it. A lot of actors would just sit there. First of all, they wouldn't have... not even a little piece of the kind of intelligence that Meryl brings to things. You know what I'm saying? You know when you are in the presence of someone who is totally brilliant and it helps YOU. A lot! And that's what she does, and that's what she is: she's brilliant. She's the genuine article. And that's no joke. And you feel, "Wow!" Just "Wow!". Plus she's beautiful.

FS: She was there throughout the shoot of that scene.

DK: Oh, absolutely! There was never a moment, when I had a closeup or something, that she wasn't there. And some of those shots were difficult, you know. Remember when I drop the pills and I have to say that line, "I'm so happy to have loved" (She makes a face, we laugh). Well she's there for me! Couldn't have done it without her.

Sometimes, your director or your cinematographer will say, "Okay, now, you have to look really close to the camera; so we're printing an X here; don't look at the actor." I always go, "What? 'Look at the X?' I can't, I can't look at the X. I can't get anything going for me."

I'm sure a lot can go on in an X, but let me tell you: Meryl is *a lot* better than an X. (laughs) So, I need her, I need her desperately. Emotionally, she really helped me.

FS: Were you as close to Robert De Niro?

DK: No. (Laughs) I don't even know Mr. De Niro. I mean, I know him now, because I've done this movie with him, but I don't know him. He's brilliant. First thing. And he's very interesting to work with because he really likes to do things over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. And you're going, "Oh, yeah, uh-hunh." But that's what he is: he's a detail freak! When he works on something, he really works on it.

Meryl? She gets it like that! She likes to do about 3 or 4 takes. And she's got it, she's got it on the first one. She comes in and boom! He likes to... work on things...

FS: Did he request several takes...

DK: Oh, yeah!

FS: Many takes?

DK: Oh, yes!

FS: Many many takes?

DK: Sure!

FS: Did that drive Jerry Zaks a little nuts?

DK: N-n-n-no. I think we all drove him nuts. I mean, hello! (laughs) I drove Jerry nuts by saying, "Let's cut that! Let's cut that line! That's no good! I can't say it!" And he'd go, "No, I think you should say it, Diane." "No, it's corny, I'm telling you, I can't say it." "Yeah, you can." So I drove him nuts that way.

But Mr. De Niro... I think he *is* mysterious, I really don't know him at all. He is very polite, very nice, and would be proper, like, in this respect: He'd give you a tip or something, and then you look up and... he's gone! He disappears! It's not like "Let's talk, let's have a talk, and 'What do you think?' and 'What's that like?' " Never happened. The main thing, however, was to watch him work. He has his way, and it's very interesting.

But when me and Meryl had downtime or whatever, it was a girls' thing, sisters' time. You sit and you talk and... She's fascinating. I think she is a very intricate person because she's more of a loner than you think. She doesn't live in L.A., she doesn't do Beverly Hills, she lives in Connecticut, she has a real family, and she has a husband...

But you sit and you talk to her and... you really talk! Girl talk, you know. And it's fun. We're on the same wavelength about things like not wearing leather or... Although I think I am more of a fashion victim than Meryl. (laughs) I am more obviously entertained by the superficial. (laughs).

FS: Are you also on the same wavelength as actresses?

DK: Only wish! No. Meryl is another planet. Another zone. Her gift is just so... There's no word for it. You know, she and Leonardo De Caprio are both great mimics. They are classically what you would consider a great actor or a great actress. And De Niro, too! But Meryl can just do anything, and so can Leonardo! They both would be doing accents and see this person or that person and just do it like them and all that nonsense... Not me! I mean, you know, I'm stuck with me. I'd love to get into that high rung of the hierarchy, playing all different kinds of parts, and yet being completely believable. In anything! 'Cause there's nothing vague about it all; you can't get away with that shit unless you know how to do it really well.

FS: What kind of future do you see for Leonardo?

DK: I think Leonardo is going to do it all! He'll play everything and do everything. He's astonishing. He's a light. He's another light. She's a light too! She's like a brilliant light, and so is he. And so is Robert De Niro, in his own unique way.

Back to Interviews

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.