Took a while to get up the gumption to watch Keane. I knew enough about it to know it would be dark and harrowing and intense. One must block off some uninterrupted time and be in the right mindset to watch something like that.
I knew that Damian’s performance in Keane is what sold the Showtime brass on giving him the role of Nicholas Brody without an audition. The film is indeed intense watching. It’s a one man show really with the camera following Keane closely as he wanders the streets of New York, mostly silent and hopelessly disturbed. In Keane, Damian captures perfectly the confusion of mental illness, the murky stare of loss and despair and incapacity to communicate effectively. I found the film was more about the performances than it was about the writing. Amy Ryan as the harried single mother, and Abigail Breslin, in that child-wise-beyond-her-years way she has, were great too, both cast perfectly, in an ultimately heartbreaking and raw story.
I’d read that his role in Keane was one Damian was particularly proud of, but it wasn’t until I heard him say so myself, that I knew I owed it to the film to watch it.
At the New Yorker Festival interview, although we didn’t see any clips from Keane as we did for his other work, Damian himself brought up his work in the film.
First, Damian described “the conundrum” of acting as:
“…this mixture of rehearsal and research and coming prepared ready to deliver something combined with a total free spontaneity, something which is unintellectualized, something that is just felt and received, an animal response to whatever happens in the moment. An actor must be prepared to do that at any moment and be receptive and open to that.”
Lauren Collins then asked Damian whether he carries around a notebook or something collecting his observations about people, their little ticks and what not. And that started him telling us about some of his preparation for Keane. “It was a film about a man who’d lost his daughter and is in the middle of a break down. It was a comedy,” he deadpanned. He described sitting in welfare hotels with the writer of Keane, Lodge Kerrigan, as he rewrote scenes. Damian also spent time in the other principal setting for the film, Port Authority Bus Terminal, talking to the “homeless and not well”.
“I think I feel responsibility very keenly, whether you’re playing a soldier in WWII and that veteran is still alive, that the story is represented well and truthfully, whether you’re playing someone with mental illness, you present it truthfully and honestly, it’s essential, otherwise it’s all just a big lie, and what’s the point.”
Undoubtedly, it is Damian’s capacity to “feel and receive an animal response”, that allows him to convey such truth in a character like Keane. If he had overthought it, he could possibly have resorted to any of the cliche stereotypical conventions of showing someone with mental illness. I believe he even toned down what I imagine he observed among the unwell people roaming Port Authority. You see the mentally ill often talking incessantly and animatedly to themselves, to the very real voices they hear in their heads. It’s like walking up to a person talking into a handsfree phone plugged into their ear. But these people, sadly, don’t have a phone in their ear; what they hear is, of course, inside their very brain. Damian did not show Keane chattering to himself, not in any exaggerated way. I mean, we all talk to ourselves, don’t we? I know I’m guilty of muttering my grocery list aloud as I walk around the grocery store. But the way you witness schizophrenics talk to themselves is quite different. Regardless, the fact that Keane was indeed hearing something we weren’t and responding silently to it was palpable.
It was almost as if Damian was portraying a schizophrenic person on their meds. Not to insert myself into this post more than necessary, but I feel compelled to disclose that someone very close to me suffers from schizophrenia…which may be partly the reason I hesitated so long to watch this film: I didn’t want it to be a lie, making an offensive or aggrandized spectacle out of something my family has had to come to terms with in a very real and painful way. Of course, in Damian’s capable hands, it was anything but a lie. Anyway, in my experiences observing my family member both on and off her meds, I’ve seen that schizophrenics never quite erase the voices even when they’re on their meds. But they do sort of correct themselves when they notice themselves going off center: they forceably call themselves back to reality. That calling back is something they are dramatically incapable of doing when they are off meds. Indeed, we learn that Keane receives diability benefits and one of the criteria for getting those checks, I believe, it to stay on meds.
No, we don’t see Keane downing any pills so we don’t know explicitly whether he’s on his meds or not. In fact, we do see him engaging in all kinds of self-medicating illicit drug and sex behavior. On the other hand, we also see him expressing suggestions of hope with the single mom and her daughter. Some glimmer of peace in his ravaged mind as he briefly imagines a better life for himself. A glimmer possible only when an ill person is taking care of themselves properly.
My point is simply that Damian did not resort to convention. He researched this role, sure, but more importantly, he felt it deeply and thereby honored it. His performance wasn’t just vacant stares punctuated with blinks and random twitches the way any lesser actor would portray mental illness. Yes, Damian did have tears welling up, and grimaces of anguish, and at times he did have blankness, but mostly he portrayed a man walking around with a storm of chaos deep within him. We never know if Keane really had a daughter he lost or whether she’s a figment of his paranoia and delusion. (For what it’s worth, I lean towards the latter)
Watching this film, in certain scenes, I was reminded quite acutely of Bradley Cooper. One could go so far to say that Damian Lewis in 2004 was where Bradley Cooper is today as far as having that ability to fill and empty his eyes like he’s flicking a switch on and off. They also share the ability to believably play the two seemingly incongruous personas of dufus goofball and demon-haunted loner.
Without giving anything away, if the entire performance doesn’t move you, the last few minutes are utterly flooring. In a moment of lucidity, Keane looks at the girl played by Abigail Breslin, and he smiles, his first smile really in the entire film. He’s come to an impasse, a realization of sorts, and it actually brings him a brief flicker of happiness and relief. So we get the smile, but then he looks away from the girl and his eyes go immediately empty again. Like all of Damian’s abilities as an actor, that flick of the switch is so subtle that it’s nearly invisible. But, again, (I know I keep saying this!), you will FEEL it. And, again, it’s awe-inspiring.
With Keane, we see Damian’s indeniable ability to achieve a sort of balance between preparation and spontaneity that transforms his practice of the craft of acting into an art form.