In the romantic comedy “And So It Goes,” Michael Douglas plays Oren Little, a bitter, curmudgeonly real-estate agent who is widowed and making plans for his retirement after a long and successful career. Oren doesn’t seem to want family and friends in his life, so it’s not surprising that he has a prickly relationship with part-time lounge singer Leah Hartman (played by Diane Keaton), who is a tenant/neighbor in the fourplex where he lives. Oren’s life takes a drastic turn when his estranged son Luke (played by Scott Shepherd), who is a single dad, suddenly shows up to drop off his 9-year-old daughter Sarah (played by Sterling Jerins), and asks Oren to take care of her before Luke goes to prison on a felony drug charge.
Living with a granddaughter he has just met, Oren is a reluctant and sometimes insensitive guardian to the little girl, while Leah (who widowed and has no kids) quickly bonds with the child. Over time, as Oren gets to know Sarah and Leah better, he starts to see things in a different light. There is an undeniable attraction between Oren and Leah, but is it enough to overcome Oren’s plans to move to another state when he retires? Rob Reiner, who directed “And So It Goes,” has a supporting role in the movie as Leah’s pianist Artie, who has an unrequited crush on Leah. At the New York City press junket for “And So It Goes,” I sat down with Keaton for a roundtable interview that she did with me and other journalists. Here is what she said.
What was it like getting in touch with your inner lounge singer for your role as Leah?
Well, I worked on it. It was fun. Of course, I loved doing it. Of course, I had fantasies that every song was full all the way through. I had insane fantasies about me and my singing, but they quickly fell apart when I started singing. You know what I mean? It’s sort of like a little tiny voice and not much there. I wish it had been a big voice.
Can you imagine singing great? Can you imagine if you had the gift of being somebody like, I don’t know, Beyoncé singing? That coming out of your head, what does that feel like? I would love it! And so when I was trying to do the Bonnie Raitt song, I really had a hard time. I couldn’t really do the notes. I couldn’t be Bonnie Raitt.
There’s a scene in “And So It Goes” where Leah auditions for a nightclub owner, played by Frankie Valli. What was it like to sing in front of him?
Yeah, that’s scary, but he was playing his part. I think he was thinking about himself. I don’t think he was really thinking about, “Oh, that Diane, wow.” He was way back in a corner, but he was very nice when I met him. But you know, people usually are.
How about singing like that for a roomful of people, especially when you’ve got to do it over and over?
You do it over a few times, yeah. But the thing about them is they have to act like they’re interested, so you’re fine. They have to pretend like they love what you’re doing, so then you feel confident. Do you see what I mean? It could have been bad for me if they were real people. They are real people, but [they were acting].
Even though your Leah character’s been performing for a while, her nervousness and tension at the audition really came through in that scene. Did that bring back any memories of nerve-racking auditions that you’ve done in real life?
You know, I hate auditions. I’m just so grateful that I don’t have to, and I worry that I will have to audition soon. Can you imagine? I just really don’t really think I can take it.
But I built a back story. I had a back story for myself [as Leah] that I was one of those rep players with my husband and we traveled around the country and we did great classic things, we did Shakespeare and all the rest, and that we had a little place in … where in New York would it be? Like a small place. Not a hip place. Not the Hamptons.
Yeah, that! Something like that and that’s where we would always return to and we had this little life and that was what it was. And I wasn’t really a singer, but when he passed away, my life was crushed.
And so I thought, “Well, maybe I could be a little bit of a lounge singer,” like in Palms Springs they had this old follies thing and I thought maybe that’s what that would be like for her, so I think she really was nervous.
In other words, I don’t think she had a lot of experience. I mean, she could sing every now and then, like on Monday nights, you know? You don’t really get paid. So that’s kind of why I thought it was a new idea in her life and something that meant a lot to her.
It seems like we’re seeing a growing trend of older parents and grandparents raising children. Is this something you’ve seen in your own life. and were you able to draw on those experiences?
No, I never saw anything like that in my life. Both of my grandmothers — I never had a grandfather — were single women and they worked really hard and I didn’t spend a lot of time with them like that at all. So to me, that was new and I felt like this girl, Sterling Jerins, is kind of remarkable because didn’t you think she was sort of like a pre-Raphaelite little angel in a way?
An old soul?
An old soul is a great way of saying it. And she was beautiful! And then you just look at her and you go, “Where are you from, and why are you here in this generation?”
She was kind of astonishing and then what would happen was, she’d do a scene and it called for crying and you’d just be doing the scene and the tears would come down, and nothing! No working at it, no sense of being like a little theater kid.
She’s just beautiful and very smart. Really smart. Maybe that’s it, that she’s just really brilliant and curious. I loved her.
Did you do anything to bond with Sterling?
Just hang. We just would hang on the set. You hang on those sets, you get to know everybody. It was really nice.
How was the movie’s set? Was it a completely furnished building?
Tight! Here’s the deal: It was a fourplex. They kind of created a fourplex. I think it was a duplex to begin with and then what they did is, they managed to create the fourplex, which is great. And it was just an old place and they just did a little work on it and gave you that feeling of the tightness of the community.
And that’s another aspect. It’s almost a B-plot to the movie, that the greatness of being connected to a community of people like the two young people who are going to have their baby, and then those wacko kids and my friend. It gives you the sense of life, even if I never had a romance, to be there was something, to be with those people, to be in that community. And then he comes along — and that’s the best.
Can you talk about the first time you met Michael Douglas? You must have run into each other over the years.
Not really. You have this sense that there is a community out there, but there really isn’t a community out there or anywhere. in terms of show business. Or maybe in New York there is because of theater. Maybe the theatrical world is more unified, but in California it’s very isolated.
There are pockets, little tiny pockets like that, but basically, no. I met him once I think — well, once you meet him, hello! Then one time I saw him when he was about to get that big award that he won. What did he get?
The AFI Award?
Yeah, the AFI, that’s it. That was it! And it was a big deal, right? And I remember him saying he was going to get the AFI Award. That’s all I know about him. And so, I really got to know him here.
Can you describe anything that surprised you the most about working with him?
Oh yeah, that he loves to be teased. He loves to be tortured.
What kind of things did you do?
Oh, I just told him he was a big jerk all the time. You know, rich guy. Big deal! Who are you? And he loved it. He ate it up, and so I knew how to get him. It was really fun. So I knew that we could get the scene going by me torturing him. And he was great at it because he’s better. He’s funnier than me.
We got a little thing going and it made it really work in the movie. You really want to know who you’re acting with. You don’t want to have them come on and you don’t know them and you can’t find a place where you feel comfortable in a scene, because I like to play things with spontaneity. So if I want to go grab somebody, I want to be able to do it!
But I’ve had actors where, you do that in a scene, and no one said you could, they didn’t like it. They didn’t want to be touched. So I like to kind of set up, like, “How am I going to make it easier for me to go, ‘That’s cute,’ or do something odd to just kind of keep things alive?”
Because the main thing you want when you’re acting in a scene, at least for me anyway, is a moment to moment experience. Like, I’m looking at you and I’m seeing you’re going, “Oh, yeah, uh huh.”
What does that mean? You play off the person and if you’re going to play with someone, that’s the whole point of being a performer is to have fun at it, to enjoy the moment even when it’s a tragic moment — even when I’m screaming at him or I’m crying because I’m singing about the loss of him: “The shadow of your smile, when you are gone, will color all my life and light the dawn.”
Those kinds of things you want to be there. That’s why you’re doing it. And you want to have the experience, so whenever you can get next to an actor and kind of get the vibe that’s going to make the magic happen, or the hope of the magic happen, you find that way in. He was easy.
How does Rob Reiner react to that improvisation? Is he OK when you change blocking?
You don’t change the blocking too much, but the blocking was loose. Like, when I first started movies, it was really, “There’s your mark. You go to your mark.” If you miss your mark, it was like, “That was really awful!”
Now, it’s not that way anymore because cameras are lighter, everything’s different, the approach to movies is much less formal. I was looking at an old ‘40s movie the other day and I just thought, “Oh my God, we’ve come a long way.” The lighting is perfect and everybody’s just walking into place. I’m seeing a zombie thing. I don’t know! So I think movies have come a long way, for the better.
What was your history with Rob Reiner before you did “And So It Goes”?
Not much. I mean, again, I remember Rob would occasionally have polemical gatherings at his home because he’s very active, which is fantastic, but I don’t really know him. I’ll tell you, I don’t know anybody! But now I know him. I like him.
You mentioned earlier how you admire that Sterling Jerins was naturally able to cry on cue. One of the big things that was used as comic relief in “And So It Goes” is that Leah a big crier. What are your own techniques for crying on cue?
Music. I just pound that music in my ear. Just jam it as loud as I can and I get all moved by the music. And then I keep it in for as long as I can until someone presses me, because I can’t hear them say “action.” Or someone will come up to me, and I rip them out, and I throw them down, which I shouldn’t do.
And sometimes, they’re still playing, and I can get into trouble because the music’s still playing when I’m out there acting and crying. But that is my technique. It’s pathetic. And Michael was saying it’s annoying. It’s annoying how [much of] an a**hole I am.
Is there any particular type of music or artist you listen to in order to cry on cue?
Oh, I have a whole repertoire of singers and artists. And then I pick them according to what the mood is. Can you believe that? It’s like my little library.
How about managing your Leah character’s arc? She’s got to go from not liking Oren to liking him.
I think she always liked him, honestly. I think she was attracted to him from the beginning, and she’s hiding it because, he’s attractive. And sometimes that’s the kind of guys you like.
A lot of women like bad boys too, right?
Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that!
What about being in a romantic comedy for grown-ups?
That’s all I’ve ever done. I feel like that’s all I’ve ever really done. I’ve done some dramas, but I’m not exactly known for it. So I think I’ve done a lot of those kinds of movies for adults. Maybe what you’re saying is that this is further than adult. We’ve gone beyond. It’s like the Baby Boomer generation. But I don’t think it’s just for Baby Boomers because I think that B-plot is important.
The son, who’s very good, who gets out of jail finally and comes to see his father, he’s a great part. The couple [Oren and Leah’s neighbors], the baby scene, her having that baby .... Oh, forget it. That’s really fun and what a jerk he is to everyone, all of that is all part of the movie.
So it’s like I said, the B-plot is kind of this community of people in this place. And I kind of can see myself living like that even. Maybe not in a fourplex, but where you see them and you have an interaction with your neighborhood. I feel like neighborhoods have disappeared a little bit, especially in Los Angeles where I live.
I don’t remember ever living in a neighborhood where you know your neighbors, and they come over, and you’ll have a social gathering or you’ll see them on the street. If you’re in Beverly Hills, that doesn’t happen — or in Brentwood or Bel Air or any of those spots.
And if you’re in a big apartment, which I’ve done in New York City, there’s no neighborliness there. Have you noticed that? Does anyone come knocking and say, “Welcome to the neighborhood?” No!
Is there anything you feel has gotten easier or harder in terms of your career and acting over the years?
In the beginning, it was harder for me to be in a serious drama because the language, when you hear really facile stage actors — people like Judi Dench or Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep — they have great verbal facility. Their language skills are fabulous. I mean, they can make a sentence just go on that.
I come from a place of less language, so it was harder for me to do straight serious roles because I wasn’t as comfortable with the words. I think I’ve gotten better at that. That’s what’s gotten better. What’s gotten worse? I don’t know.
Not worse, but harder. Some people feel that the longer they do something, the better grasp that they have on their skills. Do you agree?
Well, I feel like I have a better grasp on my verbal skills, like I said. But I don’t think I’ve got a better grasp of any other skill. I really don’t.
So you’re still learning?
There you go! I’m still learning!
For more info: "And So It Goes" website