IT COMES as no surprise that Diane Keaton credits strong, savvy women with helping make her who she is.
As one of the most iconic screen actresses of her generation, Keaton was encouraged by trailblazers like Katherine Hepburn before her — but there were great females to look up to at home, too.
Diane’s real surname is Hall and her pet name is Annie — hence the title of her most-loved Woody Allen film. And she credits the Irish grandmother who she affectionately calls ‘Grammie Hall’ with being a significant influence.
“My name is Diane Hall and what happened was I had to change my name when I joined Actors’ Equity, which is our union, because there was a Diane Hall. So I picked my mother’s maiden name, which was Keaton.
“My dad’s mother, Mary Hall, her parents came from Ireland,” she tells me. “She was raised in Nebraska on a farm, they were Catholic, there were like 12 kids. Very Irish, and boy, was she a powerhouse. She was some woman. I was terrified of her when I was a kid! But when I got older I loved her sense of humour.
“She was the kind of Catholic that I didn’t understand. She never believed in heaven or hell, but she was a Catholic. I would say: ‘Why?’ and she would say: ‘Well, what else am I gonna be? That’s what I grew up with’. I guess it was her social outlet, the Church.”
Grammie Hall had just one son, Diane’s father Jack, and while she endeavoured to find out more information about her grandfather, some mystery still remains.
“She lived to be 94, Grammie Hall. As time went on, I grew to love her more and more, because she was one hell of a character. Unbelievable! Irish! There you go. And I’ve never been, isn’t that ridiculous?”
A self-confessed fearful flyer, who travels when she needs to for work, Keaton has a stronger desire to visit this part of the world after spending time with our own Brendan Gleeson, her co-star in the forthcoming Hampstead.
The endearing romantic drama — based loosely on the real story of a man who lived in a shack in London’s Hampstead Heath and faced efforts to have him evicted — sees these two very different people form a friendship with the potential to become something more.
She was beguiled by the Dublin actor. “First of all he’s the kindest guy in the world. Second of all, he’s got that booming voice — I mean, where did that come from? I’ll never understand,” says Keaton, with the sort of quirky candour that is reminiscent of her best-known characters.
“He’s always engaged, he’s always really present in the moment. He doesn’t drift off. He’s got a big heart. It’s just very unusual, a big heart with a big guy.
“If you’re having a problem day, he’s there to empathise with the misery. I can’t tell you man, I wish I could work with him all the time. I wish that was my good fortune.”
The film’s director, Joel Hopkins, has credited his two leads’ very different styles with helping create their wonderful onscreen chemistry, and Keaton concurs.
“When I look at Brendan I think: ‘That’s an actor’. When I look at me I think: ‘There’s a personality-driven person’,” she observes. “He is really an actor. Think of him in In Bruges, which is one of my favourite movies.
“I started out early, and I did go to acting school, but really, what I learned in acting school was just to mainly be in the moment, and to take your behaviour off what you’re getting from the other actor and be spontaneous.”
That spontaneity has served her well and made Keaton (71) one of the most-loved stars of her generation. Her natural beauty, novel sense of style, ability to elicit empathy and perfect comic timing made hers a special partnership with Woody Allen, with whom she was very much in love (they remain close friends to this day).
It should be regarded as no coincidence that Keaton contributed to some of Allen’s very best films — the wacky Love and Death, Play It Again Sam and Sleeper, and of course the greatly loved Annie Hall (which won her an Oscar), and Manhattan.
Why does she think their collaboration was so successful? “I have no idea. I’d just auditioned for this play that he had written called Play it Again Sam, and I got an audition. That’s where I met him,” she recalls. “They brought him out because I think they were concerned that I might be a little too tall.
“They cast me, and when I was in that play I really got to know him. When you’re in a play, for eight or nine months, you get to know the people you’re with. And of course I had a crush on him. I was just crazy about him.”
Yet her career endured beyond her work with Allen. She shone as Kay Adams-Corleone in The Godfather trilogy, excelled opposite Warren Beatty in the Oscar-winning Reds and went on to enjoy a successful career in thoughtful comedy dramas including Father of the Bride, The First Wives’ Club and Something’s Gotta Give.
You get the sense that she loves her work as much now as in the early days, and she is enthusiastic about bringing an older character to life in Hampstead.
“For me the most wonderful part of this movie is that they’re these two people of a certain age. Then because of this big barrel of a man, her whole life opens up. And the same is true of him. Change is possible and we can all grow, no matter how old we are. I really liked that part of the movie. I really liked what it’s about.”
She credits her late mother, Dorothy, with helping her believe such a career was possible. “My mother, even though she never talked about it, I think she secretly wanted more than anything to be in the performing world. She could play the piano, and I believe that she encouraged me without saying anything. From early on I just wanted to be in front of people.
“She never said anything, and she had four kids, but she was amazing. She wrote. I have eighty of her journals. She sang in a group. I think it was in her. She really did want that.
“She didn’t have the opportunities, but I did. I was the first born, I wanted to be in front of people, I wanted to express myself. And she was nothing but encouraging. She was my first assistant.”
- Hampstead opens in cinemas on Friday