In a few brief scenes in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, lost soul Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) bonds with maternal hippie Jan Burres, played by Catherine Keener. Chris has been poorly parented; Jan’s grown son has drifted away: The two tap into and soothe one another’s sense of loss. Jan is a slackly conceived and overly familiar character, but Keener, who’s no stranger to aging flower-child roles, brings to the part a warmth, specificity and diffuse sadness that, like so many of her supporting performances, make you wish she had a lot more screen time.

“It did go through my mind that this could be a cliché,” says Keener, chafing slightly at the gloomy Toronto hotel conference room she’s been parked in to promote the movie. “But clichés happen a lot in life, and Jan and Chris have a particular connection,” adds the actress, herself the mother of a 9-year-old son with actor Dermot Mulroney, from whom she is separated. “He experiences freedom and catharsis, and in turn he cracks her heart open again and allows her to feel pain.”

Honestly, I’d rather be talking to Keener about her more muscular roles, like The Ballad of Jack and Rose (in which she also plays a hippie, but with a more feckless edge), or her dryly sardonic turn as Harper Lee in Capote, or just about anything she’s done for Nicole Holofcener. First things first, though. Keener calls Into the Wild director Sean Penn both “dreamy” and “a great leader,” despite his reputation as a demanding hardass. “That too,” she says, laughing, “but not in work. He sets a high bar, but whatever arbitrary conditions you have, he’ll try and meet them and make it easy for you. Sometimes he’ll clear the set, including the focus-puller, and operate the camera himself.” Penn ran a fun, fluid set, which Keener, who invests a lot of herself in her characters, appreciated. “You just don’t know what you’re going into with a role,” she says, “so it helps when the boss isn’t pestering you to do something in particular. He’s never nervous for you; the environment is that unself-conscious.”

With diplomatic duty out of the way, Keener calls me back two days later from the 405 freeway to continue our discussion of the more interesting mouthy bitches that crowd her fat resumé. Gracious though she is, there’s a restless edge to Keener that suggests why so many directors have seen in her something wild — her vicious ballbuster in Being John Malkovich, for example:“a wonderful role, but I didn’t like her as I was doing it, which made it harder.” For Holofcener, whose ensemble pieces, from Walking and Talking through Friends with Money (and a new movie to be released next year in which Keener plays a guilt-ridden furniture-store owner), have given Keener her most substantial roles, the actress functions as something between alter ego and muse. “That’s such a nice word,” says Keener, “but I always repel it because I think it might be the other way around.” Holofcener, who regularly casts Keener as acid-tongued losers with ratty hair who achieve a reluctant decency, begs to differ: “She’s hysterical funny, intimidatingly intelligent, frighteningly connected to her emotions, gorgeous in an interesting and ever-changing way, willing to be foolish and wrong, very giving and, last but not least, makes my mediocre writing sound brilliant.”

Though she remains, at 48, in the full bloom of a freckled, natural beauty, Keener finds it liberating not to be cast for her looks. “That would mean hair and makeup,” she says, “and I don’t sit still well.” Being a character actress “with small roles in great movies” has given her a longevity that has largely eluded A-list female stars like Michelle Pfeiffer or Meg Ryan. And though she has a string of awards to her name, including supporting-actress Oscar nominations for Being John Malkovich and Capote, she’s as serene about not winning either as she is about rarely scoring leading roles. Like a lot of great actors, Keener, who, following an inglorious and mercifully brief television career, got her start throwing a shoe at another newcomer, Brad Pitt, in Tom Dicillo’s Johnny Suede, never intended to get into acting, and feels merely lucky. “I love my job, and I’ve so far exceeded anything that I could have dreamed of,” she says, “that I don’t really covet anything.”

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