Diane Keaton talks 'Hampstead', love and her career

‘Life is magical, but I don’t see happy as part of the deal’

By Neil Fisher | The Times

The actress who wooed Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino on motherhood in middle age and sexual frustration in her seventies

In Hampstead, a new British comedy directed by Joel Hopkins and released later this month. The film is (extremely loosely)based on the real story of “Harry the Hermit”, or Harry Hallowes, who lived for more than 25 years in a ramshackle encampment on Hampstead Heath. He eventually gained squatters’ rights to the land through a court order after developers threatened to demolish his patch and turn it into luxury housing. The land Hallowes had a legal claim to was worth as much as £3.5 million, according to some estimates.

Hallowes died in 2015 at the age of 79, having been dubbed “Britain’s richest tramp”, but not before a cheery reporter from The Times in-formed him in his foxhole that a film was to be made of his life, with Diane Keaton as his love interest. “I’ve never heard of the woman,” he snarled, which suggested that not only was Harry the Hermit not a Woody Allen fan, but hadn’t even seen The Godfather, which takes Hampstead snobbishness to a new level.

“Good for him,” beams Keaton, who despite having starred in films with a combined box-office haul of more than $1.3 billion, sometimes doesn’t seem to have heard of Diane Keaton the movie star either. Certainly her children, Dexter, 21, and Duke, 16, whom she adopted in her fifties, haven’t. “I don’t play the films to my kids, we’ve never gone to any of my movies — it’s so boring for them. To see me in the light of something like that . . .”

She thinks that her daughter, Dexter, recently saw Something’s Gotta Give, the 2003 Nancy Meyers-directed hit in which Keaton tames a priapic Jack Nicholson. “And she was like, you know, ‘good job’, but what else is she going to say? She’s got to say something nice.”

Keaton is 71 and looks fantastic. Not much has changed, style-wise, since Allen told her to turn up on the set of Annie Hall wearing what she wanted to wear. She is sporting a fitted coat with a huge belt over a shirt with a high collar (a Keaton trademark), what looks like men’s suit trousers rolled up to her calves, and huge black platform boots — she won’t tell me where they come from. We’re in a hotel in Soho, which is where she really likes to be when in London: “right in the centre”.

Hampstead itself came as something of a disappointment to her. “I thought it was charming, but I thought it was going to be slightly more unusual. It’s just really pretty, nice architecture . . .” She doesn’t sound enraptured. “Maybe I didn’t see enough of it. I didn’t spend the night there.”

Hopkins’s film certainly has done its best to do a Notting Hill on NW3, erasing Hampstead’s mobile phone shops and estate agents and replacing them with patisseries and indie boutiques that sell funky berets. Keaton’s Emily (wholly invented) is an impoverished American widow who volunteers at a charity shop, is nagged by her son (Grantchester’s James Norton), amorously lunched by a devious accountant and harassed by the nimbyish residents’ association of her mansion block.

Her frenemy-in-chief is played by Lesley Manville, who encourages her to look for love again with the deathless north London threat: “If you wait too long, you’ll shrivel up like imported arpricot from Waitrose.” Yet it’s when Emily sees Brendan Gleeson’s grumpy Irish hermit bathing naked in the heath ponds that love strikes (and not Weil’s disease, which might have been more realistic).

It’s a role to which Keaton brings her well-honed tenderness and bafflement: an oddball wearing her kookiness as armour. “Emily is friendly, she has an affable personality, but there’s many things that are going on inside of her that really need fixing bad. I saw her as someone who needed to take a long, hard look at who she was, not just seeing herself as a poor thing.”

I confess to Keaton that I found her trysts with Gleeson a bit tame: one minute they are picnicking on Karl Marx’s grave, the next they’re waking up in bed together. Where was the foreplay? She squeals. “Can you imagine? Oh my God.” Chewing over it, however, she agrees. “It wasn’t there. I don’t know why. I think you’re right.”

Keaton knows how much Annie Hall, which Allen based around aspects of her life and their relationship, has defined her. In her entertaining (if typically meandering) memoir Then Again, she flatly confesses: “I knew I’d won an Academy Award for playing an affable version of myself. I got it.” Keaton was born with the surname Hall, and not only was there a real “Grammy Hall”, but when Keaton told her she had been nominated for an Oscar for the movie, Grammy replied: “That Woody Allen is too funny-looking to pull some of that crap he pulls off, but you can’t hurt a Jew, can you?”

There must be worse images to be stuck with, though, than a version of your life in possibly the greatest screen comedy of all? “I’d say so,” Keaton replies. “First of all, it [Annie Hall] gave me a lot of different opportunities. Now I can do things like the books I’ve written, my interest in architecture, I built a house . . . none of this would have happened without it. I wouldn’t have been in Something’s Gotta Give, I wouldn’t have been in Reds, I wouldn’t have been in any of it.”

Before Annie Hall she had appeared with Allen in a run of more slapstick comedies, among them the sci-fi parody Sleeper and the Tolstoy-Dostoevsky spoof Love and Death, from which I can’t stop myself quoting out loud (“No, you must be Don Francisco’s sister”) as Keaton cackles with delight. She remembers filming Sleeper in the early 1970s. “Suddenly I’m in Colorado. I hadn’t really done a movie before — I mean I’d done The Godfather but that was so brief — and then we’re up there running around in the forest. It was more like a camping trip. It was just wild.”

Allen, as both director and boyfriend, was “like an idiot, but he was fun. And then when he started writing these insanely brilliant female characters, that’s when I started to really understand his gift.”

In Keaton’s book she says she still loves Allen, and they are still close. She has defended him against accusations by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow that he molested her (“I believe my friend,” Keaton told The Guardian in 2014). Last week, in Los Angeles, Allen presented Keaton with the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award and they were snapped going for dinner with Allen’s wife, Soon-Yi.

Keaton credits her maverick streak to her upbringing in southern California. On the surface it was apple-pie wholesome — she was the eldest of four, her dad was a civil engineer, her mother a housewife — but there was more under the surface. Keaton’s father drifted between projects, sometimes putting the family through various positive-thinking programmes beloved of utopian west-coasters. Her mother was unhappy. “In her heart of hearts I think she really wanted to do what I did. She wanted to perform, but she never had the opportunity I had. I saw that, and I think unconsciously I was determined that I wasn’t going to get married. I wasn’t going to be doing that kind of work — the work of raising a family and being a wife.”

She tried out for all the shows at school and joined a local theatre company without much success. The director “pulled me into his room and he said, ‘You know what you really have to do — go to a charm school because you have to fix your look.’ I’d go sobbing yet again home to Mom.”

Keaton’s anxiety about her looks fed into her unconventional fashion choices, again encouraged by her mother. “I said, ‘I’m doing it my way. I’m going to dress the way I’m going to dress.’ We’d go to the Good-will [charity shop] or the Salvation Army, we’d find material. My mother made the clothes, I designed them.” Yet unhappiness about her figure also contributed to the bulimia she suffered after moving to New York, where she was cast in Hair (she didn’t take her clothes off) and where she met a young writer and comedian called Woody Allen.

Is she in therapy, I ask, sounding only a little like Alvy. Keaton’s answer is a bit Alvy too. “Really . . . the answer to that is always going to be yes, but maybe not as it was at one point, when I was ‘in analysis’ on a daily basis, but now not so much.” Did playing Sister Mary in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope open her eyes to any revelations? Only how nice it was to chillax in Italy filming the hit Sky Atlantic series that starred Jude Law as a supremely hot pontiff. “I learnt a lot about how beautiful Rome is, how beautiful those buildings are.”

Keaton will not reprise the part in Sorrentino’s follow-up series, The New Pope. A project she does have in the pipeline, however, is Book Club, a comedy about four friends whose lives are changed by reading Fifty Shades of Grey together. Perhaps working on this movie has stirred up other parts of her personality. Last year Keaton appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show in the US and told the daytime TV audience that she was “sexually frustrated”. Is she still? “Yeah, sure! I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t see anything happening for me in that regard. I don’t see someone calling me up and saying, ‘Hey, how about dinner?’ ” Life’s just not like in the movies. “You can be bold and outrageous and it’s all good — but in real life I don’t think it’s that easy.”

Well, how did she used to do it? Apart from Allen, Keaton had well-documented romances with Warren Beatty (during the filming of Reds and after) and Al Pacino (on and off, finally ending after The Godfather Part III). “How did it happen?” She mulls it over. “You would be working. It would usually be through some sort of work situation.” She did most of the spade work, she says. “They were hardly conquests. I tried my best to make them see me, so at least they’d think, ‘Maybe I’ll take her out.’ I worked it. I made more of the effort.”

Of the relationships with the three movie stars, the one with Pacino came closest to commitment. “I just thought maybe he would marry me, eventually. But that never happened, and that is a blessing for both of us. It was very important I think that we left each other alone and said goodbye. It wasn’t my choice, however.”

Single she may be, but doesn’t she count her career, her children and her part-time job as a property developer (she says she has made more money from this than from her films) as a success? She’s doubtful. “I don’t think that’s really on the cards for me. I’m going to count that one out.”

Surely, at least, she’s happy? “I don’t really know what that means. Life is exciting, totally fascinating, it’s magical, but I don’t really see happy as part of the deal. It’s right up there with God. ‘Happy’ and ‘God’ and things that are so beyond our ability to even comprehend.” Or, as Annie Hall might put it, la-dee-da.

Hampstead is released on Friday