Coming off a year of four celebrated performances, the ''Friends With Money'' star offers a rare glimpse at her (cherished) life in obscurity

Catherine Keener and her friends share an ongoing joke. They call it the ”Where’s Waldo thing” because Keener tends to go unnoticed in public, blending into the crowd like the bespectacled title character from the popular children’s book. It all started at the 2000 Golden Globes telecast. Just as she was announced as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for Being John Malkovich, the camera cut to another woman — an unknown woman — who looked nothing like her. Keener thought it was hilarious. ”No one ever recognizes me — it’s fantastic,” she says over a Caesar salad in a Manhattan restaurant, where, save for one fawning waiter, she attracts no attention. ”The Where’s Waldo-ness…has never been anything but a positive thing to me.” Sipping champagne, she talks about the time she ”went off” on a paparazzo who was following a ”well-known” friend of hers. ”I called this guy with a video camera a ‘f—ing twerp.’ It was the best I could do in the moment!” she adds, letting rip her deep, hearty laugh. ”He was videotaping me and goading me, saying ‘Go ahead, this is great!’ But [the footage] never went anywhere because he didn’t know that I was…” she pauses, searching for the right word. ”You know, at all remotely a person of, whatever, public stature.”

Oh, like famous? Keener would never use that adjective to describe herself — even after the prolific, high-profile year she’s had. She appeared in four movies in 2005; one of them, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, became a $110 million hit, and another, Capote, earned her an Oscar nod — her second — for Best Supporting Actress. (The first was for Malkovich.) She also played Sean Penn’s wisecracking Secret Service partner in The Interpreter and Daniel Day-Lewis’ lover in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, both to critical praise.

This month, she joins Frances McDormand, Jennifer Aniston, and Joan Cusack in Friends With Money, a wry indie about life, love, and relationships that marks her third collaboration with writer-director and close pal Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing). At 46, well past the age at which the movie industry likes to spit out actresses, Catherine Keener is enjoying a moment. She is, notes Aniston, another longtime friend, ”just cookin’.”

For someone as press-shy as Keener — she employs a publicist, but rarely gives interviews, reasoning that too much publicity ”becomes a dirty business” — she is disarmingly friendly and easygoing, to the point of sharing meals with a journalist. ”May I?” she asks, inching her fork toward her lunch date’s plate. And while she’s grateful for the hot turn her career has taken lately, she’s just not that into talking about it. ”I feel like I get overappreciated,” she says. ”You want to deflect it sometimes because it’s almost…” She trails off and glances at the hi-fi speaker hanging above the table. She grins. ”I hope this music is masking all the s— I’m saying.”

Over the past 20 years, Keener has worked steadily on the perimeter of stardom. She has thrived in the indie world under the likes of directors Neil LaBute (Your Friends & Neighbors) and Steven Soderbergh (Full Frontal), who have put her unusual beauty and trademark dry wit to good use. When she has ventured into studio territory (Death to Smoochy, Soderbergh’s Out of Sight), she has opted for smaller character roles, which she inhabits more comfortably than flashier ones. Spike Jonze, who cast her as Malkovich‘s femme fatale Maxine, and who will direct her again this year in the big-screen adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, describes Keener as ”a supporting actress in the strongest sense of the word. She’s there to give the director what he or she needs. She’s not there to make a big statement or steal the scene.” It’s baffling to Keener that people keep telling her she should be a bigger star. ”Because I’m not in [more] studio movies?” she asks. ”But I have something to do with that. That’s not my path, it’s obvious.”