The Grande Dame of American Indie Cinema: A Lost Interview with Gena Rowlands

Gena Rowlands is one of our most revered and beloved actresses—her brilliant and always memorable work has influenced generations of filmmakers.

She and her late husband John Cassavetes practically invented American independent film with their ground-breaking collaboration on Faces (1968), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1978), Gloria (1980), and Love Streams (1984). At 87, Ms. Rowlands is the grande dame of American cinema, with four Emmys, two Golden Globes and an Honorary Academy Award. She’s also the proud mother of three talented actor-directors—Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, Alpha Dog), Zoe Cassavetes (Broken English) and Alexandra “Xan” Cassavetes (Kiss of the Damned).

This previously unpublished interview took place in her suite at Manhattan’s Wyndham Hotel in January 1997; we started by asking about her most recent film, son Nick’s Unhook the Stars:

John Gallagher, MovieMaker Magazine (JG): We loved your work in Unhook the Stars, especially with the little boy, Jake Lloyd.

Gena Rowlands (GR): Nick has a great touch with children. He has two little girls himself and I noticed with them he has endless patience and love, and thinks they’re very original and creative, which they are of course.

Sylvia Caminer, MovieMaker Magazine (SC): As a child himself he grew up in a film environment.

GR: My poor children grew up in a house where you were always shooting a movie. They’d come out and fall over the cable and the camera and there’d be forty people in our house all the time. I do believe they thought that’s how everybody else lived too. They all seemed very comfortable with the process, not that all of them are doing it but they seemed to feel it was a normal way of life.

JG: Like all independent filmmakers, we’re so inspired by the films that you did together. We’re glad it’s coming out more and more that the films you guys did were not improvised.

GR: You can’t convince anyone of that, because the first picture John directed, Shadows (1959), was. Every newspaper in the world printed it from that point on. We liked it to look improvisational, we liked it to look like what we thought was real. John had a very great capacity and talent for writing dialogue as it’s spoken, the way people speak instead of that kind of “movie speak” that used to be fashionable when we first started. So that gave it a sense of improvisation. I’ve been confronted with this question so many times that I try and think why people think this, even though for the next ten pictures you kept saying there was a script. I came to realize that it was the style. It was the language and also very early we used those little body mikes. They were quite cumbersome then, you know, it was always where to put the battery and you lost a certain degree of quality but what you lost in that little roughness in quality you were able to make up in spontaneity and movement.

JG: We’ve seen photos of A Woman under the Influence when you’re standing on the couch and doing “Swan Lake” and John’s there actually filming you himself.

GR: He couldn’t keep his hands off the camera. We always used two cameras which I liked very much especially if you’re working in deeply emotional waters, because then the closeup exactly matches and you don’t have to do an over-the-shoulder. But also you’d turn around and there’d John be with a camera!

JG: Like a lot of the Cassavetes films, Minnie and Moskowitz is really about love, the whole issue of love, not having enough love or too much.

GR: I think it’s the first time too that it’s just been absolutely said out loud how much we have been influenced by movies. What we expect a face to look like. When I’d look at Seymour [Cassel] and say that was the wrong face. I was supposed to be looking at Humphrey Bogart or Charles Boyer. So much behavior and so many expectations were built by the movies.

SC: We read somewhere that Universal originally wanted Jack Nicholson to play Moskowitz.

GR: Which defeats the whole purpose. Well, I remember John wrote a picture he did called Too Late Blues (1961) for Monty [Clift] and me and they wouldn’t let us do it. They got Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens, who were very good but it was just the studio’s [Paramount] way of thinking.

SC: I’m sure you had thorough rehearsals on your films together.

GR: Sure.

JG: People think, “Oh, a Cassavetes film, they just turn on the camera and start improvising!”

GR: Yes, and a lot of people think improvisation is just walking on and saying anything you want to. Many times we would stop if we couldn’t get a scene, couldn’t make it work, we’d stop and talk about it, improvise a little bit, just the way anybody works.

SC: How about the scene in Love Streams where you’re trying to make your daughter and your husband laugh?

GR: Now that was an improvisation, and that’s our last movie so there was improvisation all the way to the end.

JG: Did you know what you were going to be working with?

GR: The script just had a little thing that said Sarah calls her husband home from work and her daughter home from school, to make them laugh, and that they don’t enjoy themselves. I said, “John, what is this scene?” He said, “I don’t want to ruin it for you.” I said, “But in what way? I mean, how do I make them laugh?” He said, “Believe me, you are gonna love it so much, I don’t want to ruin it for you.” So I thought, OK, I trusted him forever. We’re getting closer and closer to shooting the scene and I said, “Are you gonna give me the pages the day before or something?” He said, “Don’t even talk about it.” I thought I’m gonna kill him is what I’m gonna do cause I was really getting nervous. So the day we were to shoot it I still had absolutely no idea. He said, “Stay in your dressing room, we’re gonna get all set up, you’re gonna be so glad that we did this, you’re gonna remember what a good time it was forever.” We came out in the back, we had this big beautiful home, and there’s Seymour and Risa [Blewitt] sitting at this great big picnic table full of those teeth that clatter and eyes that fall out. I said “What’s this?” He said,”I want you to use those things to make them laugh and then at the end, when you’re finished go and dive off the diving board into the swimming pool.” I said, “OK, but I’m not sure how these things work.” He said, “That’s alright, just do it.” I said, “Which ones shall I use?” and he said, “Use all of them. Action!” So I just started wildly using them and of course he told them not to laugh at all. I am killing myself and they are sitting looking stone-faced and then I realized why he told me to jump off the diving board. That was improvisation. I don’t think you could write those lines and do that any other way.

JG: On Love Streams did they keep the animals at your house overnight?

GR: Little improvisational things do happen. I knew they were going to bring miniature animals. I’d never seen anything miniature before. I think I thought they’d look like Shetland ponies or something. I didn’t think they’d be a tenth as big as a Shetland pony and again John said, “I don’t want you to see them until they come out of the taxi, because when they come out of the taxi it’s gonna be like one of those little cars in the circus.” He said, “You’re gonna go crazy when you see these little animals and I want it on film.” That didn’t seem very hard.  They drove up to the house and these little magical things start coming out, ducks and geese and these little horses and I was just, I couldn’t believe it, it was as if you slipped into a fairy tale or something and then there’s John playing my brother in the front door. I said OK, OK, I want to take them out back and then to his amazement, I took them up to the front door and into the house. I didn’t realize he meant to take them around the house to the back. This way it just seemed the shortest way to get to the backyard, through the front door. I totally forgot that even little horsey-poos are quite a lot for an interior of a house. We had them upstairs one time. They liked to go upstairs. You would think it would be hard for them but they liked to go upstairs.

SC: And then in the rain, the animals tracking mud into the house.

GR: Oh it was just a mess. The house had to be—just everything—torn up when we were done.

JG: Opening Night is a picture that only now people are getting to know and appreciate.

GR: I think maybe it’s a movie that artists appreciate more cause we’re all so involved in what crosses over into your personal life and what crosses back into your work, and how you try to keep a certain amount of sanity. I thought the working relationships were very real in the film. I loved Maurice, the character John plays, he just was jealous that was all, he had the smaller part, I had the big part! And the backstage workers, all of it. It’s very dear to my heart.

SC: Any special memories about making Gloria?

GR: Oh I loved Gloria. I remember it was about 120 in the shade, I had five-inch heels, I had a child slung over my shoulder and I was running a great deal of the time but it was fun. It was fun to feel so powerful and so mighty and then on the other hand to always be thinking, I mean, here was a woman who just didn’t like children, especially this child, and then she came to love him. You wonder is that just built in? It’s a mystery, and a serious thing that you didn’t get into in this kind of movie but still it’s in your mind and it’s interesting to think when did it turn from “I want to punch that little bastard” to knowing how much you cared about him. Yes I liked the film very much. I don’t think I’ve ever seen New York shot better. It just was loads of fun.

JG: What kind of research did you do for A Woman under the Influence?

GR: I’m a person who just shreds a script. I just read it and read it and read it until it can’t stand it anymore and just breaks into confetti. And then I think about it. Walk around talking to myself a great deal. One work technique that John used that I don’t think I’ve seen anybody else do, he never allowed you to talk about your character with anyone else, with the other actors, which is just the opposite of what most people do and what most people did when we were coming up, they discussed the motivation and the thing until they became very intimate, that was their aim to become very intimate and comfortable with each other. John was just the opposite. He said, “You own your character, I don’t know as much about the character as you do by now. It’s yours. It’s Peter’s [Falk], it’s Ben’s [Gazzara], it’s up to you to do your preparation.” We were very very heavy on preparation, individual preparation, but nobody on the set ever said anything to the other, we didn’t know what the other person was going to do until we met together on camera. It was very exciting because in your mind you kind of start thinking someone’s going to do something just because that’s how you would have done it or maybe how you expected it and it won’t be that way at all, so it’s just like you’re meeting real people. I don’t know what you’re going to do in a minute, you don’t know what I’m going to do. We have some sort of expectations and they might not be correct at all. But we would read before this process. John liked to get a big long table, put everybody at it and then read, and then take a break and then come back in and read it again. Then maybe the next day read it again. Just reading. I liked that too because there’s no pressure on you for a performance, and you do get some idea about where some of the actors are going but that’s before their whole preparation too so you don’t really know, it’s like a cold reading. We were larger on preparation than rehearsal in many things, and many things had to be rehearsed a great deal, especially with kids. And you have to give the cinematographer a break sometimes. They are the heroes of our pictures because they didn’t know what to expect. I don’t know how focus pullers even spoke to us. But that’s more or less how we did it.

SC: How else did you and John Cassavetes prepare?

GR: John liked to get a big long table, put everybody at it and then read, and then take a break and then come back in and then read it again. Then maybe the next day read it again. Just reading. I liked that too because there’s no pressure on you for a performance, and you do get some idea where the actors might be going. We were larger on preparation than rehearsal but many things had to be rehearsed a great deal, especially with kids. And you have to give the cinematographer a break sometimes. They’re really the heroes of our pictures because they didn’t know what to expect. I don’t know how focus pullers even spoke to us.

JG: And yet if the camera goes out of focus for a minute, who cares? You don’t even notice.

GR: Because your life does that, your life goes out of focus for a minute.

JG: Working with a small crew really helps the actors too.

GR: It certainly does. One time we were shooting some place and there was a lamp that looked just like a boom. We didn’t even see it until we got into the dailies. We never had enough money to go back and re-shoot on these pictures, you understand, so everybody picked up on it and said, “John Cassavetes is so careless that he even lets booms show in his films!”

SC: Another film we admire is An Early Frost (1985) with Ben Gazzara and Aidan Quinn.

GR: It was so moving.

SC: That was the first film to deal with AIDS.

GR: It was the first mention of AIDS in any medium in America, so when people knock television, which I do myself a great deal, they have confronted certain social issues first and very greatly. It was very bold. It meant a lot to all of us.

JG: You’ve done a lot of quality TV.

GR: Well, you know, offer me a good part and I’ll go out on the street corner! MM

John Gallagher’s feature The Networker launches September 12 from Sony/The Orchard. He directed and Sylvia produced the award-winning movies Men Lie, The Deli and Blue Moon, and will reunite for Heavy Shadows starring Jerry O’Connell. Sylvia is currently directing the new feature documentary 2 B Me about the gender spectrum and is also the series producer/director for the new Samantha Brown series Places to Love for PBS. Autographed photograph courtesy of John Gallagher.

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