Actress, icon, mother and integral collaborator with husband John Cassavetes on some of the most important American films ever made, Gena Rowlands has been a guiding light in independent cinema for more than 50 years. Kim Morgan talks with the four-time Emmy, two-time Golden Globe and honorary Oscar winner ahead of November’s John Cassavetes Film Festival at the New Beverly.
Kim Morgan: We are so happy and honored to have you come present at The New Beverly for this John Cassavetes retrospective.
Gena Rowlands: I’m very happy that’s it’s going to show there!
KM: As I re-watched all of these films (and I know people must say this to you all the time) but once again, I was really struck by how modern they are and still are today. And not only that your husband and collaborator, John Cassavetes, financed his films, but how he directed, the visuals, how he followed actors, how fluid the camera is, and then, how he will focus on or frame a face. You were with him from the very start of his directing career. Was this a natural fit for you right away?
GR: Yes! It started out as an independence with us, so that [we could make] things we were interested in. John would write them, I would act in them and all of the actor friends we enjoyed working with would be in them. It was really, quite easy. We just wanted to write and act what people actually say and do; people who are living. John and I were really on the same wavelength.
KM: In terms of acting and living, realty; I’ve read that John in the beginning was somewhat anti-method, that he appreciated actors from the method, but that that type of acting had become a bit outdated and mannered, and what you two were doing was something more real and natural …
GR: Well, I really think it’s mostly due to John’s wonderful talent. And he saw things in a very easy, protective way. Movies that are made by studios are different, or they were at the time we started especially. They were bigger, expensive and they have their own quality that’s fun…
KM: But you also both seem to have a love for older movie stars and different types or styles of acting as well, embracing, well, great acting.
GR: Oh, sure. We loved old movie stars! And Opening Night has Joan Blondell in it.
KM: And she’s so great in it…
GR: She’s one of my very favorites. l love her.
KM: In Shadows, you’re not in the film, but did you have any influence or watch the process?
GR: No. I didn’t have any influence on Shadows. And not really as much involvement, which would seem natural because I was on stage at that time with Edward G. Robinson in Middle of the Night. He actually started Shadows with some of his acting buddies and it was totally theirs. It was their improvisations. After having done a lot of improvisation they decided to turn it into a movie. But I deserve no credit at all [laughs]. And I love that picture. The performances. But that’s the first one [with all improvising]. And then, after that, he wrote everything.
KM: You did a lot of early TV work as well. So many great actors, actors who show up in John’s movies, did TV work in addition to stage and movies… You, obviously, John, Ben Gazzara… was there anything from working in early television that you learned as well?
GR: You know, I’m not sure. If you liked to act you just go ahead and act. I know there are many people who feel there’s a certain kind of training that you should have like the method, and I have nothing against method actors, they’re terrific and most of my friends are method actors. But you don’t necessarily have to have training. You just have to love to do it.
KM: With Faces, I love the characterizations. The movie and style breaks stereotypes so often seen in movies. You’re playing a prostitute but you’re not the hooker with the heart of gold, but you’re also not a negative character, you’re a human being, you have your own complications and difficulties and charms. Everything in that movie is so fresh and exciting. Did you really think, early on, that you were part of a new independent movement? Or starting one?
GR: We actually didn’t think about it so much. We just did it the way we felt — that this is how the characters would act. Most of the credit should go to John because he’s the one who thought up all of these characters and made them the humans they were. And then he let us do what we wanted to. They were largely written, and yet, there was always room for improvisation. If suddenly something seemed reasonable to do and you did it, he was very easy with that.
KM: You are presenting two of his finest movies, and two of your finest performances, A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night. A Woman Under the Influence always blows me away, always moves me. It’s so finely realized, so in tune with all of those small, unstable things people do when they are suffering – not just large gestures – though those come as well. Your facial expressions, your movements. I know it was tightly scripted, but how much of that was your doing?
GR: It’s my favorite role of all time because it was just so well written and it felt so real. I don’t know about the position and the movement… it just comes out of the character. And John gets all the credit.
KM: But of course, you put so much into Mabel. There’s so many layers to this woman. A woman maybe wanting more out of life, just as her husband, Peter Falk’s Nick, is probably wanting more out of life. And he’s trying with her …
GR: You know, I loved the way Peter did his part. He was so patient with her. And you seldom see that understanding of someone who is not acting normal. And he was like how Peter is and was: He’s a gracious guy. You knew his character didn’t have any real sense of psychiatry and people having the kind of abnormalities that my character had and yet, he just understood it and was good about it. And I just love that about him and I loved that character.
KM: And he loves you in the movie. He so clearly loves you…
GR: Yes, he really does. He may not understand what she’s going through, but he does understand that he loves her and that was just wonderful.
KM: The scene on the couch. That must have been a hard scene for both of you to do?
GR: It was a tough scene. And I’m sure for Peter too because he had to hit me. You have to see things through the whole movie to realize this is not coming from a bully, this is coming from someone who loves you, and that you were going into something where you couldn’t totally handle yourself. I thought he did that terribly well. But that was a tough scene.
KM: I love the scene and line where you say, “I’m a warm person. I’m not one of those stiffs!” That’s a great line because, there’s no judgment, there’s no demonization… it’s true. She is!
GR: [Laughs] Yes! She is.
KM: Another scene with this smaller detail that plays so powerfully is when you’re asking the women for the time while waiting for your kid’s school bus to arrive. I always think: “Would you please tell her the time?! What’s wrong with these women? Tell her the time!”
GR: [Laughs] Those are two women I went to school with! They were just good friends of mine and I said, “Hey, you guys want to walk by in this scene?” And they said, “What do we have to do?” Because they thought they had to act. And I said, “Nothing. I’ll say something and you do something and it’s just going to be a half a minute or something.” I thought it turned out pretty well. And we did have fun with it because nobody knew it was going to happen.
KM: I read an interview in which John said that men did make lives hard for women, but, also mothers can really program their daughters and sons, maybe as a result of fathers, too (not just to blame mothers) but to judge their children, or harshly critique their lives or behavior, and you see that in the movies…
GR: Yes. And yes, especially in A Woman Under the Influence. The mother there was played by John’s mother and she was a wonderful actress. She was totally perfect for that character. She’s not like that character, of course, she wasn’t like that character in person, but as an actress, she gave a true sense of how she felt about me, my character, and her son having married me, which she didn’t approve of… But we got along fine in real life. [Laughs]
KM: In Opening Night, this is a really complex study of what actresses are afraid to face in real life and on screen – aging. It’s unique too in that it intertwines that idea with real life and the subject of the play. It’s all blurring together. There’s a great line: “I seem to have lost the reality of the… reality.”
GR: Yes. It really appealed to me personally because it did show what happens to actresses and actors. They’re trying very hard to represent themselves on stage and, yet, they’re not young. They’re not just starting out. And they’ve been doing it quite a long time with a certain regard… and then, it gets harder to express it… I like the part where the young girl, Laura Johnson, is hit by the car, that it was so appalling and you could hardly think of going on after that. And that she was young, and looked fairly like I would have looked when I was young. I identified with her a lot in the movie. It was so complex. The whole movie was so complex. And I especially loved Joan Blondell. And she was also growing older. A lot of the movie was about was getting older and not being able to depend on things you had depended on in your younger life.
KM: How did Joan Blondell take to John’s direction? She came from the old studio system so this must have been something relatively new for her?
GR: [Laughs] She was very funny. She’d say to me, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Are you through talking to me or are you still acting?” And I’d say, “I’m not quite sure myself!” [Laughs]. Considering that she had always acted in the traditional way, she was actually very open and easy to adjust to his direction. I thought she was very convincing and touching.
KM: Another interesting thing about Opening Night is your character Myrtle has a lot of enablers around her. But they are going to make her do that play, dammit! You’re literally falling before you get on stage, and you somehow make it through. And it’s a success. And largely because in the play, you are improvising to create it, as actors. What are your thoughts on Myrtle and that ending? It’s so open-ended.
GR: It was and you couldn’t quite see it coming, and yet, you could too, because the whole under-theme was, as you got older you were more of a loser. Whereas, just the opposite is true. If you last long enough, you didn’t lose. That last scene [in the play] was heavily improvised because we wanted to show that the characters realize that [they’re not losers] and they were damned if they were going to play it losing and sad. It wasn’t. It was a stimulating, wonderful thing to do because we both believed in it.
KM: I know you’ve said how much you loved Bette Davis, and I thought of her performances in two pictures about actresses aging, All About Eve and The Star. How influenced or just inspired were you by Bette Davis? I know you really liked her personally too…
GR: I did like her a lot! And I liked her from the moment I first saw her, when I was very young and I liked everything she did. In those days, women were sweet and nice and polite and they said the right thing. Not Bette! She was so independent and so believable to me that she inspired me enormously.
KM: And she was fearless, she was not afraid of looking bad on screen or playing bad.
GR: That’s right! She was fearless.
KM: Another movie I love is Minnie and Moskowitz. Again, so many poignant, rich moments. I love the scene where you’re talking with Florence about old movies – that movies are a conspiracy and that you’ve never met a Charles Boyer or a Humphrey Bogart. And that this scene is with the older Florence – you’re having a real conversation. I’ve never seen a scene like that in a movie even today.
GR: No, you don’t. And John wrote it. He wrote it and when I first read it I was surprised because you never see a young woman and an older woman talking about sex. And it was just so human the way those characters talked and how close they were. I liked that scene particularly too. And I love when she says, “The movie’s set you up.” [Laughs] Because the movies did set you up.
KM: And Seymour Cassel. He’s so physical in his love for you, hitting walls and the like, and you’re so physical in your initial resistance. It goes against a Charles Boyer, but then, in his own way, he’s so romantic…
GR: Yes. He’s such a wonderful actor. And he really throws himself into things. In Faces, when he was jumping off the roof, he really did it. And I bet they did that take twenty times. How he didn’t break his neck, I don’t know. But, somehow, you just knew he wasn’t going to. That’s the kind of actor he is.
KM: Other films showing in the series are Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Machine Gun McCain [directed by Giuliano Montaldo], Too Late Blues, The Night Holds Terror [directed by Andrew L. Stone]… What are your thoughts on some of these films?
GR: I love Husbands. I was very touched by that. Chinese Bookie was a little harder for me. I didn’t relate to it as much, I guess. [Laughs] John was very funny too. While they were shooting he said, “I’m not gonna finish this movie.” I said, ‘Why, John?” He said, “Because I can’t kill him.”
KM: And showing with Machine Gun McCain is the great Gloria…
GR: Gloria was not written for me. It was written for another actress [who couldn’t do it]. But I was deeply attracted to it and I thought that little boy, John Adames, was just marvelous. And it was such an interesting combination to me: To be playing a woman as tough as she was and she didn’t even like children when it starts out. It was really interesting to see how that maternal instinct will come through when you have a child who is in real danger. And I just popped off those bad guys — one, two, three! All in defense of the child. So she grew to love him very much by the end. I loved it.
KM: And it really inspired a lot of later movies and was a pre-cursor to a lot of female action films…
GR: It sure was.
KM: With Too Late Blues, I read that John originally wanted Montgomery Clift and you to star in the film…
GR: Yes, I wasn’t in that movie. I was still on stage, doing Middle of the Night with Edward G. Robinson.
KM: What was he like to work with? What a brilliant actor he was…
GR: Oh, it was wonderful because he always played such mean devils in the movies and tough guys and he was such a gentleman. He was courtly, really. And such a wonderful actor. We played an awfully long time [the run of the play] because everyone in the world wanted to see Edward G. Robinson. They weren’t coming to see me! They wanted to see Edward G. Robinson. He was just magnificent.
KM: Filmmaking is obviously in your family’s blood – we’re showing your daughter Xan’s fantastic, historically important Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession
GR: Good! Z Chanel is great! It is terrific.
KM: Your children have made some really fascinating, unique movies. We’re also showing your son Nick’s She’s So Lovely which you’re in. You’re also in your daughter Zoe’s Broken English. How is it working with your kids?
GR: [Laughs] It’s not hard at all, really. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because we have all the same blood. I’m not sure. It’s very easy to work with them.
KM: And you’re still doing interesting parts, making movies … you’re going to continue, right? I hope.
GR: Well, I think I’ve reached a certain point where probably I should retire. Because they don’t write really wonderful parts for older women. Very seldom do you see a good, juicy part.
KM: What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
GR: From John. During A Woman Under the Influence, I wasn’t quite sure what he wanted in that scene where I really lose it. And I said, “John, I don’t want to disappoint you but I’m not quite sure how to do this. How? How would you want me to do this? How deeply do we go into this?” He said, “Gena, you read the script. You liked it. You liked your part. You wanted to do it. Do it.” [Laughs]