MILLENNIALS KNOW her from The Notebook, where she co-starred as a fellow senior citizen opposite the late, great James Garner. Serious cinema buffs know Gena Rowlands as quite simply one of the most influential actresses of modern times.
In her prime she was as stunningly beautiful as any woman has ever been on the silver screen. But instead of relying solely on her looks, she, along with her husband and frequent director, the late John Cassavetes, mined a whole new style of emotionally vulnerable realism which formed the foundation of the New Wave of American cinema in the 1970s.
In addition to many other kudos during her career, she was nominated for two Academy Awards, including for her groundbreaking work in Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, starring as a charismatic but troubled young wife.
Her newest film is Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, with Cheyenne Jackson. She stars as a retiree who finds an unlikely friend, an openly gay dance instructor, late in life.
Rowlands will attend the Savannah Film Festival to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. We spoke to her last week.
I’d be remiss in not beginning by asking your thoughts about Jim Garner, who passed away earlier this year. We’ll all miss him.
Gena Rowlands: I loved him. Everybody loved Jim. He was a great guy, he could do anything. People think of him as a brilliant comedic actor, and he did so many comedies and he's so good at it. But in The Notebook, look how serious and moving he was.
It’s hard to even say his name at this point. He was as good as it gets.
So many actors late in their career opt for walk-ons and cameos. But you’ve had a prolific career well into your 70s and 80s, in fully-fledged roles playing fully-realized characters.
Gena Rowlands: I can understand those who took a different road than I did. There aren't many parts being written for people my age. Actually when you've done as many things as I have at my age, you have the privilege of leading a lot of different lives!
I have to say I’m so sick of many of the movies they make nowadays. If I see one more vampire! But if people want to watch it, why not? It just doesn’t appeal to me.
There’s been a real renaissance of indie cinema lately though.
Gena Rowlands: There is, and I'm happy to see that. When John (Cassavetes) and I first started, it was very hard to make a movie you wanted to make, there was no place to show it. Everything was run by the studios and the distributors.
Today it’s a whole different setup. There were really no festivals back then—certainly no big ones anyway, not where you could reach a lot of people in different parts of the country. Then there are all the new cameras and technology, which I know very little about (laughs).
It might just open up a whole new world. It might get people a little more serious about things, making movies that are more interesting and not just made for people 10-15 years old. Not that they shouldn’t have something to enjoy too.
Movies are such a powerful medium. There’s nothing like sitting in a room with a whole lot of other people. I like to watch a movie that way.
You still do that?
Gena Rowlands: I do! And the audience will surprise you. They'll sometimes laugh at a place you thought they should be crying. You can't find these things out at a private screening.
You could easily have built a successful career on looks alone. But instead you always seemed to seek out challenging, troubled characters. Very imperfect, emotionally complex people.
Gena Rowlands: I'm always much more interested in playing a real person. My characters all have problems, but then again we all do. The challenge is in how you face them, how you work them out. That's the great thing about acting—you're not just stuck with yourself! You lead many lives. Through these people you become aware of what makes you work. It makes you think. It's so much more interesting.
I don’t think there are enough of that kind of picture written. Writers are really getting knocked in the head. They may write something absolutely perfect, but there are so many people telling them what to do and how to change the script. There are too many hands in it. The movie business has never been easy on writers.
That makes your achievements with John as writer/director that much more impressive, really.
Gena Rowlands: John was such a great talent. Things meant so much to him. He never wrote thinking of what other people would say and judge him for. He always wrote what he thought and what was meaningful. And he wrote beautifully. It was always very easy to work with him on that basis.
And you'll be here with your son Nick, who directed The Notebook.
Gena Rowlands: Nick is six feet six and a half inches tall, did you know that? We always thought he'd be a basketball player. That's certainly all he seemed to be interested in during his teens. We never really thought about him making movies until he actually started. I must say, Nick was always a good writer too.
And of course I loved working with Jim on The Notebook. Ryan Gosling was just terrific in that. And Rachel. They were serious, dedicated actors.
A whole new generation discovered you thanks to The Notebook.
Gena Rowlands: Yes, and I think that's so funny! It's funny how all that happened.
Everybody says it’s a chick flick. But what happened is the chicks went to see it, and they liked it so much they went home and said to their boyfriends and husbands, “You’ve got to come see this movie with me.”
And the guys ended up liking it too! They would walk out with tears streaming down their face. It was very funny, and very unexpected.