Film Scouts Interviews

Gena Rowlands on "Unhook the Stars"

by Henri Béhar

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October 30, 1996

In an industry where bad-mouthing and backstabbing are considered mere sports, there is one person you will never hear anything negative about. "All I want to do is just sit at her feet, look at her and burst into tears," says one of America's sharpest tongues. "The actress, you look up to; the woman, you bow to," rhapsodizes another. The lady they both speak of is Gena Rowlands. Though she's worked with Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch and Paul Mazursky among others, she remains inescapably linked to the films directed by her late husband, John Cassavetes, who died in 1989 at sixty. Co-starring with Marisa Tomei and Gerard Depardieu (who also produced), she is now headlining another Cassavetes movie -- her son Nick's. Already a hit on the Festival circuit, "Unhook the Star" opens in New York and other selected cities November 1.

"Gena has played ENORMOUS roles," says Depardieu in a lively approximation of the English language. "She has portrayed mad women, drunkards, the whole range of 'unlikeable' people and God knows American audiences are particular about whom they like or don't like. Yet every time, they side with her. They understand."

John Cassavetes' films give a specific image of her: she smokes like a fiend (all of them), drinks like a fish ("Woman Under the Influence"), dashes head-on into a both personal and professional turmoil, masking it all behind huge sunglasses ("Opening Night"), drags a nine-year-old Puerto-Rican smartass down a staircase, a "gangster gal" more Stanwyck than Stanwyck in a swirling Ungaro dress ("Gloria").

Freeze frame: "John and I were just back from Italy," Rowlands recalls with her deep, Midwest-inflected voice, "and we'd eaten every single pasta in sight. I can't tell you what a genius Ungaro was the day we tried that dress on."

Quite different is the Gena Rowlands dreamt by Jim Jarmusch, Terence Davies, or Woody Allen. In "Night on Earth", the "Memphis Train" director turns her into a Hollywood super-agent riding a cab driven by Winona Ryder. In "Another Woman", the Woodman sees her as a self-assured college professor gone on sabbatical to write a book, who subsequently dis-covers that her life isn't what she thought it was.

"With everything in the movie taking place in her mind," says Rowlands, "Marion is a mysterious character because she's mysterious to herself, a total stranger to herself. She's one of those women who believe that people can intellectually control and develop their emotional lives, thereby freeing themselves from having to experience real feelings and responses. She's far removed from any-thing I had ever played before." She pauses. "Or am."

Doing a 180-degree turn, in last year's "The Neon Bible", Terence Davis cast her as an immediate post-war chantoose come to seek refuge in her sister's house, who strongly bonds with her sullen young nephew. "A proud woman who will not abdicate, even if public opinion is against her," says Rowlands who was required to perform live, singing golden oldies from the 1940s. "'Execute' is more like it. I can't sing. but then neither can Aunt Mae. It was kind of fun doing it!" She has a good voice, though. "It's... loud. I wouldn't go too much farther."

In a long interview granted to Playboy Magazine in 1983, John Cassavetes states that "(Gena) has a terrific sense of humor. And she's beautiful, a woman I'm always attracted to. I enjoy Gena because she enjoys some of the same things I do, because she hates some of the things I like and because I hate some of the things she likes. We keep learning how to play together, so that I can step on her toes gently and she can step on mine gently and we can make a lot of noise. I believe that any two people who disagree should really go as far as they can, and I think we do; screaming, yelling, petty acts of hostility and cruelty--but it's all meaningless. It's always meaningless if that essential love is there. Like a rubber band that you stretch out, no matter how far you pull it--and even if it stings snapping back--it returns, the love reappears. Our kids understand it to the point where we've all become some sort of team, a group of people who really enjoy each other."

You never see her come in, but the sudden electricity in the room makes you aware of her presence. Simple, but regal. An aura, a demeanor, a port. And a walk. "That's true, I know how to walk," she chuckles. "Unhook the Stars" shows her in jeans and sneakers (a first), she's still regal. That walk is like a mini-biography: the moment she steps into the frame, it gives you the character's entire background. Only John Wayne and Robert Mitchum ever achieved that.

"I appreciate the compliment, 'cause I love Mitchum," she comments. "But I never think of the character's walk or appearance. It has to follow the emotion, and what happens happens. It's only at the very end of the shoot that I discovered what I looked like in 'Woman Under the Influence.' The only time I really cared about the walk was for 'Gloria'. l wanted her to walk like a man. A woman who was not afraid of New York's mean streets, who sent out signals that you'd better not mess with her."

"Funny," she continues, "when I was a kid, I was clumsy and shy. As soon as I became an actress, among other actors, there was no problem."

Gena Rowlands was born in Cambria, Wisconsin. She later moved to Virginia, where she won a scholarship to the Jarvis Repertory Theatre in Washington, D. C. While still in her teens, she enrolled in New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. At the end of the year, she was appearing in a showcase production of 'Dangerous Corner.' A graduate of AADA who had come back to see this production, John Cassavetes came backstage after the performance and introduced himself. They were married two months later.

Discovered by Joshua Logan while appearing in a Reginald Rose teleplay, she was cast by the "Picnic" director as the female lead opposite Edward G. Robinson in a Broadway production of Paddy Chayefsky's "The Middle of the Night." After 18 months on Broadway, she was brought to Hollywood and made her feature film debut opposite Jose Ferrer in "The High Cost of Loving."

Soon followed such films as "Lonely Are the Brave" and "A Child is Waiting" in which she was directed by her husband, the first of seven such collaborations that include "Faces," "Minnie and Moskowitz", "Opening Night" and "Love Streams", and for which she got two Oscar nominations and innumerable international awards.

A dirt road leads to the Cassavetes house in the Hollywood Hills. There's no sign down the path, no name on the mailbox. Yet film students often show up. Sometimes Rowlands invites them in, but then defuses the Pilgrimage-to-the-Shrine aspect to the visit. "Anyone who walks into the house has a feeling of deja-vu. No wonder: in practically all our films, there are scenes that were shot here."

In the early 1990s, Gerard Depardieu, a Cassavetes fan, acquired the rights to five of his films and turned into a distributor. "We were very moved," Rowlands says. "It was the gesture of a true lover." Though she knew who he was - "of course!" - at the time, Rowlands had never met the effusive French actor. They did at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival: Depardieu was president of the jury and the Festival had decided to show "Opening Night" as a tribute to Cassavetes. Gena Rowlands came with her three children, Nick, Zoe and Zan; Depardieu was joined by daughter Julie and actor-son Guillaume. "We immediately had the feeling we belonged to the same family," says Depardieu who had been looking for years for a film they could both star in. When he happened on Nick Cassavetes' script of "Unhook The Stars", he decided to produce it, giving himself the (relatively small) part of a Canadian truck driver.

"The world should not be divided vertically, but horizontally," Rowlands says, quoting Jean Renoir, whom she had met at his Los Angeles house. "I am sure I'll feel more at ease with Chinese actors whose language I don't speak than with, say, American scholars, scientists or mathematicians. Common experience."

Funny how often Rowlands has appeared in dysfunctional family stories: she was Bette Davis's child in "Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter" ("one of the greatest experiences in my life"), she was Michael J. Fox's and Joan Jett's cancer-ridden mom in Paul Schrader's "Light of Day"; in "An Early Frost", her "son", played by Aidan Quinn, discovered he had AIDS; and in "A Woman Under the Influence", she plays a middle-class housewife stifled by her Italian-born contractor-husband (Peter Falk), her mother-in-law, and her three kids, whom she loves but that will drive her to the insane asylum. A good chunk of the Cassavetes (and Rowlands) families play small parts in the movie. Talk about blurring the line between fiction and reality.

"Unhook the Stars" - the shooting - was also a family affair. The son of John and Gena, Nick co-wrote the script and directed the film in which younger sister Zoe plays a librarian. Actor David Thornton is married to Cindy Lauper, who penned and sings a couple of songs on the soundtrack. "Zan, my eldest, was touring the West Coast with her band. It hurt to think she wouldn't be part of this but, hard as I tried, I couldn't think of a way to work her into the movie." (They found a way. In a bar scene where Rowlands, Marisa Tomei and Depardieu are shooting some pool, Zan's band can be spotted on the television set.) Cinematographer Phedon Papamichail is the son of production designer Phedon "Poppa" Papamichael (the different spelling is intentional) -- who'd worked as such with John Cassavetes on all his films since "Faces". Moreover, twenty years ago, Phedon Jr. directed "Cold Chicken", a short he shot on video over a weekend *chez* John *with* John, Gena and "Poppa". Gena and Poppa don't remember, Junior does. It was a series of vignettes, each of the participants was asked one question: "If you smoke, why do you? If you don't, why don't you?"

Freeze frame: Gena Rowlands quit smoking about two years ago. "Don't ask me why, or I'll go back." She still waxes nostalgic about that prop which was almost like her signature. "It makes the gestures very slow, very beautiful. And the smoke softens the contours of your face. It's very seductive." Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich and Anna Magnani said the same thing.

"Unhook the Stars" - the movie - is also a family story. Mildred (Rowlands) is a widow. Her son Ethan is married, her daughter Ann Mary Margaret still lives at home but their rapport is so tense the girl packs up and leaves. Moving into the house across the street is Monica (Marisa Tomei), a young woman who, following one spat too many with her husband, throws him out and decides to raise her six-year old child J.J. (Jake Lloyd) alone. One day, having to go to work and unable to find a baby sitter, she entrusts J.J. with Mildred. The film soon focuses on the rapport, perhaps a tad obsessive, between Mildred and J.J.

"Three or four years ago, I was going out on my morning jog - 'cause I'm a health fanatic" says Nick Cassavetes, lighting up a cigarette (go figure!), "I saw a car pulling up - it was very cold -, a kid ran out of the car, threw a paper on some doorstep and ran back into the car. As I jogged by, I saw the mother at the steering wheel. That image struck me. I started thinking about my own mom, about my own childhood... That's how the idea for the film came about. I think I was fortunate enough to catch the last end of the old-school type of upbringing, where moms were expected to be moms and not expected to be much else."

Which certainly was not the case for Rowlands.

"My mother is a brilliant actress," Nick continues, "but still she had that dedication to that old-school way of raising children which kind of fascinated me. I remember her reading me the Encyclopedia cover to cover. I remember her, even though she had a career, spending so much time with me, and really just giving above and beyond herself to me. If there are any redeeming qualities to my personality, I owe them to her.

"As far as the actress is concerned, she is such a luxury to a writer. She can really do anything, so you can write anything; you know you're working with somebody who's going to cover your behind. She'll overcome the worst difficulties if whatever she has to say or do makes emotional sense.

"And she worked beautifully with the boy. He's brilliant. Tougher than any of the adult actors. I looked at Gena during the shoot; sometimes, she'd throw her A+ material at him, he wouldn't flinch! Just looked at her. He reminds me of River Phoenix when he was at that age."

Freeze frame: when he directs her, Nick Cassavetes calls his mother "Gena" - not to set her apart, he says, from her fellow actors. Yet, at the end of a take, he may very well say, "Well done, mom!"

"He hasn't called me mom for years!," says Rowlands chuckling. "At the beginning, I was wondering what had got into him."

Made bold by the amount of alcohol she tanked in, Monica (Tomei) asks Mildred (Rowlands) why her daughter hates her so much. Staring at her ball on the pool table, Mildred says (we quote from memory): "I don't think she hates me. She's at an age I can't stand. She hates to be told to do anything," she hits the ball, "and she does everything wrong." The ball hits another one, which rolls toward the corner. "I don't blame her." The ball falls in the pocket. "I always preferred my son, everybody knows that." ." Tomei looks up: shouldn't you love all your children equally? Bending over the pool table, Rowlands replies. "You should." She hits the ball with her queue. "But you never do." And another ball falls into the pocket.

Hold it: considering the personalities involved, doesn't this sound like a personal squaring off?

"My sisters and I talk about it freely and we laugh about it," says Nick Cassavetes. "Different people have different favorites. My dad's favorite was my sister Zan. And although, when I was growing up my youngest sister Zoe wasn't around much (she was so much younger), it was clear - to me at least - that Mom preferred me over my middle sister. And later, when I left the house, Zoe became the surrogate Nick, and she and Mom developed a relationship that maybe even supersedes the relationship that she and I had. I know Mom will vehemently deny it, but..."

No, she won't.

"It's true, you always have a favorite," she says. "I preferred Nick, John preferred Zan, then Zoe. In fact, they're all your favorite, but at different times. Adolescence is total insanity, you just have to sit it out. Then one morning, they just get over it, they become interesting again. Actually, no; they always were, sometimes unbearably so."

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