Gena Rowlands for “The Skeleton Key”

Gena Rowlands is a true survivor, from her heyday working with husband John Cassavetes at a time when independent film was not as ‘hip’ as it is today. An alumnus of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the Wisconsin-born actress entered the Broadway talent pool in 1952. From 1955 through 1957, the blonde, frosty-eyed actress co-starred with Edward G. Robinson in the original Broadway production of Middle of the Night. She also did plenty of Manhattan-based television during this period, including a recurring role on the forgotten syndicated series Top Secret U.S.A.

Rowlands made her first film, The High Cost of Loving, in 1958, the same year that she married legendary actor/director John Cassavetes. The excellent response to her performance as the deaf-mute wife of a detective on the 1961 TV series 87th Precinct sparked a grass-roots campaign to have Rowlands appear on the series on a weekly basis, but her film commitments were such that she couldn’t be confined to any one part for very long. Always a capable leading lady, Rowlands blossomed into full stardom in the films directed by her husband. She first collaborated with him on A Child Is Waiting (1963) and then starred as a prostitute in his 1968 film Faces. Rowlands went on to earn Oscar nominations for her work in two of her husband’s other films, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria (1980).

After Cassavetes’ death in 1989, Rowlands took a two-year sabbatical from films, returning to play Holly Hunter’s mother — and Richard Dreyfuss’ mother-in-law — in Once Around (1991). That same year, she appeared as a casting agent in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. After starring in such films as 1995’s The Neon Bible and Something to Talk About (the latter of which featured her as the “steel magnolia” wife of Robert Duvall and mother of Julia Roberts), Rowlands stepped in front of the camera for her son Nick Cassavetes’ 1996 directorial debut, Unhook the Stars. The actress turned in a strong performance as a matriarch experiencing various life upheavals, and the following year again collaborated with her son in his romantic comedy She’s So Lovely.

Rowlands continued to stay busy with work for other directors, appearing in no less than three films in 1998. Particularly notable appearances included her role as Sean Connery’s estranged wife in Playing by Heart and her portrayal of the grandmother of a disabled boy in The Mighty. In addition to her film work, Rowlands has earned considerable acclaim for her television roles. In 1985, she earned an Emmy nomination for her role in the powerful AIDS drama An Early Frost, and has won Emmys for her performances in The Betty Ford Story (1987) and Face of a Stranger (1991).

Rowlands recently won acclaim for her work with James Garner in Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook, and now, in The Skeleton Key, Rowlands gives a delicious performance as a woman looking after her stroke-disabled husband, who may not quite be who she appears to be. Returning to New Orleans where the film was shot, the actress talked to Garth Franklin.

Question: How much work do you guys put into creating a back story relationship? How much do you believe you have that for it to come across on screen?

Rowlands: I always do make a back story for myself, but I’m not sure how necessary it is. I just like to.

Question: Gena, how do you talk about this character without giving anything away. What are the secrets that you’ve learned?

Rowlands: It really is the hardest script I’ve ever seen to talk about without giving it away. But I can just say that I was attracted to it because I’d never done anything like this. And I’ve been acting a long time. But I’d never done any of this spooky doo. And then I was so enchanted with the chance of working with John and Peter and Kate. It just was a whole interesting project. And I thought it would be a fun shoot, even though it wasn’t a comedy. And it was, too. It’s very interesting for me to see what people down here actually think about Hoodoo and different things that don’t come up too much in the north. But I loved doing it.

Question: Were you concerned about making your character threatening without going too over the top?

Rowlands: Yes, I was. I thought about that a lot. I did want to give a physical presence, since my husband was ill and very slender. I did want to seem like a woman that could pick him up and throw him down the stairs if I had to. But, on the other hand, it was how much to give away when. You know? And it could have played quite differently if Peter and I had just been seen talking to each other. Just something where you think, wait a minute, something’s happening there. You would never think what was happening was happening, because that’s impossible. But just keeping it strung out to the very end without tipping it.

Question: You and Kate play off each other really well. Did you practice that?

Rowlands: No. Kate is very easy to act with. She is not guarded. At all. And she’ll try anything. It’s very pleasurable to have an actress like that.

Question: Are you very picky about what kinds of films you choose?

Rowlands: I just like to do something that I’m interested in. I don’t want to spend any number of days doing something that I don’t like. And acting is a very interesting thing, that you can change your life so completely so many times. And it teaches you a lot about a lot of other things, too. So I just want to be attracted to the part.

Question: What kinds of things are you looking for?

Rowlands: I’m going to do a picture in France in September called Paris, je t’aime. And it’s about the arrondissement, 20 I think there are. Each one is a short love story, for all 20 of those things, with different cast. So Ben Gazzara and I are going to do one, and Gerard Depardieu is going to direct.

Question: Wow. That sounds interesting. In English or French?

Rowlands: Well, ours will be in English. We were talking about that the other day. It’s going to have to be. The French are going to be speaking in their city in French. So they’ll just have to, I think, do subtitles for all of it. I don’t mind subtitles. I like subtitles. Sometimes I wish ALL movies had subtitles [laughter].

Question: What kind of awareness did you have of Hoodoo culture and that side of New Orleans previous to doing this?

Rowlands:  I didn’t know anything about Hoodoo at all. Just Voodoo. And I was very interested 10 years ago or so when they were doing that walking dead– in Haiti I think it was. I think it was someone from Harvard, and they did that research and watching until they found out that they really, those people who rise from the dead, are given a drug that makes a barely discernable heartbeat. And then they go ahead and bury them and everyone thinks they’re dead, but they can still keep living, and they go dig them up. And then people see them walking around and so everything– and they use that a lot in their control of people. I thought that was very interesting. The whole thing was very interesting.

Question: Do you believe in it now?

Rowlands: No.

Question: Gena you became injured during this film. Can you explain what happened?

Rowlands: I slipped. We were doing night shooting and rain and Louisiana mud and chasing. I had a rifle in this hand and a great big flashlight in this one. Zoom, zoom, zoom, and I hit that step. And of course it was so slippery. And I couldn’t protect myself because I had something in my hands, so I just landed on it and broke it a couple places. So then I didn’t shoot for five weeks. They rearranged some of the schedule, then I came back and shot the rest of it in California.

Question: Was it difficult to come back and shoot?

Rowlands: Well, you’re not at your physical peak. But it wasn’t– I healed very quickly. I was very happy to see that. Because I haven’t broken anything before. And I was glad that it did heal quickly. And I wouldn’t say it was– It was a little clumsy. One thing, you can’t put any pressure. You’re so used to getting up and when it’s not there you have to start forming some new habits right in the middle of the movie. And you don’t want to be different too much. But it was all right.

Question: When I interviewed your son for The Notebook, he was telling me that the filmmakers were irresponsible —

Rowlands: I don’t know. When your mother gets injured you probably take it a little sensitively. But I don’t think it was anything except just an accident.

Question: Do you want to work with Nick again? How was that relationship?

Rowlands: Oh, I love it. Anytime. Anytime.

Question: Are you involved in something together? How do you find him as a filmmaker?

Rowlands: Oh, I think he’s an excellent director. He has the same love of actors that John did. And he places them above everything else on the set. If you look at his movies, he gets some very fine performances from different people.

Question: Do you spend much time thinking about your past work? Any favourite performances?

Rowlands: I don’t think about it. I never look at my past work, movies or anything, because you can run them in your mind, every movie you’ve been in. And sometimes something will remind me, or I’ll bump into someone that I’ve worked with in something, then it’ll come back. But mostly I keep thinking about today.