She's clocked up 55 years as an actress, and has made almost a hundred films, yet when you ask 76-year-old actress Gena Rowlands what it is about acting that keeps her excited, she says without hesitation, “I'm just a fool about acting. I just love it. If people knew how much fun it is, nobody would do anything else.”
This icon of American cinema was at The Cannes Film Festival to promote Paris Je T'aime, a collection of shorts about the city of Paris from eighteen different directors. Rowlands stars in “Quartier Latin”, a delightful tale directed by Frederic Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu (with whom Rowlands appeared in her son Nick Cassavetes' film Unhook The Stars) about a dapper old American (Ben Gazzara) who meets up with his ex-wife to ask for an official divorce. Rowlands wrote the piece, and also stars. “It's my first successful attempt at writing,” she admits with a laugh. “I was quite taken aback when they suggested I write some kind of love story! What on earth is a woman my age doing having a love story in Paris? But you can get away with that sort of thing in Europe!”
Gazzara and Rowlands are a perfect pairing. The two are old friends, with Gazzara appearing in many of the films of her late husband John Cassavetes, including the likes of Husbands and The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie. Did she have any say over the casting? “I suggested Ben,” says Rowlands. “He's an old friend but he's also a great, great actor. Several people said that it must be easier because of the history. But you don't think of yourself as being involved in history, though of course you are. It probably made it easier for the audience to understand right away because we had such a short time to tell the story; they know so much about me and Ben, so I think it helped.”
Any chat with Rowlands will inevitably lead to Cassavetes, the granddaddy of independent filmmaking, and the director of such seminal works as Shadows, Love Streams and Minnie And Moskowitz. Their partnership would result in one of the great collaborations in American cinematic history, and the two films that Rowlands received Oscar nominations for (Woman Under The Influence and Gloria) were both directed by her husband. Would he be proud of this new film? “Oh yes,” she says. “It's about the small moments between people, and to John there was nothing more important.” Rowlands, however, is surprisingly reticent to discuss Cassavetes. Perhaps it's too painful, even eighteen years after his death? That indeed seemed to be the case, and Rowlands welled up more than once during the Actress Master Class she conducted at the festival.
But when Rowlands started out, she actually had no interest in film. Her first love was the theatre, and she considered film a “lesser art form,” she laughs. She also didn't think much of Cassavetes at first, when he was “a brash young actor who was far too cocky and far too talented for his own good.” When Cassavetes made the move from acting to directing, he cast her in his debut film Faces, and Rowlands gradually fell in love with the medium. “With movies, you can't think one thought without the audience knowing it. I often feel that the audience knows almost more about me than I do! It's a medium that demands absolute honesty. You simply cannot lie, and if you do, you're done for. I find that exciting.”
As do her three children, who have kept the Cassavetes name alive in the industry today. Son Nick is an actor and director, and cast Rowlands in The Notebook. Alexandra is a sometime actress, and also directed the excellent documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, while youngest daughter Zoe directed her mother in Broken English. “They never indicated an interest in filmmaking,” laughs Rowlands. “Nicky, our son, is 6”5' and I thought he'd go play basketball, but he had an accident and couldn't continue. He was always a good writer but it was a bit of a shock that he chose acting, writing and then directing. Then Zoe, our youngest, turns up one day and says, 'Mom, I've got a script.'”
Rowlands has no plans to retire any time soon, she says, particularly if people continue to want her in their films. “I think it was Ralph Richardson who was asked on his 80th birthday what his next step would be and he said, 'I still want to learn a little bit more about acting.' I certainly would agree with that. Acting has given me a great life. Why would I give that up?”