Gena Rowlands: "I Never Wanted to Be Anything But an Actress" (Q&A)

The actress will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Wesley Mann
Gena Rowlands

Gena Rowlands will be honored tonight by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, which will present her with a Lifetime Achievement Award at its awards dinner at the InterContinental Hotel in Los Angeles. The actress, now 84, made 10 films with her late husband, actor-director John Cassavetes — including two films for which she received best actress Oscar nominations, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria (1980). She most recently starred in last month's indie dramedy Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks and had her handprints and footprints cemented in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre on Dec. 5. She spoke with THR about her love for Bette Davis, how she met her husband and her first impressions of Woman Under the Influence.

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Growing up, you were a big Bette Davis fan, right?

Oh, I saw every Bette Davis picture I could lay my hands on, 20 times. When I was young, women in films and the general public were very firmly taught to be polite and not answer back no matter what was said, but not Bette. She was tough, and she was so flippant — it's hardly a strong enough word — but tough in the right way. She wasn't going to do something because someone told her that she must. I liked that.

What drew you to acting?

When I was very young, I was sick for several years, and I just read and read and read. I think one of the most wonderful things about acting is that you get to live so many lives, as in reading too. I'm sure that influenced me. I never wanted to be anything but an actress.

How did you and John Cassavetes first meet?

I went to New York to audition for the American Academy at Carnegie Hall. I remember the one thing I knew was I didn't want to fall in love, I didn't want to get married and I didn't want to have children. At the auditions, other students could drop in anytime to watch the new actors, and John was there when it was my turn. He saw me, and he said to the friend who was next to him, "I'm going to marry her." It was the beautiful red gown I was wearing. But he came backstage and was very pleasant, and I thought, "I don't want to get involved in this." So we didn't date or anything for a while. Once in a while, we would meet and get coffee, and he'd ask if I'd like to go out, and I said, "No, I'm not interested in going out with anyone. I'm going to be an actress." And it just went along that way until I graduated.

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Your Broadway debut was opposite Edward G. Robinson in Middle of the Night

I saw a future as being a stage actress. But the show ran much longer than we thought it would. John was doing daytime work, I was doing nighttime work and we hardly saw each other. A lot of actors hadn't been on live TV, so I said to John, "Would you come tell us about your experiences?" [Director] Bob Fosse had a room that he wasn't using at night, and he said, "Why don't you invite your friends?" So while I was doing the play with Eddie, John was talking about his experiences with live TV. Eventually, John had told them everything he knew about live TV, so they started doing improvisations, which they all liked to do. That became [the film] Shadows, and John just fell in love with that more than acting.

How did your lives change after he became a director instead of an actor?

Our house was always mortgaged! Whoever puts up the money is going to tell you what to do in any business, but he wanted to express himself the way he saw things, so we were paying for his movies. We used our house for many of them — they took down the walls and put up siding; there were 40 people in the house all the time. Nobody got rich, but it was a lovely time.

Many people regard your performance in A Woman Under the Influence as your finest…

When John first showed it to me, it was a play. I read it, and I said, "This is terrific, but I can't do that eight times I week. I'm not physically strong enough." He said, "Of course. I didn't think of that." The next week, he came back with a second version, and I was doing [fewer] things, but there were still tough things, and I said, "I don't think you understood me." And a couple of weeks later, he came and said, "Read it again. It's a movie now." And I read it, and I thought it was very touching. He said, "How do you like it now?" And I said, "You let anybody else play it, I'll kill you!"

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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