Gena Rowlands of Seniors Onscreen: "You Can't Think People Don't Count Because They're Old"
The actress stars in Arthur Allan Seidelman's film adaptation of Richard Alfieri's 2001 play 'Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,' out Dec. 12
Richard Alfieri's 2001 play Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is finally jumping from the Geffen Playhouse stage to the big screen — and at the right time as well.
"Movies nowadays have gotten pretty bloody — there are not too many that I would go rush out and see," admitted star Gena Rowlands to guests of an intimate lunch last week at New York City's 21 Club, hosted by Ellen Burstyn. "This movie, I thought, showed how much love there is in the world, and you can love anybody. ... Love is love and there's plenty of it here, if we can embrace it."
Arthur Allan Seidelman's adaptation of the internationally-staged production — which also stars Cheyenne Jackson, Rita Moreno, Jacki Weaver, Julian Sands and Kathleen Rose Perkins — developed after Rowlands turned down a theatrical staging due to timing. The film follows Lily, an elderly widow who hires a dance instructor after exiting a stifling marriage, and though "it's about prejudging people and being fooled by the external" and lightheartedly discusses topics like religious-based discrimination, it also highlights "what it's like for a woman alone," noted the director.
"Lily is a woman who is 75 — she says she's 68, but the truth comes out — so I felt it was important that it not be done by a younger actress with old-age makeup, that there is something essential about an older woman doing the role," Seidelman told The Hollywood Reporter. He tailored the project to the 84-year-old Rowlands' timeline because "she is unafraid and has no camouflage," and always has been, as the two also worked together on the 1998 TV movie, Grace & Glorie. "She was playing a woman who is dying of cancer, ... I told her then, 'We have to be careful about the makeup, that we show the progression of the illness — how do we do that?' She said, 'Wash my face.' That's Gena. She's not afraid to be vulnerable, she's not hiding anything." (Actor-producer Simon Miller also told guests that he'd undergo "a master class of acting" while rehearsing each morning with Rowlands, changing lines and motivations until they felt most honest.)
Rowlands briefly lamented to THR about how older women are often treated by both the industry and society at large. "They get as far away as they possibly can!" she said of filmmakers and the topic of aging females. "It's an unfortunate thing but I think it's getting better, because you can't just keep thinking that people don't count because they're old, that they've lived this whole life and they haven't learned anything. It doesn't make sense, but that's the way they're treated a lot. They're bright, they have lives, they've done things; they don't have to just go crawling to someone to tell them about it. Generally I think the subject has opened up a lot."
To filmmakers who are telling the story of this demographic, Seidelman said, "Blessings upon you — stay true to your vision. It's not easy. ... If you have a story to tell, tell your story." Rowlands added to the women who will play those characters, "It has to be how you see it, even if it's not how others see it, and if you can give it your own personal feeling, it's better than a group conversation about this and that. I may be entirely mistaken about that, but we'll see!"
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks hits limited theaters Dec. 12.