Pasatiempo:

We’ll probably ask you questions you’ve been asked a million times.

Gena Rowlands:

I’ll try to come up with different answers.

It takes a lot of living to achieve the stature of a living legend. It takes a lot of accomplishment, too. Gena Rowlands has both of those items on her résumé. On Saturday, Oct. 17, on the stage of the Lensic Performing Arts Center, the eighty-five-year-old screen icon will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the seven-year-old Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. The ceremony will be followed by a showing of John Cassavetes’ 1974 A Woman Under the Influence, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. On Nov. 14, she will receive a Governors Award presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 

Does it feel like a victory lap? A swan song? “It makes me nervous,” Rowlands admitted in a phone conversation from her home in Los Angeles. “Acting is a lot different from speaking in public to a lot of people. But it doesn’t change anything. I don’t expect I’ll be doing movies till I’m one hundred, but I’m very pleased to be an actress, and there’s still time to do it.”

She’s been doing it since she left college in 1950 to try her luck in the cauldron of theater dreams, New York City. But she’s known what she wanted to do since she was a little girl. “The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was to be born to my parents,” she said. “At a very early age I got very ill. Off and on till about the sixth grade, I didn’t get a lot of school. But my mom loved to read, and she taught me to read very young. It opened my mind to the idea that you didn’t have to be just you, lying in a bed, taking your temperature — you could live all of these different, exciting lives. I never, ever wanted to be anything but an actress.”

When she quit the University of Wisconsin after her junior year, her parents gave their blessing. Her father told her, “Gena, I don’t care if you want to be an elephant trainer, you do what you have to do.” That fall she found herself in Manhattan at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “It was down in the lower part of Carnegie Hall, which was quite exciting in itself,” she remembered. It was a golden age for theater and television, and a thrilling time to be starting out. “Everybody tried out for everything. It was just at the time when live TV was coming in. And live TV at that time was so wonderful! It wasn’t quite like anything else. It wasn’t quite like the theater; it wasn’t quite like movies. They drew from all of the great writers — Hemingway and Dos Passos — and there were a lot of writers who wrote specifically for live TV. It was just very exciting!”

Pursuing her acting career was all the excitement Rowlands had on her mind when she came to the city. The last thing she was looking for, she said with a laugh, was romance. “The one thing I knew when I decided I wanted to be an actress was I didn’t want to fall in love, I didn’t want to get married, and I didn’t want to have children. I just wanted to be an actress. And have everybody leave me alone.”

But there was a handsome, intense fellow student a year ahead of her at the Academy. His name was John Cassavetes. She first spotted him one day in the lunchroom. “I saw him, and I said, ‘Oh, damn.’ And I went back upstairs. But I would check the room out every lunchtime, and take a chance on ruining my whole life. He would come and see the shows that we did — we did plays for our final examination. He came backstage, and I thought, ‘I don’t even want to talk to him. I don’t want to get started.’ I didn’t know what to do. But things worked out. I fell in love, I got married, and I had three children. And I still managed to work in the actress part too.”

Rowlands began getting work in regional theater. Her big New York break came when she was cast opposite film star Edward G. Robinson on Broadway. The play was Paddy Chayevsky’s Middle of the Night. The year was 1956. “You can imagine how thrilled I was. He was a great actor, a wonderful guy, too. The thing is, the play ran a long time, because everybody in the world wanted to see Edward G. Robinson. That would leave me busy at night. And John, who was doing very well as an actor in live TV, had nothing to do in the evenings. So he got a bunch of people, actor friends, together, and they started doing improvisations. [Bob] Fosse lent his studio, and they worked very hard on these improvisations. And that’s where the first film that they did, which was entirely improvised, came from. It’s called Shadows.”

Out of those improv sessions came the Cassavetes style of cinéma vérité, which captured the basic honesty of human emotion in ordinary people. Shadows (in which Rowlands appeared in an uncredited bit part) won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1960. It was 10 years before Cassavetes and Rowlands were able to scrape together the resources to make another feature. When it happened, it was called Faces (1968), and it sent shock waves through audiences and critics with its raw originality; the film garnered three Oscar nominations. Cassavetes and Rowlands made seven films together that he directed; she received Oscar nominations for two of them. Rowlands became the leading lady of the enormously influential company that galvanized the independent American film movement.

Of Cassavetes’ temperament behind the camera, Rowlands said, “He wasn’t a bossy director. He wasn’t trying to say he knew better than anybody else. He gave everybody a great deal of freedom. In fact, I think one of the best things that he ever said to me, as an actor — we were going to do a picture, it was a hard picture, Woman Under the Influence, and my character was not ultimately normal, but she had the ability to love tremendously. She overloves, really — to desperation. And I said to John, ‘Listen, honey, I really have a problem with this scene.’ And he said, ‘Gena, I wrote this script with you in mind, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘I asked you to read it, and you did.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘You said you loved it, and you wanted to do it.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well then, do it.’

“It was like a bolt of lightning to my head. It was so illuminating! I realized, only you can understand a character from the inside out. Only the actor who’s playing it. And you can’t go whining around to the director when you got to the hard part and say, ‘I can’t do this, I don’t know what to do.’ You have to figure it out yourself. And I did, and it was very, very hard to do that. But it gave me a sense of the gift that a part is.”

Cassavetes died in 1989, at the age of fifty-nine. Since then, their children have made their mark in the film business. Rowlands has made several pictures with her son Nick Cassavetes, including the 2004 hit The Notebook, with James Garner. “It was a great surprise to me to have three children who all turned out to be directors,” she admitted. “Nick’s the first I worked with, and he’s so much like John. He’s a wonderful writer, too. He has that same combination that John did. He’s loose with the actors. I don’t know how to describe it, he loves actors — they both love actors. Lots of directors don’t. I’ve done one picture with Zoe; I haven’t with Xan [Alexandra].”

Rowlands has made more than 60 movies, both theatrical and television, in a career that spans six decades. She’s still at it, working steadily in movies and television. Her Lifetime Achievement Award from the festival will be a look back over a glorious career. But Rowlands is still looking forward. ◀