ABOVE: GENA ROWLANDS IN THE DECEMBER 1992 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW. PHOTO BY BRUCE WEBER.
Gena Rowlands made her film debut in The High Cost of Living in 1958. Since then, she’s appeared in over 50 movies and has received two Academy Award nominations for A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria ( 1980), written and directed by her husband John Cassavetes.
Earlier this week, Rowlands screened her latest film, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, co-starring Cheyenne Jackson, at the Savannah Film Festival presented by SCAD and accepted the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
ANDY WARHOL: What did you have for breakfast?
GENA ROWLANDS: Nothing. I know, it’s terrible. I couldn’t go to sleep last night and then when I woke up there was something I had promised to do so I had to go do it.
WARHOL: What was your first job?
ROWLANDS: My first-ever job was in New York ushering in a little art theater. I was 21, maybe. I can’t remember. I saw Marlene Dietrich 38 times in Der blaue Engel (1930)—The Blue Angel—and I just sat there and held my flashlight, or stood there and held my flashlight. But she was wonderful.
WARHOL: How did you end up in Hollywood? Did it just happen?
ROWLANDS: Well, no. I was on stage in a play with Edward G. Robinson called Middle of the Night (1956). He was a great film star, and I auditioned and was lucky enough to get the part opposite him. We never anticipated that it would run so long, but everybody in the world loved Edward G. Robinson, and they just kept coming. I was surprised, because in his pictures he always played a tough gun—slapping people around—and he was the most wonderful gentleman in person that you ever saw. And very funny, he told funny jokes and we had a wonderful run. I auditioned so many times to get that part, that finally I thought, I’m not going to stand there on stage while three people sit and look at you. And so I memorized the whole thing, and that impressed them. I think that impressed them more than my performance.
In the meantime, [my husband] John [Cassavetes], borrowed Bob Fosse’s studio and they were improvising, having fun over there. They did basically the outline of Shadows (1959) by improvisation. And they enjoyed it so much that John just kept writing and directing.
ANDY WARHOL: Is there anything you regret not doing?
ROWLANDS: No, I’ve been awfully lucky. I really have. My parents were the greatest parents in the world about encouraging me to do whatever I wanted. After school and three years at university, I went home and said, “I would like to quit and go to New York and be an actress.” My mother said, “That sounds like something very interesting.” And I said, “What about Daddy?” And she said, “Ask him.” I went [to my father]: “Dad, would you be okay if I left school and went to New York and became an actress?” He said, “I don’t care if you want to be an elephant trainer if you really want to.” So I said, “Well, I don’t want to be an elephant trainer…” I grabbed them while they were all smiling and got on an airplane and went to New York and auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I went there and then I was auditioning for things.
WARHOL: Do you watch a lot of movies?
ROWLANDS: Yes, I watch a lot of movies. They send them to me for the Academy. Though I must say I don’t really watch in the movie theaters as much as other people are doing because it’s so bloody. It’s not the kind of films that I really like. But I think it’s taking a little turn, because there have been a couple of things I’ve liked. I liked the picture that I just acted in, actually, with Cheyenne Jackson [Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks]. That was wonderful. It was a comedy-drama, and it was like films used to be when you showed how there’s plenty of love of the world, even between people who are not at all alike.
WARHOL: Do you dance at home?
ROWLANDS: Oh, yes! I do. I’m not sure how wonderfully, but I do dance around the house.
WARHOL: Who was the nicest person you worked for? (What did they do that was nice?)
ROWLANDS: I have worked a longtime now—I’m 84 years old—and I’ve met a lot of people. Gérard Depardieu, the Frenchman, is wonderful—really nice. Of course Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel—we did a lot of shows together and became very close friends. I don’t know Meryl Streep, but I love her work. And Sandra Bullock was a great deal of fun on the picture we did together. There are a lot nice actors—all of the terrible stories you hear about them aren’t necessarily true.
WARHOL: Have you been to the White House?
ROWLANDS: Yes, I have. I went to the White House at the invitation of President Truman. I haven’t been back since, though I didn’t do anything terrible at the White House. I just went to a party. It was a big dance and it was wonderful.