For over forty years, Rowlands has chosen provocative roles which according to herself gestalt today's modern woman. She concedes that there are few good roles out their for women, and, she adds, men whom she says did not go to acting school to get roles as 'hit men'.
During the press conference at the festival, Rowlands was asked about how it felt to work with her husband John Cassavetes who died at the end of the 1980's. John was the director most associated with the so-called school of improvisation in film direction in New York during the late 1950's. Others working in the same spirit were Shirley Clarke and Jonas and Adolfas Mekas. His film Shadows made in 1959 came about in an improvisational acting workshop. Then in a more conventional form it was released in 1961, financed by donations. "The film you have just seen was an improvisation", was the closing title of the film.
Cassavetes produced and distributed A Woman Under the Influence in 1974 in which Gena Rowlands received an Oscar nomination for best actress and John for best director. This was a major achievement for a film not made by a large Hollywood studio. It is clear that Cassavetes and Rowlands worked together as a team even starring as a brother and sister in Love Streams ( 1984).
Rowlands explained how their collaborations were designed and produced often to get other films out of the vault waiting for release or to finance other impending projects. Both were adherents of the "Method" approach of acting which was used by the Actors Studio after World War II. Here the inner feelings of actors based on their own experiences, memories or emotions were drawn upon to develop character roles. Something evident in the cinematography of Cassavetes is how he revealed the individual instants of each actor's performance in this regard.
Rowlands is brilliant in exemplifying this style throughout A Woman Under the Influence, a film she claimed she could talk about for days. I asked Gena about her acting style, taking a departure from the questions asked about how she liked working with the directors of her films.
What was your acting background?
G: Well I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for a year but I had been studying from the time of about 14 and I was in a repertory in Washington DC. You had to be a very good actress and all the rest of the people were older. By older I mean in their 20's and 30's so I just wasn't playing the children roles of my own age and it gave me a realization that it could be done. It's the 'method' kind of acting based on that, all the feelings of the 50's but I was never in the Actors Studio though all my friends were. It was a fascination of why people do things. I've never taught anyone. Maybe I'll have to turn into a teacher one day in order to find out what was happening in the first place.
How did you work with improvisation?
G. Improvisation was not my strong suit. But yes, we did do it. You know where we got a lot of improvisation? One thing John would never let you do is to stop. If you were acting and something happened, you know, if someone walked in the door by mistake not realizing you were shooting a scene or something, there was no such thing as cut ,stop, you're dead. Whatever happened you used that. You worked around it . If you broke a glass or if you sat on a cat or whatever it was which gave a lot of improvisational moments within the film. It was a lot of fun.
When asked why she thought her films were interesting to several generations of movie goers, she responded as a true cinephile:
G: I'm very happy to hear it but I just imagine that men and women who are interested in film generally would like to see what people were thinking ten or twenty years ago and how they handled it as opposed to how they would do it now. I think if you like film, you just like film. I like film. I like to see anything. It doesn't even have to be good. But I am a film lover and I think that maybe we have tapped into some of that.
Gena Rowlands claims her choice of roles from gangster molls to vulnerable housewifes had a lot to do with the magnificent parts written for her by John Cassavetes. Admitting she was a zombie after his death, she continues to choose sensitive portraits of women who are noteworthy for their combination of strength and articulation of vulnerability.