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Gena Rowlands on Working With John Cassavetes, Why Everyone Loves ‘The Notebook’

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands are still considered the king and queen of independent cinema.

Operating outside the studio system, the husband and wife team created indelible portraits of working-class strivers and small-timers in such films as “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Gloria” and “Faces.” Those works, as well as seven others, will screen as part of a retrospective at New York’s Metrograph theater from July 15-25. The career appreciation will include such Cassavetes and Rowlands pairings as “Love Streams” and “Opening Night,” along with films that Cassavetes directed without his wife and muse, such as “A Child is Waiting” and “Husbands.”

Cassavetes died in 1989, but Rowlands has remained active, appearing on the big and small screen in the likes of “The Notebook,” “Hysterical Blindness” and “Unhook the Stars.” She spoke with Variety about Cassavetes’ legacy, how roles improved for actresses and why she loves Bette Davis.

Why do your husband’s films endure?

His films were really about people. They weren’t about monsters or aliens. They were about people you might know or be related to. I get approached by a lot of young people who want to know how John started doing these pictures. How he got a distributor and got them made.

His films have so many strong female roles. Why was he able to write women so well? 

I don’t know. He didn’t even have a sister. He liked women and he had a lot of sympathy for women. Things have gotten easier for some of us, but they weren’t always that way. We were at a disadvantage. He saw that.

Did you help him write scripts for “Gloria” or “A Woman Under the Influence”?

Not at all. You would think it would be a natural thing to do, but he liked to write his films and his stories were his. On set, he was very free about letting the actors interpret it the way they saw it. It was a very free situation.

Did you do a lot of improvising?

No, we didn’t. Many people think that, because his first film, “Shadows,” was entirely improvised. After that, though, it was all written.

How did you decide to make these films independently? There wasn’t really an independent film scene at the time. 

It was John who thought up the whole thing. All I knew was how we paid for them. We both had careers and what we would do is when we ran out of money on the movies, which was frequently, we would stop for awhile and go do somebody else’s movie. Then we would bring that money back. It took a long time to get our movies done.

Wasn’t that scary for you to have all your money tied up in these films?

If you want to be an actor it’s kind of scary to contemplate. There’s a reason that very few mothers and fathers say, “oh you should be an actor.”

Do you have a favorite film that you did with John?

“A Woman Under the Influence” was my favorite. You were dealing with a woman who was a little wacky to begin with and she was obsessively in love with her husband. She got into such real trouble with her own psyche that she had a major nervous breakdown. I found it so touching. And Peter Falk was just great as this regular guy working for the city. He was so tender with her. Even though he couldn’t understand her, he loved her anyway.

Your films were a family affair. Mothers, daughters, sons appeared in them. How was it raising kids in that kind of setting? 

It must have been okay, because they’re all in the film business now. When they were little, it didn’t seem that unusual for them to walk out of their bedroom and trip over a camera.

What do you like about acting?

I don’t have to just lead my life. It opens a lot of doors. I get to be a hundred people instead of one.

Have roles for women gotten better?

I think they’ve changed a lot. They’ve certainly improved. One of the reasons I loved Bette Davis when I was growing up was she was so scrappy and tough-minded. When I was young and watching her, all the parts for women were sweet and gentle and old-fashioned. Then Bette came along and she influenced me a lot. I was so happy to see somebody scrapping it up with the men. She was a marvelous dame.

You worked with your son, Nick Cassavetes, on “The Notebook.” Were you surprised by how intensely that film was embraced?

I didn’t think it would have that kind of impact. I think it was such a big hit because it was about the realization that love can last your whole life. You don’t see it depicted that way a lot. In most films you don’t get to see a story like that go from the beginning to the end with the possibility that love can be perhaps eternal.

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