'Dance Lessons' helps Gena Rowlands kick up her heels

 'Dance Lessons' helps Gena Rowlands kick up her heels
Gena Rowlands at her home in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

During their three-decade marriage, Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes had an unparalleled screen collaboration, working together 10 times before his death in 1989. Though they often acted in other directors' films, it was the indie projects written and directed by Cassavetes that won the greatest acclaim.

Despite the emotional intensity of these films, Rowlands said it was "very easy" working with her husband.


"John adored directors," said the gracious 84-year-old actress in a recent interview at her comfortable Hollywood Hills house where she lives with her husband, retired businessman Robert Forrest, and a large labradoodle that resembles a stuffed animal. The house is chock-a-block with posters and photos from her and Cassavetes' career, family pictures and even a stuffed Elmo. ("I'm a grandmother," she explained.)

She also got the best acting advice from Cassavetes.

Rowlands recalled having problems on the first scene of 1974's "Woman Under the Influence," for which she earned her first lead actress Oscar nomination as a wife and mother battling mental problems. (Cassavetes also directed her to a second Oscar nomination as a gangster's moll in 1980's "Gloria.")

"I said, 'John, I don't quite understand this first scene that I do. Could you help me here?' He said 'Gena, I wrote this script with you in mind for this character. You read it and you accepted it, now do it."'

Rowlands recalled he told her that "once the part is yours, it's yours."

"You build the character in your feelings and in your mind," she added. "You grow very close to your characters and you merge with them for a long time."

Rowlands said she loves the fact that as an actor "you live 100 lives. You are not just stuck with yourself all of your life."

Her latest "life" is Lily, an elderly widow living in a condo in St. Petersburg who hires an acerbic dance teacher (Cheyenne Jackson) to give her private instruction in the comedy-drama "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks," based on the popular play by Richard Alfieri, which opens Friday.

Though Lily and Jackson's Michael quite literally get off on the wrong foot, they grow to become friends as he teaches her the swing, tango, waltz, foxtrot, cha-cha and contemporary dance.

"She just refused to hang around and be sad," said Rowlands of Lily. "She knew she has a few years to live and says I'm going to go and learn how to dance. Her husband was a minister and very conservative and didn't approve of these things."

Lily reminded the actress a lot of her mother, Lady Rowlands, who died in 1999 at the age of 95. Lady Rowlands appeared in several of her son-in-law's films.

"My mother was a very independent woman," said Rowlands, whose three children, Nick, Xan and Zoe, have all become directors. "She was terrific. She could have done anything really. She had that desire to get out and do things. It never left her."

It's a busy time for Rowlands. Besides the new movie, Rowlands also put her hand and footprints in cement at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX last week, is the subject of a retrospective next month at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre and is receiving a Career Achievement Award on Jan. 10 from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

"Six Dance Lessons," which was shot primarily in Budapest because of Hungarian financing for the indie, was directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. He had directed the play several times, including the 2001 Geffen Playhouse production starring the legendary Uta Hagen and David Hyde Pierce.


Rowlands was Seidelman's only choice to play Lily. The two had previously worked together on the 1998 TV movie "Grace and Glorie."

"I really think she's the finest film actress of her generation or any other generation," Seidelman said. "Every moment she gives you is totally truthful and comes from insight into a character. She has the ability of really putting herself in that character."

Jackson ("30 Rock," "Love Is Strange") was more than daunted by the prospect of working with Rowlands, whom he had admired since he was young.

As he flew to Los Angeles to begin rehearsals, Jackson said he thought, "How am I going to call her in our first scene a 'stupid old cow' and really be believable? I am not going to get over this worship of her."

At their first meeting, he called her "Miss Rowlands. She let me pontificate and kiss her feet for about five minutes and then we got on with it."

Jackson recalled the time he was getting frustrated with himself about a monologue he had to do at the end of a long day's shooting. Rowlands realized he was having trouble and came to his rescue.

"She said, 'You know, if you think it, the camera will see it,'" Jackson recalled. "That's why she is as great as she is."

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