J. Avella Talks to
Virginia Madsen and Kevin Kline
Prairie Home Companion Roundtable
The Regency Hotel - New York
Frank J. Avella
here for Prairie review
Also waxing about
Prairie Home Companion were the stunning
and sparkling Virginia Madsen paired with the wry
and witty Kevin Kline. Another excited team from
the Altman stable they shared their Prairie
thoughts as well.
Tommy Lee Jones and Virginia
Madsen in Robert Altman's Prarie Home Companion
Photo Courtesy of Picturehouse
On turning Prairie into a visual
Virginia Madsen: I think it worked
very well. I felt I was at an advantage because
I was so familiar with the show so I always had
my own vision of what Guy Noir looked like and he
was sorta tall and handsome like Kevin. ... Just
knowing it was Garrison Keillor and Robert Altman,
I just wanted to get there and play.
On the Prairie Home Companion
Virginia Madsen: To
me it felt like home, as corny as it sounds. It
was something I listened to in Chicago. My mom introduced
me to it. We used to listen to a lot of radio and
we used to get in trouble for listening to EG Marshall
and Mystery Theater late at night when I was supposed
to be asleep on a school night. The first plays
I ever did were radio plays at local radio stations
in the Midwest. I just always loved it. They were
telling stories on the radio And I loved Garrison’s
voice. It just kinda pulls you in. And I loved the
music. And I loved the variety show premise. I think
it’s probably the only existing variety show
in the medium that’s left. So I think it has
a real appeal in that way. And when I found it again,
accidentally, in my car--one day in Los Angeles,
as you know we spend most of our lives in our cars
(laughs) I was just hooked again. But that was the
attraction for me: the variety show.
Kline: I don’t remember listening to
much radio actually, in my youth
But I have, over the years, caught the Prairie
Home Companion from time to time--driving--and
it was really intriguing. I don’t think anyone
has the same response to it. It is a variety show
that does have tremendous variety...Garrison’s
voice, like Virginia said, he uses it like some
kind of exotic musical instrument. It’s unique.
And his sensibility is unique...He can tell the
Prairie Home Companion stories in five
minutes or he can do twenty, if the show’s
running short. It’s not scripted...it’s
all improvised Watching him do the rewriting, I
mean...he wrote a scene and we broke for dinner
and came back and he rewrote the whole narration
That opening narration... because once he saw the
shot...he rejigged a lot of things so that his words
fit the picture. He just completely, seamlessly
went into the process of filmmaking as a writer.
On Blending Altman’s
sensibility with Keillor’s:
Kline: Well that’s why I think they
work so well together because Altman’s thing
is a different sense of reality...or realism...of
naturalism. Not just the overlapping dialogue which
is one of the obvious trademarks of his work but
the things that he selects. People’s behavior,
exchanges between people...his particular sensibility.
When you’re working with someone that seasoned,
that old, that wise, it’s so economical--if
you describe something. No fancy words. Very simple.
Almost generic. He doesn’t get too specific.
He doesn’t want to impose anything. He wants
it to come from the actor. I’ll wonder: Guy
Noir’s subtextual blah-blah-blah...does he
want to be an actor in the show, was he an actor
once...why did he enter this delusional world of
a bygone era? So he’ll just say to me: “He’s
a nut!” He’s a nut. (Virginia cracks
up) That creates a ballpark. A pretty big ballpark.
He gave us tremendous freedom.
Kevin Kline in Robert Altman's
Prarie Home Companion
Photo Courtesy of Picturehouse
On Altman the artist:
Kline: He lets the actor do the armature.
He’s not gonna give it to you. I’ve
had director’s literally even before the first
rehearsal come up to me and say: Here’s what
I think your character is thinking. What am I here
for? Now there are actors who love that.
Madsen: But they have to let us do our job
at some point.
Kline: Other directors just let the actor
fill in the blanks. So he says: ‘He’s
a nut’ to free up my thinking about it. He
hates when things are made too explicit. All great
art is ambiguous and all that. He doesn’t
like it all spelled out. He likes that gray area.
The hidden mystery.
On portraying an Angel:
Madsen: Y’know you can cover yourself
with so much research and questions and very elaborate
character analysis. And I think for many many years
in my career, that’s kinda what I did. But
you’re not seeing anything real. So, I think
to make it simple is to make it more clear to an
audience, more accessible. And so whenever I start
to go off into all these questions about who I was
he (Altman) would simplify that by saying “Well,
you’re just dead.” Or he would say:
“Well I guess that depends on how long you’ve
been dead.” That sets off your creative actor
mind. But always keeping it simple and telling you
to not ask so many questions. Just allow yourself
to float. Because he knew that about me, somehow.
That I would get in my own way. It was a very daunting
task...how do I make this where I’m not being
too over the top and he said “Well just don’t
be over the top. Just be really simple. Just say
the words.” And that’s what I did.
On the post-process:
Madsen: One of the hardest parts of my job
is when I leave. You’re so nvolved in the
filmmaking. And then when the acting is done, the
filmmaking continues, but I’m no longer a
part of that. And you never know what they’re
going to do with you. Or if they’re gonna
even finish the film. There was a comedy that I
made years ago...I finally had this chance and it
was my film and I got to be involved in the casting.
I put my friends in it. I put my brother in it.
And everyone was so excited to be in a comedy. I
felt like I gave my blood for that movie. And they
never finished it. They ran out of money...And I
don’t even know where the footage is. It’s
just gone...The point being: I was no longer a part
of it and it was completely out of my hands. And
it was so sad for all...especially for the director
and for all the actors that were in it.
On theatre vs, film:
Kline: It’s (theatre) much more direct...it’s
you, the playwright and the audience on the night.
During rehearsals it’s the director. He will
have come to bear on the production but it’s
you telling the story. It’s direct. As opposed
to: you do the film and you don’t know what
scene’s they’re gonna use, what order
they’re gonna put it in...
Madsen: What take...
Kline: How much of that scene. They took
out this line...
Madsen: You have to concentrate more on the
process and your experience while shooting. You
can never really think about the result. You can
only be wonderfully surprised and blissful when
they put it together in the right way. And this
film, in particular, I was kinda blown away by how
he did that. How did he construct this movie out
of ALL that footage? And ALL that was going on,
on the stage, in the wings and underneath and outside.
I don’t know how he could have all of that
information in his head and make this movie. I’m
pretty blown away by what Mr. Altman has done.