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Frank J. Avella Talks to
Virginia Madsen and Kevin Kline
Prairie Home Companion Roundtable

Sunday, June 4, 2006
The Regency Hotel - New York


Opposite photo credit:
Frank J. Avella

Click 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 experience:

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 radio phenomenon:

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.

Kevin 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’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:

Kevin 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:

Kevin 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.

Virginia Madsen: But they have to let us do our job at some point.

Kevin 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:

Virginia 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 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:

Virginia 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:

Kevin Kline: It’s (theatre) much more’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...

Virginia Madsen: What take...

Kevin Kline: How much of that scene. They took out this line...

Virginia 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.


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