Impeccably turned out for a day of meeting the press, Gena Rowlands smiles when asked how old she feels.
Then she says, “I feel 84, which is my age. And I’m very happy to have made it to this age.”
She pauses, then looks amused again: “It seems very old when I say it out loud. And it is. But there’s still a great deal of fun to be had.”
So she’s got a new film coming out, playing a widow whose life is enlivened by a gay dance instructor. The film, “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” opens in limited release December 12. Based on a short-lived Broadway play, it’s set in a Florida retirement community – but, as Rowlands notes with amusement, was actually shot in Budapest, Hungary.
“A lot of pictures shoot there now,” she marvels. “We didn’t have that ocean in Budapest, so we did shoot a little in Florida. The Hungarians were very generous with us. They’re fun; they have a good sense of humor. Although the food’s a little heavy in that part of the world.
“Did you know that, on one side of the Danube, it’s Buda and, on the other side, it’s Pest? I marvel that, after all these years, I didn’t know that.”
Rowlands plays Lily Harrison, who signs up for dance lessons – and is affronted by the flamboyant, TMI style of the instructor (played by Cheyenne Jackson) who shows up at her door. They eventually become friends, helping each other through life-changing moments, while retaining the right to be blunt about each other’s shortcomings.
It’s a comedy with heart – a rare item on Rowlands’ lengthy, critically acclaimed career. Rowlands liked the script “because it didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t.
“I love the comedy,” she says. “At first, if you just tell the story of what the film is about, you think, ‘Where’s the comedy in that?’ These characters both have a lot of bad things happening in their lives. But it’s how they handle it that the humor comes out. It’s about how two people, who are extremely different, learn to gradually accept each other.
“A lot of people could be friends if they weren’t so judgmental. But I loved the script because it was funny. Cheyenne’s acting is quite wonderful and so subtle. I hadn’t met him before but we had a lot of laughs. The whole picture was fun.”
Rowlands hopes the film helps humanize the elderly to younger audiences as characters still invested in the present and not just living in the past.
“I think people are coming around to thinking that old people have lived interesting lives and learned a few interesting things,” she says. “At screenings, older women in the audience come up to me and say, ‘Thank God somebody is making pictures about people our age.’ I hope that opens up a little.”
After more than 60 years acting – on Broadway, in television and movies, including the films of her late husband, John Cassavetes – Rowlands still enjoys working, though she isn’t fond of a lot of the films she sees.
“I’ve been kind of sick of movie violence,” she says. “There’s so much violence – and so much of the ridiculous kind of violence. I keep thinking, it’s not all like that. This script wasn’t.”
The perspective of age means “things remind me of things I’ve done before, or seen, or heard. When you’ve lived a long time, you watch your kids go through a lot of what you did.”
Not that Rowlands thought she’d be in the movies at all, let alone become the star of several of her husband’s best films, including “Faces” and “A Woman Under the Influence”: “I expected to be on the stage,” she says. “Then John gets interested in making independent film and that all changed.
“That was hard. It’s one thing to make a film. But the studios owned all the distribution, so we had to distribute them ourselves. They didn’t have all these film festivals back then. That’s all changed. Young people, middle-aged people, old people – they all find a place to show their films now.”