The most eminent of American cinema’s husband-and-wife collaborators, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands made six films between 1968 and 1984 that astonish for their high-wire daring, their humor, and their excavation of unbearable truths. This sextet, which Cassavetes, who died in 1989, wrote and directed and occasionally co-starred in, showcases Rowland’s greatest strength as a performer: an ability to combine extreme vulnerability with unrelenting tenacity. Reached at her home in Los Angeles, Rowlands, 86, reminisced with me about making these wonders, all of which (in addition to six other films directed by her husband) will screen on 35mm at Metrograph’s tribute “Cassavetes/Rowlands,” running Friday through July 25.
My favorite line in all the incredible films you made with Cassavetes is from Opening Night , when your character, the unraveling actress Myrtle Gordon says, “I seem to have lost the reality of the reality.” Since many of your collaborations with your husband were informed by an ingenious blurring of fiction and real life, did it ever feel, while you were making movies together, that you were also trying to find “the reality of the reality”?
Well, yes. I never thought of it until you just mentioned it. But we were not improvising. Shadows  was the only improvised film. Otherwise, all the other scripts, John wrote. He gave us plenty of room if we thought of something or if something just seemed spontaneous and truthful. If the actors would just say it, he always would be accommodating to that. He never told you how to do it. He was a very hands-off director.
What was the atmosphere like on set? Was it very chaotic, was it joyful? Was it both?
Yes, it was everything. It was very relaxed; everybody knew that John adored actors. And that there was nothing that he wouldn’t accept that was acceptable. We just took the time that we needed. Mostly there was a lot of laughter and fun because we knew everybody.
Would he insist on many takes?
Sometimes — if he didn’t get something that he wanted, that he felt was necessary. It was usually not how the actors were playing it, though; it was usually a shot. He would do something until he thought he had it right. Usually we moved rather quickly.
When I had the pleasure of interviewing you 11 years ago, I asked which of the films you made with Cassavetes was your favorite; you answered, without hesitating, A Woman Under the Influence. Is it still?
Yes, it still is. [laughs] I love that character [Mabel] and the fact that they [Mabel and her husband, Nick, played by Peter Falk] love each other so much. I love that she was so crazy about him that she didn’t have total perspective on things sometimes. What I really love too is that — I mean, everybody knew she was a little wacko. And they were all so nice about it. His friends were. And he loved her. I don’t see how he could have been any sweeter. It’s interesting to see a man get to play that in the movies because men are usually given the harsher parts. I thought Peter was so wonderful in it. He understood her so well, even when she broke down and was really in trouble.
Do you often revisit the films you made with your husband? Or are your memories of making them sufficient?
I watch them once in a while. As a matter of fact, this morning we were watching Love Streams . It was interesting because we were watching it with Michael Ventura’s [DVD] commentary. I’ve never done that before. I didn’t even know it existed.
You’ve been directed by two of your three children, Nick and Zoe. What was that experience like?
It was wonderful. [laughs] They’re just as easy as their father was. I think maybe it’s because they grew up with John and they were on the set a lot, they learned to love actors the way he did.
Do you have a favorite co-star in the films you made with your husband?
I’m never going to tell you that. I’ll lose every friend I have in the book. [laughs]
Through July 25, Metrograph