Monday, June 05, 2006

Meryl Streep, Garrison Keillor & Lily Tomlin: Prairie Home Companion Q&A

It's rare that we get to meet our heroes and she-roes in the flesh and when we do, more often than not, we choke. I've written on here about meeting HR, the front man for Bad Brains as a highschooler and I've kicked it with the likes of Christopher Walken and Danny Glover as well -- but those meetings were on a 1:1 basis. Last week I covered the press for Robert Altman's new film A Prairie Home Companion and found myself face to face with Garrison Keillor (who hosts the radio show the movie's based on; co stars in the film), Meryl Streep (the "first lady of American Theater as Jerry Seinfeld would say) and Lily Tomlin who she defied racial convention way back in the 80's in a skit with Daddy Rich on the Richard Pryor show and has been one of my fave comic actresses every since, so this was no regular press gig for me, it was a triple header, yo! I didn't get the chance for any one on ones; what's posted below is from the press conference, though, again, I managed to get some good queries in as I was sitting right across the table from all three -- too, after the conference I chatted with Garrison Keillor on the way to the elevators so I got a couple more questions answered. Here's what took place on 06/01/06 @ the Four Seasons, Beverly Hills, CA

Garrison Keillor: Where do I start the bidding on these tape recorders?

Q: How o these ladies shape up with the ones you normally work with?

GK: I don’t usually work with other people. I do the whole show myself. It’s an amazing tour de force. They were perfect and part of this picture before the screenplay was written. Meryl signed onto it somewhere around the second draft when it was still really kind of a crappy piece of work.

Meryl Streep: I don’t agree.

GK: Lily came on soon after so I had these two people in mind as I was writing these characters. It’s an amazing gift to a writer to have actors in mind. These two actors, I should say.

Q: How many drafts did you go through?

GK: I write on a laptop so it’s impossible to count drafts anymore. Many. Hundreds. Not worth talking about --

MS: -- that’s interesting. You don’t keep previous (drafts)?


GK: There are no previous things. You just keep turning.

LT: Oh, you should keep little hunks of things. (Their talking overlaps a la Altman).

MS: What are you going to give the University of Minnesota library when you (die), God forbid?

GK: I’ll give them my laptop, I guess. I don’t know. (laughter)

LT: That would be great. Just your laptop. Isn’t that great?

Q: Lily, you have you own distinct comic sensibility. Is it hard for you to master somebody else's or do you feel you have to?

LT: No. I’m a big fan of Garrison’s. I’ve listened to “Prairie Home Companion” for a very very long time. Except for one period where he went someplace and we didn’t know where he went. We felt abandoned. Anyway…

GK: She redid the whole part completely.

LT: (laughs) Oh yeah, I did. I redid hers (Meryl’s) too. I was very busy. I didn’t think about it. You think of yourself as an actor and you come in (and do it). I love Garrison’s sensibility anyway. It’s something I relate to and have a rapport with. You just want to do the part. You want to come in and do justice to your character and serve the movie. And the story and I don’t want to embarrass myself with Miss Streep.

MS: Or, if you do embarrass yourself you want it to be really funny [Laughs]. LT: I wanted to be just good.

Q: How did you get the chemistry between Lily Tomlin and yourself? Did that come natural or was it work? -- you do, kind of, look like [sisters].


LT: You want to hear something hilarious? Because I thought we looked so different. No one’s going to believe we’re sisters.

MS: I thought we looked so alike.

LT: I tried to make your nose like mine. I mean, I tried to make my nose like yours! I had noses molded and everything. But my nose is too wide. When I put it on...

MS: We both sort of have that long [nose].

LT: We do. Somehow, it was just an absolute blessing, wasn’t it? Bob (Altman) must have known. I don’t know how he would have known because I looked and thought, we just don’t look anything alike and who’s going to believe we’re really sisters. I believed that (the audience) would believe it but in my mind I had the doubts. Plus you have busywork to do so I spent a lot of time have noses sculpted.

GK: Which one do you look more like?

LT: I didn’t look like anybody with this prosthetic on. I looked like a … we don’t know what it was.

MS: An anteater probably.

LT: It was someone who had done a prosthetic for you (Streep) and I hired him.

MS: Kevin Haney, maybe?

LT: Yes, that’s who it was.

MS: He gave me a neck that made head go in the back (for “Death Becomes Her”) here.

Q: Do Lutherans send you hate mail for the way that you portray them on PHC?

GK: No. Lutherans would never ever send hate mail. They would think harsh thoughts of course, but they would treat you with elaborate poisoned kindness, and heap coals of fire on your head.

Q: (to Garrison) What's your background with the Lutheran Church?

GK: As an observer. A neighbor.

Q: You use a lot of gospel music. Is there a reason for that in the radio show?

GK: I love gospel music. It’s what I grew up with. It’s got big full four-part harmonies. It just suits me.

MS: And the rights are easy to get. (Lily laughs)

LT: And they don’t mind if you change the words.


GK: Within reason.

LT: Alan Lerner doesn’t come and send you a big letter.

Q: Meryl, I believe that this is the first time that you've worked with Kevin Kline since "Sophie's Choice." Can you talk about working with him again?

MS: Well, actually we did 'The Seagull' and I wrestled him to the ground in that in Central Park about five years ago. And he's a good old friend and so when you say that you haven't worked with him it seems more like he's never been out of my life. But I love working with him...I really loved watching him do this part because it's like Kevin unleashed. It's like, 'How can I make my part bigger?' He's endlessly inventive and shameless and it reminded me of the first time I'd ever seen him perform which in Pirates...

LT: -- of Penzance?

MS:--no, iIt was “On the 20th Century,” which was a play on Broadway and I thought, 'Boy. This guy should be drummed out of Actor's Equity for what he just did.' He was hamming it up and pushing it so far. People were screaming with laughter, but on film Kevin’s not really known for that kind of thing. So it was really great to see him do it.

Q: Meryl, you've been singing since you were a young girl. What was it like for you to sing in this film?

MS: I didn't prepare too much. We just had like three days to get ready and I like to sing and it's just really fun to sing and I don't get to much. And at my house I'm not allowed to because your children can't stand it when you sing --

LT: -- or show any kind of happiness or joy. (laughter)

MS: -- or anything really - just don’t really be there. So it's been hard to wait until everybody’s out of the house because there are a lot of them, and sing. Anyway, I was really glad to be able to do it. It was so much fun, so much fun. Pure joy.

Q: Can any of you share a Father's Day Memory or [something about working with the fatherly] Robert Altman?

LT: (to Keillor) You’re a father, you should have something to say about something.

GK: I was hoping you would say it first, since I’m the father. I’m supposed to sit here and sort of blush.

LT: And get new ties.

GK: Father’s Day is a day on which the most collect phone calls are made in America. Mother’s Day is the top day for sales of flowers. These are facts.

LT: Is that so? These are things you need to know as a writer!

Q: Garrison, you've been doing your radio show for 30 years, was it hard to get in front of the camera?

GK: Altman’s camera is moving around so much and you’re not so aware of it. I had written my part for myself, which is a great advantage really. So you stay well within the boundaries of what you can do. I wrote a small, supporting role for a tall, sort of clumsy, dour person, and I was adequate at doing that. When you’re with a cast of terrific actors, people would think this is intimidating, but actually it’s much less so than if you were with a group of rank amateurs. People as rank as yourself, this would be terrifying. It would be absolutely terrifying, but when you’re with Meryl, Lily and Kevin, you just bob along in their wake. You’re drawn along. You react. Be appropriate, that’s all you need to do.

Q: The consensus seems to be that this film was a blast to make. Can you share an experience from the set while you were shooting it?

MS: Immediately I go dead when I get asked that question.

LT: Same with me. Like when you’re on a talk show and they want a funny story.

MS: What's the funny thing?

GK: Lindsay Lohan did a scene with the three of us and a few others backstage where after a character has died, she is upset that I’m not going to do a little memorial on the show for him. I’m not going to do a speech about him. And Lindsay sits in an old, wooden armchair, and rises out of it she comes towards me accusing me of being cold-hearted. We shot that six times. And you (Meryl) were there too, and kind of came at me hard. I really felt bad. I had written the lines myself and yet they really sting when they’re put to you. And each time she had tears in her eyes. I have no idea how people do that. She had tears running down her cheeks, and Meryl and Lily comforted her and wiped her eyes and she kept weeping. It’s a whole other line of work than the one I’m in. Or it’s just an innate talent that women have.

Q: (To Meryl) How was it playing Lindsay Lohan's mom? She seems to have a sort of darknesss to her in this character.

MS: I don't think she's any darker than any of the other teens that I’m close to (laughter). In fact, it’s very easy to feel motherly towards her, and in fact she is younger than three of my kids. I feel it's so hard for these young actors. I mean, she turned 19 on our movie. It's a different world that they're coming up in and there is so much money to be made off of their personal lives. People are bound and determined to make that money and I felt protective of her. I felt bad that this world that we've given this generation of kids.

LT: And I wanted to go to a rave club. (Meryl) was maternal, but I couldn’t believe that (Lindsay) didn’t relate to me as a contemporary.

Q: How would you rate Garrison Keillor as a dancer?

MS: He's very tall.

Q: Garrison, when you set out to write the screenplay, what did you want to say that you haven't said already in your radio show?

GK: I wanted to finish a piece of work on time and have it not be embarrassing. That was my goal. I was really working on assignment from Mr. Altman. He wanted to make a picture about a radio show. I was enlisted to write his movie. I volunteered to do it in order to keep somebody else from doing it. (Meryl is laughing throughout.) Because I could think of people I would not want to write a screenplay about “A Prairie Home Companion” so I was a sort of a dog in the manger act on my part. It had very little to do with wanting to express something. Anything you want to say you can say on the radio or almost anyplace.

Q: (To Meryl) You have two movies coming out this summer. So, are you gearing up for a whole summer press tour?

MS: Yeah. [exaggerated unexcitement]. I've been trying to convince them that I've been talking about 'The Devil Wears Prada' all during 'A Prairie Home Companion' thing so that I can get out of some of it.

Q: How do you prepare for something like that when your craft is acting? [not publicity]

MS: -- and not selling, exactly. I don't know. Who prepares for that, you know? Q: Are there certain [genres of] shows that you're more comfortable on?

MS: You just try and get out of stuff...it works pretty well.

GK: A moment of honesty!

Q: Lily, you've worked with Altman several times in the past and he often gets labeled a "misogynist." (Meryl gasps.)

LT: That’s not my interpretation.

MS: Where did you get that? Not on our movie. Wow, that’s weird.

Q: It comes up in film criticism.

MS: Ah, well I don’t read film criticism.

Q: They're kind to you actually...

MS: (testily) Oh good.

Q: Lily or Meryl, had either of you seen a live production of “Prairie Home Companion?”

LT: I’ve only seen it once live. I saw it last summer at the (Hollywood) Bowl. And Garrison is so funny. Because on the radio you don’t get to see him. His expressions standing up there, I thought, this is so good for the movie. I said, this show’s even funnier live than it is on the radio. The sound effects, everything that went on that night at the Bowl was so hilarious -- doubly hilarious.

GK: It didn’t look that way watching you in the audience. You looked sort of glazed over.
(Lily laughs)


GK: I was watching you like a hawk.

Q: Is tomorrow's performance going to be filmed?

GK: God forbid. (Lily says she was invited to perform at the Bowl but she has a prior commitment in San Jose)

Q: Garrison, how many of Woody and John C. Reilly's jokes did you write?

GK: Many of those jokes were their contribution. Mr. Altman really wanted this to be a PG-13 movie. And it was during “bad jokes” that this became a PG-13 movie. He was very grateful for that. My mother went to see the St. Paul premiere and she sat there 91 years old, watching. I couldn’t remember whether Altman left in the PMS joke or not, but then you’re never sure when your mother at the age of 91 remembers what PMS is. (laughter)

MS: I don’t think they identified it until recently.

Q: Meryl, is "The Devil Wears Prada" a character that you relished portraying? Was there any restraint involved?

MS: (She sighs) I don't know how to answer that at the “Prairie Home Companion” (junket)...yeah, it’s fun. And the movie’s really fun. It's an eyeful, that’s for sure. I was incredibly restrained. I restrained my inner Verago. It’s all pulled back, because that’s the way really really powerful people behave. I experienced (something) minimally. And that's her. It was so nice to do this character in 'Prairie' because it's like the opposite, the unzipped woman.

LT: Literally.

MS: (laughs) This one was really fun, much more fun for me to play. The other was more money though.

LT: (at the same time) The other’s more like you, don’t you think.

Q: Were either of you nervous during the Oscars this year?

LT: Don’t even ask.

MS: Thank God we erased those emails.

GK: It was a scream. It was hilarious.

LT: I’m saying we were nervous. It could have been a total fiasco. When we walked out there, I went into a total suspension of belief. I had no idea we were at the Oscars.

MS: You were great. You’re a rock. I’m Iran, you’re Iraq.

LT: Oh, geez.

Q: In your role as the Johnson Sisters were you emulating anyone from the Lawrence Welk days?

LT: The fact is the backstory that didn’t make it to the screen is as little girls, the Johnson girls, of which we originally were four, auditioned for Lawrence Welk, and we didn’t make it.

MS: We had a bird medley. When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along. See, I remember that.

LT: We didn’t make it and my character has been bitter ever since. She’s (Meryl’s character) has gotten over it and more philosophical and stoic but I still resent 50 years have passed and I’m convinced that we didn’t make it because they were envious of us and we were better than the Lennon Sisters. That’s why we didn’t get on the show.

GK: And the Lennon Sisters were communists.

LT: Yeah, the Lennon Sisters were communists. Why did we lose that? We should have been in the cutting room.

Q: Garrison, how easy or difficult was it to give authority over to Robert?

GK: It was a pleasure to have somebody else be the boss. It wouldn’t have been so much fun any other way. He’s been around and he’s a lot of movies and he’s a great straightforward person to work for. It was a pleasure to see the people pick up characters you’d sketched out loosely on paper and make them into something fascinating. It’s hard to do that on paper. Hard for me, anyway. It was an amazing experience as a writer to be in the middle of the maelstrom. And have a good time.

Q: Garrison, did you know that Meryl was going to kiss you at the end?

GK: No. She threw that in -- God knows what motivation there was. Some kind of electric impulse or something. It’s nothing we need to discuss at a calm moment.

MS: He was always trying to recede off into the shadows and lurk around and watch and not be in it. And I didn’t think that was fair.

LT: She ran out there and dragged him on.

MS: I went over and dragged him on.

Q: Garrison, does the ending of this movie fortell what's soon going to happen with the real radio show?

GK: No, no, no. I just thought it was a terrific ending. The moment I saw Virginia Madsen’s walk, I saw it on a monitor screen, I just wished it would be longer. Walking past those rain streaked windows. We don’t get to do that in radio. We don’t get to have rainstreaked windows and a woman with that long Boticcelian hair. That was really stunning and the look on her face as she stood in the doorway. And the looks on our faces...

Q: Garrison, you wrote and performed a Christmas story a few years ago about when you first got to NYC, in it, you got turned down and, as a result, went back to Minnesota and started A Prairie Home Companion. Is there any truth in any of that or was it just a story?

GK: No, I went to New York to try for the job at the New Yorker -- they were interested but they weren't ready to hire me as a Talk of the Town reporter. I went back to Minnesota and I got into radio. But this show [PHC] came about as a result of an article I wrote for the New Yorker about the Grand Old Opry -- I wrote if for them in the spring, late winter of '74 when the Opry moved from the Ryman Auditorium out to Opryland U.S.A.

Q: Have a nice show at the Bowl tomorrow.

GK: Thank you, take good care.


















A Prairie Home Companion opens nationally on June 9th.

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