Sunday, June 04, 2006

Virginia Madsen & John C. Reilly: A Prairie Home Companion Q&A

I've written on here about Garrison Keillor and his radio show A Prairie Home Companion which I've been listening to for years now. I was delighted to find out last year that Robert Altman had started a production of a feature film (click header for official web site) based on the show and promptly pitched it to one of my editors. Last week I went to a screener and later did press coverage with most of the cast which included Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Garrison Keillor, Virginia Madsen and John C. Reilly. In the invite, Robert Altman was slotted to show but couldn't because he wasn't feeling well -- he's getting up there, yo. And, instead of one on one's, I did a press conference sort of set up over at the Four Seasons -- I got there early and got a couple of good questions in and luckily, there were a couple of collegues who were working their angles in the creative direction; sometimes others can pull up questions you forget to's what took place when Virginia Madsen and John C. Reilly came in and started chatting...

Virginia Madsen: Doesn't if feel like we're in a seminar or something?

John C. Reilly: You know, I think I did a reading in the room before for a script -- for Anchorman. I did the Anchorman reading in here! (laughter) It was packed in the hallways (with actors) ....Alright, so here we are. I hope you liked the movie because it'll make things a lot easier...(laughter)

Q: How was (easy) was it for you to sing (on camera)? I'd heard you singing an Irish tune on a PHC broadcast from Iceland a few weeks back.

JCR: I've been singing my whole life, so it's nice to be able to do it in public these days. Yeah, -- he's talking about the radio show I did , the Prairie Home Companion, live from Iceland a couple of weeks ago. We're going to do [PHC] at the Hollywood Bowl tomorrow night -- it's nice to be able to be able to sing. (for an audience)

Q: Virginia, what're you playing tomorrow night?

VM: I have no idea...You know what? I have no idea what Garrison's going to make me do but I'm sure It'll be both horrifying and exhilirating at the same time.

Q: Will you sing?

VM: I hope not. (laughter) I don't think anybody wants to hear me sing.

Q: Did you see, or did Robert Altman speak to you about Brewster McCloud?

VM: Not really but I asked him about it -- if there was a comparison (with PHC and McCloud) -- and he said "no."

[inaudible side question]

VM: ..that stuff happens by accident. But I think when he saw it, he went: "Yeah, I like that." And that was it. I was like: 'oh, okay, well...' and then after that he said "the only similarities is that [the characters] are both angels." Maybe because he didn't want me to focus on it too much or something.

Q: What was it like for each of you when you got the call about this? Where were you...what was your first reaction when [Altman] called you about this?

JCR: (to VM) after you.

VM: Well, you know, my agent called me and he has this funny, kind of, "trying not to be nervous sound" in his voice -- when I know it's a good job -- and then he says "you know, Bob Altman wants you to call him." And I said "okay..." and then I say (whispers) "but I can't call him Bob" and his assistant calls and says "Virginia, I got Bob Altman on the phone!" and I was like "I can't call him Bob!" (laughter) and she's like, "yeah you can -- everybody calls him'll see when you meet him. He's Bob." Well, he was Mr. Altman and Sir for about a week -- he didn't want me to call him that. And so then I just didn't call him anything -- I just responded (to his directions) and, the thing is that, after -- very quickly -- when you're around him, you realize that he is Bob. He's very amiable...he's a man of great power and you can sense that, he's really that, sort of, alpha male. And in that way you just want to follow but there's something about him that also has..(pauses to think) know, there's a light about him that makes you feel very relaxed and not intimidated at all...and you want to be creative. So, it took a while but he became "Bob."

Q: How about you John?

JCR: I was doing A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway at the time and I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. And I though, "ugh, I'm tired of doing this eight times a week -- I think I'll do a movie next, if I can." So I made a list of directors that I wanted to work with at one point -- that sounds like a phony story but the first name was Robert Altman on that list. And then three days later after I'd made that list, he called me and said: "wanna come do this picture?" And I was like: "Yes! What is it? Where? Whatever, just tell me where and when." So...yeah, it was pretty amazing. I remember that I finished the play and the next day -- I'd finished the play on July 3rd -- I flew to St. Paul (Minnesota) on July 4th and then started working on July 5th. So it was just a shot-out-of-the-cannon kind of feeling. And I was really nervous before I went -- I kept calling Bob and [asking], you know, "what's your idea for the overall concept for the cowboys?" And he was like "John, when you get here, you are just going to see how we work and everything's going to be just fine." And I hung up the phone and I was like: "that didn't make me feel any better." (laughter) And then as soon as I got there, I realized what he'd meant. Like, you'd just walk onto the set and it's already alive -- it's so fertile, you know? It's not like -- on a lot of movie sets there's this pressure. I just never felt like I could make a mistake, honestly...Bob was just so happy to have me there. And any time I had a question while we were shooting, he has this great habit of just bouncing [the idea] back to you. You can say: "Well, what should [my character] do?" And he'd go "I don't know, [that's why] I hired you! What do you think he should do? That's why I hired you, so that you'd be able to do that work. I don't want to do that work." (laughter) He's really -- I think actors love him so much because he gives people their own power. He lets you collaborate in the process as opposed to [performing like] a marrionette. He really encourages you to fill out your character.

Q: Can you expound on that, both of you, on what it's like to work with Robert Altman versus a -stick to the lines, don't improvise, only one person talks at a time sort of director?

VM: Well, I think it's -- just even the way you put that -- you know, it's clear that in this situation, on an Altman set, you have creative freedom. And you can, sort of, dare to be's like, he's not going to let you be bad. And I think if someone were that rigid, they probably aren't all that confident (with their capabilities). You know, I mean Altman is such a man of confidence that --

JCR: -- you mean he's a "con" man? (laughter).

VM: ...(laughs) No, but he loved other people's ideas. He liked everyone's input because he's so confident.

Q: Was there ever an instance where you didn't know what was going on in the storyline?

VM: Yeah,it was -- not ultimately -- but when I first got there because I too had many, many questions about [choices in portraying her character, Asphodel] You know: "why am I doing this and why am I doing that?" And he's just he's like..."well -- I was just asking so many questions, you know? -- "because you're dead! (laughter) ...of course there were many more discussions like that because I had such a confusing...weird...strange role to play. But ultimately, I just felt really at ease to just experiement.

JCR: Actually, I've worked with director in the past that work in similar ways (as Altman) -- you know, every director has their own way of making a movie -- but Paul Thomas Anderson encourages a lot of improvisation. Lasse Hallström, when I did What's Eating Gilbert Grape would say "just get these basic ideas across and how you get to that place is up to you." So, I've worked with a lot of directors before that let you improvise. It is exciting but it's also a big responsibility because you're, in essence, writing the script on your feet so it's actually a big responsibility. But I like to work that way -- as long as I have a confidence [in] what the character's about, you know -- I feel like I can improvise in an organic way -- and not just layering an idea on that I'd just thought up, then I like it. But honestly, with this movie, I was more intimidated by walking into Garrison's group, you know all these musicians and having to perform music in front of [those] guys and coming to St. Paul -- and even though I'm a mid-westerner, Virginia and I are both from Chicago -- there were a couple of days there where I wasn't sure. Like, how was St. Paul going to take to all of these people coming in to make a movie. And they couldn't have been nicer. I had this amazing -- it just sounds so phony when you hear us talk about it in these kind of circumstances. When you hear actors say "Oh, it was WONDERFUL! She was wonderful! He was wonderful! It was wonderful, we loved it -- wonderful! (laughter) But it was really true. Like, I lived in St. Paul with my family -- they came out with me -- and people were inviting us to barbeques, our neighbors were babysitting for us. It was amazing. It was really an amazing 28 days or whatever -- we shot it really fast.

VM: It seemed like not long enought [before] we had to go...(to John) you must've felt really at home because there was a lot of time between takes, (Reilly) would start playing Elvis and the rest of the band would join in and, the audience members, you and Woody really kept them going. It's hard enough to get a lot of extras (into a film) and, of course, in Minnesota they lined up in support. But then, to get them to stay for hours on end...and you guys were ready for them -- I mean there was music always on the set, all day long.

JCR: Yeah, I don't know. I just had that feeling, as a performer, that if you're standing on a stage and there's a few hundred people in front of you -- you better do something to keep them interested. It's sort of the contract between people, between the audience and a performer. And me and Woody were just thrilled to have -- we could just pluck out a song as best we could [on guitars] -- these guys were just filling it out in the most amazing ways. So, any song we covered would sound really good because we had this incredible band behind us.

Q: How involved was Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) on the set?

JCR: Well, because of Bob's age and at this point in his career, it would fit that he had a backup director -- should he ever not be able to make it to the set. The insurance companies insist (on) that. So, they asked Paul to do it and Paul jumped at the chance to because he lives with Maya Rudolf (Molly) and they were having a child at the time -- he needed to be there anyway...He was a real facilitator, though, I never saw Paul make a decision. It was always him carrying out what Bob wanted to do or, oftentimes, Bob would be sitting at the very back of the theater when we were on stage and --

VM: -- there was scaffolding and all that back there --

JCR: -- yeah, it was all this equipment in the way and it was just a pain in the butt to get up on the stage so Paul would be the runner... he'd be like [trotting back and forth with message from Altman] "Bob says blah-blah-blah." (laughter) and he had a director's chair that read: "Pinch Hitter" on the the back of it. Luckily, the 'official' purpose for Paul's being there never came to be. He was just there because he wanted to be there and, in fact, he didn't have to be on the set but he was just there because, why wouldn't you want to be on a Robert Altman set - especially if you're a film maker?

Q: You talked about being in "Garrison's group" and in dealing with a subject so close to him, what did you talk to him about? Like before you started and while you were shooting.

JCR: I was calling Garrison too -- as I said earlier, I was calling Bob while I was still in New York trying to get answers -- like, I was calling Garrison and they were like: "oh, he's in Chicago with the show today. Oh, no, they moved to Souix Falls -- they'd be travelling and we'd alway be missing each other. But Garrison was just incredible -- he plays Left on the radio show, my character. So, I felt like "I'd better check in with him." I'm kind of doing his character. He was incredibly generous, you know, allowing me to interpret the character as I saw fit -- he never once said "that's not really appropriate." I would say, 'what about this?' And he'd say "do you want to do that?" and I'd say 'yeah, I think it'd be good' and he'd say "Well, perfect, then -- do it." Garrison is so modest and humble, I don't know if he's been in here yet, but you'll see. He can be somewhat cryptic -- you run out and you want to get some chit-chat out of him and get him to say something and he just doesn't go there. It's like he knows what he believes and he's very confident (in that) and he's not one for idle chatter --

VM: -- yeah, definitely. But he (eventually) opened up a lot though, I think...he's around all these crazy actors and...

Q: So John, what was your impression of your character, outside of him being a performer?

JCR: My impression of (Dusty and) Lefty?...I think those guys are -- they're, like, a living performance. (laughter) that was one of the wonderful things that Garrison did with that character. Rather than make him an onstage personality and then back stage they're these totally different people. I, personally, like playing characters that believe in some alternate reality, you know, people that believe who believe in a dream and with Dusty and Lefty, they're living the cowboy dream. So, it was a lot of fun. Luckily, I'd already had a similar relationship with Woody (Harrelson) -- we worked on A Thin Red Line together so I already had, like, this teasing relationship with him. The way we acted with each other as Lefty and Dusty was very similar to the way that Woody and I treated each other.
Q: Had either of you seen an actual production of Prairie Home Companion before shooting the film based on it?

JCR: Not in person, no but I've been listening to the show for twenty years now.I saw a DVD of the 30th anniversary -- they made a DVD of an actual broadcast -- so I was familiar with the layout of the stage, it's very similar to the movie. I mean, there's more production value to the set and the costumes, obviously, but [the way] it all unfolds is kind of similar to the way they do it for real.

Q: Virginia did you ever feel disconnected from the other actors because of the role that you play in the film?

VM: Yeah, it was very odd in the beginning because I didn't get to join in and I wanted to. I wanted to play in the sandbox with everyone else and instead I had to stay on the swings...I thought I'd just, kind of, haunt the theater. I told the props department that I wanted a camera with a big telescopic lens so that I'd just be always around watching from a distance. And you know, it's just such an actor's trick -- I mean, all of that stuff I threw out the window...I just loved being there. So I, ultimately, really felt like I was a part of things. I didn't get to do what [the other actors] were doing -- most days I just sat there behind Bob and watched him direct, watched everybody rehearse and there was a real feeling of [being in] like a theater company. It really felt like we were doing theater, everyday. Like, we were in rehearsal then we were in a performance -- it was so creative all the time, kind of like actor's camp. So no, I didn't get to participate much on camera but overall, I felt very much a part of everything.

Q: The Altman voice and the Keillor voice are both very distinctive, could you talk about how they dovetailed their talents for PHC?

JCR: I was really impressed, I have to say, given the two old men of the sea -- I think with age there comes a certain amount of, you know...I don't know, you're used to being the center of you universe, it tends to inflate your ego but I was amazed at how easily they ceded territory to each other. Bob, for the most part, because of the physical part of the production was out in the audience most of the time, unless we were [filming] backstage. And Garrison, for the most part, was sitting up there on the stage with us the way he does on the real radio show. I thought 'oh man, these are two strong personalities that are used to having total control over their respective kingdoms' and 'how was this going to work out?' It worked out beautifully. I think there's just a lot of respect. Garrison really respected Bob's work and Bob obviously respected Garrison's work or he wouldn't have taken the film. I was like 'wow, I hope I'm that generous and that cool with my peers when I'm that age.'

Q: What's up next for each of you?

VM: I'm taking a little time off and it's the first time for me, ever, that that doesn't mean unemployment. (laughter) You know, I got some movies coming out and I'm going to do a series for a year, in the fall...

Q: How nice is that feeling to be able to do it on your terms?

VM: It's incredible, absolutely incredible. You know, I just kept waiting for it to all just, sort of, go away after that year of Sideways and I was really prepared for it - you know, 'okay, I'm going to have to come down from all of that.' And 'there's going to be a big letdown' but there never was. I had an incredible opportunity and so I sort of remained in that same place that I was in before. Although just, maybe more confident now but always grateful, just really grateful. And I kind of feel like it's not always going to be like this -- because it never is -- especially acting, so as long as this goes on, I'm going to really, really enjoy it as much as I possibly can -- allow myself to take it in until it does change into something else.

JCR: Well, I always think of unemployment as vacation time -- it's just a matter of your perception, I guess. I got this other movie coming out later this summer called Talladega Nights (the Story of Ricky Bobby) with Will Farrell, I'm really excited about that, it's very funny, I think. And I'm doing a movie with Molly Shannon this month, Year of the Dog that Mike White is going to direct and then later this summer in Chicago, I'm going to do a movie called Quebec with Steve Conrad who wrote The Weatherman -- he's going to direct it --

VM: -- oh, you're going to film in Chicago?

JCR: Yeah! I get to film in Chicago

Q: This is just for humor, what did you think of the farting scene?

JCR; Me and Paul Anderson were just fooling around and Paul asked for a farting machine and then, ultimately, Bob thought it would be a good counterpoint to this very serious situation that's going on. Bob's way is always to subvert the sentimentality of things, you know? Allow it to be serious but then don't get too hung up on your own emotions....was it an homage to Blazing Saddles? Not a deliberate the pantheon of fart movies...and on that note...

A Prairie Home Companion opens nationally on June 9th


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