The Stars Are Out for “A Prairie Home Companion”

By Edwin L. Carpenter, Associate Editor – The Dove Foundation

Recently the stars were out, and many at one time, as they met at the St. Paul Hotel in Minnesota to tout the release of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” brought to the big screen from its genesis as a radio program. Meryl Streep was there, along with Lily Tomlin, who plays her sister in the film, and Kevin Kline, in addition to Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen and John C. Reilly. Director Robert Altman, who recently was honored with an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, was on hand too, as well as Keillor himself.

The movie was shot in Keillor’s native Minnesota, with much of it being filmed at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater, which was also where the premiere of the film took place. The cast loved the experience and Meryl Streep (Yolanda) commented, “I found the best pizza I have ever eaten at a local restaurant. And I live in New York!” Streep is, however, a Minnesota native. Tomlin added, “Most of us hung out at the St. Paul Grill.”

Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” has aired since July 6, 1974, and its homespun tales and humor, along with its various styles of music which range from country to gospel to jazz have resulted in over 4.3 million listeners on 550 public radio stations. Keillor wrote the film’s screenplay and stars as himself in the movie. The cast made various comments about the film, and their observations roved from working with Robert Altman, Garrison Keillor, and each other, to the music and how much they enjoyed Minnesota.

John C. Reilly (Lefty) observed that Minnesotans are a different brand of people. “People don’t beep their horns. You can sit through a green light three times and they don’t beep at you!”

Kevin Kline was asked to give his view as to how the filming had gone. “It was an uphill struggle,” joked Kevin Kline, who played Guy Noir in the movie. “The script wasn’t all that great. The actors I had to work with…I had to work at it! It was hard to keep a straight face. We had a lot of fun. There are no small actors, only small parts.”

Indeed, Virginia Madsen (The Angel of Death) said it was difficult at times because “Kevin kept raising one eyebrow when the camera was on me and I kept laughing.”

The reporters pressed for comments about the music in the movie. Kline pointed out, “It’s not just country but gospel, church music, and so on. Music was in the air!”  Reilly chimed in, “No matter what kind of music you’ve been into before, you come here and you step into the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater…it was a palpable experience…it was a unique thing for the month we worked in that theater.” Garrison Keillor added his two cents worth by stating that Lindsay Lohan (Lola) “does a killer job on ‘Frankie and Johnny.'”

Altman kidded Streep by saying that she took the role due to the singing opportunity, and she acknowledged, “I enjoy singing. But it was really about the acting and the character.”

Lily Tomlin (Rhonda) was thankful that Robert Altman was at the helm as director. “Bob takes care of you,” she said. “If I do anything terrible it won’t make it to the screen. People who share a first experience with Bob soon become aware of it, that it’s going to be OK.”

The questions turned toward Robert Altman as he was asked what interested him about this particular project. Apparently a friend of Keillor knew Altman’s attorney. “I was shooting ‘The Company,’ a dance picture in Chicago. My lawyer said, ‘Garrison Keillor-do you know who he is?’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah. My wife religiously listens to his shows and I listen to him occasionally. And I’m a fan.’ He said, ‘Well, he has an idea-he wants to make a film and he wants you to make it.’ I said, ‘I’d be happy to talk to him.’ I couldn’t keep him out of my head. So I did it. I took the low road!”

“When we first met, and in any succeeding meeting, we didn’t look each other in the eye and tell each other how much we loved each other’s work,” said Keillor. “We don’t do that in the Midwest. If you want to work with somebody on something, that’s compliment enough for anybody. Work is the ultimate compliment.”

“My first interest in dramatics was radio,” Altman explained. “I remember listening to the radio as a kid in the 1930’s, lying on the floor like all the kids at that time. My big idol when I was a young man was Norman Corwin, who essentially created the radio drama. And the first professional dramatic thing I did, outside of a little theatre, was radio drama writing. So radio is very dear and near to me.”

Altman loved Minnesota and Keillor commented, “When he laid eyes on Mickey’s Diner, his eyes lit up. He had an idea for a shot and he wanted me to write a voiceover as myself.” The diner appears in the film.

“I liked the chili,” Altman said with some humor. “We went there and had lunch. It looked like a real set, not like a real place.” The questions turned from food to death as Altman responded to a question about the Angel of Death, played by Virginia Madsen in the film. “We haven’t found anybody who can avoid it (death) but we shouldn’t think too much about it. The angel of death will be there for all of us.” Altman replied quickly to a question about whether this film would be his last. The director, in his early 80’s, said, “Absolutely no. I have arrogant plans!”

A journalist wanted to know how Keillor and Altman worked on the creative process together. Altman said, “It was Garrison’s script. He had written it and he rewrote it. Garrison was the writer, the creator, and then he was in it. He had a lot of things to pay attention to.  I deferred to him. But I had the final say as I had the scissors!” Altman was asked about Keillor’s acting, and said, “He has thirty years’ experience. A radio actor is an actor. When we first started shooting I saw him wondering if he did it right and that lasted for about three minutes!”

Virginia Madsen comes across as a very down-to-earth actress, amiable, and other than her ethereal beauty, she would not remind one of an angel of death in the least. “This was a dream come true,” the actress said. “I love making movies and the camaraderie and the team is so creative. Everyone was so glad to be here. It was a privilege to work with Robert Altman. It was like we were doing a play, a TV show, and there was something about that theater. I hadn’t worked in a theater in years and John C. Reilly does it all the time but he felt there was something special about the Fitzgerald. The extras came out and stayed all day.” Madsen was asked about Minnesota and she confessed, “I didn’t get to go out much. I just wanted to be in that theater all day long. That’s how much I loved it. It was very child-like in a way.”

Madsen admitted that playing an angel of death was difficult at times. “It was challenging…in a way I wanted to be part of the fun. Everyone had these great eccentric characters. But I was wondering, ‘How do I glide? Do I work on the physical aspect first? How does she watch these people?’ Bob told me it depends on how long she’s been dead! It was weird but the hardest part was trying to keep a straight face with Kevin Kline raising his eyebrow.” She enjoyed Altman’s sense of humor too. “All the actors were doing their music and stuff. I was standing in the background and Altman said, ‘And Virginia, that was perfect!’ And then they were all looking at me!”

Madsen said she approaches each new film differently than some actors do. “I don’t try to learn things in every film. I just like to have fun. I think ‘Enjoy this, you’ll never experience this again.’ It’s once in a lifetime.”

Lily Tomlin enjoyed the experience as well. “That’s the kind of set Bob creates,” she said. “You’re happy. He gets wonderful actors to come together-so you want to do it. He doesn’t mind you making mistakes.” She was asked about working with him now in comparison to when she worked with the director years ago on the film, “Nashville.” “We’re more one family. ‘Nashville’ had people from all over. But Bob is so there, he is so in charge. Bob’s advice to me would be ‘Giggle, and give in.'”

Still, despite the fun set, some of the actors did have to deal with such things as “live” singing. What was that like? “I was already off the hook because Bob said ‘if you can’t sing well, you can’t sing well!'” said Lily. “But I didn’t want to let Meryl down. I harmonized a lot. We sent Garrison a tape of our singing and he said, ‘You have a classic alto. You would have sung in the church without accompaniment!'”

Reilly was delighted about the singing too. “I was really thrilled to have that audience out there…in terms of the music I had been practicing but I was still nervous-there were great musicians out there.  I knew if I goofed on a note they would carry me through!”

“Live audiences were there when we were singing,” said Tomlin, who—like Reilly—enjoyed the experience. “Some were fans and some were extras.” Meryl Streep enjoyed the singing aspect as already noted, but added “I think the script is really good. There are not too many good scripts around! And Robert Altman is great to work with. He made it a mutual enjoyment.” Streep also had some thoughts as to why people tune in to listen to Keillor’s radio program. “I think partly because you don’t know what you’re going to get. He found a girl who plays the slide guitar and she’s nineteen years old, and he had her on the program.” Streep added that Keillor cares a lot but doesn’t worry about other people’s opinions. Streep said Keillor is “reckless and rigorous” at the same time. She sounded a similar tune when she appraised Altman, saying he is “a control freak but you have freedom!”

She said it surprised her a bit regarding the first day of shooting with Altman. “It did take me back to shoot ten pages in one day. Most directors on the first day of shooting will get just a shot of someone getting in and out of a car. On the first day Altman is ready to shoot!” The famous actress enjoyed sharing screen time with Lily Tomlin, and said “I hope to do it again. She’s very mischievous. She liked to make me laugh at inappropriate times. She knew I was a fan. It’s nice to work with someone else like you.” She was asked about picking this particular role of Yolanda, and she said, “I haven’t tried to pick characters that are all over the place…but I pick things I can relate to, to some extent. I watched ‘Roots’ and I knew what those people felt in empathy.” Streep was asked what she has in common with Yolanda. “Lots of things, the way her feet hurt all the time; the way she wishes someone else would make all the decisions.”

As Meryl Streep emphasized that it was the character that meant something to her, her fellow cast member Kevin Kline echoed that comment. “I’m not drawn to stories that are plot driven but I look at the way a character expresses himself. I have done Chekov and Shakespeare and they had distinctive stories but I like characters. I’m an actor…it’s not about life and death…but people that are interesting.” Kline has a great self-effacing sense of humor and showed this when he said, “In some cases in a story that is character driven, the producers will say ‘How about Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson?’ Someone else will say, ‘No, we can’t get them but how about Kevin Kline?’ And they say, ‘Ok,’ and then the price goes down from five million to two million!” Kline does not joke about what he considers to be the state of many Hollywood films today. He believes there is too much of an emphasis on big budget films. “If more films were character driven and not money driven or stupid driven…one studio actually said, ‘This movie is too character driven to spend a lot of money on!'”

Kline enjoyed working with Garrison Keillor as well as the rest of the cast, and said, “As unique as Garrison’s sense of humor is, I think it’s universal.”

Lindsay Lohan took away experience in this unique role for her. “I was the youngest member and it was great. It was definitely a wonderful experience and I learned a lot.” Lohan said she found the country singing style, something she is not used to doing, to be a bit challenging but “I got used to it. It was nice.” She also enjoyed playing Streep’s daughter Lola in the film.

“Linsday was not in the film in the beginning,” said director Altman. “But her agent called and asked if we could work her in, and of course we said, ‘Yes, absolutely.'”

These stars were out recently in St. Paul, Minnesota, and have been permanently captured on film. It is seldom such a talented ensemble get to work together in one film. Their shared experience seems to have resulted in a mutual respect and admiration for each other and for their director, Robert Altman. And they had fun along the way as well.