“We were definitely extra-, meta-, and sub-,” Kevin Kline says with a chuckle about the roles he and Virginia Madsen play in A Prairie Home Companion, a twistily sly movie adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s radio show. Kline is Guy Noir, a fictional parody of a 1940s private eye on the radio show who has become a “real” character in the movie that’s about a fictional version of the radio show. And Madsen is an “angel of death,” as she describes her unnamed character referred to in the credits only as “Dangerous Woman,” a beautiful woman in a white trench coat who wanders backstage and, perhaps, singling out one or three characters for an unexpected demise.
“And then there was Tommy Lee Jones,” says Madsen, about the corporate hatchet man Jones plays, the man who’s about to shut down the radio show for good. “I think he was the devil.”
Casting Kline and Madsen as characters who are extra-, meta-, and sub- is a stroke of genuis on director Robert Altman’s part, something that becomes particularly clear when you meet these two offscreen and discover that they have a kind of magic that transcends the screen, a deep charisma that powers that extra-textual intensity. Kline is taller and rangier than you’d expect, and yet so soft-spoken that his crafty sense of humor — which is just as obvious in person as it is onscreen — becomes, by contrast, even more potent. Merely transcribing the conversation he relates between himself and Altman about Kline trying to figure out where Guy was coming from cannot hope to convey the quietly wicked spin Kline gives it:
Kline, on Guy: “Does he want to be an actor in the show…?”
Altman: “He’s a nut.”
Kline: “Oh! Okay!”
Ya had to be there.
Ya had to be there, too, to appreciate how magnetic Madsen is. Far tinier and far more beautiful in the flesh than she is in the movies, she makes prolonged and irresistible eye contact while she speaking to you till you could melt, till you would do anything she’d ask of you — it’s easy to see her as some sort of mesmerizing seraph. When she describes Garrison Keillor as “such a unique personality — he’s such a mystery,” it almost serves to make Keillor even more mysterious — if she, who exudes an aura of secret knowing, finds him inscrutable, then how can we mere mortals ever hope to understand him?
I met Keillor too, at this same press event. We’ll see if I can figure him out for you…