James Garner Discusses "The Notebook"

James Garner Gena Rowlands
James Garner and Gena Rowlands star in "The Notebook". Photo © New Line Cinema

Starring in films and on TV since the late 1950s, James Garner's probably been asked every sort of movie/acting/personal question imaginable. Yet, despite his five decades of work, he's still willing to sit down and discuss his current projects (a lot of today's 'stars' should take a lesson from this affable movie veteran).

In "The Notebook," Garner plays the husband of a victim of Alzheimer's who doggedly tries to jar his wife's memory by reading her the story of their life together.

In this interview, Garner discusses working opposite Gena Rowlands in emotionally demanding scenes and reflects back on his lengthy acting career.


Have you had any personal experience dealing with someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s?
I had an Aunt Emma. She was funny. She couldn't remember me or my brothers or her sisters or anyone. But she could remember everything that happened to her when she was 9, 10, 11 years old. I used to love to hear her tell the stories of that.

Did you have to walk a fine line with your character’s motivations for helping her?
Well, there's genuine motivation. This man loved her passionately. I mean, if you looked at what Ryan [Gosling] and Rachel [McAdams] did during the film, you knew that this was dedication. His whole life was for the love of her. So when you get to me and Gena [Rowlands], he's still in that deep love for her.

That speaks a lot to your performance.
That's thanks to the writers because the writers did an absolutely wonderful job of treading that line of Alzheimer’s, of getting maudlin.

You can go a lot of ways with that. I thought that they treated it beautifully.

How interesting was it to work opposite Gena Rowlands with her son directing the film?
I've told this story twice today because it's funny. The first scene that I did was with Gena and she's in the house. She's going to come out and I'm sitting on the porch in a chair or something.

And I hear Nick [Cassavetes] say, “Okay, mom. Action.” Well, I ruined that take because I just broke up. That was so funny. That tickled me to death. But he showed his mother great respect. He was gentle with her and worked with her. What I loved about it is that she listened to him. Here's a professional actress who's one of the best ever, and she's listening to her son tell her about things. I really admired that in both of them.

I fell in love with Gena. I'm sorry she's not here, but she had an accident and broke her shoulder. It's been about four or five weeks, but she broke it in two places. She was doing a film and slipped on a stairway, but she'll be alright. It's painful though. I broke my shoulder during “Space Cowboys.”

How did you get worked up to that emotional state when you were trying to get through to Gena’s character?
I listen to Gena. I watched her. I went with it. I told someone before [that] I didn't know what I was going to do. I read that and went, “What am I going to do here?” I couldn't figure it out. So I said, “Well, let’s just see what Gena does.” Sure enough, she just tore my heart out. I think that that's the first take that you saw in the film. I'm not sure.

But there was no technique or any of that to it. I just watched the actress and reacted. That's what I do. I'm not an actor. I'm a reactor.

Did Nick discuss the story with you, and talk about his parents?
Well, I think that Nick knew that I understood the story and we never really had to get into depth about any of that because I think that he had the respect that I understood it. Nick though, he's a very special director. He puts his heart and soul into it. He laughs about it, but he's into it heavy. If you look at it, this is cast as well as any picture you've seen in a long time. Every part was perfect. That's hard to do. It reminded me of the old English films. You see those old English films and the milkman would come up and have three lines, but he was perfect. This was the same way. Everyone was perfect for the role.

PAGE 2: James Garner on the Job of Acting and "8 Simple Rules"

In all your years of acting, was there ever a time you thought it was too hard and considered quitting?
No. I never said that I was going to quit. But when I was doing “Rockford,” I just got so incapacitated that I couldn't do anything. I went to Scripps [Hospital] and they said, “You've got to stop working.” So I called the studio and said, “Scripps told me and the doctors say that I have to stop working.” They said, “Well, when can you come back?” I said, “I don't know. When I'm better.” Well, the lawsuits started that afternoon. I never wanted to quit. I'd love to have a couple of hundred million and then I'd quit. But I don't so I keep working. I love working though.

I fell in love with this job or business, whatever you want to call it, after I was in it for about two and a half years. I was just going along doing this and doing that. I was working a little here and there, and I didn't care. I was just like, “Okay, fine.” I was learning my craft. It was really kind of an acting class for me. Then I got married and I got responsibilities and I took it seriously and found out that I liked it. I've been in love with this business for about 45 years.

How are you feeling physically these days?
Well, right now, I'm doing much better. I took off 25 or a little more pounds. And I've been working out trying to help my back and my feet. I had Thursday, Friday and half of Saturday I was great.

I didn't use the cane. I didn't have a lot of pain. Then somehow Saturday my left foot started and my back started, and I had a terrible day yesterday afternoon and today wasn't that good. It comes and goes, and I can live with that.

How do you like being back on TV again?
I love it. I got such a nice group of people.

They are the most loving group. I love Katey [Sagal] and Kaley [Cuoco] and Amy [Davidson] and that young boy Martin [Spanjers]. He's a good boy. Of course we've got David [Spade], crazy David. We've got a hell of a cast. We've got wonderful writers, and I'm having a great time.

It was a tragedy that brought you onto the show. Did you have second thoughts about taking the role?
Oh, of course I did. Of course I did. It took me about a week to say, “Okay, I'll do it.” What I did in that week is that I looked up to see who the writers were and what they'd done. Tracy Gamble is the guy who sold me on it because he's a wonderful writer. He used to write for “Golden Girls” and I loved “Golden Girls.” Some of the dialogue in that is the snappiest you're going to get. So I liked that. But it was a tough situation. You lose your leading man.

I couldn't have come in as the leading man. That wouldn't have been right. I came in as an assist, and that's why they finally got David because we're trying to cover up for the loss of John Ritter. The writers did a great job of merging from total sadness without being maudlin. I thought that they did a wonderful, wonderful job. Now, there's a little reference here and there to him.

Of course, the girls, they miss him. They miss John a lot. Every once in a while, they pick up something on the set and say, '”Oh, John did that,” and the tears come.

PAGE 3: James Garner on Love, Steve McQueen, and "The Great Escape"

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for love?
The craziest thing? I met my wife and married her in two weeks. We went out every night for about 13 nights and then got married on the 14th. We're still at it. After 48 years we think that it's going to work.

Do you have the same sort of arguments that Rachel and Ryan have in the movie?
No. My wife and I have never had any real loud arguments. I had a separation once, but it had nothing to do…Well, it had something to do with my wife, but not totally.

It had to do with my health. It had to do with my work. It had to do with my children. It had to do with her. I said, “Honey, I just have to go get away from everyone or I'm going to crazy. If I do, I'll blow the whole store.” My wife was caring enough and all her girlfriends told her, “You've got to divorce this son of a bitch,” and she didn't. I went back and we're still happily married.

How long were you gone?
Almost two years. I got a house out in the valley and for the first six or eight months, I didn't do anything. I was just tired and worn out.

What was the hardest film to make?
Well it might be my favorite be my favorite movie, which was “The Americanization of Emily.” We worked awfully hard on that picture. Julie [Andrews] worked extremely hard because we were out in the rain and the cold and we traveled to England and did a lot of work there. That was awfully hard. Westerns are different hard.

You're on a horse and you're banging around and whatever, but that one was hard because of the content of the film. What a great script. What a great script, just beautiful. It was an anti-war film at a time when you didn't say anything anti-war or else they might get you - as they are now. Be careful, the President might get you.

They may redraft me and send me to Iraq. I forgot to mention that when I hurt my knee with the National Guard, they gave me a medical discharge and then I got drafted.

Do any of your leading ladies hold a special place in your heart?
All of them. All of them - Audrey [Hepburn]. Shirley MacLaine. Those were two of my favorites. Of course, Julie Andrews. I just love her to death. She's a sweet lady. They're all wonderful, wonderful ladies, and the only one that I wasn't particularly happy with and I don't have anything against her particularly, but I didn't know her very well and she was really demanding on the set was Kim Novak. I just didn't know her well enough. She had other interests than the script or whatever, how she looked.

How did you get along with Steve McQueen? “The Great Escape” DVD mentions McQueen was obsessed with the fact his part wasn’t important enough.
Well, let me go back. When we did the film, a month or so into it, they had an hour and a half of dailies and they said, “Anyone in the cast who wants to come see them, come see them.” Well, Steve went out of there so angry and so mad or whatever, and he was going to leave the picture and so forth. He wanted to re-shoot everything that we'd done.

And hell, we were hurting for money and time and everything. So a couple of days later, John Sturges came to me and said, “Jim, you're the star of the picture. Steve is out.” His agents were in route. There were loads of agents flying in to Germany.

I took Steve and Jim Coburn and we went over to my house in Munich and we went through the script and I said, “Well, what's your problem, Steve?” “Well, I don't like this. I don't like that.” We went through a lot of scenes. I said, “This is silly. You don't like anything, Steve.” So we looked at it and we finally figured out. “Steve, you want to be the hero, but you don’t want to do anything heroic.” He didn't like the thing of the little Irishman going up the wall and getting shot, and then pulling him down. He didn't want to do anything physical that was heroic.

So what they did, if you'll notice, he's the hero because he escaped, got captured, but when he came back, he had information of all the area there. Oh boy, what a hero. And he didn't have to do a lot of stuff. John Sturges called me one day when he was putting the film together and he said, “Come have lunch.” We did. He said, “Jim, I've got to tell you, the two best acting scenes in the film are with you and Donald Pleasence. They're on the cutting room floor.” He says, “I've got to stay with McQueen and the bike.” Hey, it made the picture. Sturges was absolutely correct, but as far as acting went, out the window.

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Murray, Rebecca. "James Garner Discusses "The Notebook"." ThoughtCo, Sep. 25, 2012, thoughtco.com/james-garner-discusses-the-notebook-2431318. Murray, Rebecca. (2012, September 25). James Garner Discusses "The Notebook". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/james-garner-discusses-the-notebook-2431318 Murray, Rebecca. "James Garner Discusses "The Notebook"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/james-garner-discusses-the-notebook-2431318 (accessed November 23, 2017).