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The Cast of “A Prairie Home Companion” Has That Feel-Good Feeling

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By Andrea Meyer

IFC News

There’s no mistaking a Robert Altman film. Whether the great director is turning a genre inside out, like he did in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” or “The Long Goodbye,” or investigating the dark nooks and crannies of a subculture, like Hollywood in “The Player,” a ballet troupe in “The Company” or the British aristocracy and the people who serve them in “Gosford Park,” we recognize his sprawling, ensemble casts making their way through interconnected narratives and captured in snippets by an eavesdropping camera, all of which endow films like “Nashville” and “Short Cuts” with a scope rarely seen on screen.

The latest microcosm Altman has taken on is a homegrown radio show based on the real one “A Prairie Home Companion” created and hosted by Garrison Keillor, who wrote the screenplay. The fictional show is not nationally syndicated like Keillor’s, but a small-town variety show performed in a beautiful old theater, and it’s is about to be shut down. The movie begins on the day the guillotine is scheduled to fall. With a wistful air hanging over the proceedings, the regulars perform as if it were just another day. The Johnson Sisters, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) belt out country duets, while singing cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) do naughty ditties. GK, played by Keillor, emcees. Thrown into the mix is Yolanda’s death-obsessed daughter (Lindsay Lohan) who’s finally getting a crack at a song, Kevin Kline’s Guy Noir, a private detective who runs security, Tommy Lee Jones as the dreaded Axeman from the Texas company purchasing the theater, and Virginia Madsen a mysterious angel floating about sweetly suggesting sinister things to come.

As always, Altman’s camera takes it all in, the main attraction on stage and the seemingly extraneous conversations, gestures and glances that weave together to create a tapestry of nostalgia, music, laughter, camaraderie, and the sadness and panic of having to let go, Altman at his most purely enjoyable.

“I couldn’t wait to get to work,” Madsen said while in New York promoting the film. “It didn’t matter if I had anything to say. I would just come and see if I could insinuate myself or just sit behind Bob and watch him direct… Everyone was always creating.”

Part of what actors appreciate on an Altman set is a looseness about their characters and what is expected of them. Kevin Kline, in particular, had some questions about his character, Guy Noir, a regular on Keillor’s show. “I asked Bob, ‘You know, he’s the only one who’s completely delusional. He thinks he’s in a film noir in the 40s. Is it that he [is] one of those marginal showbiz people on the fringes who wants to be onstage and thinks he would be better than any of them? Or is he one of these guys who’s really a doorman but had an accident?’ He just said, ‘Well, he’s a nut!'” Kline recalled. “That was the kind of dialogue I’d have with him — probing, deep. But he would always give directions that would open a door for you to go into… He doesn’t have a shot designed and then, ‘Come put your performance into my shot.’ It’s give and take between the camera and the actor.”

That kind of space also allows the actors to play around with the script, a possibility that Kline has relished throughout his career, famously on “A Fish Called Wanda,” which he compared to “Prairie.” “In both cases the writer was right there, and I think it must be that little class buffoon subversive little imp in me that just loves not being reverent and defying authority in a very passive-aggressive way. I refuse to say the lines that they’ve written while they’re standing right there,” he said. “I did a scene with John Cleese, and he was like (in his best Cleesian accent), ‘You are really not going to say one line that I’ve written, are you?'”

Surprisingly, Kline suggested that it was Streep who first suggested to him that a script could be stretched and tailored to fit the actor better, when they first worked together on Alan Pakula’s “Sophie’s Choice,” Kline’s first film, 24 years ago. “Only the most confident directors encourage you to play around with the script, make it your own,” Streep said. “It was just a thing that would encourage freedom and creativity.”

While most actors were fairly faithful to the script they loved, even Keillor was flexible.
“The screenwriter was on the set at all times. The script police were there,” he said when asked how he felt about people messing with his baby. “But there were still a few. You can’t really put a lid on Lily, and Kevin does a lot of improvisation, but the rest stayed pretty close to the script.”

While Streep and Tomlin only knew each other peripherally before production began, they fell quickly into their roles as the last two remaining singers in a four-sister act that began when they were children. In no time, the two actors were singing their hearts out, finishing each other’s sentences — remember their homage to Altman at the Oscars? — and speaking in perfect, singsong Midwestern accents about improv, awards ceremonies and beautiful Minnesota skies. Here’s a sample:

Tomlin: The regional US accents are more available to you.

Streep: They’re more in your body.

Tomlin: It’s a rhythmic thing. Once you get into it, you’re fine.

Streep: It more about cadence and music…There are plenty of people who have a Wisconsin accent and don’t have a certain lilt and an optimism and that’s Yolanda. People just hear the accent, but I think it’s something more interior.

Tomlin: It won’t be any good if it’s not.

Streep: Rhonda, it’s more about cigarettes and trying to quit, trying to quit, trying to quit, and her voice is located down here with her rage and her realism…

Tomlin: I didn’t know that, darn it. In the script, we had auditioned for the Lawrence Welk show, the four little sisters, and my character is still bitter, like fifty years later, because they were more talented than the Lenin sisters, and she’s never gotten over it.

Streep: And the Lenin sisters were communists.

Tomlin: Yeah, the Lenin sisters were commies, right.

Streep: That was in our script.

Tomlin: I hate to see that gone. Of course Yolanda’s so nice and massaging everything I’m saying and saying it’s not that bad and they’re not communists…

The actors unanimously said the feel-good feeling is tough to beat on an Altman set. “There was always something going on,” said Madsen. “Everyone always wanted to be there. It’s not like that on many films. Sometimes it can be more stressful. Sometimes you just get to the hotel bar. But this one you wanted to be there. It’s very rare to have that much of a thrill.”

“A Prairie Home Companion” is currently in theaters (official site).

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Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

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Dream Of The ’90s

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No You Go

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A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

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Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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