“A Prairie Home Companion” Streep, Kline & Co.

For the first time, Meryl Streep has starred in a Robert Altman film, and appropriately, she feels right at “home” with the new comedy A Prairie Home Companion.

“It was joy to see so much captured on screen,” Streep told me, praising the legendary director in a recent interview. “When you’re shooting with him, you don’t know what he’s getting. He’s got three cameras going at all times – he misses nothing. He’s got such an eagle eye – he hooks the best parts.”

While it bears the same name of Garrison Keillor’s hit syndicated radio show that plays to more than 4 million listeners each week on 580 public radio stations nationwide, the film version of A Prairie Home Companion has a decidedly different spin. Instead, it’s a playful behind-the-scenes look at a hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop radio variety show that has managed to survive in the age of television.

Set on a rainy Saturday night in St. Paul, Minn., fans file into the show’s home, the Fitzgerald Theater to see A Prairie Home Companion performed – not knowing the show will be the last.

Altman favorite Lily Tomlin and Streep both sing in the film, playing the down-and-out remaining members of the Johnson Girls singing group, Rhonda and Yolanda. As they describe in the film, they were once like the famed Carter Family singers, except they never hit it big.

But despite the Johnson family’s misfortunes, Streep’s Yolanda belts out her country-folk tunes like a seasoned professional. Amazingly, Streep said, she had all of two days to rehearse the songs before starting work on the independent production.

“If I had time to worry about it, it probably would have sucked,” Streep mused.

The interesting thing about A Prairie Home Companion was that it was filmed on the very stage where the radio show has come to life for nearly 30 years.  Along for the big-screen show are Oscar-winners Kevin Kline and Tommy Lee Jones, Oscar-nominated actors Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson, Saturday Night Live cast member Maya Rudolph, and teen movie sensation Lindsay Lohan – who plays Yolanda’s daughter, Lola.

Keillor plays himself, and real-life Prairie Home Companion performers Tim Russell, Sue Scott and Tom Keith star in the film as well.

The Prairie Home stage

A veteran of the stage as well as film, Streep said she loved working on A Prairie Home Companion because the production was like a film and stage play all wrapped into one.

“It was most like a theater piece in that all the actors were around all of the time – we watched each other work – it was kind of a family thing,” Streep said. “Altman’s films – I gather, Lily told me – are often that way. They’re ensemble pieces.

“People feel about them in a different way than you do when you’re sitting in your Winnebago on the lot and asked to come to the set,” Streep added. “It’s a whole different thing. It’s kind of seat-of-the-pants and really fun.”

A Prairie Home Companion was special for Streep and Kline in that it marked the first time since 1982’s Sophie’s Choice that the duo had worked together on a film. Their last acting gig together was on stage in 2001’s The Seagull, helmed by famed stage and film director Mike Nichols.

Like Streep, Kline was thrilled to work in the hybrid theater-film environment.

“It hit me the first day when I realized, being in the Fitzgerald with all these movie cameras, making a movie of a radio show in a theater with an audience,” Kline said. “So it was theater, radio, film it was a free-for-all multimedia experience. That was unique.”

Unlike the Johnson Girls, Kline’s character, the gumshoe-turned-theater security guard Guy Noir, was imported from the radio show. Kline, naturally, found some responsibility in preserving the integrity of the character (voiced on the radio show by Keillor), yet was thrilled that he was allowed some creative license since he’s previously existed only in listeners’ imaginations.

“No one has ever seen Guy Noir before,” Kline explained. “Sure, you get the way he thinks and the way he talks – his diction – it’s all a verbal thing. Well, movies are only partially verbal, they’re much more visual, so I sort of took the liberty of physicalizing him.”

In fact, both Altman and Keillor encouraged Kline to make the character his own.

“It would have been futile and really boring if I did a bad imitation of Garrison’s Guy Noir, so we re-cut the suit to fit me,” Kline said.

The heart of the film

There’s no doubt that Altman’s latest turn as director in A Prairie Home Companion is especially poignant since the filmmaker surprised a worldwide audience at this year’s Oscars with the revelation that he had a heart transplant 11 years ago.

Tomlin, who along with Streep presented Altman with his Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar in March, told me that she only found about her friend’s transplant within the last year.

“I don’t know how he kept it a secret,” Tomlin told me. “But nothing will stop him – a heart transplant – nothing,” Tomlin said.

Like Streep and Kline’s reunion, A Prairie Home Companion marked another re-teaming – for Tomlin and Altman.

Tomlin previously worked with the director on the 1975 classic Nashville, as well as his acclaimed 1993 ensemble drama, Short Cuts.

“I’m grateful every time Bob calls me and I think I might have a part in one of his movies, I’m really ready to go,” Tomlin enthused.

And Tomlin isn’t the only one ready to answer to call at any time from Altman. Even though she doesn’t sing in A Prairie Home Companion, Madsen was ready to take a run at it. Or was she?

“We’re all glad that Virginia wasn’t singing in this movie – believe me,” Madsen told me, laughing. “However, if Robert Altman wanted me to sing running down the street nude, I would do that.

“Well, no, I wouldn’t actually do that,” Madsen added, laughing.

A Prairie Home Companion opens in theaters nationwide June 9.
– Tim Lammers writes about movies for the Internet Broadcasting network, which includes WNBC.com in New York, NBC4.tv in Los Angeles and NBC5.com in Chicago.

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