From the moment they sit beside each other on the sofa, their rapport is obvious. Robert Altman, one of film's elder statesmen, is explaining in his soft drawl to Liv Tyler, latest initiate to the Altman circle of films, about his knee surgery six weeks earlier. The surgeon replaced the bone with pieces of titanium. "It's still swollen," Altman says, "though I've been getting around all right now."
Tyler looks on with genuine concern. "I'm so glad you're better," she coos.
During the interview, she edges closer to him, listening raptly when he speaks, fondly tapping his arm when she wants to make a point. Altman slumps, his feet propped up on the table, and looks on with avuncular pride when she does.
Altman, 74, is a large, burly man with thinning, silver hair and bulldog-baggy eyes. There's a weary look about him, but when he turns his eyes to you, they flare with the focus of an eagle.
Contrast that with Tyler, who at 21 and with minimal makeup seems nearly a teenager, her face younger than the characters she has recently inhabited on the screen: Bruce Willis' daughter and Ben Affleck's girlfriend in last year's space potboiler about the killer meteor, "Armageddon," and Emma Duvall, the spunky Southern chick in Altman's latest impact on the American screen, "Cookie's Fortune." The film expands Friday to 170 screens in 30 cities after opening April 2 to brisk business in a handful of Los Angeles and New York theaters.
Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, who was contemptuous of actors and who gave Altman his start in narrative directing (two episodes for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" in the 1950s), Altman clearly loves actors. He loves watching them, loves working with them and fully respects the craft they bring to his projects.
"Once I get a film cast, 85% of my creative work is finished, and the actors really kind of take over," he says. "I have to be there because they would all be fighting with each other if I weren't. Somebody's gotta be there to turn the light switch on and off."
"And actors would never stop," Tyler chimes in. "We'd keep going and going, thinking we'd never done it right."
"Cookie's Fortune," developed by Altman and writer Ann Rapp, is a leisurely Southern Gothic comedy that takes place in the sleepy Mississippi town of Holly Springs, a perfect setting for the elliptical storytelling that is Altman's forte.
The drama pivots on the apparent murder of Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal in a rare appearance). Meanwhile, her control-freak niece, Camille (Glenn Close), is busily directing her Easter play, Oscar Wilde's "Salome" of all things, with her wimpy sister Cora (Julianne Moore) in the lead role.
Tyler plays Cora's estranged daughter Emma, who has just slipped back into town after a mysterious sojourn in Biloxi. She's outraged when gentle Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), Cookie's sometime handyman and best friend, is accused of the murder, and she joins him in the slammer in solidarity. But this being Holly Springs, being in the slammer means playing games of Scrabble in the cell and making out with her old boyfriend, policeman Jason Brown (Chris O'Donnell), in the broom closet.
The young actress was keen to work with Altman, but at first a scheduling conflict prevented her from accepting the part. Then shooting for 'Cookie's Fortune" was pushed back.
"He called me up in England, saying 'Liv, I want you to be in my film,' " she recalls. "I nearly dropped the phone. It was such an honor--instead of agents and this and that--to have him actually call me and invite me to work with him."
She looked forward to playing a rough-and-tumble character for a change: Emma's day job involves cleaning catfish and hefting cardboard boxes. "It was a really different part from anything I've done. I was so excited, except that I had to cut all my hair off."
"I suggested," interjects Altman.
"Yeah, you said, 'I want you to cut all your hair off,' " Tyler reminds him. "I said, 'Really?' " She laughs.
With its picturesque town square and antebellum houses, the real Holly Springs seemed to be waiting for this film to come along. Extras were recruited from the area, and houses and buildings were rented, both to shoot in and to live in during their month-and-a-half stay.
"We really lived in that town," Altman says. "At night we sat out on the porch, and watched the kids play and put fireflies in bottles. We had dinner at each other's houses because there were no restaurants. Glenn Close would come to work on her bicycle."
Working with the director was as wonderful as Tyler expected, perhaps more. "More than anything, you made me feel so confident and free," she says to him. "I think you enjoy watching actors."
"Oh, I do," Altman says. "That's what it is: These people putting a three-dimensional life [into a character]. Almost invariably their instincts are right if they're not afraid, if they don't feel they have to protect themselves. I just try to assure them I'm not going to let them make a fool of themselves."