DVD release of “The Company” calls for a talk with Barbara Robertson

Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet will dance on in millions of homes with the June 1 Sony Pictures Classics’ DVD release of Robert Altman’s “The Company,” a documentary-like look at life behind the scenes of a ballet company.

Altman spent the latter part of 2002 in Chicago filming with the Joffrey. Classically trained dancer and actress Neve Campbell co-starred with Malcolm MacDowell. Campbell also co-wrote the screenplay with Barbara Turner.

In anticipation of the DVD release, we met with local actress Barbara Robertson, one of Chicago’s busiest and most acclaimed theatrical headliners. She’s always on the short list when successful New York productions such as “Angels in America,” and “The Goat” make their Chicago debuts.

Last winter she scored rave reviews as Desiree in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s popular revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

RC: What was your role in “The Company,” Barbara?
ROBERTSON: I play a character named Harriet. She’s always at the right hand of the director played by Malcolm MacDowell. In the film he’s called “Alberto Antonelli.”

RC: The Artistic Manager of The Joffrey Ballet is Harriet Ross. Is that who you’re supposed to be?
ROBERTSON: Barbara Turner and I studied Harriet Ross, but we didn’t model my character after her personality. We were more interested in capturing her role with the Joffrey.

RC: How much of your part was specified in the shooting script, and how much of “Harriet” did you and Barbara create together?
ROBERTSON: I didn’t even see the script until we’d already begun shooting. Altman basically told me what he wanted me to do. Altman said to me: “If you really do your job right, no one will know that you’re acting.”

RC: What’s the difference, for you, between stage work and screen work?
ROBERTSON: When you do a play, you feel the flow every time and you know how everything fits together. But in a movie the director puts the pieces together. You do different takes, and only the director knows how all the pieces fit.

For example, in one of my biggest scenes in the film, I’m talking to a young dancer named Justin. He’s just been pulled out of a number by the choreographer. Well, I wasn’t supposed to do that scene with Justin. One of the dancers was supposed to give “my” speech. But Altman decided to make a change. They called me in and I dropped everything and I did it.

RC: One question about “A Little Night Music.” Your character, Desiree, gets the play’s big number. You sing the famous song “Send in the Clowns” at the end of the second act. What is it like for you, knowing everyone in the audience is waiting for that song?
ROBERTSON: I never worried about singing the song. I wanted people in the audience to feel the song on the context of the story. Desiree is a woman who has always relied on her sense of humor. But now she’s facing disappointment, so she’s struggling to retain her sense of humor. “Where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns.”

Barbara Robertson is currently appearing in “My Old Lady” at the Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park. In addition to her private students, Ms. Robertson also teaches at Columbia College.

Jan Lisa Huttner is the managing editor of FILMS FOR TWO: The Online Guide for Busy Couples. For an interview with “The Company’s” screenwriter Barbara Turner, see www.films42.com/chats/chats_turner.asp. For details about the Joffrey’s 2004-2005 program, see www.joffrey.com/season.shtml.