An Interview with Academy Award Winner Mary Steenburgen of "Four Christmases"

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I love Mary Steenburgen. She's one of those actresses who slips in and out of roles, seemingly with little effort and she brings a quiet, steely, strength to whatever character she plays.

Her latest movie, "Four Christmases" is about a couple, Kate and Brad (Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn) whose yearly plan to avoid family Christmases is thwarted by a blizzard. Since their parents are divorced, that means four visits with four sets of dysfunctional parents, siblings, step-siblings and significant others. Mary Steenburgen plays Kate's Mom, Marilyn.

Mary Steenburgen (pictured left) is an Arkansas native, an Academy Award winner---for the film "Melvin and Howard---and has done film, television and Broadway. But she's not only an actress, wife and mother, she's also partnered with two friends to open an interior design shop, Rooms and Gardens.

In addition to being politically active, she was an ardent supporter of longtime friend Hillary Clinton during the presidential election, Mary's involved in charitable work as well. Part of the proceeds from a special line of candles sold at Rooms and Gardens will be donated to Heifer International, an organization that fights world hunger.

She's a woman with a lot on her mind and that's why when I had the chance to interview her recently, I was very excited. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Megan: This movie sounds like a lot of fun and covers a lot of things people go through with their own families. Do you and your husband, Ted Danson, have any particular traditions that you like to keep to every holiday?

Mary Steenburgen: Well besides all the obvious things like cooking way too much food and watching way too much football, we love just being with our kids and all their various boyfriends, girlfriends. Our kids are---we have four children and they are---well they are not really children but, our babies are in the mid twenties and they usually bring about at least one dog each and we already have three.

So the house is overrun with people and dogs and all I ask is that everybody cooks something so that it is not just me. And that everybody help a little bit cleaning up. It is just noisy and fun and crazy and my husband always has this red vest on that his great grandfather started wearing and then passed it to his grandfather, to his father and now to Ted. And every year I take out red thread and try to mend it because it is falling apart. But it is the Christmas vest, so.

Megan: What drew you to this role in particular?

Mary Steenburgen: I, you know, to be honest with you, it looked like just such a fun film to be a part of. I loved the script. It made me laugh out loud which I always pay attention to. That is always a good sign.

And then just the image of Reese and Vince (pictured left) standing next to each other made me laugh when I thought about it. And sure enough, on the first day of work when I saw the two of them standing there before they even opened their mouth I started laughing.

And there were so many extraordinary people that had already been cast and that they were talking about casting that I just very much wanted to be a part of it.

Megan: One of my favorite roles of yours was the mom in "Joan of Arcadia."

Mary Steenburgen: Oh thank you. I loved doing that series. We were very close. That was a very close group of people. In fact we are still very close. I saw Amber (Tamblyn) just not long ago.

Megan: I think she's wonderful.

Mary Steenburgen: Um-hmm.

Megan: The chemistry between you was great, and I wonder if there is anything in particular that you would look for in another television series if you were to do one?

Mary Steenburgen: Well I will be really honest with you, that one kind of broke my heart, and it took me a while to get over that because I did not understand, you know, our ratings were not bad, and we had been pre-empted a lot.

And rather than give us time to get back up and nurture us somehow it kind of was yanked. And it was such a labor of love for all of us that was on it. I felt like it was one of the few things I have even seen on television that approached a deeply complicated idea in a really respectful way of the intelligence of the audience.

Nobody was ever talked down to. And the questions that were being taught to them and things that were being asked and that were so immense, you know...and I felt like it was such a---it was inspiring, but not from the point of view of we have got all the answers. And there was nothing ever false or saccharine about it.

And so it just to me was such a gem that when we kind of, you know, were told we were not coming back...it took me, I mean really it was like a death in the family. I took that pretty hard.

Megan: I was curious about what you think in terms of Hollywood and women's roles. Where is it going? Is it getting better? Is it about the same?

Mary Steenburgen: I think it is getting better. I am always a cockeyed optimist. But I am---I do believe it is getting better because I think there are more and more women directing, more and more women writing. And I just look at myself. I am a 55 year old woman. In, you know, the old days in Hollywood, I was supposed to be kind of done by 30 or 35 years old, by the old rules. And I have worked more in the last year than I have worked in my whole life you know, and so I think there are, you know, do we have a long way to go? Absolutely.

We have a long way to go in every way, but I think that it has gotten better. And just in terms of what I look at when I am working, I see women on---in crew jobs that I never saw before, you know. So I think we are doing it and a lot of it starts with those young women who go to the schools and study writing and study directing, but especially the writing...because if you - if the women write the roles, they write, you know, good roles for us.

Megan: What kind of advice would you give a young woman who is interested in either acting or in writing for either TV or film?

Mary Steenburgen: Well I always tell young people first of all depending, I mean, if they are quite young I talk to them about reading and the importance of reading great literature. And that if they watch a little less TV and a little less movies and read---and the reason very specifically for that is that when you watch a movie or you watch TV you are watching the fulfillment of someone else's imagination.

When you read a book, you are casting the parts. You are making the costumes. You are designing the sets. You are acting. You are doing that all in your head because the pictures that you are seeing are the ones that you are, you know, that writer is creating with you. And you are doing all that in your head. And so I think number one, actors have to be good readers. And the best actors I know have always loved literature.

Megan: That's great advice. I am a big fan of the series your husband was in last year, "Damages."

Mary Steenburgen: Um-hmm.

Megan: And that is an example of one of those shows where you had this strong woman character in a lead role.

Mary Steenburgen: She (Glenn Close) is fabulous.

Megan: Yes, she was really amazing.

Mary Steenburgen: They both are. Rose Byrne is amazing.

Megan: Yes. And Ted, your husband was...

Mary Steenburgen: I know.

Megan: ...fabulous.

Mary Steenburgen: I know.

Megan: I mean you really had not seen him in a role quite like that before.

Mary Steenburgen: Well you just might see him again. I will not say how, but...

Megan: I am not going to even going to ask, because I know that it really cannot be talked about, but...

Mary Steenburgen: No.

Megan: I'm keeping fingers crossed that he did not just stay in the field and just die. But, it was a great great role. Now I've always seen you in roles that are like the strength underneath kind of a softness. Have you ever been offered a role or are you interested in a role where it's just kind of straight out, no holds barred, bitchy? You know, that is over the top, do not care about anything or anybody and just going for what she wants?

Mary Steenburgen: You know, people tend not to think about me that way but actually I have something coming up that is much more like that.

Megan: Okay.

Mary Steenburgen: And it is - sadly it is not much of a stretch for me to do that. I am not as sweet as everybody thinks I am. And I have never actually pretended to be. But, yes, I have some things coming up I think that are that way.

Megan: Anything you can mention?

Mary Steenburgen: Probably I should not because we are, they are literally negotiating it all this week, but I am.

Megan: Okay. Now also about Four Christmases. Unfortunately I have not had a chance to see it because I could not arrange a screening.

Mary Steenburgen: Well I am hardly a wonderful mother in this one. But I would not---it is not so much a bitchiness, but I am very careless with my daughter's heart I would say. And my character has serial boyfriends and with every boyfriend she becomes a different person depending on who he is. So, the boyfriend of the moment is Dwight Yoakam (pictured left) who is Pastor Phil. So the house is filled with angels and things like that.

Megan: So she adapts to every man in her life.

Mary Steenburgen: Yes and could care less really about, you know, is not deeply sympathetic as a mother to her daughter. She is kind of a selfish mom.

Megan: Have you ever known anybody like that?

Mary Steenburgen: Sure. I mean I had a friend and I thought, I felt sorry for her kids frankly because I always thought, you know, she keeps changing with every one of these guys, and there is a lot of them, you know. So that is hard. But mostly when I do these characters I do not do it thinking of I have known someone like that because it ultimately has to come from someplace I identify with. Someplace that is some little quirky version of me.

Megan: I saw in part of your biography that you spent a lot of your early acting time in New York and you've done some Broadway.

Mary Steenburgen: Right.

Megan: Is there anything about New York that you feel particularly contributed to the way you work, or your work on the stage that contributes to everything you do in acting?

Mary Steenburgen: The birth of my artistic life was in New York. Probably the soul of my artistic life is Arkansas because that is where my roots are. But the birth of everything for me was in New York because I was nurtured there. I saw things for the first time I had never seen. I saw performances that inspired me. I was inspired by the city itself.

I tell young people too that if they have an opportunity to spend time in New York that New York itself will be one of the greatest professors you will ever have in your life, you know. I was a waitress for six years in New York and in fact I was just reminiscing. I saw two people I waited tables with the other night at something I did in New York, and we were talking about our waitressing days.

You know, those are very precious moments to me because they helped me in many ways learn to stick up for myself and learn who I was and also learn a lot about people and observing people and you know, when you become so-called famous in my case, I mean, one of the things that is sad that leaves you is the ability to observe people because a lot of the time they are looking back at you, you know.

Those observations about life are very precious to actors. So those years were---they were important to me in all kinds of ways, and I remember them with fondness, although they did get a little tiring at times.

Megan: I can understand that. I live here and I can get tired of it. Thank you, Mary so much.

Mary Steenburgen: Thank you.

"Four Christmases" opens this Wednesday November 26th. Here's the trailer:

 

Other "Four Christmases" Related Links:

Movies Online: An Interview with Reese Witherspoon

Jezebel: Pictures from the premiere.

Celeb Spin: Quotes from Reese Witherspoon

 

Megan Smith is the BlogHer Contributing Editor covering Television and Online Video and she suggests you check out Mary Steenburgen in the film "Melvin and Howard" and the TV show "Joan of Arcadia." Megan's other blogs are Megan's Minute, quirky commentary around the clock, and Video Runway.

 

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