While in Boston, I had the chance to speak with Mary Steenburgen about her new film, Book Club. During that time, I found her to be delightful and friendly all around. It was good speaking with her and learning a little bit more about her. Not only did I get to talk to her about her career in front of the camera, she also opened up about her time as a songwriter, reading 50 Shades of Grey, and much more.
Cinematic Essential: Did you read any of the 50 Shades books prior to filming this?
Mary Steenburgen: I had skimmed one of them for the naughty bits (laughing), so I probably couldn’t have described the whole plot line. The writer of the books (E. L. James) and her husband did a cameo in the film with and she was lovely.
Steenburgen: She is the woman, who when I’m frustrated and screaming outside in the front yard with Craig T. Nelson about how we never have sex anymore, she’s the woman walking passed. She and her husband in real life. She was lovely.
How was the experience working with Craig T. Nelson again?
Steenburgen: I wanted him (Craig T. Nelson) for that part because of how much I enjoyed working with him in The Proposal. By the way, 3 out of 4 of us have been married to or had Craig T. Nelson as a boyfriend previously. The only person who hasn’t is Candice (Bergen) so I think Murphy Brown needs a boyfriend. I knew Craig could handle both the dark knight of the soul of that character and the sadness and ‘What do I do with my life?’ kind of thing as well as the flat-out physical comedy that he had to portray. I just knew he would be perfect. What I didn’t know was that he would be such a great dance partner. I love him so much. He’s just such a lovely, wonderful guy.
What do you look for in a character?
Steenburgen: It’s changed a lot. As a mother, when my kids were younger, I have to admit, I looked for the juiciest role I could get that would shoot in the smallest amount of days so that I could keep being a functioning mom. Now I have the luxury of doing a crazy TV series like Last Man on Earth because no one but Ted Danson (her husband) cares that I’m in a car at 4:45 AM driving to Chatsworth (California). I couldn’t have done this part when I was younger. In general, I look for something that makes my heart beat faster when I’m reading it. It doesn’t matter how big it is, I don’t care about that. I do sometimes care, selfishly, about me, Mary Steenburgen, getting to work with people I admire. I did a tiny part in A Walk in the Woods, with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte just because…
What types of characters are you drawn to the most?
Steenburgen: I’m especially drawn to comedy, but I love it if they’re complex and you get to know a whole person. Sometimes, especially with women my age, your character is really just there to further the story. She’s not very real or very full. I have to weed those out because it doesn’t interest me to do that.
This movie offers so much more than those opportunities.
Steenburgen: One of the things that’s so crazy about this movie, first of all, no one hires four women our age. I’m the youngest of the four. I’m the baby at 65 (laughing). Nobody makes movies about women our age. Let’s talk about that message, whether it’s four men or four women, what type of message does that send to someone as young as yourself? There’s some age where you’re a zombie walking around where no one wants to hear your story? The fact that they made this movie at all and Paramount came on board and released it and that every single one of these women has their own unique story, they are all going through something, it’s unique. It talks about the importance of friendship. It talks about having each other’s backs. We’re not competitive. We’re not being bitchy or mean to each other. That’s something hugely celebrated on TV, especially with women, let’s see how catty and mean and bitchy we can be. There are women who have each other’s backs in life. Truthfully, the four of us did. We were all scared. Everybody was invested but scared. By the end of the first day, I love these guys. They’re pros. There was no diva. They’re funny. Their stories that you’re listening to in between takes are crazy. I made three friends who I treasure.
Do different generations of fans bring up different films of yours as their favorite?
Steenburgen: Step Brothers crossed all generations. I loved doing Step Brothers. Of all my films, it is the film people have watched on repeat. I don’t know why, but people watch it over and over. There are people, especially men who were boys when Back to the Future 3 came out, and that’s a big thing to them. Parenthood was a big film. Melvin and Howard, people who are INTO movies remember that one. For some bizarre reason, country legends were really into my first movie Goin’ South. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings stopped me. I ran into them one time and they just went insane quoting the movie. They knew every line in the movie. I ran into Johnny’s step-daughter and she was like ‘You know my dad was in love with you and could quote every line from that movie?’ I think it might have been a stoner tour bus movie (laughing).
Films like this could be clichéd. How do you balance that out and not go overboard?
Steenburgen: I know what you mean and that can be true, but I also think it’s true that we’re all playing catch up. I do ask my assistant to help me post stuff on Instagram. I’m learning. There are certain musical things I’ve learned, but there are social media things I’m not good at. You never see four women, in leads, in a movie so the whole start of it is not a cliché. I wish it were more of a cliché (laughing).
Speaking of music, you’re also a songwriter. How does that compare to acting?
Steenburgen: To me, it’s kind of the same thing because both are telling stories. I started writing music in 2007. I’m now writing the songs for an animated film. It’s been a really crazy long process. I’m still growing but it’s something that’s really important to me. I’ve also been writing songs that have been chosen as end credit movie songs.
So you’ve done film, television, and now music. Is there anything you don’t do?
Steenburgen: I do believe in scaring myself. This movie was kind of perfect for me thematically because I don’t like the idea that you’re cooked at a certain point and that’s just who you are. I know some doors get closed, but I don’t want to make it easy for life to close the doors. I think I proved to everyone that I’m not the world’s greatest dancer, but I love to dance. It brings me joy.
What’s next for you?
Steenburgen: I think a lot of it has to do with music. That’s really important to me. I spend a lot of time writing. I spend a lot of time in Nashville (Tennessee). Everybody thinks Nashville is just country music, but there’s everything there. Sometimes I can’t go there, so we even write music on Skype. And just being with my family. I never really no what’s next. I don’t even know if my t.v. series is going to continue. I could find out today actually. We’re on the bubble, so we’ll see.