Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: The way Mary Steenburgen earned her first film role is one of those true Hollywood stories that sounds straight out of a movie script—she caught Jack Nicholson’s eye when she turned up to audition for Goin’ South and was instantly transformed from waitress to leading lady—but once audiences discovered her, they couldn’t get enough of her. By 1981, Steenburgen had earned an Academy Award for Melvin And Howard, but she’s bounced back and forth between movies and television enough over the years to be perfectly at home in both places. Although she’s forever popping up on various TV series—last year alone found her doing guest arcs on Justified, Orange Is The New Black, and Togetherness—Steenburgen can currently be found enjoying series-regular status on Fox’s The Last Man On Earth.
The Last Man On Earth (2015-present)—“Gail Klosterman”
The A.V. Club: After the midseason finale The Last Man On Earth delivered, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who watches it with any semblance of regularity hasn’t been ecstatic at the thought of the series coming back.
Mary Steenburgen: Aw! That’s so nice to hear! We are really crossing all fingers and hoping that it does well. We felt very optimistic about it. I was emailing with Kristen Schaal this morning, as a matter of fact. There’s just a really close-knit thing among all of us. It’s just one of those things that gelled, and we bonded. We get together when we don’t have to! [Laughs.] We like spending time together, and within two weeks of the [filming of the] season ending, we were all emailing how much we missed each other and wanted to see each other! That’s a pretty lucky thing.
It’s just a very creative experience, because it doesn’t have a lot of boundaries. Because we are creating our own world. We’re taking horrible bits of the past and our most petty selves—and occasionally our biggest, bravest, most optimistic selves—and playing survivors. We’re playing people who somehow, through whatever it is we don’t even understand about ourselves that caused us not to die with everyone else, are survivors. Sometimes we do that well, and sometimes we’re just showing the worst of humanity. I think it’s fascinating to play the gamut.
What I love about my character is that she’s brave enough to recognize when she comes to the wall of inevitability that she’s the only person there that is going to attempt to perform surgery on her friend that clearly has appendicitis. Before that, she tries every which way to get out of it, but when she comes to that, she’s brave enough to do her best. And she doesn’t succeed, but I love that I have both that kind of bravery and also I’m deeply flawed and using a lot of what’s going on as a reason to just anesthetize myself with booze.
It’s just such a beautiful, crazy tone that we work in. It feels so unique, the show, that we do the deepest things and then the most ridiculous, absurd, idiotic things within seconds of each other. And all of it somehow feels right to the world that we’re creating amongst the seven of us.
AVC: The midseason finale felt like a warning shot to everyone watching that the show isn’t just a comedy. It felt like a declaration: “We’ve been trying to tell you this, but in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, now we’ve really underlined it.”
MS: Right! And people that want it to just be funny should not despair, because there is so much true crazy comedy coming up. [Laughs.] But it definitely is in your face a little bit and throws a lot of depth in there, as it should. It’s not the sitcom version of the end of the world or the beginning of the new world. It’s much more profound than that, and just the edge that we feel sometimes when we’re on it… It’s terribly exciting. And it’s really all ultimately so inspired by Will Forte. You can’t talk about a single bit of it without just saying that his is such a unique mind. I’m around him every day for seven or eight months a year, and we constantly find ourselves looking at each other, watching our jaws drop at something he just said or did or is proposing that we’re going to do.
And the read-throughs are fascinating, because we don’t really see these scripts until the day of the read-through. I don’t know how much of the writing process you know, but I’m told it’s not the writers’ fault, it’s Will’s fault. [Laughs.] He’s doing so much, you know? He’s helping to write, he’s editing, he’s acting... He’s completely involved. And there’s this kind of wonderful Saturday Night Live improvisational edge to all of it, so sometimes when we’re doing our read-throughs, we’re literally reading it for the first time! So we’re performing, but we’re also the audience, because we don’t know what’s going to happen, and there are moments where we’re kind of gasping with surprise or getting emotional.
You wouldn’t think it’s that kind of show, but it goes there. It really does. These last episodes that are coming up have some really extraordinary themes, and there are things in them that, when we were doing them, we just kept saying, “Not only have I never done this before, but I’ve never seen this before!” [Laughs.]
Goin’ South (1978)—“Julia Tate Moon”
AVC: Based on most reports, it seems as though Goin’ South was your first on-camera role.
MS: Oh, yeah. I studied with Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. I was in the last class to study with him before he had his larynx removed, so I actually remember the sound of his voice. He was an incredible teacher. And then I went and did comedy improv in New York with a group for about three or four years, and we ended up being the resident company of the Manhattan Theatre Club. Actually, Chris Guest’s mother, Jean Guest, saw me there in that and recommended me to a casting director. She and a woman named Mary Buck, who worked for her, were the links that led me to my most important audition of my life, which I thought was just going to be for the casting director but ended up being with Jack Nicholson as well. And that was why they flew me out to Hollywood for a screen test, along with a lot of other very experienced and well-known actors.
It was a life-altering thing: one day you’re a waitress at The Magic Pan in New York, and the next minute you’re a lead in a movie with Jack Nicholson. And there was no in-between. No small parts, no commercials. I mean, I think I did a couple of test commercials that didn’t even make it on the air. That’s how little I had really done. I knew almost nothing about the camera. In fact, I actually did know nothing about the camera. [Laughs.]
Jack had me come out two months early to Los Angeles, and I lived in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont. And my job was to go every day to Paramount, where he would have some sort of tutorial lined up for me for that day, whether it was sitting in a screening room to watch two or three of the great comedies of Jean Arthur, or Sweet Smell Of Success, or Pat And Mike. Just different things that he thought I needed to see to understand tone. And he’d just fill in the absolutely complete lack of knowledge of film. Because I’d never studied film. I had movies that I loved and movie stars that I looked up to, but I really had not seen a lot of the great classic films that he felt like he wanted me to see before I took on such a huge role. So that was my film training: those two months with this extraordinary actor coming in at the end of each film and saying, “Okay, let’s talk about this film. Let’s talk about what Katharine Hepburn did in this movie.” Or Jean Arthur. Or Judy Holliday. I remember just falling madly in love with Judy Holliday. So that was… [Hesitates.] Gosh, I don’t even remember what the question was you asked me anymore!
AVC: It wasn’t even a question so much as confirming that Goin’ South was indeed your first on-camera role. But having heard the back story, there’s certainly some serendipity to the fact that you were playing a virgin in the film, given that it was clearly a virginal experience for you as a film actor.
MS: Yes, well, I was a virgin. But only in some ways. [Laughs.] But definitely a virgin as far as film!
AVC: Goin’ South is also notable for another reason: it was the first time you worked with Christopher Lloyd.
MS: Yes! Christopher Lloyd was actually the first person—or certainly one of the first few—who ever spoke to me on film. The line was… Let’s see, I think he says, “I asked you out, and all I got was a flap of your umbrella!” I think that’s the first line ever spoken to me. My first line in the film is, “I’ll take him.” No, wait, I say, “Is she dead?” I was talking about this little old lady who was going to claim Jack Nicholson, because a man on the gallows could be saved if a woman wanted to marry him, because there were so few men. So this old lady was going to marry him, and I said, “Is she dead?” And they say, “Yes,” and I go, “Then I’ll take him!” And then Chris Lloyd says that line: “I asked you out 10 times, and what did I get? A flap of your umbrella!”
Yeah, that whole group… That was a pretty profound experience for everybody. I mean, there was even a book written about it, to some extent. It had a chapter, anyway, about that film. And some people were going crazy and wild and whatever, but I think it was a big experience for all of us. I know it was for John Belushi.
AVC: On that note, rather than give the book in question any more publicity than it’s already gotten, when we spoke to Ed Begley Jr. about Goin’ South, he said that all you needed to know about his level of partying in the ’70s was that John Belushi intervened and told him he needed to tone down his drinking.
MS: [Laughs.] I think that’s true! Yeah, that was true. We were all staying at a place that was once a prison but was now a hotel called El Presidente, in Durango, Mexico, and I stayed there about a week and realized, “I can’t keep up with these guys and do this huge part that’s requiring all this stuff of me that I’ve never done before!” I didn’t know how to hit my marks. I didn’t know how to manage everything that was being asked of me and go crazy every night drinking my brains out, singing, and having the best time. And I’m also quite shy socially. So I struggled with that, and I knew I couldn’t handle being there, so I rented this tiny little place and moved into it and moved away from them all. And I loved them! I would’ve given anything, actually, to have been a part of all that craziness. But my own social limitations and the fact that I was getting up every morning and doing things that I’d never done in my life… I had no reference for anything!
I mean, I remember my first scene was that I had to drive a buckboard pulled by a horse up to a rock, which was the equivalent of a city block away, stop the buckboard so that the front wheels are by the rock, tie up the horse, get out, get a pen, an inkwell, a piece of paper, and a bag, get Jack to sign something, blow on the paper, roll it up, take all this stuff, and exit the frame. It was something basically like that. I haven’t seen the movie for awhile, but I think I described it pretty well. And that was my first day’s work. So I did it, and then—he calls me Chair, it’s a nickname in the movie—at the end of it, he goes, “Now, Chair, that’s the single hardest day in terms of props you’re going to have in your entire career. I just wanted you to know, it’s all downhill from there. It’s all going to be easier than that.” And he was right: I’ve had a lot of props to deal with in my career, but I’ve never had a day that’s been harder to do in terms of prop stuff than that. [Laughs.] He would do things like that. He was so kindly to me. He was such a great, incredible mentor.
There was wildness, but there was also a ton of—for lack of a better word—sweetness and heart in that movie. And every single one of us who was there, we all counted it as one of the great experiences of our lives.
Back To The Future Part III (1990)—“Clara Clayton”
AVC: Presumably it was at least a little less stressful when you worked with Christopher Lloyd again on Back To The Future Part III.
MS: Right! But I think part of the magic of that, of the connection of those two characters, had been born in Mexico in 1977.
AVC: How was the experience of working on that film, given that you were coming in for the third part of the saga?
MS: Well, it was an honor, first of all. And I love Westerns. But it was also nostalgic for me because Chris was there, and the only other time I’d been involved with a Western was Goin’ South. And I’m not a great horse person, but I love horses, and I love all of it. The sights and sounds and smells, the whole genre of Westerns—I love them. And I know they’re rare for actors to get to do, and they’re even more rare for women to get to do, so I really think I was drinking in the experience on so many levels.
Michael J. Fox, he just understood how to do those films, and how to do them in such a way that he was sort of the everyman, in a way that people could relate to them through him. And then there’s Chris, who’s kind of bigger than life in his eccentricity, and Bob Zemeckis, who’s such a great storyteller and who—impossibly—was flying back and forth to L.A. each night after work, staying up and editing Back To The Future II and then flying back. But he always had incredible energy and enthusiasm and delight in what everybody was doing.
But I also remember it just being physically hard, because... you’re hanging upside down from trains! [Laughs.] And climbing across the top of moving trains. And riding on a horse between a camera car and a train, up to the back of a moving train, and then touching it so that my brilliant stuntwoman could then do the transfer. But it’s me up to touching the back of that train! All those things were hard but wonderful, and I just feel really blessed that I was a part of such a historic trilogy.
Pontiac Moon (1994)—“Katherine Bellamy”
Beastie Boys, “Make Some Noise” (2011)—“Café Patron”
MS: Well, Pontiac Moon was a really wonderful experience, and there’s probably no one in the world that that film would mean more to than Ted and I. It came to me at a time when I had announced to all of my friends—not dramatically, very seriously—that I was done with relationships, that I was very lucky to have two incredible children and that was what I was going to be happy with, and I wasn’t going to stress about relationships anymore because I wasn’t any good at them. [Laughs.] That was 22 years ago!
It was just so unexpected, because I was a fan of Ted’s from Cheers, although there were people that I had been hoping would play that part even more than him, I’m ashamed to admit. Because there was a part of me that assumed a little bit that he was somewhat like his character from Cheers. Which was stupid, looking back, because I’m an actor, and I should’ve known better. And then when we started working together and rehearsing, I remember just being very shocked at who this person was, that he’d been raised to a great degree with the Hopi and Navajo people. You know, his dad was an archaeologist and a director at the Museum Of Northern Arizona, and his whole life had been centered around that world and those people and the Native American culture, or at least the Hopi and Navajo cultures. They had no TV in their house, and he had no—and still doesn’t have—a frame of reference to so many things. Like, say, the lyrics of “Yellow Submarine”? He’d have no idea. He somehow lived through the ’60s and didn’t know what happened! [Laughs.]
AVC: In fact, when we talked to him for this feature, he literally described himself as “somebody who literally could not even quote you a Beatles lyric.” He said that, by the way, in the context of explaining the absurdity of him being in a Beastie Boys video.
MS: I’m not 100 percent sure he knew who the Beastie Boys were. [Laughs.] I, of course, was having a heart attack that we’re getting to be there! But he’s also played the triangle onstage with Beck! He’s sort of like this… wonderfully absent-minded professor who stumbles the most profound experiences in life. He’s a very magical person.
One of the things that I fell in love with, which really makes sense when you know his family and you know what they’re about, is his incredible environmental activism. You know, in a town where people get all excited about something and stick with it for a few months or maybe a few years, he’s walked this walk on a daily basis for close to 30 years, really, and he’s now at a point where what he’s doing, what they are doing at Oceana, is truly a global movement. It’s the single biggest ocean advocacy group in the world, and they’re really doing extraordinary things.
So there were a million reasons for me to fall in love with him… and, luckily for me, to stay and keep falling in love with him, which has been such a blessing in my life. But that film was the little key that opened the door.
Melvin And Howard (1980)—“Lynda Dummar”
MS: You know, the first time I read that script, it was given to me by Jack Nicholson, because it had been sent to him to play Melvin Dummar. But he was committed to do The Shining, and he knew that was going to be a long commitment, so he said “no” to it at the time. But he gave it to me, purely as an example of what he thought was a great screenplay. He said, “You should just read this because it’s a great screenplay.” I don’t think he even talked to me about the role. But, of course, I became obsessed with the role. At the time he was sent the script, it was with Mike Nichols, who was thinking of directing it, and I’m not really sure I know or remember how or why it left Mike, but then it went to Jonathan Demme.
I asked if I could audition for the role, and I did, and I read with Paul Le Mat. I remember at one point we read a scene where Lynda has been out of his life for a while and runs into him at the courts, and she gives him a kiss, and I remember laying one on Paul Le Mat. [Laughs.] And then that was the end of the audition, so I left. And by the time I got home, my phone was ringing, and Jonathan was saying, “I don’t want to make you wait at all for this. I want you for this role.” And I was just thrilled and honored. It was really wonderful to work with such great writing. It won Best Screenplay as well as myself winning Best Supporting Actress, but also Jason [Robards] was nominated and was wonderful. And Jonathan should’ve been nominated for it. The direction of the movie was so impeccable and beautiful. And it’s really held up of its time as being a beautiful film about the American dream.
It was a fascinating thing, because the real Melvin was in the movie. He’s the man at the bus station. I don’t know if you’ve seen it anytime recently, but I borrow things from him to make a sandwich for my daughter. His version of the events is what we told, and handwriting experts were unable to disprove that the will that he had was a forgery. And if it was a forgery, it was one of the most sophisticated forgeries of all time. It was in the days before computers, and it included quite obscure relatives of Howard Hughes that he would’ve somehow had to have known the names of. And it didn’t say, “I leave all my money to Melvin Dummar.” It listed all of these friends and obscure relatives, and then it said… I think it said, “I leave a 16th of my money to Melvin Dummar of Gabbs, Nevada.” So I will always believe that we had the real story, the real will. But he was always up against some powerful forces that didn’t want that to be the real will. So it was a very interesting experience working on it.
AVC: So which was more difficult for you, dancing in the strip club or tap dancing on the game show?
MS: Oh, definitely dancing in the strip club. [Laughs.] Not the dancing, but the being naked. That was excruciatingly scary for me. But I also had to make sure that I made it not about that. That it was about her moment and what she was about at that time, what she was going through, and that it not be Mary’s nakedness. Because Lynda had a whole other sense of propriety than I do.
The tap dancing… I used to tap dance when I was a little girl, and it’s funny how it stays with you. I’ve found that most people who studied when they were little, even if they never took another tap class, it’s percussive, so it stays in your body, the muscle memory of it. So that was fun to do. But it’s so funny, because last night on a commercial I heard “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and every time I hear those low electric guitars… [Imitates the opening riff.] I’m right back there in the little rehearsal room, working on that.
Ironically, most of what’s on screen is improvised dancing, because we had a little thing worked out, and we did it, and then Jonathan said, “Okay, now throw that out the window and just dance.” And I remember looking out at the sweet man who was the dolly grip—his name was George, and he was a really good guy—and he was looking at me expectantly, and I just thought, “George doesn’t know where to push that dolly any more than I know where to go right now. I’m just going to dance with George.” And I just focused on him and danced. I wanted it to be a wonderful combination of being able to dance a little bit, not being especially good, but also playing a character who says the line, “I love to dance,” I felt like that was one of the lines that was a key to who Lynda was. She loved to dance. And just from my own selfish point of view, when you look at the moments of a career where you were glad to be an actor and you felt in concert with your crew or your fellow actor, that was one of those days for me: dancing with George the dolly grip.
Cross Creek (1983)—“Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings”
Clifford (1994)—“Sarah Davis”
AVC: You’d be surprised how many people wanted to hear about Clifford.
MS: Oh, no, I know. My son, he has a film group, a bunch of film nerds that sit around and screen movies, and when they had Mary Steenburgen Night, the two movies they screened were Melvin And Howard and Clifford. [Laughs.] And Marty [Short] would’ve come if he hadn’t had to go out of town!
That was just fun because… I mean, it’s just a funny, dumb movie. [Laughs.] But it’s also kind of wonderful, because it’s Martin Short and Charles Grodin. Because Marty and I could not stop laughing. We were already friends before that, and just his nuzzling into my breast—because he was always sort of at breast height—and me in super-tall shoes. And at times he was even in a little trough, which was kind of the equivalent of putting me on top of a bunch of apple boxes stacked one on top of another. Somehow they always managed to make me so much taller than him. And I am taller than him! But just by a little bit. And they needed him to be 10 years old. So it was just hilarious. And he had these things on his face that kind of pulled his face back, and we named them Salt and Pepper… and sometimes Pepper would pop off!
Marty is just one of the world’s great people and one of the world’s true great comedic talents, so that was just thrilling to work with him. And I loved working with Charles Grodin, who I’d done another movie with and just really got along with. He was just great. So Clifford was so much fun. But I’m sort of amazed at how it still has this cult following!
AVC: When we talked to Dabney Coleman, one of his predominant memories about the film was a scene with you where he blushed, and John Alonzo, the cinematographer, called him out for having done it.
MS: [Laughs.] Oh, that’s funny. I worked with John a bunch. John was extraordinary, because he filmed most of what he did… He operated it himself, and he did it handheld. This was before all the big rigs for Steadicams, and John Alonzo essentially shot Steadicams, but he didn’t have a rig. He just had these crazy strong abs and arms, and he would shoot so much of whatever he worked on with that camera on his shoulders. And it always was steady. It was extraordinary how he did it. I did Cross Creek with him, which was a film with Marty Ritt. John shot that. He was a wonderful, wonderful cinematographer.
Time After Time (1979)—“Amy”
MS: Well, thank goodness I did it. I have children because of that movie! [Laughs.] I loved it. I loved working with Malcolm [McDowell]. He’s been such an important person in my life. I mean, not just as someone I was married to, which is huge, and the father of my children, which is even bigger, but also as a friend and an inspiration and somebody who probably helped to fuel something that all my reading as a child had already started, which was a love of England and the world of the theater over there, which I became involved with through him and probably because of him. It just seemed like a lot of my work centered around England for a number of years.
And he and I related to each other a lot because he had had a mentor the same way I had Jack Nicholson—Lindsay Anderson was his mentor—and he also did his first film at the age of 24. He also had to negotiate films without his mentor and realize that that was kind of hard at first, and then liberating. We also both came from relatively poor families and then made money and had to kind of learn how to deal with that in our families and in life in general. So we had a lot in common.
And then there was just the film itself, which was so thrilling and romantic. Nick Meyer had written such a great script and had such wonderful instincts and did such a great job. And then there was David Warner, who was such a great villain, although after every take he would, like, take the knife that he was holding to my throat away and go, “Did I hurt you, love? Sorry! Sorry!” “David, David, stop apologizing. It’s hard to believe in you as Jack The Ripper if you apologize after every take!” [Laughs.]
But Amy was a great character, both strong and a classic damsel in distress, a modern liberated woman but a woman in love who’s questioning everything, too. It was just a great part, one that I actually had to audition for… and got, thankfully! But the very best reward for it was my two beautiful children.
Step Brothers (2008)—“Nancy Huff”
MS: Oh, well… [Laughs.] Step Brothers was like a reward for going through my whole career and somehow surviving. It was, like, “We’ll give you a job where we’ll pay you for it and you can sit and just be wildly entertained every day, and the worst thing that’ll happen is that your stomach muscles will get tighter from holding in a ferocious amount of giggles.” That was Step Brothers for me.
Adam McKay, who’s such a wonderful director and is so fun to work with, would just scream stuff at you for you to say. [Laughs.] It’s so much fun! And any little nugget of comedy that was worth exploring, he took the time to explore it, and we would chase that improvisationally in addition to just a wonderfully funny script that was there to begin with. And those two crazy guys… I mean, Will Ferrell’s 11 years younger than me, so playing his mother was already funny! But it was delicious. I wish we would do another one. It probably isn’t going to happen. But if I got that call that we were doing Step Brothers 2, that would pretty much be the best thing that ever happened to me, because it was just one of the great, fun jobs of my whole life. I laughed all day, every day.
In fact, I’m on camera laughing. The journalists, when it first was screened, kept coming in to interview me saying, “Am I wrong? Did we see you laughing?” “Yes.” Because when I went to Adam and said, “In such and such scene, why did you use the take where I’m laughing?” And he said, “Mary, we don’t have any takes where you aren’t laughing!” [Laughs.] And I know that I can be kind of maybe a lightweight on that front, but I defy anybody to have been in that room and not been laughing! I mean, it’s like certain days I have on Last Man On Earth. It’s, like, “No, I’m sorry: I’m going to laugh. You guys can figure out in the cutting room what to do about it!”
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2009)—“Mary Steenburgen”
AVC: You’d already had a chance to further hone your improv skills when you did Curb Your Enthusiasm.
MS: Yeah. And, of course, I actually started out in improv. But Curb was fun because you really had no idea what you were going to do when you went to work. The biggest clue you might have was your own wardrobe, which they made you bring from home sometimes, too! [Laughs.] So you’d say, “Oh, it must be a party, because they’re saying ‘party clothes.’” Or PJs, or whatever. Literally, that’s how much you knew when you went to work about what you were going to do.
But I love Larry [David]. He’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever met. He’s just very special. And it’s funny—as grumpy or whatever as he is, he also has this beautiful tender streak to him that I know and that maybe close friends know that makes him even more lovable. But he’s just such a unique human being.
And it was fun to play this kind of slightly fractured version of ourselves. I mean, it’s not really us. We didn’t live in a house anything like that. And our kids were in their 20s when we were supposedly having middle-school kids on the show. And the woman who played my mother wasn’t really my mother, which was a little bone of contention with my mother. [Laughs.] So our names were the same, but they were still characters in a certain way.
AVC: Your husband took particular glee in pointing out that the first time you watched the pilot for Curb Your Enthusiasm, a few people fell asleep.
MS: Not us, though.
AVC: No, he didn’t suggest that you did. He just pointed out that a few people did, and then he very emphatically added, “Please quote me.”
MS: Yeah, someone did fall asleep, and I thought [Gasps.] “Oh, my God, this thing’s gonna…” I mean, you have to realize that we knew Larry, and we couldn’t picture Larry acting. We really just couldn’t picture it. And then we watched the [final] pilot, I was, like, “I think this actually works!” And it did. In its own wonderful uncomfortable way, you couldn’t turn away from it. It was a little bit like watching and wondering, “What’s the accident going to be this week? Who’s he going to insult? What kind of obscene, bizarre mess is he going to create and involve everyone else?” And it just made us laugh. We tend to love things that are left of center anyway, and from the get-go it was just, “Oh, my God, this is so unique and wonderful!”
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (2010)—“Mrs. Yankovic”
AVC: Not a big part, but a memorable one.
MS: Oh, for Funny Or Die! Well, what’s funny is that [Al] came up to me in an airport a few years ago and said, “Mom?” [Laughs.] Yeah, I played the mother of Al as a little boy. It was fun! Of course, I worked for all of half a day or something, but it was fun. I love Funny Or Die. I love doing things for them. I’ve done quite a few of them, and they’re always fun to do.
Parenthood (1989)—“Karen Buckman”
MS: Well, that was an amazing experience. I lost my dad during that film. I was flying back and forth, flying to Little Rock to be with him, and then flying back to Orlando. It was a particularly painful time in my life, and those people were all so lovely, as was Ron Howard. And it really was kind of a soft place to land, which I needed at times, and which I certainly needed when he passed away in the middle of the movie and I still had to keep on going. So some of my memory is of that, because it was such a poignant moment in my life. I was making a movie that was so much about family, about love, and about the challenges in a family, and in life I was living one of my family’s biggest heartbreaks. So some of my memories are a little bit colored by that. But I also have memories of wonderful things.
I remember we had a dinner table scene where we had to sit for hours there. It was, like, two days long, this scene. Those kinds of scenes are hard to shoot because of the way you cross-shoot things, just the technicality of shooting around a table with all the various angles and stuff. And someone—I think Steve Martin—introduced a deck of cards and this game called Murder, where if you drew the joker you were the murderer and you “killed” other people by looking directly into their eyes and winking. And if somebody winked at you, then you had to wait a few minutes and then raise your hand and say, “I’m dead.” And the murderer had to very subtly go around the table “killing” as many people as possible. And what was fascinating was that I was sitting at this table with all these brilliant actors who happened to have incredible timing. Jason Robards would kill you by the biggest wink in the world, but he was so brilliant in his timing that other people didn’t catch him doing it. And if you caught the murderer, if you saw them, you could say, “I think I know who it is.” But nobody ever guessed Jason, because Jason’s timing was so impeccable. And then there was Steve, and just all these wonderful actors! I remember Ron Howard being so jealous that he was the director and not an actor, because he wanted to play! [Laughs.]
So that’s one of my many memories. And I remember Ron, this man who had himself been a really brilliant child actor, having just the right thing to say to these children to direct them. It was a great, great experience.
Ink (1996-1997)—“Kate Montgomery”
AVC: In recent years, you’ve had a tendency to work on somewhat quirky series, like Last Man On Earth and, before that, Wilfred. When I was talking to Ted, we were discussing Ink, and he said that the experience is sort of why he goes looking for creative people in hopes of being part of whatever they’re doing—hence Fargo—as opposed to having a series built around him.
MS: Yeah, you know, I think it’s hard, too, for a married couple to work together. Funnily enough, I don’t think people want to see that. It was the first time in my life that there was something about it inherently that I felt like people really… [Hesitates.] I don’t know, I wouldn’t say that they wanted us to fail, but there was a cynicism that kind of came to us from that. It was hard. Some of it may have been, also, that our producers were Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks. And then there was CBS. I think at the time there was stuff going on that I’ll probably never know about, but it just felt like, “We don’t want to see you guys, a married couple, working together.” And I’ve heard other actors who are married say similar things. I think in a weird way people just want it to all be pretend. And there’s something about a married couple acting a relationship where they don’t always root for you, I think. And I’ve never really felt that before or since in my career.
The business has been extraordinarily good to me. Like, really good to me. So when people invite me to complain about it, I don’t, because I’m so blessed to have done it, and I have loved by far the majority of the people I’ve worked with and the experiences I’ve had. But I think Ted’s right. It was our fault, too, to the extent that it’s probably putting the cart before the horse to have a series created for you. Because both of us had spent our entire lives reading a script, saying, “God, I hope I can pull out the parts of me needed to do the job in this role,” and then digging deep and finding that. And there was something a little skewed about a case where it was, “Let us do this for you.” And then I felt like we blew it. I don’t regret it. I don’t regret now that I didn’t work, to be honest with you, because we’ve had such fun doing other things. And, of course, our marriage is stronger than ever, so I don’t look back and see it as a big regret. I’m just trying to describe—if I have to—what I think it was that happened. And I think some of it was just that we’re better off proving ourselves to those writers and directors rather than the other way around.
AVC: And just to clarify, he certainly didn’t write it off entirely. He said, “I think it didn’t quite work, but I think there were some wonderful things about it.” So he didn’t blow it off. He just felt like a lesson had been learned.
MS: Yeah, I’ve seen bits of it since then that are truly funny, so I don’t think that it was… Well, look, it’s just another part of our lives. And I’m grateful for it.
Justified (2014-2015)—“Katherine Hale”
Orange Is The New Black (2015)—“Delia Powell”
AVC: As far as your more recent TV experiences go, it’s clear that Last Man On Earth stands out for you, but is there any other instance that’s been a particular highlight?
MS: Well, last year was a crazy year. I think I did four movies and four TV series last year. I had the privilege of being on an amazing show like Orange Is The New Black, which I was already a fan of, and then Justified. I don’t know how Justified escaped winning every award going for writing. [Laughs.] It was just such great writing, and in the style of Elmore Leonard, who loved what they had created, and then they carried on so brilliantly without him. And they wrote such a great villainess for me to play. I was so honored to be in their last season. And then to play a character on Togetherness that I really loved… She’s so out of left field.
Those were all highlights for me, and I just felt like I had this year that I couldn’t have done when I was younger. I wouldn’t have done it when I was younger, because I was busy raising my kids and just couldn’t have been flying to New York every other week as I did for Orange Is The New Black. So it was really a year where I felt so lucky to be in this business, which I feel all the time, but I especially felt it last year! [Laughs.]
But Last Man On Earth, I have to say, is a love for me. I mean, a true passion. To people who haven’t watched it or who’ve watched a little and thought, “Ah, I don’t know where this is going,” or whatever, I urge them to check it out again. Because we’re doing something very unique, so much so that we’re having other directors—most recently Mike Schur, who did Parks And Rec and The Office—saying, “I’m so inspired by that show that I’m consciously breaking new ground with my own work, because I feel like it’s an open door to other possibilities.” And that is purely to do with Will Forte and our writers. We’re occasionally finding it jaw-dropping at these read-throughs, because you could not predict which way this show is going to go. And I’m proud to be on something that takes those risks. I also think we’ve had episodes where we’ve fallen flat. But that’s a part of doing something that is not formulaic. There is nothing formulaic about it. And I’m having the time of my life on it. There’s just such camaraderie on this show. I mean, the writers and the actors all came up to my house in Ojai and we had a retreat, because we all have so much fun together! [Laughs.] I really feel like this is another one of those really big blessings that this business has brought me.