Mary Steenburgen has a story to tell for every single person in Hollywood. And she is not yet finished speaking.
Perhaps Mary Steenburgen was right.
In 1983, the actor, then 30, was interviewed about Shelley Duvall’s unusual passion project, “Faerie Tale Theater,” a quirky, almost hallucinogenic live-action anthology series that retold classic fairy tales with the help of all-stars such as Steenburgen, Robin Williams, Mick Jagger, and others.
“Actors are always selling you pipe dreams,” Steenburgen told the New York Times of her initial concerns about Duvall’s audacious endeavor. “We discuss tasks they wish to undertake but never get around to completing them.”
It’s easy to see why Steenburgen, now 68, took on one of her most demanding roles to date in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” It has required her to a cappella sing Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance,” belt out The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” while breaking into dance in a room full of caskets, and hold her own in an epic, meticulously choreographed one-shot performance of Don McLean’s seven-minute “American Pie” alongside an ensemble cast and hundreds of background actors.
Fittingly, the veteran actor and foodie went viral last spring for mixing a drink: “I have lived a lot of my life through my mouth.”
“I also have this feeling that it’s easy to shut down small parts of yourself as you age,” she says. “And you will never have another opportunity like that. Everyone tells you when you’re young, ‘You can do this!’ ‘Do not say you cannot do that,’ I said to my granddaughter the other day. I’m sure you will!’ However, there comes a time when no one says that to you. There is this contractual arrangement that you are attempting to undermine… That will not be me.”
And those who are unfamiliar: NBC’s musical extravaganza, which airs Sundays, focuses on the titular character (played by Jane Levy), who gains the ability to hear people’s thoughts through song and dance after an MRI. Zoey and her family are also dealing with the recent death of her father, Mitch (played by Peter Gallagher), who suffered from a rare degenerative neurological disorder. As Zoey’s mother Maggie, Steenburgen exudes both the love of a loving mother and the anguish of a widow trying to find her way — all while breaking into song on occasion.
Steenburgen is a professional actress who has long been respected for her versatility. She was famously discovered by Jack Nicholson in the reception area of Paramount’s New York headquarters and was later cast as the female lead in his 1978 directorial debut, “Goin’ South.” (“I relocated to Los Angeles to work on the film and stayed in one of the Chateau Marmont’s small bungalows. I had no idea what the Chateau Marmont was. And every day, I’d take a taxi to Paramount Studios, where Jack would show me between two and three films. And then, at the conclusion of each film, he would come in and we would have a conversation about the acting in the film. And they were all comedies with good female protagonists. It was this remarkable film tutelage by the era’s leading actor.”)
She has left enduring impressions in films such as “Melvin and Howard” (1980), “Parenthood” (1989), and “Elf” (2003); television shows such as “Joan of Arcadia,” “Justified,” and “30 Rock”; and on Broadway. She recently starred as a perfectionist mother in Clea DuVall’s holiday rom-com “Happiest Season,” which centers on a lesbian couple. And she’ll star alongside Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett in Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming film, “Nightmare Lane,” later this year.
However, it is Steenburgen’s later musical career that has allowed us to see her in a new light.
She secretly began writing songs after acquiring an exceptional sensitivity to music, which resembles the fictional concept of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” Thirteen years ago, she awoke from minor arm surgery with an unusual experience in which her emotions were musical, as she describes them.
It’s culminated in a successful songwriting career, co-writing songs for Universal in Nashville, where she lives part-time with husband Ted Danson. One of her tracks, “Glasgow (No Place Like Home),” was used in the fish-out-of-water film “Wild Rose” and was nominated for best original song at last year’s Academy Awards. She co-wrote a “weird love song to the world” with husband-and-wife team Lucie Silvas and John Osborne (guitarist of country-rock duo Brothers Osborne) during the height of quarantine last year, which she says they are making into an animated film.
On this recent morning over Zoom, Steenburgen says she hears a little music as the conversation unfolds from the kitchen inside her cozy rental home in Vancouver.
Anis N’Dobe, Alison Brie, Asiyih N’Dobe, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, and Mary Steenburgen star in the holiday film “Happiest Season.”
“When it first happened to me, I was paralyzed by it,” Steenburgen states. “I recall attending a party on Martha’s Vineyard where a three-piece band was playing quite a distance away and someone was attempting to communicate with me, but my brain was preoccupied with the music. What I’ve discovered is that when I speak with people, I’m generally based on what they say. However, as we discuss music, I begin to hear a range of styles. It’s the most difficult at night or when we hang up — because I’m alone and can hear music. Occasionally, I’ll descend to the basement and attempt to play it on the piano, which I’m training myself to do.”
It’s mid-January, and she’s only four days away from completing Canada’s mandatory two-week quarantine period before returning to work on the sophomore season of “Zoey’s.” Today’s schedule involves vacuuming, possibly working on a wooden hand-cut jigsaw puzzle left behind by her friend (and former “Last Man on Earth” co-star) Kristen Schaal, and taking her 15-year-old Australian shepherd, Arthur, outside for playtime.
According to Steenburgen, it was an unexpected blessing that the series served as a conduit for those processing their sorrow and desperation during the pandemic.
“I haven’t been around people to see the effect, but I have seen it on social media — the comments are from people who have lost a parent, a sibling, or a grandparent, or who just feel lost, and the show gives them the sense that they are not alone,” she says. “There could not have been a more opportune time to close the show. It’s not just about loss; it’s about the joy of hope as well. And it’s about the joy of music, the supreme language.”
Season 2’s first day of recording, Steenburgen describes, was an emotional experience. CONVICTION- There were 19 health and safety measures in place, including mask use, temperature tests, and maintaining a safe distance.
“We’d only seen each other with masks on, and we’d all been checked and had our temperatures taken, and had to obey all these laws that, in 45 years in company, didn’t apply unless you visited a friend in the emergency room,” she explains. “Jane and I eventually removed our masks because this was the moment we were going to perform the scene. We hug in the scene, and you could feel both of us trembling as a result of the human contact.”
When friends and colleagues discuss Steenburgen, they often use the words “national treasure” and “effortlessly talented.” However, they all stress how grounded she remains throughout her illustrious career.
“It’s as if I’m being enveloped in feelings of comfort, security, and love,” Levy describes the experience of sharing a scene with her. Schaal will inform you that when a crew member’s birthday rolled around, Steenburgen was already aware and would attempt to arrange something special for them.
Then there’s the revelation that Steenburgen is a sucker for an old-fashioned game night. She is currently in a Codenames process — the game allows players to crack the code names of assigned spies — and recently played with DuVall and Schaal.
“She’s very good at it,” DuVall noted. “I was very taken aback. That is something I have picked up on: once you begin working with Mary, she becomes your friend. I found myself fortunate to have her in the film due to her amazing talent. However, I consider myself even more fortunate to have her in my life.”
Naturally, one of the perks of living in Steenburgen’s orbit is the daily reminders of her existence.
“At times, she’ll casually mention how Princess Diana sat next to her at the ‘Back to the Future III’ premiere,” Schaal says. “I swear to God, she was dreaming about a dinner party with Rita Hayworth the other night. If you give her a moment, she’ll tell you everything there is to know about anyone in Hollywood. It only appears on rare occasions.”
Steenburgen is far from done conjuring up memories.
“I’m not sure if reincarnation happens, but I do know I’m here now and, thank Goodness, I’m still breathing. In the midst of this madness, I’m not going to say no to something that matters to me in life… I simply believe that everybody should experiment with new ideas far more frequently. Over time, you come to know that if you don’t want doors to close, you must pass through them.”