Mary Steenburgen likes the humor of ‘Book Club’ and the naughty bits in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’
Mary Steenburgen has been balancing a career of acting in movies and TV and on theater stages for four decades. An Arkansas native, she’s married to Ted Danson, studied acting with Sandy Meisner, won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1980 film “Melvin and Howard,” plays the accordion, and stars, along with Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Candace Bergen in the new comedy “Book Club.”
Steenburgen, 65, plays the down-to-earth but free-spirited Carol, who realizes that her marriage has lost its spark after she and her book club pals start reading and sharing thoughts on the racy “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Since she and Danson split their time between Los Angeles and Martha’s Vineyard, she recently popped over from the island to Boston to happily chat about the film and her career … and accordions.
Q. How did a kid from Arkansas get into acting in New York?
A. When I was growing up, I always felt safest in books. That was my go-to world. I remember my parents always saying, “Mary, don’t read at the table.” I remember my sister saying, “We don’t HAVE to read the book; just watch Mary read the book.” I guess I was very emotive about it. It dawned on me one day that by reading, I was already acting. When I was around 16, I auditioned for a community theater production of “The Crucible,” and I got cast as one of the girls who screams and points. That was exciting. In high school, I was in “Our Town.” Then I went to one year of college. I did a play there, and a professor said, “You need to go to New York to study, because you’ve got something special.” He gave me a list of schools, which I still have, and he checked off one and said, “This is the hardest one to get into because it’s so small, but there’s a man there that’s extraordinary.” It was the Neighborhood Playhouse, and the man was Sandy Meisner, and that’s where I went.
Q. You had waitressing jobs, did improv acting, and was taken under the wing of Jack Nicholson to star with him in “Goin’ South.” Since then, you’ve jumped between comedy and drama, and indie and studio films. Have you been following any sort of plan?
A. Man, I wish I was that good. The reality is that when you’re a 65-year-old woman, it’s quite extraordinary that you’re working in this business. And I’ve been working so much more than I ever expected to be. One of the keys is that I’m not afraid to improvise. But, no, I’ve never been very good at planning my career. It feels like it’s just been unfolding.
Q. How did you get involved with “Book Club?”
A. As Candace says, it was one of those times where I didn’t have to humiliate myself or audition or beg for it or get my agent to beg for it. We all just got offered parts. First it was Diane. Then Jane was offered the part and wanted to do it with Diane. Then Candace was offered and wanted to do it with both of them. Then I was offered the part, and it was like I’d need to be a lobotomized idiot if I didn’t want to do it.
Q. What’s your opinion of the book that’s at the center of the film?
A. To be perfectly honest, I’ve only skimmed it and read the naughty bits.
Q. I read that the results of test screenings, concerning male viewers, have been surprising.
A. We have been kind of shocked at the male reaction to the movie. Candace and I were doing some press, and about half of the people we spoke with were men. We figured it would probably be that more women would like it, but boom, the men were saying, “I love this movie.” What the movie is saying is that nobody wants to be irrelevant. Nobody wants to be told that their life doesn’t matter. Nobody, especially if you’re a young person, wants to be told there’s a shelf life on your dreams, on romance, on trying something new. And I love that it’s done through humor, which is my favorite language, anyway.
Q. How did you begin your relationship with the accordion?
A. I had started writing songs about 10 years ago, but I wasn’t playing an instrument. One Valentine’s Day, Ted and I were at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, and he said, “I want to buy you a gift; what would you like?” For some reason I pointed to a green accordion. I now have eight accordions and I am obsessed with them. If they weren’t so damn heavy, I’d take one with me everywhere.
Q. OK, could you please explain how people manage to maneuver all of those buttons on the left side?
A. I’m not an especially great accordion player, yet. So it is sort of like magic. There’s a little dent in the C button, so I can feel where the C is, and then I try to find where F and G and everything around it are. But the true answer to how master accordionists play is I don’t know how they do it.
“Book Club” opens on May 18.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.