At 62 — nearly 40 years after she first became a star opposite Jack Nicholson in 1978’s “Goin’ South” — Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen is amid something of a career renaissance. She’s booking roles on some of the most acclaimed shows on TV (including “Justified,” “The Last Man on Earth” and “Orange Is the New Black”), starring in promising upcoming indie films and writing songs on contract with Universal Music. This despite the fact that Hollywood — or really the entertainment business generally — typically has no use for women very far past the age of 40.
Meanwhile, Steenburgen, a Newport native who grew up in North Little Rock, continues to be closely engaged with Arkansas. She and her husband, Ted Danson, are co-owners of South on Main (with Steenburgen’s niece, Amy Kelley Bell, and her husband, chef Matt Bell). In March, she wrote a letter distributed by the Human Rights Campaign decrying the last legislative session’s discriminatory HB 1228.
This week she comes home to participate in “Into the Blue,” a fundraiser for the Thea Foundation on Wednesday, May 13, and provide the entertainment on Friday, May 15, at South on Main for a fundraiser for the Oxford American, a magazine on whose board she sits.
The event at South on Main, billed “Mary & Friends,” will find Steenburgen and her Nashville songwriting pals Matraca Berg, Kim Carnes, Greg Barnhill, Shawn Camp, Shelly Colvin and Jeremy Spillman performing together and solo and talking about how the songs came to be. The night includes food by chef Bell, cocktails by bartender David Burnette and a range of auction items. Tickets are $200 and available on oxfordamerican.org or by calling 501-374-0000, ext. 206.
The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
I think a lot of people leave Arkansas and say, “good riddance,” but you’ve always maintained a relationship with the state.
I’m kind of a selfish person. I do it simply because I really enjoy coming there. I love Arkansas; I’ve never lost my affection for it. In fact probably being away from it has always made me appreciate it more. I love the people. I love the food. I never wanted to let those connections drift away because they’re very much a part of who I am. Even out here, the friends I am the closest to are the friends who have come at some point with me to Arkansas because I feel like you don’t really know who I am unless you understand that part of me. It’s in no way a chore. I’m happy to come home always. Excited to come home in a few days.
It helps to have a great restaurant that you co-own that you can bring people to and eat at yourself.
I’m proud of that. It’s hard to do that. I remember from my waitressing days watching restaurants try to make it and fail. We knew we were taking a chance, but we really believed in Matt and his cooking and really believed in the Oxford American and saw great potential in the partnership of bringing really interesting artists and music there. I found that concept very inspiring. It was something we decided to take a chance and do, and I’m really happy that we did because we’ve already had some really wonderful experiences there.
You’ve been a longtime Oxford American board member, so it makes sense that you’re headlining Friday’s fundraiser, but you could probably get a big crowd just for a meet and greet with you and Ted. Instead, you’re putting on a big production. I’m guessing you’re going to the trouble because it’s fun for you?
Increasingly I’ve been involved in music for the last eight years or so. I write music for Universal. That brought me to Nashville, where I was so privileged to write with some of the best writers in Nashville. They would invite me to these writers’ rounds. I found that such a fascinating format for music because you hear the songwriter talk about what inspired them to write the song, when they wrote the song and how they did it. The song is so much more meaningful to you when you hear it.
The second I started going to those in Nashville, I thought we need this in Little Rock. Oxford American celebrates not only music, but the written word. So to really hear from songwriters about their inspiration and not just have a night where the songs are going one right after another, but have the leisure and pleasure of that knowledge of how that song was born, I just thought that’s something people might appreciate there.
It’s gotten back to me, some of the really nice things people who’ve played [South on Main], like Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash and Iris Dement, have said about performing there. If those guys are talking about it, I wanted some of the people who’re some of my dearest friends and Nashville songwriters to experience it. I think it’s going to be a great night. There are also going to be some extraordinary auction items.
We’ve see trend pieces almost every other month about how Hollywood doesn’t make room for women in their 40s. Amy Schumer memorably poked fun at this idea a couple weeks ago. But in the last year, you’ve been defying that narrative with a run of really great roles on acclaimed TV shows. Are you at the vanguard of a change in Hollywood? Is it something about you as an actress?
This is not a very glamorous answer, but I’m the best represented I’ve ever been in my career.
Some of it also has to do with it being a golden age in television. I don’t know about the golden age, but it is a golden age. There’s just a tremendous amount of good material. There have been years and years at a time when I felt like I was desperately searching for something that I could be proud of. There’s actually more work now than I can do. Which is crazy. I don’t think I fully understand all the reasons. I’ll be honest with you, I really thought I would be kind of tending a garden by this age. I had the busiest year I’ve ever had. I did four movies and four TV shows in a year. I have one more little film for TV I’m doing with the [Jim Henson Company], and then I have a month break and then we start the “Last Man” second season. I feel really blessed. I’m having a great time. I love the people I’m working with. It was very unexpected. But I’m having a great time.
“Justified” is one of my favorite shows of all time.
That was a great gig. That was like a gift. I just got a call one day from Graham Yost, the creator, who said, “We want you to be one of the kind of major villains of the final season.” People sometime assume, for some dumb reason, I can’t play mean even though I keep telling them (laughs). He said, “I thought of you because I trusted you to handle the comedy.” A big part of “Justified” is that wonderful, Elmore Leonard, darkly comic thing going on.
When we started I really didn’t know too much about [my character], Katherine. I didn’t know who she was going to be. That’s one of the interesting things about guesting on one of these series with long arcs. They’re not really written when you start it; they’re just sketched. You have to dive in and be brave and go on that journey together. There was an episode where I shoot someone through my purse and then speak to someone in French telling them to come clean this up (laughs). The way that they wrote the character, no matter what you think of her, she wasn’t a dumb Southern woman.
I’m a time-shifted viewer for “Last Man,” so I’m not caught up, but I’ve heard tell about a scene with you and an accordion that figures in prominently.
There were a couple of musical little found moments. There’s this scene that needed to be sad. They were saying they wished they had some sad music. I said, “What music would you play?” They said, “We’d play the Death March.” I said, “Well, I have my accordion in my car.” They said, “Wait! Wait! Don’t tell us you play the accordion.” I said, “I won’t tell you that I’m very good, but I think I can play that Death March.” I whip it out and play it and then go into some strange French cafe music improv, and they loved it.
The other musical moment was they needed a song for Will Forte to sing at the very last episode. That song was important, and they were trying to figure out what would fit. I told them, I actually have a song that I’ve written with Katie Hertzig that would be perfect, I just need to tweak it. So I did and sang it for the director. Will sings it in the last episode.
The thing I love about that show and the thing I loved about “Step Brothers” is that it’s very alive creatively. There are no real, hard-fast rules. If something happens during the day or something is thought of, it’s explored and jumped on and everyone tries to figure it out. That’s very unusual for television. Because we have to work very fast and there’s so much money involved, it tends to get a little rigid. “Last Man” is the opposite of that: very risk-taking. It probably means that sometimes we’ll fall flat on our face, but there’s always going to be magic in that.
Can you tease anything about your “Orange Is the New Black”?
I really wish I could, but I can’t. It’s coming in June.
How do you feel about your old friend Hillary Clinton’s campaign?
I saw her last night and her speech was amazing. I don’t think there’s a human being in this world more qualified because of all of her experiences. I’m thrilled about the idea of someone of my sex with that much talent and that much experience and that much caring in that job. I will be campaigning mightily.