Jun 8, 2023

TBT: Jean Smart & Mary Steenburgen

photo by Gary Leonard

When I was starting up Back Stage West back in late 1993/early 1994, I remember someone suggesting that we do something like Interview magazine—i.e., have one celebrity interview another. Hence was Actors' Dialogue born, though the emphasis wasn't so much on celebrities per se as colleagues who happened to be well known, and most often had a single project to promote together (though we also did our share of matchmaking: Our very first dialogue, between Marion Ross and Charlotte Rae, wasn't tied to any project at all but was put together as a kind of dream date). I've posted a few of these recent years and plan to do more (i.e., Sam Jackson & LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Rupert Everett and Richard E. Grant).

These were always very lightly hosted and coaxed along by a reporter, which is how one memorable day I found myself in the presence of Jean Smart and Mary Steenburgen, who were both appearing in the West Coast premiere of Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room. The brackets in their exchanges below show a few traces of my nudging (I'm sure I asked them to compare notes on their training, for instance), but I think the results hold up well as a time capsule of these two, and of the industry they were part of, in the mid-'90s.

Back Stage West
Oct. 13, 1994


On Confidence, Training, and the Intangible

Two actors best known for film and TV roles met recently at the home of a friend to talk about their return to the stage, in Marvin's Room at the Tiffany Theatre.

Mary Steenburgen's first film role was in Jack Nicholson's Goin’ South, and she won an Oscar in 1980 for Melvin and Howard. Since then, she's appeared in such films as Time After Time, Ragtime, Parenthood, Cross Creek, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Jean Smart is best known for her role as sensible Charlene on the long-running CBS series Designing Women. She also played a retarded woman in the TV movie The Yarn Princess, and appeared in the films Mistress and The Incredible Journey: Homeward Bound.

Jean Smart: I think that you automatically make an adjustment [going from film or television to theatre], just the same way you make an adjustment when you're talking to someone across the table or you're talking to someone who's in the next room, or you're talking to your child, or—do you know what I mean? I think it's just sort of a human thing; I don't think it's so dramatically different.

Mary Steenburgen: This [play] is really intimate. I find that the only difference for me is, besides the intuitive adjustment that you make, the bigger adjustments are the external ones. I don't have the same time clock that's born of experience on stage, as I do in film, just because I've done so much more film than I have stage. Though I started out in theatre, and trained for two years with Sanford Meisner, I did so much film. My idea of when I should be ready at a certain point, you know, is all based on film.

So when I do a play now, I still feel like I'm getting my legs. I want to do everything right away—like I wanted to have my lines learned immediately, I want all of my props now, you know. Whereas you're really relaxed about things: "No, we're in great shape, we're doing great!" I have to be told that we're doing great!

Jean: Yeah, we're supposed to be backstage throwing up!

Mary: I suppose that's a matter of gaining confidence from doing this. Besides, I tend to do things to scare myself just so I remember I'm alive. Some people drive real fast; I go on stage.

Jean: [Doing a television series is] like doing a one-act play in front of an audience. It's an odd breed of its own. It's not quite like film, and it's not quite like theatre; it's very strange. I came out here in 1983, and I was doing a series. We were getting ready to shoot the first episode, and somebody said, "Who's leading the warm-up?" And I thought, "How weird!" I thought we were all gonna do like vocal warm-ups together, tai chi or something. I thought, "Oh, I didn't know they did that. Cool!" And they said, "No, no, no," and told me that a standup comic goes up, and I'm going, "You're not serious!"

Mary: Is that really necessary?

Jean: They seem to think it is. And they're getting ready to start, and they're like, "OK, everybody, line up for intros." "What is that? What are they doing?" She said, "Well, they introduce you to go up." I said, "Before the show?" They introduce the entire cast one by one, like a basketball team.

"At center, we have Mary Steenburgen playing Bessie!" And you go out and wave, and the audience applauds, and then you all go backstage and get in place to make your first entrance. Can you imagine if you're doing a play, and they did that? I thought that was hysterical! "And playing Juliet at five foot two!"

Mary: That's funny.

Jean: It was just bizarre. And then, the audience can see you, standing, waiting to make your entrance. You're sort of standing behind a flat, and most of the audience can see you...

Mary: They can?

Jean: Well, sometimes, depending on what part of the set you're in.

Mary: [To do television,] I'd have to move, change my entire way of life, work a lot more than I work. I like my freedom; it's very scary to me to think of giving up my freedom.

Jean: It is scary when you feel like you owe your soul to the company store a little bit. You sign on the dotted line for like a minimum of five years.

Mary: Yeah, that's what scares me! If it was for a year, or something, that would be a snap.

Jean: A year or two.

Mary: Also, most of the things I have been offered on television were not—I didn't love the material. I have loved the television films I've done. I've done two. I did a series for the BBC of Scott Fitgerald's Tender Is the Night, which I loved doing, and the other one was The Attic, about the Dutch woman who hid the Frank family in Holland, and I loved that.

It's not a thing about "TV" so much as it is the practicality, the way it would change my life. You did one of the most incredible things, The Yarn Princess, on television; that was a beautiful, amazing performance. It's so hard to play a retarded person—a person, what do you call it? Slow.

Jean: "I'm a slow person," she says about herself.

Mary: I couldn't even recognize you; you didn't do anything to change your face, but it's not even the same face. You just understood this person so beautifully. You transformed yourself.

Jean: That's one thing about TV movies, actually, especially now, is that they actually do, sometimes, some subject matter that's a little more...

Mary: Risky?

Jean: Yeah, and a broader spectrum sometimes than features. Features are getting a little gun-shy about anything that isn't really high-concept, that they feel real confident about. Maybe it's an economic issue or something. That's kind of too bad, 'cause it's getting harder to get things like, somebody told me the other day, remember that wonderful movie, The Trip to Bountiful?

Mary: Mm-hmm.

Jean: An executive of the studio said you could never get that movie made now.

Mary: Yeah. There were a lot more independent films being made, I would say, 10 years ago. I produced a little indedependent film (The End of the Line).

Jean: A few years ago, the year that The Crying Game was up for an Oscar, and there were some performances that were up from independents, everybody was saying how that was going to help all these independent companies. It should have proven something to somebody.

I wish people would have confidence in a story, in a good story. That is the bottom line; that's what people want to see. Maybe there are a couple of actors that they'll go see in anything. But the bottom line is, if you have a great story, and you do it well, word of mouth is gonna make it a success. If you aren't so fearful that you pull it after the first weekend if it doesn't do great, if you don't spend $20 million on your cast so you have to make it back—I mean, the budgets have gotten to be like a joke.

Mary: [With this play,] it's really a case of living up to great material. Where a lot of your career is spent, you know, frankly taking things and trying to say, "How can I make this better?" in this case it's, "How can I find every moment he meant for me to find?" and "Can I fully realize every gift [the playwright] gave me in this play?"

Jean: We feel so cheated that we don't get to talk to the playwright or to invite him come and see the show. I mean that selfishly, but also I mean it's such a waste; no one will ever get any more of his writing, you know. He was incredibly special.

The Voice of Sandy

Mary: Studying acting is a treacherous kind of endeavor because there's a lot of people who are just full of it, that themselves are not good actors and don't really know what it takes to make a good actor, and so they're teaching it. Then there are people who genuinely have gifts. They're the teachers that can communicate something to you that will be useful, that is like a product you purchase that you can use for the rest of your life. [With Sandy Meisner's teaching,] it should have said it comes with a lifetime guarantee, because it has never failed me. When I get [side-tracked,] I can actually hear his voice in my head, and I make an adjustment that he would say.

Jean: Can you give an example? I mean, I've heard so much about him but I don't know precisely what...

Mary: Yeah, absolutely. The other day I was rehearsing [with Chad Cox] and I realized that I was worrying so much about all these different little moments that I was just getting bogged down in them. Sandy always said, Don't do anything unless the other person makes you do it. You put all your attention on the other person and trust that you know all those moments that you're working on. You have done that work, but then don't concentrate on them. So I thought, I'm not going to think about that moment, that moment, that moment, the notes I got the day before, whatever. And I put my attention on [Chad] and within seconds I was so deeply into it, you know, because he took me there, the other actor. He's wonderful.

Also, I was lucky enough to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse for two years, and there was a hugely repetitive nature to [Meisner's] work. The same things were taught you over and over. There's even an exercise called repetition exercise, which I still do—you know, Ted [Danson] and I do it. We sometimes do it when we're looking at something or reading something or working on it.

But it's been 20 years since I studied with Sandy, and in those years, especially on film, I've accumulated my own little ways of doing things. Film is so technical. I like to give the editors a "cut" within a scene—you know, like at the end of the scene, I turn my head a certain way or make a movement, to give [the editors] a place to put their scissors.

Jean: It's funny, because you and I haven't really talked about that before, about Meisner. I went through a Bachelor of Fine Arts Program in Theatre at the University of Washington. We had some amazing teachers there. They didn't have any particular method they promoted, but they were also professional actors and directors. But with some actors—I mean, even if I didn't know who they studied with, immediately when they open their mouth they're just very real, very natural, very subtle, very…you know what I mean? And however they get there, you know, kind of doesn't matter.

Mary: I do believe that. Somebody said, "Does it worry you when you work with people who didn't study with Sandy Meisner?" Well, I don't know if I ever have worked with any [of his students] except two or three times in my career. You can get some things from anybody, no matter what they're doing. With you, you're so present all the time, it's easy. I mean, I've burst into tears in the middle of a scene when I knew I had no emotion coming into it because of you, because there's something in your eyes and all of a sudden it will make me do what I'm supposed to do. That's really a gift when you work with those actors, but you can't count on that all the time, so it's great if you have your own way of working that's hopefully flexible and inclusive.

That was one thing that...

Jean: When we were young...

Mary: ...the arrogance of young acting students .

Jean: There's nothing worse than a drama major!

Mary: Yeah! God's gift to acting, the first-year actor. After my first year at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I went back and did Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in Arkansas, and the local critic there clobbered me. Rightfully so. I wasn't good, and I know exactly why: because I was so busy acting a method that I really wasn't telling truth and I wasn't serving the play. I was very self-involved, Miss Literal Method, with no expansive sense of humor about myself.

Sandy always says it takes 20 years to make an actor, which means that I'm just about now getting started; I may be born this year. I always thought, Yeah, yeah, I'll be there before 20 years. But I think that the thing that's true about it is that life has to give you that sense of humor and humanity and time and irony, and all the things that can then go straight into your work. You don't have that at 22, 23. I didn't. I had other great things: fierce desire and hope and complete willingness to work my butt off. But I really do see what he means now; life gives you a lot.

Jean: I see a big difference out here between actors who've never done any theatre and actors who started out in the theatre. I was surprised when I first moved out here when I met actors who had never done a play. I didn't know that such people existed. I'm not being condescending, but I do think that [the stage] gives you a great deal of self-confidence, and you learn how to incorporate a character into your body. If someone said, "You're really cute. You could probably do commercials, and maybe act." If that's how you start, I don't think that you ever learn how to really incorporate a character.

There is a little bit [of antipathy toward theatre from] agents sometimes. You and I are both from the same agency [William Morris], and I think we're lucky that we have agents who don't discourage us from doing something if it's good, you know, and it's not necessarily going make them a ton of money.

Mary: Yeah! One of the reasons I love being [with William Morris] is that they're respectful of an actor's desire to do this to grow, because I'm only going to be better with the next film I do because of this experience. The stuff I'm learning on this I easily can bring to film.

But a lot of agents really discourage their clients from doing this because they want them in on making big bucks. But it's a very smart thing to do, to respect the fact that actors are continually growing.

You know, you talk to Anthony Hopkins—he's doing most amazing work of his life at this time of his life, but he'll tell you that he did theatre in Los Angeles. I saw him play Prospero out here, you know. And part of what he and his agents are reaping now was invested in that kind of work.

Jean: I'll never forget the first time I saw him a long time ago...

Mary: I know. He's riveting.

Jean: My husband doesn't want to hear his name anymore, the way I drool and fawn.

Unfortunately, there's this attitude out here sometimes—you know, you do your acting classes and your theatre, yeah yeah yeah and the [industry is] thinking, “If you're such a good actor, then why are you doing all this crap?" You know what I mean. To them, the bottom line is, it doesn't matter.

Mary: It doesn't matter for those lucky moments that you are in an amazing film that works. But a career for a lifetime...

Jean: Oh God!

Mary: It's all that matters.

Jean: The people who do classy projects want people that are good. There are some actors who are certainly adequate actors but who for whatever reason caught people's fancy and work a lot. The bottom line is, people want to watch certain people. The intangible thing about being an actor that goes beyond just ability to tell a story is, Do people want to watch you?

Some people find that at a very young age, and some people find it later—you know, they find a character that suddenly makes everybody sit up and take notice, and suddenly it's that wonderful marriage between an actor and a role that brings out all the best qualities of something.

But that's why actors can get so frustrated about the business and about things. You have to keep a better sense of humor about yourself and about the business, too, otherwise you'll make yourself crazy, because you'll always feel that you want something or that you feel like you're not doing enough.

Mary: Also, if you can develop a sense of facing yourself, trusting yourself, and an awareness of time, then you're not so desperate about this moment, the present. I have a friend who said that she only just recently stopped trying to read every single script that is being made right now. I said, "You mean you would read scripts that your agent can't even get you a meeting on, scripts that are going to somebody else?" And she said, "Yes, every single thing.”

Jean: Wow!

Mary: I said, "Why do you do that to yourself?" And she said, "I'm so afraid of missing something." And I said, “My God, that must hurt so much to do that."

She said, "Why aren't you like that?" And I said, "I don't know, I guess I have this genuine belief that I will do what I'm meant to do." And I don't mean that I just turn it over to somebody else, because I read and sometimes I have to work hard to get things still. But within that, I do believe that I wind up doing what I'm supposed to do, and I try to listen to whatever it is that's supposed to be next.

I didn't know what I was going to be doing this autumn. And then my friend Tom Hulce called and said, "You're going to be offered a play called Marvin's Room, which I don't know if you saw, and you have to do it." Tom Hulce had told me to read a book called What's Eating Gilbert Grape? which ended up resulting, years later, in me being in the movie. So I listen to Tom.

Jean: I'm so sick and tired of everybody thinking, "This is going to be a career move... Should I, shouldn't I, career move...career move..." Instead of going, "I’m supposed to be enjoying my life, I'm supposed to be enjoying having these opportunities to be an actor and to make my living as an actor, which is what I wanted to do."

Mary: Does it make your heart beat faster?

Jean: Yeah! Instead of, "This is going to be a bad career move, this is going to be a good career move." You make yourself insane. "I can't go out of town on vacation because, you know, that one great meeting might happen when I'm out of town, you know." Thank God we're not living that life, but people who do a job their entire life that they loathe so that they can retire when they're 65 and then start living, or people who muddle through a job that they hate and that bores them out of their skull five days a week and live for the weekend—you know, to me that would be very sad. It doesn't mean that our business can't be incredibly stressful in some ways. I would not encourage my son to pursue it, and if I had a daughter I certainly would not encourage her to pursue it either. I wouldn't forbid them in any way if they really seemed driven, but I certainly would not push them in that direction.

Mary: I feel very blessed by this business, you know. I’ve made my living at it and raised my family, and it's been astoundingly great and generous to me. But do I think it can be better? Absolutely. It's very exciting now to finally have been directed by a woman; I did a little movie Laura Dern directed, and this is the first time I'm directed by a woman! And then I did Candida last year in New York, which Gloria Muzzio directed, and you just finished a movie that Betty Thomas is directing.

Jean: She's great. I think what's going to help a little bit is if we all as people back off a little bit from the notion that, you know, this is a man's project, a woman's project, and even necessarily assuming that a woman producer or a woman director is going to be somehow better for actresses.

Mary: I agree!

Jean: I mean, if you just stop worrying about all that and just let people do what they do best then we'll all be better off! Relax!

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