Mary Steenburgen Drew on 'Wizard of Oz' When Co-Writing 'Wild Rose' Song "Glasgow"

ONE TIME USE ONLY - Mary Steenburgen "Zoeys Extraordinary Playlist" - Getty - H 2019
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The award-winning actress, who is also a professional songwriter, co-penned the tune about dreams and forgiveness for Tom Harper's tale of an aspiring country singer who dreams of moving to Nashville.

Mary Steenburgen is an Academy Award-winning actress with a career spanning 45 years, but, little known to Hollywood, she is also a songwriter — whose life changed in 2007 after a minor arm surgery left her hearing music in her head. "It took a long time for me to be able to honestly feel I could say that I'm a songwriter," she tells The Hollywood Reporter on a phone call from her rainy Vancouver set of NBC series Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. The show, which sees the protagonist start hearing everyone around her express their emotions through song, uncannily feels lifted from her own life. “The first question I asked them when they offered me the part was, ‘Do you know my story?’” 

But that music in her head has led to a spot on the Oscars shortlist for "Glasgow (No Place Like Home)," the original song she wrote with Caitlyn Smith and Kate York for director Tom Harper's Wild Rose, the tale of an aspiring country singer (Jessie Buckley) who dreams of moving to Nashville. Here, Steenburgen expounds on the underlying themes of “Glasgow” and how her music and acting worlds seem to have cosmically come together.

You’ve won an Oscar for acting [for Melvin and Howard in 1980], so how does it feel to make the Oscars shortlist for a song you wrote?

I've been writing now since 2007, so this is very thrilling, and I love the two women that I wrote this song with. Writing it was a joy. We thought a lot about the character of Rose-Lynn. And when we saw the movie, it was so powerful because of Jessie Buckley. As an actor, what I so love is not just the quality and strength of her voice, but how utterly she feels her singing and especially that song with all of her heart. Longing and sorrow, regret and pride. I think people like the song, but I always say, "Have you seen it in the movie?" I'm proud of the song no matter what, but it's really written for that singular spot in that movie.

How did you first get wind of Wild Rose?

This is not something most people know about me, but I write professionally. At that time I was writing for Universal Music Publishing Group, and the Nashville office sent out to all of its songwriters a breakdown of this movie, which at the time was called Country Music. They were looking for several songs, and I actually submitted another song as well for a different point in the film. I go on writing trips to Nashville and I'll stay five or six days and write, one to two sessions a day with various writers. I was able to get a copy of the script, and I think I read it on the way to Nashville. They said, "Well, there's not a part for you in it." I said, "I'm not looking to play a part in it — I want to write a song for it." (Laughs.)

What did you pull from the script as you were writing "Glasgow"?

It was written with all of us understanding how much we owe our mothers and certainly how much Rose-Lynn [Buckley] owes her mother [played by Julie Walters]. As a fan of Julie Walters and not having seen her performance [at the time], but just as a fellow actor who really appreciated her work, the whole time we were writing it, I thought about her face, and thought about her. She was so good in it. She's one of the big reasons that movie is so wonderful. Rose-Lynn put her mother through so much in life and hadn’t shown any real gratitude. There was something very understandable about the ferocity of her own dreams and that balance between what you dare to dream and that myopic focus of, "Are you taking down others because of that?'" I read the script and then told them, "If I were playing this part, this is what I would need to say to this woman."

Rose-Lynn's journey parallels Dorothy's "There's no place like home" realization in The Wizard of Oz. How did you land on the Yellow Brick Road motif?

We started with the stones image. One of my dearest friends, who is really like a sister, lived with our family for 18 years as my [family's] nanny. I was 30 years old and she was 20. We sort of grew up together. Now she lives in England, but she's originally from Glasgow. I really wanted to go to Glasgow, but since I couldn't hop on a plane and go, I called her and made her talk to me about Glasgow to have a sense of it. I would also ask Tom Harper questions about the set to get a sense of what the look of the film would be, because production designers and art directors and costume designers are a part of every performance that I ever give. So we landed on "the stones in front of your doorstep," and that was the first little key into it. Then that made us think, "What are the stones like in Oz?" We thought that so many young people had come to Nashville wanting something from Nashville — including the three of us [songwriters], me at a much older age. We had done the same thing in our own way that Rose-Lynn had done. Hopefully, not leaving so much pain in the wake. (Laughs.) A lot of people just see it as this golden place. I remember also reading this really beautiful essay by Robert Louis Stevenson called "El Dorado." It's about how you're so busy looking at this golden place that you miss the journey going there — the journey is actually El Dorado. It's not the thing at the end of the road. 

Rose-Lynn loves country music because it's "three chords and the truth." She even has the line as a tattoo on her arm. Do you feel the same way?

Certainly, those chords are the backbone of everything. The best country does have truth to it and very often digs into some sort of longing. When you think about writers like Hank Williams that are just so classic and you look at those lyrics, they very often are about somebody's yearning that's inside of all of us. One of the things I really love about country music is that it tells stories and it's not ashamed to tell stories. It's not "too cool" to tell stories. The best country finds really simple and yet often very profound ways of doing that. It paints a picture. But I also enjoy writing pop music. Don't get me wrong, it's really fun. And it's really fun to write things sometimes that are about creating something that you can't get out of your head. Although I've been told by people that that's true for them of this song, what we were really doing was trying to tell the story of someone who needed to say I'm sorry. And to express her love not just for her mother and for her children but her whole world that she thought couldn't possibly live up to her dreams. 

 

You’ve been up in Vancouver shooting Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist since August. Were you drawn to the show because it's basically your life, where the main character hears music in her head?

It certainly was the first question. When they offered me the part, I said, "Well, let me come in and meet you all." I had actually worked with producers Kim and Eric Tannenbaum before, but I hadn't met Austin Winsberg, who created this. The first question I asked them was, "Do you know my story?" They all looked at each other and grinned and said yes. And I left it at that. But here's the thing with me hearing music. It took a long time for me to be able to honestly feel I could say that I'm a songwriter, and I've worked really hard at it. I've tried to stare down both my fear of it but also any ego or pride because I'm always the least experienced person in the room still and I'm always the oldest one. I've had to work to prove myself in the last 12 years in that world. One of the things that I wasn't trying to do was be a singer. I don't really consider myself a singer. I think I'm an actor who sings a little and most of the people in this show are full blown, talented singers so it's been interesting. But since the thing happened to me where the music started in 2007, it seems like every single thing that comes my way, that is offered to me, has some weird connection to music — music-related projects including Last Vegas, where I play a lounge singer with Robert De Niro and all these other guys, and Song One, a movie I did with Anne Hathaway that's all about music. I'm not conscious of making that happen. Perhaps it's me, perhaps it's some subconscious thing of going, "Oh, she has something to do with music." I don't know. But Zoey's came to me and I thought, you know, “I can either say no to this out of fear or I can say yes to it and just try to live up to it.” And that's what I've tried to do. I have singing lessons and I had a dance rehearsal yesterday and I recorded a song today and I think there's probably some crazy circle going on in my life that even I don't fully understand. But what I do love is writing music, I have to say. More than singing, more than anything, I love writing.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story appears in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.