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This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
From her Academy Award-winning role in Jonathan Demme‘s quirky 1980 drama Melvin and Howard to playing Will Ferrell‘s mom in 2008’s Step Brothers, Mary Steenburgen has never been pigeonholed as an actor. The Arkansas native, 62, added three acclaimed TV gigs to her roster this season, all of which have placed her squarely in the primetime Emmy race for supporting actress (FX’s Justified) and guest actress in a comedy (Fox’s The Last Man on Earth and HBO’s Togetherness).
How were you cast as the scheming Katherine Hale on Justified?
I’d heard for years about the show, and amazingly [creator] Graham Yost called saying he had me in mind for the character. I knew I’d say yes even though there was nothing on paper to say yes to! I was already a fan of [author] Elmore Leonard. Also most people don’t think of me for these kind of parts (laughs), but Graham said, “I trust you with the comedy of it, too.” Every time I read new show scripts, my husband [actor Ted Danson] was like, “What’s happening, what, what?” and I’d read him bits of it.
Was he jealous of the gig?
A little, but he’s been off doing [FX’s] Fargo, so he’s enjoying some pretty outstanding writing himself. But I just loved playing Katherine. She’d shoot someone who stole her purse, finish him off, look at her handiwork and then speak in French to someone on her phone who I guess was gonna come clean it all up? The surprise of those little things, and the fact that she was a Southern woman who was smart and complicated … I felt like the luckiest person on the planet to be playing her.
What was it like to work with Sam Elliott again, with whom you co-starred in 2009’s Did You Hear About the Morgans?
He’s wonderful to look at! As we age, he’s one of these guys who gets even more and more handsome. As an actor, he brings so much gravitas and power. You totally believe him, whether he’s right or wrong.
At the other end of the spectrum is Linda, the hippie you played on Togetherness. Did the Duplass brothers write the part for you?
That show is so lovely. As far as I know, they wrote it for me. I knew Mark [Duplass] because my son, Charlie McDowell, directed him in a film, The One I Love. I was sad to say goodbye to Linda because she was so much fun.
With Forte and Cleopatra Coleman in The Last Man on Earth.
Did either show allow you to improvise or go off-script?
Justified had such dead-on beautiful scripts that you didn’t want to mess with it. I saw it on my first day. Everybody would go into a room — writers, actors and the director — and we’d hammer out what needed to be changed. Then we really stuck to the scripts, which had to be in the specific voice of Elmore Leonard. There were also so many moving parts as to who was in cahoots with whom. And they wanted to end the show brilliantly. So for good reason, there was less improvisation — whereas Togetherness is much more about people experiencing each other, figuring out what’s important to them in life, so you did see a lot more of actors working off each other. Mark and [co-creator] Jay [Duplass] are great about being open.
You also appeared on Fox’s The Last Man on Earth. How was it playing one of the last women on the planet?
(Laughs.) It was the most joyful experience. [Creator/star] Will Forte is such a nice, extraordinarily creative human being. Utterly fearless. And the writers are so delicious. The frickin‘ email chains that went down when the show got renewed should be published in a book.
The first season of Togetherness featured Steenburgen (with co-creator and star Mark Duplass) as a sage free spirit named Linda.
What was your favorite scene?
I heard someone on the crew say, “God, I wish we had a way of playing music right now, like the [Chopin] death march.” I said, “I have my accordion in the car,” and all these heads snap around. ”You play the accordion?” So I very simply played the death march, then segued to a French cafe-style song I made up on the spot. (Laughs.) I was the oldest person but by far the worst giggler on that set.
You also appear in season three of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. Who do you play? More importantly, how did you fit in shooting this part, too?
I can’t say! It was hectic. I started Orange, which overlapped with Justified, then started Last Man, then finished Justified and wrapped Last Man. For most of the last year, at least two sets of lines and characters were living in my head. It was definitely a year of really spreading my wings as an actor.
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