A Bitter Role Brings This Actress Sweet Acclaim
January 31, 1993
Article taken from philly.com
NEW YORK — Back in 1987, shortly after John Sayles’ Matewan was released, the director talked to Mary McDonnell, who played Emma Radnor in his mining-town drama, about an idea he had for another film. It was a vague something-or-other about ”this woman who is very bitter – that was practically all he told me,” she recalls now.
Five years and five movies later, McDonnell is curled up on a Manhattan hotel couch, trying to keep a grip on reality in the face of critical acclaim, a Golden Globe nomination and industry buzz that she has a lock on a best- actress nomination at the 65th Academy Awards. The reason for such heady speculation: McDonnell’s portrait of May-Alice, a thoroughly embittered woman in Sayles’ Passion Fish, which opened Friday at the Ritz Five.
Passion Fish – the story of a soap-opera star who gets hit by a taxi, awakens in the hospital a paraplegic, and returns to her small Louisiana home town to brood, booze and abuse a series of wary nurses – is the kind of film actors kill for. As written and directed by Sayles, the role of May-Alice is at once fiercely intelligent and ferociously selfish. It’s a part that runs the gamut of real-life experience, bringing humor, self-pity, angst, tenderness, Southern-bred graciousness and a big-city cynicism to the screen.
McDonnell, who made her film debut as the West Virginia hill woman in Matewan, won a supporting-actress Oscar nomination in 1991 for her portrayal of Stands With a Fist, a white woman raised by Lakota Sioux, in Kevin Costner’s new-age western, Dances With Wolves. She was also affecting in Lawrence Kasdan’s under-appreciated Grand Canyon, in which the auburn-haired actress played an upper-middle-class Los Angeles housewife who discovers an abandoned baby. (In the wake of the L.A. riots, the film, which dealt with issues of race and class, social and spiritual isolation, seems alarmingly prescient.)
Nonetheless, McDonnell’s short filmography (the forgettable Patrick Swayze vehicle Tiger Warsaw and last year’s high-tech caper Sneakers complete the list) doesn’t quite prepare you for the scope and substance of her work in Passion Fish, a movie that rises above and plays off the conventions of the wheelchair genre. And with Alfre Woodard as a woman with her own troubles who hires on as May-Alice’s live-in attendant, the film explores the female psyche with a depth uncommon in more-mainstream Hollywood fare.
That it was written by a man is doubly unusual.
“Was I surprised that John understood women like that?” asks McDonnell, who was born in Wilkes-Barre, spent her grade-school years in King of Prussia (“I remember cutting across the field, going underneath the turnpike and coming out on the other side, walking across this little dirt path, to the mall”), and otherwise grew up in Ithaca, N.Y.
“Not really. When I did Matewan, I wrote to him before the movie began – he was on-location – and asked him just a few questions about my character, and I received a short novel back. He was so interested in her, and so detailed, and had so much to offer. The kind of things he said about the woman showed such insight into the feminine.”
Years before, McDonnell, now 39, tested for the lead in another Sayles film with a female central character, 1983’s Lianna. Although the actress, who was working mostly on the New York stage, didn’t get the part, the audition remains a memorable one.
“I was standing there reading,” she says, smiling. “I’d just begun, and I stepped backwards on the casting director’s dog. I was all adrenalized for this audition, my heart was already pounding, and I stepped on the dog and the dog went BAGGGHHHHH! It didn’t even faze John. But he never forgot it, and I’m absolutely sure that part of the reason I stuck in his memory was because of stepping on that dog.”
After Matewan, Sayles called McDonnell again, while she was shooting Grand Canyon, to see if she would read the script he’d finally written about that ”bitter woman.”
McDonnell read it and agreed to do it. She prepared for her Passion Fish role by working with a trainer (“I wanted to make sure that I could handle myself on the set: not moving from the waist down, crawling across the floor on my elbows”), and by meeting with paraplegics at a physical rehabilitation hospital in Southern California.
“The people at the rehab center taught me how to sit in a chair, how to move, how to get out of a bed and use the bathrooms,” she says. ” . . . And they brought me into the emotional territory. This one woman said to me that the thing you have to realize is that you’re exactly the same person with the same issues going into the accident as you are coming out of it. . . . The accident brings who you are into a much stronger relief, so that you have to face yourself. But it doesn’t change you, it doesn’t suddenly turn you into an angry, bitter person.
“And that was what I needed to hear and needed to constantly reinforce. What John and I focused on was that this was a story about a woman whose accident actually affords her the opportunity to come out of a very long, empty time, rather than what you see often on TV, where these things throw people into a bad time.
“The accident gave her an opportunity to either grab onto a lifeline finally and move forward, or to go all the way down.”
The part gave McDonnell the opportunity to tap into all sorts of deep, dark psychological stuff.
“Right,” she says, grinning happily. “That was part of what I loved about doing it. . . . You think, ‘Oh yeah, I’m like that sometimes,’ but you trick yourself into thinking that it’s not a major part of you.
“But when you go as an actor to actually play it, you realize you’ve got miles of this information inside of you. It’s inexhaustible the amount of bitterness you’re capable of! It’s so great to get it out there and create something with it rather than the way it usually just festers away in life.”
McDonnell isn’t sure how she feels about all the Academy Award talk. (She lost the Golden Globe to Howards End’s Emma Thompson last weekend.)
“On the one hand, I’m flattered because it’s even being talked about, and you can’t help but respond to that. But I also feel a bit wary,” she says. ”We’re so set up – I am, certainly – to the idea of winning awards. So even though you don’t want to be caught up in it and your wiser self tries not to pay attention, that American kid gets activated and you find yourself getting caught up in the game.
“But it’s wonderful to have people talk that way,” says the actress. “It means they like the movie.”
As for the talk that this has been an exceptionally poor year for women’s roles, McDonnell begs to differ – sort of.
“Well, I think it turned out not to be bad at all,” she says, citing, as one for-instance, Susan Sarandon in Lorenzo’s Oil.
“That’s just a thing that people started saying about a month ago and everybody’s jumped on it. Compared to male roles, there’s definitely an imbalance. But that’s been historic in this industry. And sometimes you have a lot of women’s roles that aren’t particularly exciting. There have been big movies with female leads, but they weren’t necessarily exciting, stimulating, great leading roles.”
Sitting in her hotel room in mid-January, McDonnell is in that disquieting between-projects phase. Married to Randle Mell, an actor and acting teacher (the couple have a 5-year-old daughter), she leads acting workshops during extended periods between jobs.
You can hear the instructor in McDonnell as she discusses the “clarity” and “commitment” that an actor brings to a part.
“I’ve got a couple of things going on but nothing’s quite come together in a way that feels right,” she reports. “I’m getting a little antsy now,
because I haven’t worked in a while. So I might have to kick-start something, or just jump right in.”
Passion Fish, filmed last spring in the swampy parishes of rural Louisiana, followed back-to-back-to-back work in Dances, Canyon and Sneakers.
“I needed a break, so I took the summer off. I didn’t really intend to then take the entire fall off,” she says, laughing, “but that’s the way it worked out. So I’m really quite ready to go back to work.”