Mary McDonnell Major Crimes Interview
March 18, 2013
Article taken from Female First
Major Crimes set new ratings records for American channel TNT in the States and now the Mary McDonnell starring crime show hits UK screens as itstarts tonight on The Universal Channel.
From biting the bullet all too soon in Hollywood extravaganza Independence Day to helping Kevin Costner become one with the Indian tribes and leading the human race in the critically belove Battlestar Glactica, McDonnell’s had an amazing career on both film and TV.
The show’s star and two time Oscar nominee sat down and talked about the show, her incredible career and the new golden age of TV that’s currently taking America by storm.
Before we talk about the show, I just want to say what is it like to play the first lady? There’s only a handful of people who can say they did that.
It was great.
Do you get it a lot?
It was too short. Because she was a great role, but she died rather quickly and ââ
You made a very good impression.
Thank you. But I did love it. I think the first lady is a phenomenally important position, and getting more so with every administration, really. And I particularly think it’s really important right now, because girls are being bombarded with these images, bombarded with every kind of image and every kind of idea. So to see a first lady whose children that are carrying some kind of (inaudible), it’s just beautiful. So it was fun, but I also like playing presidents.
Also, one of your very, very early roles was with Sophia Loren, and I just wondered ââ
Oh, my gosh. We were just talking about that today for one of the first times in a long time.
It was amazing.
Do you look back at that a lot and think, gosh, look how far you’ve come?
Yes. Well, I look back as a truly delightful moment, because Ms. Loren was quite lovely. And I was playing this hooker with a southern accent. And she ââ this was a long time ago. And she got tickled by my southern accent and wanted to learn it. So she would sit next to me and I would say “a line like this and I’d go like that,” and she’d go “a line like this and go like that.” And she tried to learn a southern accent. She was so playful and delightful, and everything about her is beautiful.
It’s actually quite funny you mentioned her voice, because your character in the show has got a very kind of strong, kind of ââ we were commenting on it. It might be a power thing to get across how strong your character is.
It’s so funny. People keep asking me about the vocal quality about Captain Raydor, right? And it really, literally, came out of playing her. It wasn’t something I chose. But now I sort of know where it is and what it feels like and I go. And it just came with her. It came in the door with her. It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?
Because you don’t really always know as an actor what will be qualities that people will focus on in any character you play. And some of them are qualities that literally just emerge in the playing and are a surprise to you as well. Right?
Were reluctant at some point to accept this part? Because it was a spinoff of a really successful show.
Well, because I had been playing Captain Raydor as a recurring role in “The Closer,” it had more of an organic development to it. It was still a huge challenge, and there were moments when I went what have I done? What am I doing? Can this happen?
Can we pivot this situation in a way that’s truthful? How can we take this character and slowly turn her into someone who’s at the center of this group rather than person they love to talk about at the watercooler. And that would become a bit frightening at times. You go, oh, jeez, is this going to work? But it was a collective commitment.
James Duff and I shared a lot of laughs and a lot of courage. And the group, everybody was on board. Everybody knew what we were trying to do and knew what kind of a risk it was and knew the elements of drama that needed to be honored.
We also wanted to honor the fans, not turn them away. We knew how much these characters were beloved. And we knew how much Brenda Leigh Johnson was beloved. So it was one of those situations where it was very humbling to do it as opposed to isn’t this great we’re doing a spinoff.
It felt very humbling. It was like we need to get this right at all costs. And right in one scene might mean this, but right in another scene might mean that. And James Duff has a real gift for sort of counterintuitive kind of travel.
He doesn’t go where you expect him to go as a writer. And what that allows is, in a situation like this ââ is the actor playing the part is allowed to stay in the moment of play and to discover the truth of the woman in the situation as opposed to trying to make a spinoff. So he created an organic transition, and that made it a lot less frightening.
And how much did you put yourself in other than the script, I mean?
Well, I think my feeling about acting, after having done it now for many decades, is that the better I get at it, the more I’m using parts of myself and you tweak them here and there. Things come out differently. You look different or a different voice emerges, or tone.
But the thing that you are feeding at the core of every character is your unconscious, your subconscious, your heart, your memories, your imagination, and that’s yours. I don’t see the lack of use of the self. I see the use of the self. To me that’s the the giving.
I wondered what you think about the importance of starting out in New York, on Broadway, and how that plays a role in fastâturnaround television.
Fastâturnaround television, oh, that’s a great question. I cannot stress enough my early years in New York and the seeds that were planted there and the skills that I developed there. If I had come straight to Los Angeles, I really, sincerely doubt that I would be sitting here now.
Because my years, earlier years in New York of struggle, of study, of working two and three jobs, of having to learn to really do it specifically, to play character, I ââ there’s just no way that I would have ended up playing some of the roles in television that I have.
I get ââ knock on wood, bless my heart and bow ââ great roles. And I couldn’t have done them this quickly. That’s a great question. You have to really be fast, but you have to be really specific and you have to know how to understand layers so that in three lines, you’ve got all the layers lined up. And you don’t have those skills if you haven’t prepared properly.
But the other thing about the early years in New York that I think help you sustain a life in the industry is that there’s a lot of heartache in being a New York actor. You are slamming around in subways, going into cold, dark theaters with your costumes over your shoulder, in pouring rain, giving your best and getting rejected.
There’s years of it for everybody. Well, maybe there’s five people in the world who don’t go through that. But if you really talk to people who have succeeded and sustained a life in it, they have ââ everybody’s got those memories. It builds kind of a muscle internally, emotionally, and spiritually that I cherish in my work. I cherish it.
Because every time I feel like this one’s going to kill me, this challenge, this is going to be the one where I’m going to say okay, done, that muscle comes to life and says, “No, remember blah blah blah blah. Do you remember when you did that play and you went in the pouring rain at midnight to the newspaper box and pulled out one newspaper and you got a glowing review and pulled out another you got killed, the same play, the same night, and you were 20âwhatâ7. And I stood there in the pouring rain, going just, oh, this is what it means to really be out there, controversy.”
You’re making choices that have different responses to it, but they were yours and you’re going to keep doing it. You’ve got to go back out there tonight and do it again. And you start to develop this ownership of the work no matter what comes back. And you accept the truth of all of that, and it changes everything for you. Because you don’t spend a life trying to create a career that protects yourself. You have a career that is riskâtaking.
Would you say you see the difference between people who have struggled like you did in the early days to the people who essentially walk on to set having done a couple of lessons and get the role?
The difference is in confidence, and I say that with compassion, because I see it with compassion. I have seen people over the years who are illâprepared for the pressure they’re under. And even though there may be a talent there and a spark there or whatever it is that got them cast, they really can’t deliver a nuanced performance and they don’t have the skills.
So you feel bad. Whereas when you are working with an actor who trained ââ and I’m not saying you had to train in New York. I’m sure you can get some training here, but there is a difference.
And when ââ on both “The Closer” and “Major Crimes,” we work a lot of New York actors. James loves them. The whole writing staff is from New York. It’s like from the theater to television, right? And you just feel it right away. There’s just ââ there’s a confidence and a riskâtaking and a presence that comes with having skills.
It’s the same thing, I’m sure, in your business. It’s like you can only go so far without skill, without a skill set and without techniques, and without a deep understanding of the craft. You can only go so far.
Would you say that TV right now offers more opportunity for a great role?
Yes, without a doubt. I am an Academy voter, because I’ve had a nomination, so I get to vote. So I get all the movies. I get all the screeners, as I’m sure some of you do. That really wasn’t a plug that I’ve had, “Oh, by the way ââ”
Really, I was just thinking about it, because this is the time when all the movies come to your house and I sit and watch film. And I’m so appreciative of the performances, and I just keep sitting back, going I am so lucky. Oh, my God. Because I’m looking at my peers. I mean, maybe with the exception of Meryl ââ well, I didn’t mean to say she’s my peer, but you know what I’m saying. She is sort of my age group.
But I’m looking at the roles and I’m looking, and sometimes there’s something really interesting, sometimes. But there isn’t an ongoing, continual, at the edge every episode, let’s find some new territory with a character that you can tell and, if all goes well (knocking), we’re going to have many years with this.
This woman’s life story and her position in the world reflects a lot of women out there right now who are not retiring; in fact, they’re running things. And they’re running things at this age when they’re running out of hormones and they got to figure out this will not do; I need to figure this out because I’m working harder than ever. I get to keep telling that story, and I’m not seeing it on film, but I’m seeing it in women on television.