SUNY Fredonia welcomes back famous student
October 21, 2018
Article taken from The Observer.
Although rain-filled clouds may have dampened some of SUNY Fredonia’s homecoming weekend activities, they certainly did not overshadow the exciting return of one of the college’s most famous alumni: actress Mary McDonnell, class of 1974. The two-time Oscar-nominated actress returned to campus for the first time since 1999, and has since enjoyed a very busy career on stage, in film and most recently, on television.
McDonnell most recently starred as Commander Sharon Raydor on the TNT hit drama series “Major Crimes,” the spinoff of the series “The Closer,” where McDonnell originated the role and earned a Primetime Emmy Nomination. McDonnell received her first Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her portrayal of Stands With A Fist in Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning film “Dances with Wolves.” McDonnell also received Academy and Golden Globe awards nominations for her role in the film “Passion Fish.”
Her other film credits include “Grand Canyon, “Mumford,” “Sneakers,” “Independence Day,” “Donnie Darko” and “Margin Call.” On the small screen, she is known for her role as President of the Universe Laura Roslin in “Battlestar Galactica.” McDonnell has also starred in a wide variety of both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions including “Still Life,” “Buried Child,” “Death of a Miner” and “Summer and Smoke.”
On Saturday, the college’s Department of Theatre and Dance hosted “An Afternoon with Mary McDonnell,” during which the actress shared her experiences at Fredonia and beyond and answered audience member’s questions. Before the event, McDonnell sat down with the OBSERVER to talk about her earliest performances, the unique challenges aspiring actors now face and the ways in which technology and social media have changed the entertainment industry.
McDonnell fondly recalled her time at Fredonia during the 1970s and remarked on how the campus has changed since then.
“The trees were here, but they were new. There was no shade. It was very windy, sort of ‘open prairie’ town,” McDonnell laughed. “In the summer when it was warm, there was very little shade. Now, there are trees everywhere. It just creates such a lovely, lovely container. Also, the arts center, the science building — these things are just extraordinary, even since my visit in ’99. I’m really, really impressed.”
For McDonnell, Fredonia seemed to be a natural fit, as one of her sisters was attending Buffalo State nearby and the campus was located near a lake — a familiar setting for McDonnell who grew up in Ithaca near Cayuga Lake. However, acting was not her goal upon enrolling.
“I was going for a Liberal Arts degree to try to see what I could see, basically,” McDonnell explained. “My father suggested I take ‘Introduction to Theater’ to round out my schedule. I took that class with a friend who was involved in theater. I would go with her to productions and behind stage. That world was just really intriguing to me.”
At the behest of her classmates and new group of friends, McDonnell auditioned for the role of Mercy Lewis in the campus’ production of “The Crucible.”
“They kind of dared me to audition for ‘The Crucible,’ and I got cast. We all thought it was a riot,” McDonnell laughed. “Not only had I not acted, but I had seen very few plays in my life. I’d never been to Broadway, even. It was not part of my vision at all, and it immediately expanded my view of what my life could be because I felt so natural with these people. I never looked back. I never, ever, ever looked back.”
Early years in New York
McDonnell moved forward with her career — with no backup plan — which led her to New York, where she found herself living the artist’s life.
“For a few years, I had an apartment on Fourth Street across the street from a very famous theater, that was $90 a month. The toilet was in the hall, the bathtub was in the kitchen, and it was only one room with a little divider and a sleeping loft,” McDonnell smiled at the memory.
Due to her affordable, if primitive, living situation, McDonnell was able to act in several plays for no money, while paying the bills with various odd jobs.
“I sold bagels, I waited tables, I sold Fuller brushes. I changed jobs a lot because I didn’t want any job to become too comfortable, and also because I would get a play and have to quit the job. It was a common turnover, and there was a cultural acceptance of what a life in the arts was and everyone was doing it. None of us had money. You cannot do that now.”
McDonnell remarked on the fact that the cost of living in New York and other large cities has made it nearly impossible for aspiring actors to have a career solely in stage productions.
“I could be doing the same thing in New York now — waiting tables, coat checking, Fuller brushes — basically making the same amount of money I did back then. Yet, my rent would be $3,000 per month and I’d have to have two roommates. It’s not the same now. The artistic life is not as romantic, bohemian and interesting as it was when I moved to New York. The business has changed radically,” she said.
McDonnell recommends that aspiring actors keep an open mind when it comes to a career path, rather than settling on one particular venue or genre. She advises working on stage, then in film and then in television, where she has found great success, especially in recent years. “The best writers are in television right now. I read the best scripts on TV shows,”she stated.
Entertainment: a changing industry
The actress, who has worked steadily since graduating from Fredonia, has experienced the significant shift in the entertainment industry brought about by new technology and social media. McDonnell explained that when she first began acting, the idea of the actress was one of mystery and intrigue. The public knew very little about stars’ private lives and knew almost nothing about a movie until they were viewing it at the movie theater.
“Suddenly there’s this idea that you are a commodity that owes your public their relationship to you, and that was shocking. But that is the way it is now,” McDonnell pointed out.
“Everything is driven by social media ideas. And social media evaluates,”she said with a knowing smile. “It is completely the opposite of what used to be valued and sought after. The more inaccessible you were, the more mysterious you were, and the more they wanted you. Now, that doesn’t fly at all.” When asked by the OBSERVER if she is comfortable with that shift, McDonnell replied, “I’m adjusting. It took me awhile. Fortunately, I worked steadily through the transition, so I think the bigger adjustment for me is to high definition technology.”
Dances With Wolves
McDonnell went on to discuss one of her most well-known roles: Stands With A Fist in “Dances With Wolves.” Originally, McDonnell was hesitant to audition for the part, as she did not think she was likely to get it, nor did she believe a “cowboy and Indian movie” was the right fit for her. However, Kevin Costner, who had auditioned multiple Hollywood actresses for the role and was still unsatisfied, sent the casting crew to New York to find a stage actress — possibly an “unknown.” At the encouragement of her agent, McDonnell read the script and was in absolute awe of the movie. After reading the part, McDonnell waited while Costner auditioned two more Hollywood actresses and watched McDonnell’s first movie, “Matewan.” Approximately two weeks later, he offered McDonnell the part.
When asked why she feels her character resonates with so many, McDonnell said, “Stands With a Fist, you know, she was us…We had not found a way as a culture to be able to find ourselves in an empathetic relationship to Native Americans in movies. So she became a bridge for people to feel what I think we feel culturally, which is sadness and shame. We saw a woman who was raised well, who was surrounded by love. She was able to drop the illusions, and I think that’s why she became so important. I didn’t foresee it, to be honest. I knew it was a great role as soon as I read it.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of McDonnell’s career is the dynamic nature of the roles she plays. From period films to Sci-Fi television shows, McDonnell portrays characters who are strong leaders who can tackle most anything — from investigating violent crimes to ruling the universe. Speaking of her role in “Battlestar Galactica,” McDonnell said, “President Laura Roslin was a complete shock! I had never done any sci-fi movies or shows before. I had never even seen Battlestar Galactica before when my agent told me about the role.”
Advice for aspiring actors
In addition to keeping an open-mind about career opportunities — as McDonnell has done, with great success — she also shares with aspiring actors advice that she once received. “The greatest thing that was ever said to me was, ‘You have to allow the camera to come in and take your performance. That’s why they call it a take,” McDonnell explained. “You don’t give it to the camera. That’s a completely different energy that what’s done on stage.”
McDonnell also acknowledged that acting, in addition to an art form, is also a business. “Take some business classes,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Because you are a business, and no one teaches you that in acting school. They teach you that you are an artist. You are a business. Once you become a professional actor, you are a product. You are the CFO; you are the CEO. You have to make every decision, every choice. Until you see yourself that way, it won’t work.”
Helping the next generation
Following her interview with the OBSERVER, McDonnell greeted fans during a VIP reception in the art gallery of the Rockefeller Arts Center. There, Dr. Ralph Blasting, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, announced that all proceeds from Saturday’s event benefit the Department of Theatre and Dance’s Fund for Emerging Student Needs. This fund provides emergency, short-term aid to students when unexpected financial challenges stand in the way of continuing their education.
Following Dr. Blasting’s announcement, Dr. Virginia Horvath, college president, thanked McDonnell for being a part of the campus’ homecoming celebration.
“I’d like to give you a gift on behalf of campus and it’s something that I hope will remind you of your time at Fredonia and the people who you continue to inspire here. This is a wooden bowl made by a local artist, and it’s made from a tree on our campus. You have made a difference here at Fredonia, and I want you to have a piece of our campus that will fit in your luggage,” Horvath chuckled.
McDonnell was thrilled by the gift and visibly moved by the college’s new scholarship fund. “I want to thank all of you for coming and deciding to come into this room,” she said. “Your contribution could make a lifetime difference for a student. I’m very emotional because I could not have come to Fredonia without student loans. I could not have survived a life in the theater in New York in a different time than I did. So the idea that an emergent fund is there — at that point where students have to either turn back or go forward — that they will have help is incredibly moving to me.”