From Elf to Happiest Season, how Mary Steenburgen puts the 'Mary' in Christmas

Maureen Lee Lenker
·7 min read

Lacey Terrell/Sony

Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen has a filmography anyone would be envious of, but when it comes to holiday movies, she's the MVP.

From all-time fave Elf to this year's forthcoming Happiest Season, Steenburgen, 67, has appeared in a wide-range of Christmas classics. "I do enjoy holiday films, but I didn't ever have plans about being in them, they just sort of came to me," she tells EW. "It's really serendipitous. But I enjoy it because it's something that I feel like families can watch together."

Talking to Steenburgen on a break from filming season 2 of her NBC series Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, EW caught up with the actress on the roles that deck the halls of her résumé and inject a little extra cheer into our lives each year.

One Magic Christmas (1985)

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Steenburgen’s cynical Ginny learns the true meaning of Christmas after a visit from an angel (Harry Dean Stanton) in this Disney tale. They shot the film in a small town north of Toronto, which Steenburgen remembers fondly. "That town was just so welcoming," she recalls. "They were so kind to us; they were thrilled having the movie shot there."

Ginny's lesson includes several horrific tragedies, including a car wreck that involved some stunt work on Steenburgen's part, but they surprisingly weren’t the most daunting aspect of the role. “Having to sing in the shower was more terrifying than any of those stunts,” she says. “It has always taken a lot of courage to do.”

This title has been enduring for Steenburgen in numerous (and unexpected) ways. While she says she hears from fans that it's a tradition for a lot of mothers and daughters to revisit, she also has a personal connection to the role. Elisabeth Harnois, who played Ginny's daughter Abbie in the film, ended up coming back into Steenburgen's life in recent years. "When my own daughter was at Wesleyan University, she kept hearing that there was someone that looked very much like her there," she recounts. "One day she saw this girl and realized this must be the girl. She went over, and they realized that [the girl] had played my daughter in One Magic Christmas, and my own daughter had played with her when they were maybe 4 or 5 years old. They ended up becoming really dear friends and even roommates!"

Elf (2003)

Everett Collection

The actress knew this was destined to be a Christmas classic her first day on set, filming the scene where Buddy (Will Ferrell) pours maple syrup on his spaghetti (which, yes, Steenburgen really ate). “It was so hard to keep from laughing,” she says. “I’m not sure I even did in every take, but we got through it. I remember being so delighted by [Will], and the world that [director] Jon Favreau was creating and had envisioned. I started to feel I was in something really special.”

Steenburgen writes music herself, and her voice is featured on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, but for a scene near the film's conclusion where she must join other Central Park revelers in spreading Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear, she had to actively work to sing slightly off-key. They shot the scene on-location in New York City.

"What I remember about that night is not just singing, but that it was insanely cold," she remembers. "I remember that there was this camera that was mounted on these wires that went from Central Park West for like two blocks. It was supposed to be the POV of us from Santa's sleigh and us looking up at it. I just remember thinking, 'Wow that's so amazing.' Of course, now we have drones that do all that. But the main thing I remember is just that we were absolutely frozen and we shot all night. We finished just as the sun came up."

Step Brothers (2008)

GEMMA LA MANA/Columbia

Step Brothers may not be a holiday film (unless you count the Catalina Wine Mixer as a holiday), but it does have very memorable Christmas scenes. In this Adam McKay comedy, Robert (Richard Jenkins) deserts his new wife, Nancy (Steenburgen), on Christmas Eve to go for a drink at the Cheesecake Factory of all places. He's driven there by Nancy's continued indulging of their two grown sons and a fight Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) have over opening gifts early.

Will Ferrell personally asked Steenburgen to play his mother after Elf, despite only a 14-year age difference. "It is very easy for me to play being charmed by Will Ferrell," she admits. "I think that's why I got a call from him not too long after [Elf] saying, 'You played my step-mom in Elf, but would you be insulted if I ask you to play my real mom in this movie Step Brothers?' And I said, 'No, I would be insulted if you asked anyone else.'"

For this particular scene, Steenburgen says she has vivid memories of Reilly going wild with the "Hulk hands" his character receives for Christmas, as well as their "stupid" Christmas sweaters. But more than anything, she remembers how free and hilarious the entire experience was.

“In the morning, we would shoot it as written. In the afternoon, we would improvise. As the day went on, it got wilder and wilder,” she says. “[John C. Reilly and Will] are brilliant improvisers; the rest of [us had] to hold down the reality that we were all in this family.”

Four Christmases (2008)

John P. Johnson/New Line

As Kate’s (Reese Witherspoon) mother Marilyn, a serial monogamist who adopts the taste of whoever she’s dating, Steenburgen is destination No. 2 in this cinematic quartet of dysfunctional Yuletide visits. “[She’s] dating a pastor (played by Dwight Yoakam), so there’s religious clichés everywhere,” Steenburgen says. “It was fun to play with a ridiculous sexuality. [Kate] never knows what she’s coming home to.”

Steenburgen's biggest takeaway from the film was being awed by her co-star. "Reese was really. dazzling because she was both producing the movie and starring in it," she notes. "She's just one of these people that is so both talented and creative, but also has this side to her that very calmly keeps everything going."

Happiest Season (2020)

Lacey Terrell/Sony

Clea DuVall’s upcoming holiday rom-com explores the fraught nature of coming out at Christmas. Steenburgen plays Tipper, a conservative matriarch. “She doesn’t mean to be unkind, but she has certain blinders on,” Steenburgen teases. "She is very ambitious for her husband to be mayor because she would really like to be first lady. She wants to have the picture perfect family. She likes things perfect and tidy with a bow on them and wrapped up and no surprises and wills life to be that way."

The film follows Harper (Mackenzie Davis), who must admit to her serious girlfriend, Abby (Kristen Stewart), that she has yet to come out to her family. "Very often when people do come out to their family, it is at the holiday season, because people don't necessarily want to tell their family over the phone," Steenburgen reflects. "Sometimes it is the holiday season when all these truths are told just by virtue of the fact that we're not always together. In many ways, our story is just what happens at the holidays, no matter what someone's sexuality is, [which is] people say, 'Well, this is who I am, and this is who I am independent of this family, and this is how I want to fit into this family.'"

For the longtime LGBTQ ally, the project marks a full-circle moment. “I did Philadelphia, which was less about being gay so much as justice. But these things resonated very deeply with me. I knew that I had to do this movie.”

To read more on holiday film favorites, order the December issue of Entertainment Weekly or find on newsstands now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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