'Justified' Postmortem: Mary Steenburgen Talks About That RV Scene and the Katherine/Avery Love Story

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Kimberly Potts
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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It’s certainly a shame to see her go, but no one could ask for a more spectacular exit: Oscar and Golden Globe winner Mary Steenburgen and her Dixie Mafia queen Katherine Hale bid adieu to Elmore Leonard’s brand of Kentucky in Tuesday’s “Fugitive Number One” in a quirky, violent, yet perfectly Justified death that involved a gun, choking, Wynn Duffy hiding under a table, Katherine being slammed onto the table, and, of course, a Pachelbel soundtrack.

Arkansas-born Steenburgen, who’ll follow up her Justified stint with roles on The Last Man on Earth and Orange Is the New Black, talks to Yahoo TV about how much she loved playing Katherine, her love story — and great final scene — with Sam Elliott’s Avery Markham, needing a safe word during her action-packed death, and how she’s having the best year of her career (at age 62).

What has been the most fun thing about playing this deliciously interesting character?
I think it’s that every single script made me laugh out loud, or kind of stunned me, when I would read it. It was always a surprise, and [Katherine] was fascinating because Southern characters, with some writers, can be very cliched. I’ve always been aware of them as a Southern woman, and this character was so complex and definitely immoral and definitely, you know, she’s got some screws loose. But, she also has her own kind of strange morality… she’d pick and choose how to construct it, but it’s hers. As an actor, you’re always looking for, what do I get to do? It’s not just what do I say, but what do I do, too … [My] final episode alone was so different, for me to be able to do something that physical, it was just so crazy. Jon Avnet directed, and it was just thrilling to kind of create that with him. I just think the whole thing, start to finish, has been a wonderful ride. It just kept getting better and better, and more and more fun.

Graham Yost created this role for you. Did you think it would go on this long?
I did, because he told me, “It’ll only be a couple of episodes in [Season 5], but then we want you to kind of be the heavy in the final season,” which I thought was a real honor. It’s not a total heavy, but it was certainly someone who’s causing a lot of things to happen behind the scenes. It was just fun to feel like I was doing something that was creative for me, and it was also fun because the way they work is just so alive. They would see me do something and that would give them other ideas. Then there’s that kind of beautiful ghost of Elmore Leonard, with everything being written to honor his tone and his voice. They do such a good job of that, and that’s such a tricky thing to do.

Related: 'Justified' Postmortem: Graham Yost Breaks Down that Epic Brawl in 'Fugitive Number One'

As someone from the South, did you have a special appreciation for that language? Every line in this show feels like poetry.
Yeah, it really does and not cliched poetry. Again, that’s really important to me, because there’s a tendency among people who only know the South by watching other TV shows… they haven’t lived there. They’re not aware of the kind of richness and irony of the language down there. There’s a tendency to put “sugar” and “honey” on the end of the statement and think you’ve made it Southern. It’s so much more complex than that. There’s so much humor, of course. When they first asked me, I said, “Why did you even think of me for this?” It’s been hard for me, actually, over the years, to be cast in this kind of character. I knew I could play a character like this, but nobody thought of me for them. [Graham] said, “We thought of you because of the humor.”

There has been a lot of humor, even, or maybe especially, in Katherine’s most dramatic scenes. You and Sam Elliott… Katherine and Avery have that final scene, with that great line she says to him: “Would it be so bad for the two of us to live together, not trusting each other, like everybody else in the whole wide world?” Graham told us he thinks that’s one of the best lines of the series.
Yeah, and I think she means it. I think he’s the love of her life. Obviously, Grady, the husband that she dies trying to avenge… she cheated on him with Avery, but at the same time, he was kin to me in a way. He was my partner, so in my own messed-up morality, I have to avenge that. Even though Avery offers me that he’ll take care of that, I can’t let that go. Those kinds of lines that characters draw in the sand, that might not be someone else’s line, I find that so fascinating. Part of the key to playing a character that other people might judge is that I never saw her that way. I dove into who she was, and I don’t judge her. I’m her champion; I’m her advocate. The second I start judging her, even the language I’m using with you, using things like “messed up” and stuff like that, when I was playing her, I wouldn’t have really said that, because I understood why she did every single thing she did. I think that’s important with any character that you play, but it’s especially important when you play characters that do things that other people can’t understand. You have to really dig into that emotional life and make it your own.

Were you happy that Katherine and Avery were together when she died?
Yeah, and I was happy he didn’t kill me and I didn’t kill him, because I felt like what they had was very real, and there was a certain incredible honesty. That line, especially, I’m glad Graham felt proud of that line, because I thought it was one of the best lines I’ve ever said anywhere to anyone. There’s a certain truth to it, that a lot of people do live with someone they’re not 100 percent sure about in every way. I’m kind of lucky in that I don’t, but I’ve been there. I think most people have, but in their case, I think the fact that they can say that just tells you what strangely compatible souls they are. It was an unusual love scene. It wasn’t comprised of the words that are in love scenes, but it was kind of a perfect goodbye love scene for the two of them.

Related: 'Justified' Postmortem: Graham Yost Breaks Down the Shocking Ending of 'Trust'

Katherine survived and thrived in this male-dominated Dixie Mafia world, and was often one step ahead of everyone. What do you see as being her fatal flaw?
Probably her inability to control her need for revenge. I saw her as a woman who came from nothing, who sort of scratched and clawed her way up and was probably mistreated like crazy in her youth. When Wynn ratted out Grady and he went to prison, it caused her perceived standing in society, her ability to go in a silly jewelry store and be handed a glass of champagne by the owner — those kinds of things were incredibly important to her, they mattered to her so much — to abruptly end. She was shamed. So her life after that became just about the dark side she’d already been exposed to in terms of crime, not the sort of respect, and her idea of elegance, and her position in society. That never came back. I think that her need to avenge that, of course, is what killed her. I think even as much as she loves Avery, that voice calling for her to take action, to avenge that, I just think that’s the loudest thing in her head.

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Graham also said it was a request of yours that Katherine go out in a grand fashion. I trust that final scene lived up to that?
[Laughs.] Yeah. He took my request, and… kind of ten fold. My jaw dropped, literally, when I read how it all ended. Jon Avnet is so… he’s just such a wonderful director. Everybody, the DP, everybody, we all kind of created that together, the incredible stunt people, Jonathan [Kowalsky], who plays Michael or Mikey, it was just all such a wonderful ballet we all did together. Jere [Burns], of course. Him going under that table! It was wonderful, because I felt like, “Wow, I’ve never seen this one before. This is a whole new ball game.”

How physical was it for you? You mentioned the stunt people, but some of that was definitely you.
Yes, I think it was pretty physical for all of us. At one point I said, “Can we have a safe word or a sign?” I’d known of an actor who was actually being choked when everybody thought he was acting, so I said, “Can we just have some sort of safe word?” We didn’t end up needing it. It was so well rehearsed, but it was pretty physical for all of us, and I completely enjoyed it. I haven’t gotten to do that many of those kind of scenes in my career, and I was like a little kid, all day, very excited.

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And you did the scene in a skirt and heels, not like the men in their pants and comfortable shoes.
Right, right. We talked about that, and then we just said, “You know, Katherine has never been in pants this whole time.” In every single scene with every single person, male or female, I tried to have a moment of — whether or not it’s responded to — some sort of seduction. Whether it’s turning my back on Art as I’m walking out of the room, and I start to unzip my skirt, or I brush hair back from [Ava’s] face before she says goodbye… I just think that part of Katherine’s way of relating is this kind of snake-like sensuality. It’s sort of dangerous, and it doesn’t matter to her how old she is. It’s still just the language that she speaks. So for her to then have pants on in that scene, it just didn’t make sense, so we said go with [the skirt and heels].

Have you seen the final cut of the RV scene?
I haven’t seen any of it yet. One person who was involved with it wrote me and said that several people had said it was their favorite Justified scene of all of them, which knocked me out. Just that anybody thought that is such an honor, and I know I’ll love it, because I’m such a fan of all of it, from the writing to what Jon was creating. And they always had such great music. It’s going to be fun to see.

It’s an instant classic from the series.
Oh, thank you so much. That means a lot. I appreciate that.

You are playing Pornstache’s mom on the upcoming third season of Orange Is the New Black. Have you filmed your episodes yet?
I’m not really supposed to talk about that, but yes I have filmed my episodes. But I didn’t say who I played, you did.

OK.
[Laughs.] But I was completely thrilled to be on the show.

It may be a similar situation, but what can you say about your upcoming role on The Last Man on Earth?
[Laughs.] No, I can’t say anything, but I can say that I’ve had an amazingly fun year, and that I’ve really, really, really enjoyed the work I’ve done this year. It’s actually been one of the busiest years of my life. It’s been real busy work-wise, but also one of the most fun and diverse, because all these ladies couldn’t be more different. It would be interesting to have them all at a table. Each part was so different from the other. They were occasionally overlapping, as well. Orange and Justified overlapped, and then Justified and Last Man overlapped, so it was interesting doing one thing one day, and one thing another day. I’ve done that before in my career. I did Philadelphia and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? at the same time. It’s kind of wonderful to do it that way, because you get very hyper-focused. Also, I was lucky enough that there really was nothing in common among [all these women], so it was fun to slip back and forth between them.

Justified airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX and The Last Man on Earth airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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