A dozen or so years ago, a surgery to repair Mary Steenburgen’s arm reconfigured something in the actress’s brain and reoriented her priorities. She talks about the event like a combination of physiological anomaly and kismet magic. After spending the better part of 60 years dedicating her artistic energies to acting, suddenly, her brain was flooded with music.
She took up the accordion, signed on to more projects with musical components, and has even done a bit of singing on screen (Last Vegas, an upcoming episode of NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist). But mostly, she channeled this new passion into songwriting. She found a kindred community in Nashville, she says. And she’s written, in her estimation, thousands of songs. Many of those have been for motion pictures, and one of those—“Glasgow” from the movie Wild Rose—was recently shortlisted, and then snubbed, for an Academy Award nomination.
Award or not, though, the attention the song’s garnered—and the palpable power it has on anyone who’s seen the movie—has been vindication enough for Steenburgen. “A lot of people misunderstood why I was doing what I was doing, or even what I was doing,” she says. “Then other people were actually kind of pissed off about it. Or they were worried I was going to make a fool of myself—that it was somehow undignified or just weird.”
Steenburgen has proven plenty of people wrong. And she’s inspired plenty of others. But if you think about it, her aptitude for music isn’t so far out of left field. There’s plenty of technique involved in great acting, but the people who really radiate onscreen possess an intangible musicality—and Steenburgen does more than most. Whether she’s playing the gentle mother of a man-child, an exasperated ex, or a seductive survivor, Steenburgen performs with rhythm and melody.
GQ: What songwriters and music you grew up with influenced you as a songwriter?
Mary Steenburgen: My first concert was when I was in 5th grade: The Beatles. It kind of ruined it for all other concerts, to be honest. I was also a little girl who had a crush on Elvis and made my momma drive me to Graceland. Then when I was about eight or nine years old, my mother took me to a touring company of The Music Man. After that, South Pacific. I was nowhere near New York, and I was seeing touring companies. I was very into the fact that you could tell the language of the heart through music. I fell in love with those musicals. As I got older, I loved Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. But I never felt as if I could do that or be a part of that.
Do you feel like acting informed your songwriting?
Completely. Part of it is inhabiting other people. With songwriting, I can go even further than I can with acting. As a songwriter, I can be a man talking about a woman's sensitive heart or something. Me, Caitlyn Smith, and Troy Verges are writing the music for an animated film. So sometimes I'm a giant 1000-year-old alligator. For me, music is an even freer, wilder frontier.
But they’re very similar. As an actor, before you even make choices, you're first trying to figure out what the tone of the film is. What is the director thinking? What is it going to look like? What's it going to feel like? And writing music for film and television, you start with that again. Then, the same thing you always ask yourself as an actor is, "What's important for me to say here?" Not just the words, but what you’re really trying to convey. So they're not very different at all.
You started writing songs after an arm surgery and you’ve said that after that experience your head was full of music. Did Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist resonate with you because of that experience?
I'm definitely more intrigued by projects that have a musical component than I would have been in the old days. But it also rings true that, for some reason, musical projects have been seeking me out more since then. It's still a big surprise to me because I'm not known as a singer or dancer. I sang in a movie a million years ago called The Butcher's Wife. And then I sang more recently in Last Vegas. Since the musical experience that altered my life a little bit, more and more musical projects have been coming my way. It's like the chicken and the egg; I'm not sure what's creating what.
But it's fun. A few seconds ago we were upstairs doing this amazing dance rehearsal with our choreographer, Mandy Moore. Again, this is something I've never done before. I'm so, so far out of my comfort zone. But it's very joyful.
There's a collective agreement, societally, that we encourage kids and young people but then there comes a time where no one is encouraging you. When I started writing music, most people assumed that I was trying to be a singer. For a lot of people, the only important part of the song is who's singing it. For me, the puzzle of songwriting—the figuring out how this melody goes with this idea and the rhymes and the sound of the words—is actually far more intriguing than singing the song.
You and your husband [Ted Danson] have been in several seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm and have known Larry for a long time. Have you absorbed any Larry-isms?
We certainly adore him and his daughters. We sometimes will say something and go, "That sounds like Larry." I think we're pretty different. The thing I do feel about my friend Larry is that he's a lot like that character that you see on television, but he is a much sweeter soul than that character. A generous guy that he doesn't necessarily reflect as the character. He's a lot of fun—unless you're in a quiet restaurant with him. Then, it's miserable. He actually left a dinner with us one night yelling, "This is a terrible restaurant for Jews!"
Why was it a terrible restaurant for Jews?
He meant that he was too loud for that restaurant. And so he left.
You've been in so many of the great comedies of the past few decades. Has being around all these legendarily funny people affected your sense of humor in any way?
I think you learn something from everybody that you work with if you allow yourself to do that. What you might learn is to just be freer or braver. One of the great joys in my whole career was doing Step Brothers. That was one of the greatest experiences of my life because those guys are so wildly funny. So much of that funny was improvised. Adam McKay is such an extraordinary director. An experience like that is just being there and watching them and staring down my own insecurity and fear about, "Well I can't do what they do." And, "What in the world am I doing here?" And kind of overcoming that fear. That's part of what you take away from an experience like that, and you grow. You might be a little less afraid the next time you work with somebody whose mind works like that.
More recently, I did Book Club with Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Diane Keaton, and none of us had ever worked together. We just sat there drinking each other up and telling these hilarious stories about all the various men that we've been married to on camera. All of them have overlapped. Three of the four have been married to Craig T. Nelson. Jane and I've both been married to Peter Gallagher.
You and your actual husband have played couples in a number of movies and shows. Does performing a relationship on-screen ever give you insight into your actual relationship?
I've spent 26 years with this man. If I could sign up for 100 more lifetimes with him, I would do it right now because he is just one of the great people on this planet. I think the bigger insights I get into him are when he does something like he did recently where he went and got arrested calling attention to global warming with Jane Fonda in D.C. Watching the work he's doing with Oceana to try to protect our world's oceans is profound. Or just watching our three grandchildren climb all over him like he's a jungle gym. And the delight he takes in that. That's the kind of thing that makes me fall more deeply in love with him.
Do you think you've rubbed off on each other artistically?
Yeah, we must have. I don't know how conscious I am of it. I mean, I ran all the lines with him for The Good Place and ran all the lines with me on Last Man on Earth and on Zoey's Playlist. We are each other's designated line-runner. We learned over the years not to direct each other and not to give too many helpful hints. If we're going to say something, you have to preface it by, "Would you mind if I make a suggestion?" We try not to do too much of that because we both are working with some pretty great directors, so we'll leave it up to them. We both love doing this for a living. Neither one of us have gotten all jaded about it. It's still kind of miraculous to both of us. Guillermo del Toro asked me to do a little part in his next movie. Ted and I were like two little kids when he asked me at dinner. We were both like, "Oh, how lucky is this?" We haven't gotten used to it, and it hasn't gotten old hat for us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on GQ