Talking with Mary Steenburgen about the past television season can get a little confusing. The veteran actress finished a two-year run on “Justified” as a brutal mob boss, but she also had a run on Will Forte‘s sitcom “Last Man on Earth” as one of the last remaining survivors of a virus that wiped out most of the population. And she appeared in the Duplass brothers’ HBO series “Togetherness” as a new agey free spirit first glimpsed lying under bushes in the woods in an attempt to “get in touch with [her] death.”
The Arkansas-born actress, who won an Academy Award in 1981 for her supporting role in “Melvin and Howard,” also appears on the current season of “Orange Is the New Black.” And she was in Vancouver starting work on yet another project when TheWrap found her for a quick chat about the three shows for which she’s up for Emmys (“Justified” in the supporting category, “Togetherness” and “Last Man” as a guest), and the one in which she debuted after the cutoff date (“Orange”).
TheWrap: What was the toughest thing you had to do on any of your shows this season?
Mary Steenburgen: I would think it would be my death scene on “Justified.” It was like a kind of group ballet, because it involved other wonderful actors and a lot of help from our stunt people.
It was really fun to do, and very physical, but there were a lot of safety lectures from our ADs. There were guns and little explosions going off, all of this inside a camper, so there was cause for concern.
And what was the most fun thing you got to do?
I loved that one morning on “Last Man” we were sitting around saying, “I wish we had some sad music,” and in the afternoon I was playing Chopin’s Death March on my accordion in the scene. I happen to play accordion a little bit, and I happened to have it in the car. It was fun to see their faces when I said, “Well, I do have my accordion in the car … ”
But also, everything they asked me to do on “Justified” was new and different and fun for me. Shooting a guy through my purse, being picked up in the air – the whole scene where I shoot Jonathan Kowalski multiple times, but he still doesn’t die and he picks me up and breaks my neck. That was fun.
It’s hardly the kind of thing people have associated with you through your career.
I think all of us try hard not to be typecast or to be pushed into a narrow box. I certainly have. I don’t feel that I have been, I feel good about the diversity of the roles I’ve played. But this season they were really diverse.
In general, is it more fun to work on a comedy than a drama?
Truthfully, I think it is. I love comedy. I also love digging deep. And by the way, I consider “Justified” in great part a comedy. Elmore Leonard wrote with a darkly comic style, and when Graham Yost called me he said it was with comedy in mind.
In real life, you go from crying your heart out to laughing within seconds. But in terms of your question, there is a real fun thing about just trying to mine the funny.
“Togetherness” is certainly a show that blurs the lines, although your character is such a free-spirited hippie type that maybe she falls more on the comic side.
She believes in all these things – it’s a way of life for her, and the end result might be comedy. The same might be said for “Orange Is the New Black.”
I kind of love how we’ve evolved. Comedy and drama used to be a lot more defined. Now, shows like “Orange” and “Togetherness” are blurring the lines.
Let’s assume that somebody has never seen your shows. What would you say to persuade them to watch it?
I would say that you should watch “Justified” because you have a chance to see some of the best writing on television in the style of the great Elmore Leonard, who loved and was proud of the show.
In terms of “Togetherness,” I think you should watch because the Duplass brothers are extremely creative and constantly doing unexpected things, and I feel like I have no idea what’s coming except that I know it’s going to be good. They are exploring relationships and family and what it is to figure out how to pursue your dreams. Those are old themes, but they’re doing it in a unique way.
In terms of “Last Man on Earth,” I would say watch it because it’s one of the most risk-taking shows on TV. Everything about it to me is different and fresh and a little on the edge. I’m pretty sure sometimes we’ll fall flat on our face, and sometimes that results in brilliantly funny and interesting things.
And as far as “Orange is the New Black” is concerned, my god, it’s clearly addictive and delicious in every way. It has brilliantly cast actors that I’d seen in New York and Off-Broadway theater, people that deserve to be up front and to have lead parts and to shine.
And it’s also thrilling to me as a woman, having really grown up in a man’s world in the business. It’s pretty cool to go to a set and look around and most of the people there are women. It’s very rare.
You obviously have lots of people to choose from, but who else on your shows really deserves an Emmy, and why?
I don’t want to answer this, because there’s so many people on each show. And I don’t spend any time thinking about awards. I won some wonderful awards early in my career, and then I haven’t won any awards for a very long time, and my brain has given no thought to that. All of the cast members on those shows are just wonderful, and I wouldn’t even know where to start.
Are you a binge-watcher, or a once-a-weeker?
Lately, we haven’t consumed much TV because we’re busy making it. I’m doing a project right now in Vancouver. I got in late last night, and I’m leaving in a few minutes and I’ll shoot all night tonight. There’s a little bit of CNN and MSNBC to see what’s going on in the world. And then I’ve just got to work.
But I have binge watched. The shows that we binge watched were “Orange” and “House of Cards.” And my husband [Ted Danson] has been binge watching “Game of Thrones,” because he’s not working right now.
If you could add any new category to the Emmys, serious or silly, what would it be?
Women who survive working on multiple shows at one time. [Laughs] Women who keep their characters straight even when they’re working on different shows. I might win that.
Was there much overlap between the shoots?
“Orange” overlapped with “Justified,” and then “Justified” overlapped with “Last man.” But it’s a nice problem to have. Very, very nice problem.
Did you have moments of saying, “Who am I today?”
My biggest problem was never “Who am I playing today?” But some of the sets are near to each other, so I would get to certain spots on the 405 and I’d have to really focus at five in the morning to figure out where I was going.
But I always knew who the Alpha Dog was. That would have been Katherine