For my generation, growing up and discovering their love for movies in the early 2000s, Mary Steenburgen was the quintessential lovable on-screen mom starring in Elf (2003), Step Brothers (2008), The Proposal (2009), and other comedies that would become classics of the decade. But that decade also saw Steenburgen’s life take a surprising, and very musical, turn.
According to Steenburgen, she woke from a minor arm surgery in 2007 “feeling like her brain was only music.” She became “obsessed” with music and in the years since has channeled that into writing hundreds of songs. An Academy Award winner for 1980’s Melvin and Howard, Steenburgen is no stranger to critical acclaim, but 2019 brought her a new kind of awards attention — as a songwriter. “Glasgow” a stirring ballad from the film Wild Rose earned her Golden Globe nomination and a spot on the Oscar shortlist for Best Original Song.
While Steenburgen tells me she prefers songwriting, part of Steenburgen’s new musical journey has been performing. We’ve seen her sing in films like Book Club and Last Vegas, and she’s currently singing and dancing in the new NBC dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
Whether it be through musical numbers in American Sign Language or dance numbers in a kitchenette (all choreographed beautifully by Emmy winner Mandy Moore), Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is showcasing the variety and depth of the human experience with a unique and fresh perspective.
Steenburgen’s performance as Maggie is, for me, one of the highlights of Zoey’s first season. As her daughter, the titular Zoey [a magnetic Jane Levy], undergoes a quirky musical transformation [she awakens from an MRI with the ability to hear people’s “Heart Songs” in the form of musical numbers], Maggie is experiencing a transition of her own. Her husband Mitch (Peter Gallagher) has been diagnosed with PSP, a degenerative and fatal brain disease that leaves Maggie not only caring for the man she loves but also faced with the question of who she’s going to be without him.
When I speak to Steenburgen (via telephone as she isolates at home due to Coronavirus) it quickly becomes clear to me that she is, in real-life, the loveable mom I grew up with on-screen. She’s warm, thoughtful, funny, and incredibly sweet. And while Steenburgen does have things in common with her Zoey matriarch, that doesn’t make her performance any less extraordinary. Steenburgen infuses each song she sings with a lifetime of love and one look at her on-screen husband will break your heart. It’s a subtle and nuanced performance, one that can be easy to overlook. I urge you not to.
The season one finale of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs on Sunday, May 3 at 9/8c on NBC. All episodes of Zoey are also available OnDemand.
Read my interview with Mary Steenburgen below:
Awards Daily: I know you must get sick of people telling you that they love you, but I love you very much, and it is such a treat to get to talk to you.
Mary Steenburgen: Who would ever get sick of hearing such a nice thing? [Laughs] Thank you!
AD: You’re very welcome. So, last year you wrote the most beautiful song for Wild Rose, “Glasgow,” a song that I absolutely loved.
MS: Okay, now I really love you!
AD: Well listen, I love my mother, but if you wanted to be my second mom, that would be great! [Laughs].
MS: You’re probably romanticizing me a little bit. My own kids would probably be rolling their eyes. [Laughs]
AD: It’s funny you mentioned that because I do follow both you and your son on Instagram, Charlie. [Steenburgen’s son Charlie McDowell is a director. His recent projects include The One I Love (2014) and episodes of On Becoming a God in Central Florida and Tales From The Loop] You have the most adorable relationship. He’s always picking on you!
MS: I know it. [Laughs] He’s always wishing Andie MacDowell a Happy Mother’s Day on Instagram!
AD: Oh, I know! I’m so looking forward to Mother’s Day to see what he comes up with this year.[Follow them both, ASAP]
AD: So, here’s what I wanted to ask you about Wild Rose… I was trying to read more about your songwriting experience and I found a quote that you gave in an interview with IndieWire last year. I wanted to read it to you because it’s so fascinating. You’re talking about your surgery and your experience afterward, and you say, I quote:
“The best way I can describe it is that it just felt like my brain was only music and that everything anybody said to me became musical. All of my thoughts became musical.”
Does that sound like the plot of a certain NBC show you are on right now? [Laughs].
MS: Well, you know, it’s the weirdest thing when they asked me to do this, they sent me the script and I read it and I said to my managers, “Did they know?” “Do they realize they are to some degree describing what happened to me?
They’re making it my daughter, and they’re making it so that Zoey hears other people’s “Heart Songs” which is different than my experience, but it was bizarrely similar. When I went in to meet them, I said, “Before we say anything else, are you guys aware of my story?” And they all looked at each other and sort of grinned and said yes. Then I said, “Okay, well, my second question is, have you heard me sing?” [Laughs].
And they said yes because I did a movie called Last Vegas [in 2013] and I sang songs in it. [But] a lot of people assume when they hear my story, it’s about me becoming a singer. It was really about me writing. I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of songs now, and I’ve only sung maybe two or three.
But, yeah there was a weird overlap between myself and this plot. And, you know, the strange thing about…well, there are so many strange things about my whole musical journey, but one of the strangest things is that before that happened to me [in 2007], I had done really one movie that had a big musical element to it. I’d done a movie years ago called The Butcher’s Wife (1991) where I was like a wannabe Blues singer, but most of the films and TV shows that I had done had nothing to do with music.
And then this thing happened. And almost every single thing that comes my way now has a musical element to it. And I don’t think it’s always because they’re aware that I write music. I think a lot of it is just like this crazy law of attraction.
AD: Oh, that’s interesting! I was going to ask you if music is something that you have been seeking out in your projects. Because you sang in Book Club (2018) as well and now in Zoey, I just assumed it was on purpose.
MS: No, it really isn’t. It really has just happened. It’s so strange. I did a little movie with Anne Hathaway called Song One(2014) there’s even a moment in it where I play my accordion, and that whole film, even though it wasn’t me singing or anything, it was all about music.
There’s just been one kind of musical experience after another, including writing the end song for Wild Rose. It just kind of feels like this thing that is very much meant to be in my life.
And I’ve been writing music through this time [in quarantine]. It’s been really lovely actually. I have dear friends now in Nashville and we’ve been writing via Skype or Zoom, or different programs, but it really works, you know. In fact, sometimes we’re a little bit more focused than if we have gathered around [in person]. [Laughs]. But, I’ve written quite a bit during this time and have some more writing coming up. I’m really enjoying it, writing for movies and things like that.
AD: As you said, you have been singing more in your recent projects. I guess it’s just serendipity, but what is it like for you to embrace this new singing, performing side of yourself? How has that been for you?
MS: Mmm, well, it’s really strange because our voice coach, we all go to the same guy, Eric Vetro, it’s really kind of extraordinary. And, he gets mad at me if I say to anyone that I’m not a singer. He’s just like, “You are and stop saying that you’re not!” [Laughs].
But because I write music and then these amazing people sing it. I don’t really think of myself that way, because honestly, as much as I enjoy singing, I really enjoy writing more. And that’s where it’s hard for people to understand because the singing is certainly more glamorous. But, for 45 years, I’ve been in some version of the public eye, doing movies or TV shows and things. I don’t necessarily need more attention.
I definitely have a little part of me that is shy. The songwriting is a really beautiful way for me to feel very creative, and then I get the thrill of listening to some crazy, bombastic voice like Jessie Buckley sing my song, you know? I love that.
And Zoey’s Playlist, what is really beautiful about the singing and the dancing in this show is that there’s Alex Newell who is this unicorn and could not have a more magical voice. But, I think what I bring to it is very different. And in my case, it’s not that I have this crazy musical ability that somebody like Skylar [Astin] or Alex has. But you know, I have lived a life that’s been full of love and sometimes loss, and I’m bringing all of those things to this character. I feel like each of us has a strength and I think mine is more about taking what Maggie’s feeling and putting all of those vulnerabilities to music.
I think Alex and Skylar, especially, are about both the emotional stuff, but also just dazzling us. I thought the cast, every single person, brings something beautiful to their character, and it’s just an honor to be in it with all of them.
AD: I did get the chance to speak to Zoey’s showrunner, Austin Winsberg for Awards Daily. He told me that you were his first choice to play Maggie and that you agreed to be involved after the initial meeting that you had with him. We’ve talked about the fact that you related to the story, but why jump on to this project? What was it about that initial meeting that made you say yes?
MS: I think because it scared me so much and I’m drawn to things that I know are not going to be comfortable. And the fact that I was going to sing and dance for, in some ways, the first time. I’ve sung in movies, I’ve danced a little bit, but I’d never sang and danced together. I’ve never done a duet with someone and harmonized with them.
The fact that all of that was going to be asked of me and I knew I was going to have to work my butt off, that it wasn’t going to come easily…And I did. I mean I drove myself to work 45 minutes every single day with my voice teacher playing in my car and doing vocal warm-ups. I would dance at night for hours, even though I don’t do the crazy hard dancing that some of them do, for me, it was still this steep learning curve. And I wanted that.
I think that’s what life should be, constant renewal and discovery. You know, I don’t think it should stop when you’re a kid. Or when you’re your age or when you’re my age. I don’t think it should stop.
I feel like the Coronavirus may have really taught people that they’re not necessarily able to do a lot of the same things they’ve done before. So, I’m hoping a lot of people are doing things they’ve never done before. I’m really trying to get better at the piano and working with an app that I really like. [Laughs]. I talked to Peter Gallagher the other day, Andrew Leeds who plays our son, David, had told us both about this same piano app and so Peter’s also doing it.
But if you asked me, “Why did I do the show?” I did the show because it involves music. Because even though my brain has become accustomed to the way it works now, I am obsessed with music. That’s just the way it is now. And so, to have to do a TV show where everybody is obsessed with music felt really good.
AD: One other aspect of the show that I just have to ask you about is, of course, your character Maggie. She’s one of my favorites. I think she’s such a beautiful, nuanced character. And I think it could have been very easy to make the character of Maggie just the mom or just the caregiver, but she gets to be all sorts of things. She is a mom and she is a doting wife, but she’s also a really talented florist, and very creative, and funny! In episode 10 [“Zoey’s Extraordinary Outburst”] there’s a great line where she says to Zoey, “You know, I have a special plant that I could give you to help you relax.”
AD: Just in the first season alone, we’ve gotten to see so many different sides of her and of you as a result. I’d love for you to tell me about that.
MS: Well, first of all, I cannot tell you how much that means to me, it’s great that this is my last conversation of the day with someone because I’m going to carry that with me all night.
That really does mean a lot to me because originally, I have to say, that was the one thing that wasn’t there in the very beginning. I said to Austin, “I’ll do this, but she can’t just be the mom. You can’t just think because you’ve cast me that’s all you need to do.” You know?
I need to know what’s in our pocketbook. I need to know what she cares about and who she was before she had kids. You’re not going to see her marriage in many ways. You’re not seeing what they fought about or what made them laugh. There are so many things that are missing because he can’t speak. So it’s important that in some ways she lives for both of them and speaks for both of them.
I really pushed on that. And Austin really agreed which was amazing. And in every episode, there are these little bits of Maggie. I remember there was an episode where I was telling Zoey about an affair I had when I was in Paris with a married professor! These are things that they [Winsberg and the writers] realized they needed to have because, in a way, you rarely see Maggie outside of that house. She’s kind of trapped as much as Mitch is by his illness. So, I really appreciated the care with which they helped me find her.
AD: And as you hopefully move on to a second season and beyond, what are some other things that you hope to find within Maggie?
MS: Well, I know she will struggle because this is a profound marriage and a successful marriage, and I’m sure it’s not perfect, but he’s her guy, you know?
So I think that’s going to be hard. Grief makes people do crazy, crazy stuff and I’m hoping some of that is even funny because I definitely love to have fun and to have my characters have fun. And I happen to know some of the things that Austin has told me about his mom [laughs] and it all sounds like interesting roads to explore.
But, I don’t know. We’ll see. I haven’t thought about it a lot because it’s such a giant question mark, for all of us [due to COVID-19] because the very nature of what we do is so collaborative and so close. I mean, the first thing you do in the morning is you come in and somebody gets right in your face and puts your makeup on. Is that going to happen? Or will I be expected to do that from now on? I’ve been doing my makeup quite bit now because of these Zooms, but I have no illusions that I’m better at it than say Dana who does my makeup for the show. It’s crazy to even contemplate these changes all of us are going through.
AD: You know, one thing Austin and I spoke about was how much Zoey meant to both of us and about the feedback he’d received from people watching who also relate the show to their own lives. And as I said, I follow you on social media and I’ve loved seeing how excited you are to tweet about the show, promote each episode, and interact with people watching. Why is that important to you and what feedback have you received?
MS: Well, It’s a very small thing I can do right now, but I do want to answer as many people as I can that reach out about it. I can feel their connection to this show. It’s not just a show to them. It’s happening at a moment in time where it’s definitely unlocked, both our joy and our grief in this moment. And that’s a privilege and an honor. My mom died of something very similar [to what Mitch is experiencing] And that is such a hard thing because of the inability to communicate and I’ve heard from a lot of people who’ve gone through this. I’ve heard from a lot of caregivers. I’ve heard from people of all ages, from kids and adults. I mean, my 95-year-old aunt Freda, she gets so emotional about [the show].
I think part of it is the music. Part of it is that music is the international language and it’s the music of our hearts. And we’re all…our hearts are beating so fiercely right now because of the vulnerability of what’s going on and what we feel for each other. And even for total strangers, these heroes out there.
Zoey is something that, right now, just resonates. Not to sound corny, but with all those beating hearts. I really do feel that. And so for me, it feels like, well, one tiny little thing I can do, is to respond to as many [people] as I can and thank them for watching and hear their stories, which are fascinating. I feel connected to them.
I’m really glad that I get to do this show on so many levels even though it just kills me, the singing and the dancing, it’s like holy cow! [Laughs]. I’m in with these extraordinary [actors]…Peter’s starred in a million Broadway shows! But, you just dive in, take a few breaths and do it, you know?
AD: Well like I said, it’s been a joy to watch you on Zoey I’m so grateful for your time. Thank you so much! Good luck with your piano app, and I wish you a happy Mother’s Day in advance! To you and not to Andie MacDowell!
MS: I’m sure you’ll see me being royally insulted as usual! [Laughs] But, I’m sure you can also tell that we absolutely adore each other. He’s one of the great joys of my life, my crazy son!