BRICKS & MORTAR Features

IN CONVERSATION WITH MARY MCDONNELL

Stands With a Fist, the adopted daughter of a Sioux medicine man, in Dances With Wolves. The willful paraplegic former soap opera star May-Alice in Passion Fish. The desperately lonely, determined mother in Grand Canyon. The indomitable Commander Sharon Raydor on Major Crimes. Battlestar Galactica’s president of the universe, Laura Roslin. On both the big and small screens, two-time Academy Award nominee Mary McDonnell has been a force to be reckoned with; her fans and colleagues actually dubbed her “Badass Mary.” She’s one of those people you feel the need to call by her first and last name, because being in the presence of Mary McDonnell is slightly awe-inspiring: you feel (in her words) “seen,” fully engaged, encouraged to say exactly what you mean. You also come to find that she’s one of the loveliest former intergalactic leaders you’ve ever met.

Naturally, with a litany of fierce female characters to her credit it seems appropriate that McDonnell would then take on one of the greatest icons of the modern women’s rights moment with the titular role in Gloria: A Life, at McCarter Theatre. By the time this interview goes to press, the show’s limited run will have concluded. Those fortunate enough to have seen her “on the floor” at the Berlind Theatre (the play is intimately performed in the round) will have witnessed a beautifully open, raw representation of Gloria Steinem in the story of her complicated, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful life to date. McDonnell has made her McCarter debut in Gloria, which was written by Emily Mann (at the behest of Steinem, no less), who restaged the original direction by Diane Paulus. Adding yet another layer of meaning to the project is McDonnell’s longstanding working and personal relationship with Mann, who concludes her 30th year as McCarter’s artistic director and resident playwright at the close of the 2019–2020 season. It’s a beautiful confluence of emotions and events that means everything to McDonnell.

Bricks & Mortar: I feel very lucky to be sitting here, on the set of Gloria: A Life, with you today.

Mary McDonnell: Me, too. I’m lucky to be [here]. I mean, the opportunity to speak through Gloria Steinem’s mind and heart for two months has been—I don’t even know where to begin to think about what this is going to mean to me. All I know is it’s changed me.

B&M: I imagine playing Gloria Steinem is not so much about tackling a character, because she’s a living, breathing person. How do you wrap your head around that?

M.M.: What I came across somewhere in my prep, because even the prep felt different, I would be on the one hand madly memorizing because there’re just so many words. But on the other hand, I would be reading constantly: like Gloria presently—the news every day, what’s happening to women. It was just this intersectionality of presence. Then I hit upon the word represent, and I held onto it for dear life. I feel like that is what steered me to the right energies: I have the opportunity and privilege to represent Gloria Steinem’s mind and heart for an hour and a half every night for a month.

B&M: Your supporting cast is pretty extraordinary, too.

M.M.: They are extraordinary. They are fully capable; each one of them could play Gloria. That’s the kind of chops and experience that’s on the stage. They illuminate these women in the seconds that they have. They come on [and] they’re there, fully formed characters [like] feminist Bella Abzug. The audience knows who they are. It’s the best ensemble I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of.

B&M: And that’s really saying something. Although I first saw you in the film Dances With Wolves, you are a veteran of the stage. You also met Emily Mann early on in your career. When was that?

M.M.: I auditioned for Emily—we think it was 1980—and Emily was way ahead of the curve. She was a director in the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) company for that particular season. They were doing general auditions, and somehow I ended up auditioning in front of Emily. I chose a monologue that was way over my head because I wasn’t getting cast as an ingenue; never did, never was. I chose Hermione from The Winter’s Tale; I had no business playing her. I finished and Emily said, “Who are you? Sit down.” I remember she was wearing a bandanna, and I had hair down to here, and we just got each other, and I felt so seen. You know, as an actor, when you don’t feel seen after an audition, it is devastating. I felt completely seen and kind of intuitively understood.

B&M: What did you two first collaborate on?

M.M.: She had [written] Still Life, and she reached out right away. I came in and read for it and got it. Then we did about five or six plays together over the next 10 years. We did A Doll’s House, and Execution of Justice on Broadway. We really developed a complete trust. There were several [other] projects she offered me here over the years, but … the timing was never right. [For Gloria: A Life], there was absolutely nothing in my way. And it is the end of her tenure here. The whole thing—it’s just magic.

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McDonnell and Mann, circa 1980: “We really developed a complete trust.”

B&M: It feels a bit like a gift-giving as she begins her final season, a love letter to her and what she’s meant to you over the years.

M.M.: I’m trying to give back because, if not for Emily Mann in my first 10 years, I’m not sure … I know I would not be the actress that I became. Whatever that is, whatever that means, whatever confidence I have in the way I approach [roles] came from my work with Emily. And we were children; we were in our late 20s and early 30s. But what she knew already and what she found me able to dare with her … we just kept pushing at the wall.

B&M: That daring has shown so beautifully in the roles you’ve played in your career. The women have been so fierce: Stands With a Fist. Battlestar Galactica’s Laura Roslin. Commander Sharon Raydor on Major Crimes. I’m still having a hard time processing Sharon’s death. Seeing you here is actually quite a relief.

M.M.: I understand why you were upset. You weren’t alone. It wasn’t until [that character] was gone that I really got what she had meant, because you don’t always get it in the moment. You just play it. I say this often and I think, if most actors are being honest, they will say this, too: If you’re lucky enough to have a certain skill set and the right formation and the right talent, the roles find you. You don’t pick them—they pick you. They show up and you go, “Oh, okay. That’s where we’re going now.” For me, the roles that did not have a certain imperfect but strong woman in them, I just didn’t respond to [them].

B&M: Your daughter is an actress, too.

M.M.: She’s an actress. She’s a singer. But right now, she’s getting her M.B.A. at Columbia. She finally said, “I want to be the money.” She wants the power to create. And I thought, “Oh, good, you can keep me employed when you’re running a studio.” <laughs> She gets impatient with waiting; [but] that’s part of the actor’s life. So she’s pushing herself, and she’s very feminist. She’s an amazing young woman. Olivia and I did The Cherry Orchard in Philadelphia together a couple of years ago, [and] Emily did the adaptation, so she got to experience my daughter’s work, as well. Olivia’s feelings about her mother’s friend Emily are so deep. When Olivia came to the opening [of Gloria], she just went berserk. It was one of my favorite moments from the whole night: Olivia was sobbing. Emily was sobbing. <laughs> It was so meaningful to me.

B&M: In Gloria, the first act of the show is the performance itself. The second act is set up as a traditional Iroquois talking circle. How did you even begin to prepare for both of these elements?

M.M.: I’m here hours early getting ready because [of] the engagement with the audience, which I adore, but it requires me to be completely in the moment. And sometimes when you’re completely in the moment, you don’t know where you’re going next. I had to learn how to be ready for both without losing the bigger track. So I walk through the entire play with my prompter [before curtain] just in my clothes, my sneakers, and my bathrobe. When I was a young woman, right around the same time I became aware of Gloria Steinem, I remember reading this article about Larry Byrd. Whenever he went to an away game, he would enter the stadium around noon and walk the entire floor of the court in bare feet, because it was an away court. That really stuck with me; it made sense. When you have a big role, and there’s the wild card direct address, the more I’m here during the day, the better it goes.

B&M: I loved the guidelines that help facilitate the circle: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, move at the speed of trust.”

M.M.: That’s Gloria Steinem. That is her commitment. One of the first things she said to me in an e-mail was, “I’m so excited for you to feel the joy of the talking circle.” When we first started doing this, it was really intense. It’s beautiful, but usually, as an actor, when you’re finished with a play, you head offstage and say, “Yeah, let’s go have a drink!” And now we’re like, “Oh my God, what just happened?” You go home with a very different [feeling]. I do believe that everything leads to the talking circle, which, on some level, is the point.

B&M: How do you not leave the stage in tears every night?

M.M.: I have to stay steady for the audience. Do I go through stuff emotionally during the play as Gloria? Indeed. Stuff that no one knows about Gloria that she has chosen to put in there, and so I feel it’s my job to bring that, and whoever plays Gloria—and there have been amazing actresses who’ve done it so far—to bring forth the life of Gloria that Gloria didn’t take the time to show anyone [but] has chosen at this point in her life to be honest about.

B&M: Why do you think she’s choosing this moment in time to share her stories?

M.M.: There’s so much coming out now [about Gloria]: TV movies, a miniseries about the early feminists, a film with Julianne Moore playing her based on the book My Life on the Road. She’s meeting with all the young movement organizers; she reaches out to them, they talk. I think she’s just trying to say, “Take all the information we can give you, and hold onto it. It’s going to be tough.” But I haven’t asked her. I just decided to try to represent it as best I could. She says she plans to live to be a hundred, and she probably will. She’s got so much work to do.

B&M: It would be interesting to know if there was some sort of galvanizing moment for her …

M.M.: Gloria writes the forward to Emily’s published play [and] tells the whole story of how it happened. Her friend, the actress Kathy Najimy, said, “Gloria, you’ve got to do a one-woman show of your life.” Gloria was like, “I don’t know.” And then Kathy finally talked her into it. So Gloria thought she was going to perform it, and they agreed they should reach out to Emily Mann because of the style of Emily’s perspective, the kinds of plays she writes, her feminism. And Emily, of course, said, “Of course.” 

B&M: Because who says “no” to Gloria Steinem?

M.M.: Apparently they did a reading of it where Gloria played herself and afterwards she said, “I will never do that again.” <laughs> It’s like reading your diary [out loud].

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From left: McDonnell with actresses Mierka Girten, Eunice Wong, Gabrielle Beckford, Patrena Murray, Erika Stone, and Brenda Withers; Gloria Steinem and actress Kathy Najimy with Emily Mann, McDonnell, and the cast following a performance.

B&M: And so all of this has led you to Princeton, where you’ve been living for the past two months.

M.M.: Yes. And it’s [been] absolutely delightful. I love Princeton.

B&M: Is this your first time here?

M.M.: I came to visit Emily twice, both times I believe it was in the winter. I took a train from New York because I was in New York. It was dark. I went to Emily’s house, saw a little bit, went to her office. But I didn’t really ever spend time here until this. [Princeton] is an amazing place. I can’t get over it. It’s so physically beautiful, first of all. The history is astonishing. And the people who choose to live here, it’s really quite remarkable. 

B&M: You never know who you’re going to bump into walking around town. I mean, I saw you at the Princeton Public Library last week.

M.M.: I fell in love with the library. I’ve [done] a lot of really excellent work on this role in that library. 

B&M: Did you really? If I may say, the library in this town is particularly fantastic. 

M.M.: Oh, yes. I loved my little apartment, but I wouldn’t feel the urge to work [there]. I was right in the center of town, so [I’d] just get drawn [out]. If I put myself into the Princeton Library at noon on a Tuesday, I’d be there until four or five. Or I would rehearse, and then take that section [of the play] to the library and break it down. There was a lot of work I had to do, on meaning and intention because, otherwise, you could wander. You have to look like you’re wandering, but you have to be very clear that you’re not. <laughs>

B&M: And this is how you were able to fully inhabit a person who’s still very much alive. 

M.M.: Yeah, it is. It’s a different requirement. But what Gloria Steinem is actually doing in this play is showing you how all of the great women in her life grew Gloria Steinem. So part of the action is to present these stories about everybody but Gloria. Meanwhile, Gloria’s growing. It’s so humble, and yet it’s completely out there at the same time. I mean, Gloria Steinem learned feminism from black women, from all the great black feminists. You just think Gloria Steinem was born a feminist.

B&M: Would you say this play is one of the biggest risks you’ve taken in your career?

M.M.: Yes, because it is my sincere need to make sure I’m representing authentically and honorably this icon I grew up with. It could be intimidating, but because she is such a gracious human, you can feel that there’s no need to be intimidated. There’s only a need to serve.

B&M: At this point, are you thinking beyond Gloria, about what’s next?

M.M.: I’ve so many different things [going on]. There’s a huge movie I’m trying to get produced, and it would not even involve me. It’s a story that was sent to me, and I have to get this made. I must get this made. If I don’t get this made, I’m not listening to my soul. So I’m in the middle of the beginnings of all the legalities of setting that up. I’m only going to act if something’s interesting; there wasn’t a lot that really compelled me in the last few years. So we’ll see. 

B&M: Unless they raise Sharon Raydor from the dead.

M.M.: They’re not going to raise her from the dead. I guarantee it. <laughs>

B&M: There’s also talk about rebooting Battlestar again …

M.M.: There [is]. Apparently, the whole miniseries will be just [a certain] time period. So we’ll see. [The creator] may be completely and utterly fascinated by the world of the Cylons; he might not want Earth people, which would also be extraordinary because there’s so much to explore there. I don’t know how you feel about outer space and aliens …

B&M: Well, it is the final frontier. 

M.M.: I was invited last year to AlienCon in L.A. I don’t [usually] do conventions, but I was so fascinated by this one. I did a podcast with two women who are cutting edge on some of the ideas about other beings and visitations and where we are with it. This one woman has been fighting the U.S. government since the 1960s. And I went home that night and I was like … it was really … it blew my mind. According to everything I learned at AlienCon—and I went to a lot of talks—we’re deep into relationships with other planets. And it’s all going to come out soon. That’s what everyone was saying.

B&M: That would be something.

M.M.: Maybe that’s what’s going to save us. It’ll be the aliens and Greta Thunberg. <laughs>

—Jennifer P. Henderson (photographs by Dan Komoda; article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Fall/Winter 2019, Vol. 6)

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