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Mary Steenburgen talks about her new role in 'Book Club,' songwriting and more

Mary Steenburgen

Mary Steenburgen  Credit: Getty Images/Michael Loccisano

Anyone who has ever joined a book club — then frowned at the prospect of actually having to read a particular title — will understand the dilemma for Mary Steenburgen in “Book Club,” a new film about four women whose lives turn topsy-turvy after reading the racy “50 Shades of Grey.”

The comedy, hitting theaters May 18, serves up a Hollywood quartet that’s hard to beat — Candice Bergen, as a federal judge; Jane Fonda, a saucy hotelier; Diane Keaton, a timid widow; and Steenburgen, happily married but eager to spice up her love life.

Steenburgen, 65, is a veteran of film (including “The Help,” “Step Brothers,” and 1980’s “Melvin and Howard,” for which she won a best supporting actress Academy Award) and TV (“The Last Man On Earth”). In recent years — after a bizarre medical incident left her with a near-insatiable hunger for music — she began a songwriting career. She is married to actor Ted Danson, and spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

Talk about a powerhouse cast. How well did you know each other?

We’d all met at various times. But we’d never worked together. I’ve never had chemistry with a leading man that was quite as palpable as it was with these four women.

You’re all survivors.

Yes . . . we’ve survived this business for a long time. Four women over age 65 are never asked to be leads in a movie. We all know that. There weren’t any divas, nobody was giving anybody a hard time. It was just four people with grins on their faces . . . grateful.  After every take we’d be telling stories. In spite of the fact that I grew up in a little house north of Little Rock, Arkansas, and Jane and Candice grew up with famous fathers, and Diane is this magical unicorn, I think when you watch the movie you feel our delight in each other.

What’s kind of cool about this is the subliminal message — that maybe your life won't be over at age 65. Maybe there are surprises, and things you’ll do that scare you. We tell our kids, “You can do anything.” And then there’s some sad little unspoken age when no one says that to you anymore. And, worst of all, we don’t say it to ourselves.

You discovered that in your own life, didn’t you, when you suddenly decided to pursue music — under rather unusual circumstances?

That started in 2007. And it has changed my life in ways I couldn’t have predicted.

Now you’re an actress and songwriter.

I’m writing with people . . . most of whom are at least half my age. But they don’t seem to care. I wrote yesterday with two people — we’re writing a song together for an animated film, and I can’t imagine anything more delightful.

You had anesthesia for a minor surgical procedure, and awoke with this incredible urge to make music. That must’ve been unsettling, for both you and your husband.

It was hardest for him. It was actually terrifying in the beginning because my brain felt different. [I couldn’t] turn it off and sleep. Dr. Oliver Sachs wrote the book “Musicophilia” about people who’ve had some brain disturbance -- a tumor or car accident -- and developed an abnormal preoccupation with music.  I still have that. . . . You know, my husband and I have no trouble communicating. [She laughs.] We’re, like, chat-a-holics.  But all of a sudden I was clearly distracted. I kept going, “Listen to this, listen to this,” trying to sing what I heard in my head. Or every street sign we passed, I’d start talking about it, because in my head it’s already becoming a song.


Now it’s more focused, calm. I’m the least gifted musician in any writing room. But for 41 years I’ve been telling stories, so I feel my job when I write with people is to bring ideas, a story, a concept.

I hear Ted bought you an accordion. It sounds like you two tackled this new phase of your life together.

He has been my biggest champion. A couple of years ago, I wrote a love song about Ted — it’s very specific and funny. And there was a big event for Oceana, Ted’s ocean-advocacy organization — Seth McFarlane, Kristen Bell, all these great people were singing with a 50-piece orchestra, and (I was to) sing my song.

I wrote an accordion solo that could be played with the orchestra and, that night, I was drop-dead terrified. I thought, “How will I even play?” Somehow I stared down the fear, and did it. I proved something to myself that night. I learned that every single bit of you is alive. You don’t have to shut parts of your life down as you age. You’re still . . .capable of dreaming and fear and determination.

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