An Afternoon with Actress Mary Kay Place

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I was asked by a PR person if I’d be interested in interviewing actress Mary Kay Place. I responded, “Name the time and place.”

They didn’t hear exactly what I said and replied, “Name who? The Place? It’s Mary Kay Place.”

It quickly devolved into a bad “Who’s on First” bit, until he figured out that what I was saying was, to talk to Mary Kay Place, they could name the time and place, and I’d be there.

Most are probably fans of her acting. She’s been in movies like Private Benjamin, Being John Malkovich, Sweet Home Alabama, Coppola’s underrated The Rainmaker, and many more. She’s been on TV shows: The West Wing, My So-Called Life, King of the Hill, and Big Love.

Yet I’m sure most don’t realize that after she started working for Tim Conway and Norman Lear on The Tim Conway Comedy Hour that lead to Lear giving her an onscreen appearance in All in the Family, singing “If Communism Comes Knocking on Your Door, Don’t Answer it.”

She’d end up writing and appearing in another episode of that classic show — “Archie Goes too Far.”

She also ended up writing and starring in a few episodes of M*A*S*H, and wrote some Mary Tyler Moore episodes. Yet what made her a household name was when Lear cast her in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. She got an Emmy for that, and it lead to three albums and a Grammy nomination. She scored a Top 10 country hit with “Baby Boy” and had a hit with a duet called “Something to Brag About” with Willie Nelson. That lead her to being one of the few people on Saturday Night Live that was both the host and musical guest.

So on a sunny afternoon when I got ready to talk to Mary Kay Place, two things popped into my mind. That it’s a shame she’s not a household name to people under 40, and that if you said “Mary Kay” to most, they’d think cosmetics or that creepy teacher Mary Kay Letourneau. And if you said the name Kent Jones, who directed her most recent movie, most people outside of film circles, wouldn’t have a clue. He’s worked in many areas in the film world, including being a film critic. He did the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, and at age 60 — he’s giving us the terrific Diane, his first narrative feature, staring Mary Kay Place. So I asked her if she realized this movie would turn out so well after reading the script from a guy doing his first film, or did she not even think about how well it might turn out. She said, “No, no. I think about it far more than that. Especially if I’m going to be in every scene. I was mesmerized by the script. It was unconventional, and not a normal screenplay structure. When I started reading it, I just finished the whole thing, right to the end. And that’s a rare thing. Sometimes when you read a script your mind goes other places, and you re-read it, and try to keep your mind on it and that’s trouble. When I read this script, something started happening. I was really blown away by it and I felt something in my body and I responded to it physically, and on an emotional level. It also didn’t go in the direction I thought it would.”

It didn’t go in the directions I thought it would either, and that was a pleasant surprise. When we first meet her son, played by Jake Lacy, I worried it would go down the path that disappointed me in Ben is Back (Julia Roberts). So I asked Place if she had seen Lacy’s great work as the awkward boyfriend in Obvious Child (Jenny Slate). She said, “No, I didn’t see that. I saw him on Girls, the Lena Dunham series on HBO. I also saw him in a couple of other things. He kept showing up with these quality shows, so I was very excited. His work is fantastic.”

Your work is fantastic, especially in this movie. And I like that I’m seeing older actresses getting interesting roles on screen. A few years ago it was Sally Field in Hello, My Name is Doris…last year my favorite performance was Glenn Close in The Wife. So, I asked her, do you think there are more roles for women in these types of character studies now than in previous years?

“It’s always been harder to find roles like that, but I do recall there being good roles years ago, too,” said Place. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a shift, but there certainly more movies for older women cropping up. When I think back, there were English movies about older women that have come and gone in the last 20 years. There have been American movies, too. Sally Kirkland was in one, and they do crop up every so often and it’s always a miracle that somebody provides the money. There’s not a big financial stream of money available for those kind of films and it’s always some kind of miracle when they do come up. It is true that maybe more of them are now, because there are all these venues — Netflix, cable stations, video on demand — so, more material is being produced and more options for different lanes and hopefully that will continue; or, there will just be so many films and TV shows and nobody will have the time to see them all. It’s always a blessing when we have these movies.”

Since Place brought up the subject of time, I asked about her character in Diane, and how she spent so much of her time burning the candle at both ends and running around doing so much, and being so driven. She said, “Number one, that’s the path she’s been on. She’s a mother, grandmother, and people like that, helping other people. She also has that burden she’s carrying, regarding that incident, which I don’t want to give away. A lot of people are like that and they don’t want to think about that. It bothers them and keeping busy helps them to not think about those things that they’ve done or said. There are lots of things from their family history, and things they need to face head on. Sometimes through some bizarre thing, they’re forced to. It’s a way of being, instead of just seeing and doing, and a way of doing that to occupy and avoid those kinds of things. In the first part of the film, and even through the film…losing family members, more time to reflect, and having it force you to face your own mortality. I think a light is on. I don’t want to give the whole movie away. You can write whatever you write about it, but…it’s a time to reflect, and she has a different experience with life and room for a little more.”

I had to admit to Mary Kay that I got emotional watching it. I told her, “The scene with your son, when he admits to liking someone…and another scene in the hospital when you’re told by your cousin to stop talking about your son. Both of those scenes had me bawling my eyes out.”

Pace responded, “I love when it hits people emotionally.”

Sometimes when you’re interviewing a star you’re a fan of, it can be frustrating. That’s because you want to ask about all these other movies you’ve loved, and you know that they’re there to promote their latest project. Yet since I figured we had talked for awhile about Diane, I’d ask about a few other things that were on my mind. One of those was music. She had some songs where Dolly Parton was singing back-up. A few other tunes had Emmylou Harris and Anne Murray. I wanted to ask her about having the late Rick Danko of The Band playing bass on her record. I could’ve asked if she toked up with Willie Nelson. Instead, I asked the dumbest musical question that popped into my mind at that moment. And I blame Google for that. That’s because we Google the person we’re going to interview just to read about their history. Seeing that she was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I had to ask her why with three different albums, she never covered the song Tulsa Time.

She laughed and said, “It is a great song. I didn’t purposely not do it. I had other fish to fry and individual albums and songs, but I love that song. It’s been done so many great ways, I figured we didn’t need to have another version of it.”

(For those that don’t know, the song has been covered by Sheryl Crow, Don Williams, Danny Flowers, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Eric Clapton)

Now, in an attempt to recover from a question that bombed, and being a music lover, I had to ask about another song. She sang a terrific cover of Blue Moon in the movie New York, New York (with Robert De Niro playing sax behind her). So instead of me asking her what it was like being in a film with one of the best actors ever, directed by one of the best directors ever (Martin Scorsese), I asked about the song. I said, “Other than your version, which version of ‘Blue Moon’ do you like best between Elvis Presley’s, Billie Holiday, or the doo-wop version by The Marcels?”

I left off Nat King Cole, Chris Isaak, and Sinatra. Otherwise, I’d be just throwing too long a list at her.

Place said, “I like Elvis, and love Billie Holiday. What was that other band?”

“The Marcels” I told her. “I like that version best, just because I was a kid when I heard it in An American Werewolf in London.”

She responded, “I’m not familiar with them or that version. I’m going to have to go on Spotify and start looking.”

Along with writing, singing, and acting…Place has also directed. She’s directed the show Dream On, Friends, and a few other things.

She also played the first woman Burt Reynolds dated after his divorce in Starting Over. Since he passed away last year, I thought about asking about him.

I thought about asking about one of the longest celebrity couples — Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, since she was in different movies both of them did (Private Benjamin and Captain Ron). But while Private Benjamin was a classic, Captain Ron was a mess. Perhaps it wouldn’t be good to bring up that.

In the mid-90s, Mary Kay Place did an interesting movie called Manny & Lo, which got her a nomination for a Spirit Award. In that, she played a character working at a maternity place, wishing she had a baby. That got me thinking about perhaps the biggest movie she ever starred in — The Big Chill. It was a great film with an all-star cast (a cast so great that, an Oscar winning actor had all his scenes cut out — Kevin Costner). I thought about that movie because Mary Kay plays an attorney among this group of friends that has gathered for the funeral of a friend. She wants a baby, but not a husband. Her character asks Kevin Kline’s character to help, but the problem is, he’s married. It’s interesting that Glenn Close plays the wife, when she played a woman that wanted a baby without a husband in The World According to Garp a year earlier. So I said to her, “I liked The Big Chill, and I remember watching it on HBO with my parents. They loved it, and I argued with them, as well as another older couple that loved the movie. The problem I had was with your scenes, because…I don’t buy the fact that a married woman would agree to letting her husband sleep with you so that you could have his baby. I don’t care how good of a friendship you all had, it just wouldn’t happen. My friend argued that you guys all went to college in the ‘60s and it was a different time. But still, when there was another friend — Jeff Goldblum — that was willing to do it, I think at that point it becomes a ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ type of scenario. And, who says you’d get pregnant with just one night with Kevin Kline? So does that mean you’d have to be sleeping with him a few days in a row, or…the next month when you’re ovulating? Where does it end?”

Now, at this point, I figured Mary Kay might think I’m a nutjob. I sounded a bit crazy rattling off all my problems with this part of the film. To my surprise, she agreed with me. She said, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, in regards to if they would or wouldn’t…I found that arrangement a bit odd myself. I understood the argument that Barbara [Benedek] and Larry [Kasdan] made about it. That they were such close friends and had such love for each other. There was no jealousy. I just always thought it would be complicated. It would also be strange for the child at a certain point. So I don’t disagree with you and the concern about it, too. There were a million different opinions about that and so many conversations. I had all those same questions you had.”

I wanted to end the interview asking about how she got the part as the voice of the nagging mom of Anne Hathaway in The Intern, and how in a strange way, it’s rejoining Robert De Niro in a film 42 years after their first movie together. But then I thought back to what I was talking about earlier in the interview, and the roles for women. In The Intern, De Niro gets to play the lead, and as a senior citizen, still gets to sleep with a much younger woman (Rene Russo); where she has to play the nag, that we don’t even see on screen. For once, I used my better judgement and just let that question go. I instead thanked her for such a great performance in Diane, which I told her might end up being my favorite performance by an actress this year. She thanked me for the comment, and thanked me for helping to get the word out on the movie.

I thought I’d end this piece with the lyrics to the song that Mary Kay Place should’ve covered, from her hometown of Tulsa, here are the lyrics to Tulsa Time:


I left Oklahoma drivin’ in a Pontiac/Just about to lose my mind

I was goin’ on to Arizona, maybe on to California/Where all the people live so fine

My baby said I was crazy, my momma called me lazy/I was goin’ to show ’em all this time

‘Cause you know I ain’t no fool and I don’t need no more schoolin’

I was born to just walk the line

Livin’ on Tulsa time

Livin’ on Tulsa time

Well, you know I’ve been through it

When I set my watch back to it

Livin’ on Tulsa time

Well, there I was in Hollywood wishin’ I was doin’ good/Talkin’ on the telephone line

But they don’t need me in the movies and nobody sings my songs/Guess I’m just wastin’ time

Well then I got to thinkin’, man I’m really singin’/And I really had a flash this time

I had no business leavin’ and nobody would be grievin’/If I went on back to Tulsa time.

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