After seeing her delightful, new motion picture, Last Vegas, co-starring Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert DeNiro and Kevin Kline and directed by Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, National Treasure, Phenomenon), I requested an interview with Mary Steenburgen. We’ve previously met and interviewed (read the 2011 interview here) and Ms. Steenburgen was kind to accept. So, we talked while she was on her way to an appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. I asked for her thoughts on Las Vegas, Nevada, the movie and her music, eliciting answers and comments on working in Nashville, President Clinton, Miley Cyrus and the prospect of a first album.
Scott Holleran: What is your assessment of Las Vegas in a single word?
Mary Steenburgen: Escape. People’s lives are hard. They have struggles. So you go there and it’s like an adult Disneyland. Me, not so much. But I can see though why others do. And I am now the proud possessor of a key to the city.
Scott Holleran: What is your assessment of Last Vegas in a single word?
Mary Steenburgen: Hope. Because I think everyone changes or goes through some sort of catharsis where they remember they’re not dead [yet]. Each character in their own little way reaches some sort of hope. It’s also just fun—it’s fun to watch those guys. There’s a lovely elegance to them.
Scott Holleran: What is your favorite scene in Last Vegas?
Mary Steenburgen: I love the scene in the taxi where we’re like little kids crammed into one small space—some of that’s improvisational—but really any scene where I got to be with all four guys. They’re who they are for a reason.
Scott Holleran: What’s Jon Turteltaub’s best quality?
Mary Steenburgen: The fact that under one tall roof is a guy who is a wise old soul and a nine-year-old boy rolled into one. I‘ve also gotten into a fight with him about something and realized that being like a nine-year-old is part of his charm. He’s married to a really great woman and that says something about him, too. He related to those guys and that created an atmosphere of common trust and creativity. There were no divas. He was a great ringmaster. I hope to work with him again. I love that people get to see that his movies have heart.
Scott Holleran: What’s the worst part of doing a press tour?
Mary Steenburgen: Trying really hard to stay centered. It’s easier now than it used to be. I have a natural shyness but it’s easier now. I used to feel such a responsibility and weight to sell the film. Now I feel a responsibility to enjoy myself with the journalist.
Scott Holleran: You’re writing new songs, one of which, “Cup of Trouble”, you perform in Last Vegas. During our previous interview in 2011, we talked about your music career when you co-wrote the song for your picture Dirty Girl. What is the most rewarding part of making a career transition from movies to music?
Mary Steenburgen: I constantly flip between being terrified about it and having to really look at this, have faith in my own journey and realize that this is coming from [inside] me. I’m passionate about it. The whole point in [writing songs] for so many years without talking about it in the press is earning the right to be in the same room with people like those with whom I wrote “Cup of Trouble”. Now I know that I do bring something into that room. I’ve started playing music—the accordion and the piano—and the fact that I’m able to do these new things at age 60, I feel good about that. I feel that we should stand on the sidelines like we do for our children and say “go for it”. We constantly encourage kids not to limit themselves. I guess there’s some magical age where people say “I don’t do that” or “I don’t have it in me” and I say: “Why? Have you reached the shelf life [expiration date] and are you incapable of learning anything new?” It’s [also] a message to my children and grandchildren; as long as you’re breathing, you’re capable of learning. I like to surprise myself—I like to scare myself.
Scott Holleran: Why not make an album?
Mary Steenburgen: Part of the reason is time. I probably would have by now if I weren’t working on other projects. I’m actually glad I haven’t though because, even in the last six months, I think I’ve improved as a singer. I say to [the character played by] Michael [Douglas in Last Vegas] that line about being a tax attorney, and I made them add that line. I was so concerned about my singing in the movie. But apparently critics are saying they like my voice. When I perform a song, I do get distracted by the fact that I wrote the music. Right now, I’m scheduled to go to Herb Alpert’s club Vibrato on November 24 and perform. I’m terrified, and I know I’m in a process and I’m leaving next week to go back to Nashville. So, yeah, an album may be in my future. I’m less concerned about my singing than I am about songwriting. It’s a need for me.
Scott Holleran: What’s your favorite song performance in the movie?
Mary Steenburgen: I quite like “You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You.” It fits the moment in the movie.
Scott Holleran: What’s on your iPod?
Mary Steenburgen: I always listen to a lot of Django Reinhardt. Someone gave me an electric guitar Django album that’s really hard to find. I left it in Nashville and I’ve been missing that. There’s always a ton of [John] Coltrane. I love my friend Justin Timberlake. I’ve been listening to a French café thing on Pandora because I’m trying to inspire myself with my accordion. I also love Woody [Allen]’s soundtrack from Midnight in Paris.
Scott Holleran: Any thoughts on Miley Cyrus?
Mary Steenburgen: I’m not really a fan but she’s talented. I do think “Wrecking Ball” is a really strong song. She did a great job with it.
Scott Holleran: What’s your favorite song right now?
Mary Steenburgen: Anything by Nina Simone. Her voice can put me in a creative mood. There’s something about her tone that’s so unusual. There’s some beautiful stuff on YouTube of her playing piano. On the very first day after eight years as president, when he had that first day without all that responsibility, my friend Bill Clinton flew to Paris to hear Nina Simone play piano. He told me that he just sat there in the club and listened to her play piano.
Scott Holleran: What’s your best advice for someone making a career change later in life?
Mary Steenburgen: In general, lean toward Yes. I recognize that this isn’t the best advice because there are a million reasons not to do things. For whatever reason, CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on me that got me more than anything else. I talk about when the music started in me. There was definitely an argument to be made for saying [to myself] “I’ve had a great career as an actor and I don’t need to do that.” But I just kept saying Yes and I’m so glad I did. I feel extremely alive and creative. I work with a group of people who are my tribe—most are younger than me but age never seems to matter to any of us. Most of the music I’ve written has not been recorded or published. But I know the songs and they’re important to me.
Scott Holleran: Is Last Vegas a female wish fulfillment with regard to one of its characters?
Mary Steenburgen: [laughing] Or science fiction and fantasy. I think it’s probably a wonderful idea. I will say this. In my life, the guys who express admiration for me—they’re always younger.
Scott Holleran: Is Diana, your character in Last Vegas, happy being single?
Mary Steenburgen: I think so. I think she knows that you’re going to have people enter your life. Some are going to stay a short time. Some are going to stay for a long time. In the end, you’re stuck with you and if you’re looking to someone else to make life better, you’re going to end up lonely. When you asked me that just now, this song just popped into my head – Nina Simone singing “Little Girl Blue” – and there’s this one crazy video clip of her playing “Wild as the Wind” on piano that’s amazing. It’s a lonely song. Someone once said to me you don’t want to die with the music still in you. That’s Diana. She’s doing this [performing as a nightclub singer in a dive lounge in Las Vegas] for herself. I don’t think she’s gonna give up her idea of life to be part of a couple. She’s singing for herself.