Mary Steenburgen on being discovered by Jack Nicholson, meeting husband Ted Danson and mothering Will Ferrell

Oscar-winning actress takes behind the scenes of her greatest roles, including "Melvin and Howard," "Parenthood," "Back to the Future 3," "Step Brothers" and "Elf."

(Everett Collection)
(Photos: Everett Collection)

If Tom Hanks is America’s Dad, who’s America’s Mom?

We believe a strong case could be made for Hanks’s Philadelphia co-star Mary Steenburgen.

The 70-year-old screen vet has plenty of iconic mom roles, from her memorable turn opposite Steve Martin in the 1989 favorite Parenthood to two stints mothering Will Ferrell in two contemporary comedy classics, 2003’s Elf and 2008’s Step Brothers.

Besides, who wouldn’t want Steenburgen as their mother in real life? When you meet her, the accomplished Arkansas-born actress really is every bit as warm and endearing as many of the characters she’s best known for playing. (Steenburgen has two children IRL, including acclaimed indie director Charlie McDowell, with ex-husband Malcolm McDowell; the actress later married Ted Danson in 1995, and the pair have long been one of America’s Favorite Couples.)

Her career is far more eclectic than she’s generally given credit for, though. She won an Oscar for playing an exotic dancer in the 1980 dramedy Melvin and Howard, injected a new energy into the threequel Back to the Future Part III as Doc Brown’s love interest, and accomplished the near-impossible — making us dislike her on screen — as a corporate defense attorney in Philadelphia.

This weekend Steenburgen returns to theaters alongside Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen for Book Club: The Next Chapter, a sequel to 2018’s sleeper hit. This time the ladies head out on a Roman holiday for Fonda’s bachelorette party.

In a new Role Recall interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Steenburgen looked back at the various chapters of her career, from being discovered and mentored by Jack Nicholson to falling for Danson on the set of Pontiac Moon to grappling with her antagonistic Philadelphia role as an AIDS activist.

On her film debut as a woman who marries Jack Nicholson’s outlaw to save him from hanging in the Western Goin’ South (1978):

“It was pretty extraordinary. I had been in New York for about six-and-a-half years. I was a waitress. I had studied for two years with Sandy Meisner, who I think was the greatest acting teacher that ever lived. But I'd gotten really nowhere. … I was a waitress at various places, but finally I got a chance to have a general casting meeting with this woman named Gretchen Renell. ... On my way out, I said, ‘Are you casting anything in particular?’ And she said, ‘I am, and I’d love to get you a meeting, but at this point, I’m only supposed to [look at] well-known actresses or really beautiful models.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going to go sit out [in the lobby] and wait until maybe you’ll think about it give me a chance to look at the script.’ Now, I had never been that pushy ever in my career. It was just that moment. To this day I believe something besides what I had right there was with me.

“And so anyway, I went out and sat down and I see three gorgeous models across from me all with scripts. And I start going, ‘Oh my God, I just blew it with the most important person I know in New York. ... I’m going to go in there and I'm going to apologize for being so pushy. And formulating my apology and I see these two feet and I heard this voice saying, ‘Are you waiting to see me?’ And it’s Jack Nicholson. I said, ‘No.’ And he goes, ‘Why not?’ And I said, ‘Because I don’t have a script.’ He goes over, gets it, hands it to me. And I left. And I spent the whole night just trying to memorize it and trying to learn it. I went back the next day and started reading for him. He started canceling appointments. His pizza came, I stood up to leave. He goes, ‘No, sit down, eat the pizza, keep reading.’ We read every scene in the movie twice. And the next day I found out I was being flown to Hollywood for a screen test along with six other women that were big actresses at the time, and still are. I auditioned for the part and I was leaving a few days later because I’d run outta money and I had to get back to my waitressing shift. And I went into Paramount cause they owed me for one night’s hotel bill. And I just said, ‘Thank you guys so much. That was a great experience. Would you mind paying me the one hotel billing cash? ’Cause I need the money to get from the airport into Manhattan. And they said, ‘Sit down, don’t worry about it. You’re on the payroll.’ And I had miraculously been cast in that part. So my first film was a lead opposite Jack Nicholson.”

On meeting first husband Malcolm McDowell on Time After Time (1979), in which he starred as a time-traveling H.G. Wells.

“That movie is where I met Malcolm, who’s the father of my children and still a very beloved friend. … [He had been in A Clockwork Orange and just done Caligula], but I had seen neither of those. He was pretty horrified when he saw Caligula [laughs]. I had seen him in it… and Oh Lucky Man!, which were directed by Lindsay Anderson, who became our children’s godfather and was a brilliant director. We had a lot in common. We both had a mentor. His was Lindsay Anderson, mine was Jack Nicholson. And we both kind of came from working-class families. So I think there were a lot of things that we related to in each other.

“I just did a scene with him a couple of weeks ago, in a movie [Last Train to Fortune] that he’s doing that he asked me to do with him. And we married, and our marriage didn’t make it, but our friendship has survived. And so for me, Time After Time was really about the magic of meeting him. You know, he’s my kids’ dad. So yeah, it’s a big deal [laughs].”

On how Jack Nicholson helped her land her Oscar-winning part in Melvin and Howard (1980):

“I just had the weird experience about 10 days ago of seeing that film for the first time on a big screen since I made it. It was quite stunningly weird to look at yourself as a 26-year-old. I’m 70. It wasn’t to me about looking young or any of that stuff that you would think. It was more about the people that were in it, the moments and remembering that location and remembering that beautiful line. And the biggest thing that I have to say about Melvin and Howard — besides that Jonathan Demme was just an extraordinary director and I loved him so much, I later did Philadelphia with him — [was] Bo Goldman wrote the most beautiful script. It was just a stunning script. And that was originally given to me to read by Jack Nicholson, and it was sent to him to play Melvin by Mike Nichols. And Mike was going to direct it. Then it found its way to Jonathan. And so I had to audition for that part to get it. And I was just so lucky to get it. It was such a beautiful, beautiful screenplay. And Bo Goldman also won an Oscar for that.”

On Steve Martin’s lack of real parenting experience on the set of Parenthood (1989):

“I loved Steve, I do love Steve. Steve’s now a parent, but when we made that film, he hadn’t even been around children that much. Steve’s very magical and can do card tricks and things, and they would just wear him out. I’m a mom of two by that time, I have my kids with me. And I said, ‘Steve, the thing is, it’s OK to say no. It’s okay to say, ‘I need a minute.’ [laughs] ’Cause they were just all over him and, and there were times it was a little too much for him. But I’m sure he’s used to it now, being a parent. But he was just a delight. Everybody was. ... Only Ron Howard could have directed that movie. There were so many kids in it. And he himself had been this brilliant child actor. He has such a gorgeous touch and is such a fine director.

“During the making of that movie, personally, it was hard for me because I lost my father and I was flying back and forth to Arkansas where he was, and he had cancer. And so he died and I went back to Orlando to complete that movie and I was pretty broken. And all those people were just so there for me, such kind people. It was just a really beautiful experience and a little hard for me, but a beautiful experience working with them.”

On bringing her kids to the wild wild West sets of Back to the Future Part III (1990):

“My kids loved it. They were with me during that film, every bit of it. There’s little shots of them dressed in period clothes at a train station. We had a wonderful time, panning for gold [laughs] and things like that on days off. We were in Northern California. It was really, really a lovely experience.

“I spent a lot of time training to ride a horse because it turns out horses don’t really enjoy being between a camera truck on one side and a steam engine on the other. And I had to ride up to the back of it and touch the steam engine. And Jennifer, who was my stunt double, does the transfer. But in order to get a horse to do that, it takes some doing [laughs]. So I spent a lot of time on a horse up there. And then the day before we were to shoot that scene, the wrangler said, ‘I’m going to switch horses on you.’ And I was like, ‘What? I’ve just spent two months on this horse.’ And he said, ‘I know, but you’re going to have to trust me. I have an instinct that this other horse is the one you should do that stunt on. And the second I got on the horse, I knew he’d made the right call. You could just feel the horse going, ‘I don’t care about the camera truck or the steam engine, we’re going to ride up to the back of the train.’ It was an amazing experience.”

On being blown away by a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the intellectually disabled boy Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993):

“I will just say, not only was that a brilliant performance, obviously, but it was so brilliant and he stayed in character as Arnie all day long. The people that were down there in Texas that were background people around the set, they were like, ‘How did that kid who’s so clearly developmentally disabled learn all those lines?’ And that was the power of that performance. He had so much respect for who Arnie was, and the beauty of someone like Arnie. And he inhabited that. I really didn’t get to know him that well. I think I knew him a little bit more from environmental stuff work [later on] than just from that experience because he was Arnie.”

On her reservations about playing the corporate attorney who squares off against Tom Hanks’s AIDS-stricken plaintiff in Philadelphia (1993), and her first time seeing the Oscar-winning star in character:

“I think somebody called my character in Philadelphia ‘serpentine.’ And when I watched it, I thought, ‘Well, I am a little bit like a snake.’ There’s a moment — which was not in the script, which some people hear and some people don’t even catch — where I murmur quietly to Obba Babatundé, ‘I hate this case.’ That was not my idea. It was [director Jonathan Demme’s] idea because I struggled [with the role] in the beginning. I had spent a lot of time working with AIDS groups and AIDS advocacy. And right before that film, I lost a friend who had been my roommate in New York to AIDS. So I went there really quite distraught. I think I was really struggling that I was playing someone who wasn’t supportive of somebody who had AIDS. And my friend Peter had said, ‘You’ve got to go do this movie. You’ve got to do that part.’ And he passed away.

“I remember getting on a plane, and as I was about to sit down, I saw that the man that I was going to be sitting next to was very frail, very thin, and had a bandana on his head where maybe he didn’t have a lot of hair there. And I just went, ‘I can't believe I just left Peter and now I’m gonna be sitting next to someone who has AIDS, this is breaking my heart. All of this is so much.’

And he looked up at me and it was Tom Hanks. His commitment physically to that character was so intense, and it was so thoughtfully done with him and Jonathan Demme about how to shoot the film depending on where he was with his weight loss and all this other stuff. But my first day on that film is the only day I know of in my career that it kind of had to be scrapped because I was a mess. And Jonathan pulled me aside and just said, ‘What's going on with you? And I said, ‘I just lost my friend. This is a subject I worked on for so many years, and it’s weird that I’m playing, you know, this part.’ And he said, ‘But Mary, you’re not. The point is not that you’re playing somebody who’s against someone with AIDS. The point is you’re upholding justice because everybody is entitled, whether you like them or you don’t like them, everybody is entitled to the best defense possible. And as soon as he said that, it became for me, a film about justice. And I could understand how I could play that part.”

On connecting with future husband Ted Danson while co-starring in the family road trip film Pontiac Moon (1994):

“My first time meeting him, he auditioned for a film I was doing called Cross Creek. [Director] Marty Ritt and I were meeting with all the people that might possibly play opposite me. It was actually cast with Peter Coyote. But Ted auditioned and then I met him at Henry Winkler’s birthday party one year. We were both married to other people. So no bells went off or anything. And then when we did Pontiac Moon, I had just broken up with somebody and it had been a really difficult relationship. And I just said, ‘I’m done.’ I’m like, ‘I’m not good at relationships, it’s my fault. I hereby exit all romantic life forever.’ And my friends love to remind me of this moment. … I didn't instantly fall in love. He was going through a whole lot of stuff in his life and I was like, ‘Wow, that dude's complicated.’ [laughs] But I thought he was really sweet. And then little by little, we’d all go out to dinner and he might not be there. And I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not as much fun when he’s not here.’ You know? And little by little I went from just becoming friends with him to realizing inside that something huge was happening to me. And I have to say, it just has been one of the gifts from my angels that I got to meet him and spend my life with him.”

PONTIAC MOON, Ted Danson, Ryan Todd, Mary Steenburgen, 1994, (c)Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection
Ted Danson, Ryan Todd and Mary Steenburgen in 'Pontiac Moon' (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

On playing Will Ferrell’s stepmom and birth mom, respectively, in Elf (2003) and Step Brothers (2008) despite being only 15 years older.

“Well, I was his stepmom on Elf and he called me at the end of it. He and I just giggled together and laughed together and had so much fun. And he called me and said, ‘Would you be offended if I asked you to actually play my mom?’ And of course, I’m [15] years older than him. I said, ‘No, I would be offended if you asked someone else.’ And thank God I did Step Brothers cause it was one of the apex moments of my life. It was just one of those things that you can’t believe how lucky you are.

“And Richard Jenkins, who I love, we looked at each other on the first day and went, ‘We’re working with these two comedic geniuses who literally can’t say anything that isn’t going to break me, a terrible giggler, up.’ And we were like, ‘What are we doing here?’ And then I said, ‘You know what? We've got to make people believe that these two idiots do live home with their parents. And we’re just the dysfunctional parents that would still have middle-aged people at home like this. And honestly, it was just a total joy. [Usually] people come to film sets and they think they’re going to love it, and then they watch it for five minutes and they get bored and they leave. But on this film, people would come bring their lawn chairs, go sit by Adam McKay, who we had to keep so far away from us because he was laughing so loudly. He was so far from us, he had to have a megaphone. And every day there were more and more people, it was like doing theater, you know? My job was to think of the saddest things I could think of all day long to keep from dying laughing at these idiots that were doing this stuff. It was just beyond hysterical. And half of that film was improvised. So you never knew what was coming out. You couldn’t prepare in the morning. It was so amazing.”

On getting to work with Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen all for the first time on Book Club (2018) and again on Book Club: The Next Chapter (2023):

“First of all, I couldn’t believe my luck in being cast in the first one. None of us had ever worked together. No combination of us had ever worked together, which is weird when you look at how many movies everybody’s been in. But by the second day we were a team. A lot of people said stuff to me like, ‘Oh, I wonder who’s going to be the diva or who’s going to be the difficult one,’ and all this stuff. And we fell in love. And that’s why the movie works. You see women falling in love with each other as friends, and we’re still friends. We constantly email. I make pasta for them all at my house. I mean, it’s just been a gift in life beyond the film. It’s been a gift in life to have these three women as my dear friends. They’re extraordinary artists. Extraordinary women, deeply interesting, hilarious, and loving. And I’m really lucky.”

Book Club: The Next Chapter is now playing.

Watch the trailer: