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Sunny, funny Mary Steenburgen

Nina Myskow / 02 January 2014

Actress Mary Steenburgen is starring in Last Vegas, happily married to Ted Danson, a contented mother and grandmother – and on the brink of a new songwriting career. But when an unusual medical condition struck, she feared life would never be the same...

With the last rays of California sunshine filtering through the trees behind her, actress Mary Steenburgen looks sensational. Standing on the porch at the end of an LA winter’s day, her slinky burgundy dress reveals a willowy shape, and her glossy long brunette locks frame a face that is heart-stoppingly pretty.

For an actress, age can be a sensitive issue, but not so for Mary who plays the love interest in the fun American comedy Last Vegas: ‘I’m 60 and I’m very, very comfortable with that,’ she grins. The film, a sort of Hangover for baby-boomers, stars Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline as four childhood friends who meet up for a weekend in Las Vegas. Mary plays Diana, a lounge singer, whose warm, sexy character and sweet nature turns two of them into love rivals.

Husband Ted Danson

Unlike other actresses, Mary, who is married to actor Ted Danson, star of iconic Eighties TV comedy series Cheers, has never complained about the lack of parts. ‘That’s not been my experience,’ she says. ‘I’ve been lucky and there’s always been something for me when I’ve wanted to work. To be honest, when you have four kids and one grandchild, and one on the way, and a marriage that you are very blessed to have, I don’t want to work all the time.

‘So for me it’s been fine. But it’s been a long time since I had a part where I was the object of everyone’s affections like this woman is, because these are usually younger characters.’ She pauses. ‘Having said that, older men are more respectful of me, a married woman, than women are of my gorgeous husband.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘They come up right in front of me and throw themselves at him.

‘They get drunk and elbow me out of the way. Ted couldn’t be more mortified; he’s not Sam Malone, that was a character he played. I’d never do that to another woman. Ted said that men don’t do it because a man can kill another man, but a woman won’t resort to violence. I said, “Don’t be too sure. If it happens again, I might well get there”.’

Starring in Las Vegas

There are some laugh-out-loud moments in the film, many of which relate to the problems of ageing, and the fun comes with the clash between the youthful, brash Las Vegas and the preconceptions of the limitations inflicted by age on the bachelor party ‘catered by Medicare’. The stellar cast look like they are having a ball, and Mary not only holds her own – she has an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress for Melvin and Howard awarded in 1980) to match those of her award-laden male co-stars – she is a delight and steals the movie against some tough opposition.

She loves the part because, as she points out, it’s a rarity to play a woman seen on her own terms, undefined by children or family: ‘I’ve found a freedom in being this age. In some ways it’s hilarious because people don’t expect it. People are saying’ – and she puts on a flattering, but surprised, tone – ‘“You look so good.” I’m like, the rest of that sentence is: “For 60!”

‘It’s really nice, but nobody used to say, “You look good for 30!”’ She laughs uproariously. Now changed into a soft, honey-coloured sweater and Capri-length blue jeans and sitting on the sofa next to me, she says, ‘Part of the beauty of being this age is that it doesn’t feel like it’s for ever. You can be overwhelmed, or you can go, “Right! It’s time to up the ante and have fun.”

‘To me life is about saying “yes” and scaring yourself – singing in the movie was just terrifying.’ In the film she sings three songs, one of which, Cup of Trouble, she wrote herself. In fact, unknown to most, for seven years she has been a professional songwriter. It was a bizarre circumstance that sparked this change in her life, which has given her this second career.

Music on her mind

In April 2007 she had minor surgery on her arm, for which she had to have an anaesthetic. ‘When I came round I felt very odd,’ she says. ‘It was like I had headphones on and I was listening to music. It didn’t go away. I wasn’t sleeping at night. It was as though my mind had become a musical tornado, and whatever came in front of me got whirled into it.’

The condition where a stroke or an injury brings about the symptoms she describes has been identified in a book called Musicophilia by Dr Oliver Sacks. ‘I just didn’t know how I was going to survive it,’ she says. ‘Eventually I looked in the mirror and went, “OK, you’re a wife, you’re a mother, you’re an actor. A bunch of people are counting on you, so you have to figure out what to do.”’

So she turned the negative into a positive, by studying songwriting and began writing songs. Finally she sent them, anonymously, using her mother’s name, to a music lawyer: ‘He called my manager and said, “I’m interested in finding this kid”. And my manager goes, “Well, kid won’t quite describe her, but I’ll send her over”.’

She ended up getting a publishing deal with Universal. ‘I’ve kept it quiet because I didn’t want people to think it was a vanity project,’ she says. Her condition remains the same: ‘I still hear music all the time. Sometimes at night it’s distracting and keeps me awake. Mostly I’m grateful for it, enchanted by it, but it’s a different brain than I had seven years ago. I’ve had to learn to make it work for me.’

She bought a house in Nashville where she goes one week out of every five to work, started playing the piano and now plays the accordion as well. It might seem an odd choice of instrument but she loves it. She took it up in February: ‘It was Valentine’s Day and I said to Ted, “Let’s go down to McCabe’s, the music store, and we can pick things out for each other”. This is what he got me, and I got him a carved drum. I think he’s played it twice. I’ve played my accordion every single day!’

Career as a singer

The night before we met she had sung live for the first time in her life at Herb Alpert’s jazz club Vibrato: ‘I was scared out of my mind and shaking like a leaf,’ she says. ‘But somebody once said, “Don’t die with the music still in you’’.’ She sang three self-penned numbers including one she wrote for Ted, 66, who’s now starring in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which she sings to me. It’s charming and funny and includes the lines, ‘I choose you, wise when I’m mean, and kind when I’m blue’. She did part of it on the accordion: ‘A crazy love song to my funny love.’

Meeting Ted

They have been married now for 18 years: ‘The thing that is irresistible about my husband is by far and away his humour. It’s like the sexiest thing in the world – an aphrodisiac. He makes me laugh every single day. He’s also a wise soul, which stuns people who only know him from vain characters that he’s played. His father was an archaeologist who worked with Hopi and Navajo people, and those were his friends growing up. So he’s very spiritual, and deep. Every day is rich with him.

‘We’re like anybody else; nothing’s perfect and we get mad at each other. We have sorrows and disappointments and have to face heartbreak. But he never stops being the ultimate friend for me. Consequently I find him ridiculously attractive. Plus he’s gorgeous, he’s aged so beautifully. I love how he looks at this moment.’ She positively twinkles when she talks about him, her eyes shining.

They met 20 years ago working on a film on location: ‘At a time when we’d both given up on love,’ she says. ‘I flat out said, “OK, I’m done”.’ Her ten-year marriage to British actor Malcolm McDowell had failed. ‘Whether it’s your idea or someone else’s, there’s no escaping agony. It was brutal and confusing. I thought, “I’m not good at this”. Ted had pretty much said the same thing.’

But little by little, working together, they became friends, and it was on a canoe trip with a group from the movie that she suddenly realised how in sync they were: ‘It really was effortless. By the time we were on the way back down the river I realised I was falling in love with him. It was a shock, but I knew it. And the same thing was happening to him. Within the week that was it.

‘He has been the grace in my life and my children’s lives. I have to say that I love him with all my heart, and can’t imagine my life without him. The secret of a happy marriage? We try to keep being apart to a minimum. You get out of sync, and you have experiences that don’t include each other.’

They have two children each from their previous marriages. Lilly, 32 and Charlie, 30, are from Mary’s marriage to the Clockwork Orange star. There is certainly no rancour now. ‘I adore Malcolm. He’s a very special, wonderful, bigger-than-life magical being, and we’re so lucky that we managed to remember we loved each other. I just thought this is my children’s daddy, there’s no way I can hate him.’

Mary, who caught the British tea-drinking habit from living on and off for six years in London, would love to work in this country again: ‘I do miss it. I have so many friends and family there.

‘Ted has Scottish ancestry and he and I both go back as much as we can, usually for meetings related to his life’s work, the world’s oceans, with his Oceana organisation.’

The family has expanded. Lilly’s daughter Clementine is two this month: ‘I don’t love the word “grandma”, it’s not very enticing,’ Mary laughs. ‘She doesn’t call me that. Ted calls me Bear, from marebear, and we thought he’ll be Teddy and I’ll be Bear, but she’s come out with Beeb for me. But I do love being a grandmother.’ She is thrilled that Lilly is pregnant again.

Mary takes care of herself by eating healthily (‘I enjoy eating that way’) and not drinking a lot (‘boring but if I want to, I do’). She exercises reluctantly: ‘I force myself to swim or work out with weights. I walk some too, but even that’s boring. I’d so prefer to stay in bed – mornings are delicious.’ She has a much bigger struggle with social situations: ‘My whole life, from when I was young, I’ve had profound social anxiety.’

‘For instance it was easier and less scary for me to get up last night and sing – and it was a first – than it was for the part afterwards when I had to greet people and talk about it. It’s easier for me to stand on stage and make a speech introducing Hillary Clinton, than to go to the party afterwards. That’s far more terrifying.’

The Clintons

Hillary is one of her oldest and best friends. ‘I’m from Arkansas, and Bill is like my brother; he gave me away at my wedding. My friendship with Hillary goes way back to before Chelsea and Lilly were born – and they are also friends. It includes being pregnant at the same time, having babies close to each other, learning how to be working mothers – there are so many things that bonded us.

‘It has to do with remembering each other before this craziness started. Or as I like to remind Bill, when I was the most important one of all of us, a successful actress at 24! So I’ll disagree with him, argue with him, interrupt him, or be so proud of him, or cry over something to him. Just like with a brother.

‘Will Hillary run for president? We never talk about that. I don’t want to walk about with the burden of that. I don’t want to know and have to lie to people, so we just avoid the subject. But she is amazing and Bill is the most extraordinary man on the planet.’

A genuinely lovely woman, Mary seems to have balanced career and family life: ‘I don’t mean it to sound so rosy and perfect; it’s not,’ she says. ‘I’ve made a million mistakes, but haven’t sacrificed loving my family for this one thing. I knew Bette Davis a bit, and when she achieved the heights her family life was not happy. I remember thinking, “Wow, if that’s what it takes to be so big, I’m going to be little”.’

That’s as may be. At the moment she’s happy with her movie role and loving her fledgling singing career: ‘I’d never have seen that coming. You never know where life is going to take you. I did call myself crazy, too old. How could I at my age be so foolish as to think I could do this? But I didn’t let it stop me. I just kept walking towards it. I think that’s the secret. Say yes and walk towards whatever it is.

‘I’m grateful. I’ve flown under the radar, but I’m lucky and blessed. I’ve done it my own little, funny way.’

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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