Steenburgen goes from White House to bright lights (2024)

NEW YORK — Mary Steenburgen woke up in the White Hous on the dawn of her 40th birthday, pulled on her bathing suit and went for a dip. The morning was February crisp, but the outdoor pool was heated, and besides, she just had to tell her competitive swim team back in California that she spent her big Four-O doing laps at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

After her morning splash, which capped a small birthday dinner party thrown by her hosts — one of whom is also a celebrated Arkansas native — Ms. Steenburgen bolted onto a Metroliner to New York, and swept into a downtown rehearsal hall to ready for her Broadway stage debut.

There is a touch of the ludicrously fabulous to this scenario, like some travesty of a day in the life of Miss America. All that’s missing is a chorus of dancing red caps hoisting her aloft on her luggage through Union Station.

The thing is, this has been a heady time for this actress, with old chums Bill and Hillary Clinton newly installed in the White House, two very promising movies in the can, and the title role in Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” opening today at the Roundabout Theater Company in New York.

Ms. Steenburgen has reason to feel sanguine, so much so that in the March issue of Vanity Fair she pulled what some might consider to be the ultimate diva stunt: She turned her back to Annie Leibovitz’s camera. You have to squint hard to find a trace of the prima donna in Ms. Steenburgen, who exudes the humility, poise and jack-in-the-box playfulness of a Deep South Audrey Hepburn. She springs into laughter when the Leibovitz photo is mentioned, briefly reliving a raucous portrait session when photographer and subject cut up like preteens at a pajama party.

As Ms. Steenburgen tells it, she wore her gown from the Clinton inaugural ball to the sitting (“my friend Colleen Atwood designed — it’s an amazing dress”), and merely wanted to show it off to its best advantage. Hence, the rear profile.

Taking a back seat to a pal’s tailoring is par for a woman who threw over her acting career for a year to stump for three political campaigns. (Besides Clinton, whom she met during his first term as governor around 1979, she rallied for California Senate candidate Barbara Boxer and congressional candidate Anita Perez-Ferguson from her California district.) It was a calculated risk and, presumably, an attempt at personal mending. Her nine-year marriage to Malcolm McDowell was officially kaput, and her last film (“The Butcher’s Wife”) was a bust, despite good notices for her. Even hits like “Back to the Future III” and “Parenthood,” were not exactly personal showcases.

After Mr. Clinton’s election, Ms. Steenburgen began shooting on Lasse Hallstrom’s “Gilbert Grape,” a romantic comedy based on Peter Hedges’ novel, in which she plays a married woman who becomes a focus of Johnny Depp’s sexual fantasies. She filmed part of that, jumped into Jonathan Demme’s much-ballyhooed “Philadelphia,” playing a lawyer opposite Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, and then returned to finish the Hallstrom film.

During the “Philadelphia” filming, Ms. Steenburgen received a copy of “Candida” from the Roundabout along with an offer.

She admits to being humbled at the prospect of making her Broadway debut. “I had to join Actors’ Equity to do the play,” she says with a sheepish grin. “I was the only member of the cast without her Equity card.”

In the title role of Bernard Shaw’s most compact comedy, Ms. Steenburgen plays the wife of a popular clergyman (played by Robert Foxworth) who finds her marriage tested by the ardor of an 18-year-old poet (“Swing Kids” star Robert Sean Leonard). Generously approving of the boy’s romantic soul, Candida finds herself one day in the untenable position of being auctioned off between him and her husband.

Twenty years after Ms. Steenburgen went to acting school to lose her Arkansas accent, she may want to go back and retrieve it. Since Election Day, she finds herself in the unfamiliar role of hailing from the trendiest state in the country. “You have no idea how ironic that is,” she says with a laugh. “If Arkansans have one uniting quality, it’s their sense of irony. People there have had an incredible inferiority complex. We were raised to believe we were less than: We thought we were the poorest, our schools were the worst. We knew that the focus of the world had been upon us as a symbol of racial injustice.

“We longed to tell the world that this wasn’t true of all of us. And out of that need have come some very, very interesting politicians, only one of whom is Bill Clinton. Lottie Shackleford, a black woman who is the mayor of Little Rock. David Pryor and Dale Bumpers, who are amazing senators. When I grew up there, the one thing you couldn’t be was apathetic. You almost had to take sides because the issues were so in your face.” Her campaign work for Mr. Clinton culminated in being a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, a process she shared with her children at their urgings. “My son stood with me and helped me register voters in California. And my daughter stood with me on the floor the night Bill made his acceptance speech. We’ll never forget that as long as we live.”

Steenburgen goes from White House to bright lights (2024)


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