Editor’s note: A version of this interview was originally published earlier this month through Indiewire’s partnership with USA Today. “Last Vegas,” now in theaters, recently became CBS Films’ highest-grossing film to date.
Age is a sensitive topic for actresses. Jessica Chastain has gone on the record saying that she will never reveal her age because she’s an “actress.” (It’s widely speculated she is 35 years old.) Isabelle Huppert chided me during an interview for asking a question about her “longevity” in the business.
But age doesn’t faze Mary Steenburgen, the actress who famously got her start after being discovered by Jack Nicholson in the reception room of Paramount’s New York office only to be cast later as the female lead in his second directorial effort, “Goin’ South” (1978), her first film.
“I’m 60, you can say it,” she tells me, seated in Las Vegas, where she is promoting her latest comedy, “Last Vegas” (now in theaters). “I don’t have a problem.”
Watching the actress in Jon Turteltaub’s all-star ensemble comedy, it’s easy to see why. As Diana, a sassy Vegas lounge singer and object of Michael Douglas‘ affection, Steenburgen is sexy, compelling and warm in a way she’s seldom afforded the chance to be.
Since winning the 1981 supporting-actress Oscar for her third film, Melvin and Howard, Steenburgen has kept busy, appearing in “Back to the Future III,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” the Will Ferrell comedies “Elf” and “Step Brothers,” and, more recently, “The Help.” While she turned in solid work in those films, none let her charisma shine quite the way it does in “Last Vegas.” In a comedy that stars fellow Oscar winners Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Robert De Niro, she stands out; no small feat in that company.
Douglas, who was the first star to sign onto the project, says there were better-known names vying for the part, but they had “a dryness” about them. “Mary has this incredible joy,” he says. “She’s feisty and all that, but there’s no anger in her.”
For Steenburgen, “Last Vegas” afforded her the opportunity not only to star opposite acting legends who were all on her “very short wish list,” but the chance to play a love interest, and not somebody’s mother, at age 60.
“I’ve played the woman Alec Baldwin lusts after, who happens to be his mother-in-law, in ’30 Rock,'” she says, “but on the big screen, I haven’t had a role where I was that woman for a very long time. It was thrilling, and I loved every second of it.
“We don’t want to be reminded that life ends at some point,” Steenburgen adds, “so they don’t put older people on the screen. The flip side of that is if it’s so terrible, then why should anyone live another day? I happen to be having really more fun that I’ve ever had in my whole life. Not only am I doing things that are so compelling and interesting to me, but also, I’m not sweating a bunch of crap that I used to. If that’s what’s ahead of you, wouldn’t you want to see that on the screen?”
Like Diana, Steenburgen is also a songwriter who took a swing at the competitive industry later in life. In Steenburgen’s case, she started writing music after undergoing minor surgery in 2007. “It’s been a strange journey,” she concedes. “I had to be new at something and suffer all the indignities of that.”
Steenburgen now resides part time in Nashville with her husband, Ted Danson, where she pens music with some of the top songwriters in the business, including Darrell Brown, Matraca Berg, Troy Verges, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna. She co-wrote the track “Cup of Trouble,” which is featured on the Last Vegas soundtrack, and performs that and a number of other songs in the film.
Always on the lookout for new challenges, Steenburgen took up the accordion in February. “You have to go for it every time you’re blessed to be here.”