October 12, 2008
Tulsa actress can't quit working
Busy with work, Mary Kay Place takes time to talk
By Michael Smith
Scheduling a time to talk with Mary Kay Place can be a challenge, because the native Tulsan is busier than ever. Her new film, the sci-fi fantasy City of Ember, opened Friday. Last week she was filming scenes for her regular role on HBO’s “Big Love” — along with Tulsa’s Jeanne Tripplehorn — and with Broken Arrow’s Kristin Chenoweth for an episode of “Pushing Daisies” on ABC.
On the morning of this interview, she’s completed voice-over scenes with Amy Adams in Nora Ephron’s next film. She’s prepping to voice a witch in the next Shrek sequel.
She stopped long enough to talk about Tulsa, a career going on four decades in Hollywood and why she has no interest in retirement.
Michael Smith: There are many Oklahomans in Hollywood, but working with two from the Tulsa area in one week is a rarity, I presume? Tulsa must have come up.
Mary Kay Place: We talk about Tulsa all the time. There’s no bigger cheerleader for Tulsa than Jeannie Tripplehorn. Kristin is much younger than I am, but we were talking about going to high school and our years there. We did a major Oklahoma report. Jeanne and I were just talking about the new BOK Center. It is gorgeous.
(On “Pushing Daisies”) All my scenes I did are with Kristin, and we’d met before, but we really bonded. She came to my church last week, and we had a major Oklahoma bonding, don’t you know it’s the same with Jeannie on “Big Love.” Every time we get to chat, Tulsa comes up. She’s just, “Have you talked to anybody? What have you heard?”
As busy as you are, how often do you come back home?
I get to come about once or twice a year. I was just sick that I couldn't come last week for the Celebration of Books, because I was invited by Teresa Miller, and I would have been there if I hadn't been shooting on both Friday and Monday. It was just too much. I wanted to hear Tracy Letts (Tulsa’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright), because I am a huuuuuge fan of his. I feel like I was the last person to see August: Osage County, and I was so excited to meet him and talk with him.
My father and younger brother live in Tulsa, so I’m there every summer when my niece is in town. I was there last Christmas, too.
You’ve said before that you were interested in pursuing acting from a young age, but what was your thought process in leaving Tulsa for Hollywood?
I had a plan that if I was going to pursue it, and that if I was going to start at the bottom, I might as well start where the business was, and New York to me was like the moon. It was so exotic, and it was West Side Story, and it was so foreign to anything I could relate to.
I went to L.A. just to check it out, and I had my senior year coming up, and I decided this was a place I could handle. People drive. It’s sunny. Surely I can translate my Tulsa experience there. I was just intimidated by New York. Sure enough, I had about five jobs my senior year in college, and I saved up about $300, which is just terrifying to think about now, and I got in my Volkswagen and drove to L.A. and proceeded to figure it out.
I got a job at CBS. There was a man who was a producer, I remember he was married to one of the “Gidgets” from the movies, and I spoke to him after he spoke to our class at TU. He said, sure, I know a woman you can call, you can go to human resources at CBS. I got an appointment, and I just drove out. I didn’t know anybody but this woman’s name who gave me an appointment at CBS in HR. I just made my way, but I figured that if you're going to start at the bottom, you may as well start where it's happening.
Of course, I lived in New York all during the 1980’s, and just fell madly in love with it. Once I got there I settled down, but I guess I needed the ‘70’s to work it out.
Norman Lear first cast you as a protest singer in an episode of “All in the Family,” and then he cast you as country singer Loretta Haggers in “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” for which you won an Emmy. More than a generation later, it’s difficult to see your work in that, isn’t it? (Lear produced “All in the Family,” “Maude” and many other CBS comedy hits.)
A lot of people haven’t seen “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” because if you didn’t watch it then, you really didn’t get a shot. It hasn’t been rerun like a lot of classic shows, for a number of issues. They released the first 20 episodes on DVD, but the really good stuff comes after that. And there are 400 episodes, which is a lot. We did five a week, and after that I collapsed for a couple of years. It was fun, but it was intense. I am amazed, but I still have people come up and remind me about Loretta. Almost every day, someone mentions Loretta.
If the public perception is that your performance in The Big Chill is the defining moment of your career, would you agree with that?
I was really fortunate to be a member of that cast, and it was the most fun a person could have making a movie. “Mary Hartman” got me out there, and my life changed after playing Loretta, and then I was given this opportunity to be in The Big Chill, which I think remains a classic film. Those are my classic moments: one in TV, and one on film.
You’ve been so busy lately, and you’re moving between drama and comedy. Does the shaping of a character get easier over time?
The work has gotten more satisfying as I have begun to trust the process more and more, and how to build things in my little toolbox, and as I learn more how to create a character and do my homework on it, it becomes more satisfying. There’s this process in which you use dreams, and it’s just fascinating, because you never know what’s going to happen. You sort of build a bridge to the unconscious, and you just jump off a cliff and see what happens. But there are surprises that are possible, and that’s where it gets exciting The last two years have been incredible. It’s fun, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoy my work. I absolutely love it. The process is invigorating, and I learn something every time I do something. I’m so grateful, and life would not have the meaning it does without it.