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Mary Steenburgen Hates the Phrase ‘Women of a Certain Age’

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In the new movie Book Club, Fifty Shades of Grey serves as the catalyst for four longtime friends to each go on a journey of self-discovery. Diane Keaton is a widow torn between moving in with her kids and romancing Andy Garcia, Jane Fonda is a swinging single navigating her fears of commitment, and Candice Bergen’s a judge exploring the wild world of Bumble. But it’s Mary Steenburgen, as a long-married woman trying to seduce her recently retired husband (Craig T. Nelson), who really steals the show. Last week, Vulture caught up with Steenburgen to talk about her own book-club experiences, her love of the accordion, and why she thinks the movie’s message will resonate with 30-year-olds.

What’s your own relationship with Fifty Shades of Grey?
I kinda skimmed it for the naughty bits. I probably didn’t dive in there as much as I could have. When you get to age 65, you’ve definitely read erotic literature before, so it wasn’t a shock or anything like that. But I recognize it’s probably been a fun thing for people to have. For the characters in the movie, it was the little hand grenade that caused their lives to blow up a bit — for each of us to ask, What am I missing?

One of things I liked about this movie was how much wine the characters drank in every scene. Did you have a sense of how many bottles you all went through?
Not as much as my character in Last Man on Earth would drink in just an afternoon. She drank pretty much continuously, so I remember more about drinking on that show than I do on the movie. But for these characters, like a lot of women I know, the wine is as important as the books. My daughter’s in a book club, and I told her, “You should just call it the Rosé Club, let’s be honest.”

Do you have a favorite book club memory?
I was in a book club in Martha’s Vineyard that was run by a very talented literature professor who had really interesting book choices, but they were pretty heavy. I loved it. We read Beowulf and it was interesting to see why that stood the test of time. Just looking at it with a bunch of other women and saying, “Why does this book continue to live?” As you can tell by that answer, it was a far more serious book club than most.

What do you think is the key to keeping one together?
In our case we had a person who was really on it and put a lot of time and thought into selecting the books. I think you need a leader who everybody respects is going to keep this thing going. I should ask my sister that question, because she’s been in a book club for ten years, but the book club is 30 years old. They did read Fifty Shades of Gray, so maybe the trick is throw in some erotic literature and you’ll stay a lot longer than if it’s just Beowulf.

You have a big tap-dance scene in the movie. How much did you have to prepare?
I took tap dance when I was 3 or 4 years old then I never did it again until I was 29, when I did a movie called Melvin and Howard with Jonathan Demme. Then I never did it again until our movie, so there have been decades-old gaps in my tapping. Doing it for our movie actually made me realize that I actually do like doing it. I would like to see if I can get better at it even in my age, so I have hired this really cool young guy to teach me how to tap. Part of it stayed in my body, waiting for me to do it again. There’s something about tap that my body just loves and understands.

I know you also play the accordion. Is that in any way a transferable skill to tap-dancing?
It’s funny you ask that. Our house was built in the ’20s, when garages were quite a bit smaller, so we sort of made that into a room. We put a floor in there that’s nice to tap on and a big mirror. I go in there to play my accordion so I don’t drive my husband [Ted Danson] crazy. He says he loves it, and he really does love it. But when I’m trying to learn something, because I’m not the world’s most insane accordionist, there’s a lot of repetition. I make mistakes and I start again, and I make mistakes and I start again.

On Last Man on Earth, every time we had a funeral, I’d play a different ’90s rock song on the accordion. They’re super hard to play on the accordion ’cause your accordion is meant to play old French café songs, and I was playing weird stuff like “Love in an Elevator.” I would go learn them outside in the garage, and one day I saw my tap shoes there and I thought, I wonder if I could do this. The accordion, it’s three different things at once, right? Buttons on the left, in and out, and keys on the right. I put on my tap shoes and did a fourth thing, all at the same time. It was extremely satisfying. No one in this world saw it except me, but it was a quiet little high point in my life.

It’s funny that this was the second time you’ve been married to Craig T. Nelson in a movie.
Yes, I’ve been married to Craig twice. Craig’s a slut. He’s slept through everybody in the club except for Candice Bergen. Onscreen, by the way.

I was going to say, maybe in real life, too!
Definitely not. I want to be real clear about that. Definitely not in real life. I would’ve heard about it. [Laughs]

Was he a better husband in this or in The Proposal?
He is a better husband in our movie. I think these people really love each other but he’s going through a dark night of the soul. He’s kind of lost his direction and he doesn’t know what life is supposed to be for him. He needs to pick up an accordion and some tap shoes and he’ll be okay.

One of the things about being an actor is you don’t have that traditional retirement.
But the business can do it for you. At any age the business can say “Guess what? You’re retired.” Which brings me to what I love about a movie. When people talk about us, I’ve noticed this whole phrase, and they don’t say it about men. They say “women of a certain age.” They don’t say “men of a certain age.” You never hear that. It’s a “woman of a certain age.” I think it’s suppose to be a compliment, but my feeling is, let’s use our ages. It tells the truth about our lives: In my case, I am 65. The “certain age,” it’s dangerous because … How old are you?

I’m 31.
Okay. When you were younger, did your parents at any point tell you, “Don’t say you can’t do that, you haven’t even tried it. You should try it”?

Has someone said it to you recently?

I don’t know. I don’t think so.
What society does is, the older you get, the less people say that, and then you don’t say it. I think part of it is this American thing about going for the gold like, you don’t play the accordion unless you can be brilliant at the accordion, don’t tap unless you can do Savion Glover. And part of it is that I think there’s this kind of quiet, internal contract that we start having. I will be on the Diminishment Plan: I will diminish and diminish and diminish and then I’ll die. I know it’s easy for me to say, but I do think this thing that Jane says in the movie, that we shouldn’t start dying before we’re dying. Do not go gently into that good night.

Much is made about Fifty Shades of Grey, and how that means we need to all go out and have sex or whatever, but for me the dance part of my story was what it was about. It was scary for her to do and it got scarier because she was gonna do it alone, and she could’ve done it like, I’m so sad I’m by myself, but she did it with joy. If you’re privileged enough to grow older, then I don’t understand why you would not try to live fully as you can. Obviously there are all kinds of things that affect us, but even in the quietest of ways, you can always find ways to scare yourself and intrigue yourself and redefine yourself.

How are you doing that?
For me, it’s all been a musical journey that started in 2007 and is now involves writing music. At the moment I’m writing music for an animated film. I said yes to it, instead of being, “Oh no, I can’t do that.” The movie, all it asks is for you to laugh and have a good time, but I think it’s really more important that people your age see it than people my age. Because if I was your age and was going by the Hollywood version of being 65, I wouldn’t want to draw another breath. Either you don’t exist, or you have Alzheimer’s. And that’s sadly true for a lot of people, but if you’re blessed not to be there, then remind everyone of what living is.

Mary Steenburgen Hates the Phrase ‘Women of a Certain Age’