Mary Kay Place has done it all — mostly. She’s written scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H, the latter gig earning her an Emmy nomination. She’s acted on Norman Lear sets, unforgettably as the country singer Loretta Haggers on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. She won an Emmy for that job, and the hit songs her fictional character performed launched her onto real stages with Willie Nelson. Today, she’s probably best known for her eminent character actress work. Her supporting roles span movies like Bound for Glory, Being John Malkovich, The Big Chill, and Citizen Ruth. Sometimes she works scene-after-scene to shore up a film’s ensemble story, other times she briefly appears to kill a bit before disappearing from the plotline altogether. In more relatively recent TV history, Place pops up in My So-Called Life, Big Love, The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy, Bored to Death, Grace and Frankie, Black-ish, The Romanoffs, and more. She’s also directed some television. Again, there’s little in show business Place hasn’t done.
Except, until now, take a starring role in a movie. For that, the industry veteran from Oklahoma waited for Diane, the remarkable narrative debut of film critic turned filmmaker Kent Jones. Set in the chilly, small-town stretches of western Massachusetts where Jones grew up, the film casts Place as Diane, a woman who spends her days alternately checking in on an ailing cousin, volunteering at a food pantry, and keeping tabs on her son (Jake Lacy), an addict whom she fears is slipping. At first, Place seems to be playing a familiar type — the self-sacrificing woman who cares for everyone but herself — and playing it well. But neither the film nor the performance are quite what they appear; buried secrets and decisions from her past weigh heavily on Diane — maybe more heavily than they should. It’s the sort of mysterious role that just might be worth waiting decades to take. Ahead of the film’s debut, Place spoke to us about the challenges of being Diane, how the weather helped her find the character, her country-western past, and why she’ll probably never star in a movie again.
What it’s like to play a character like Diane, who has so much going on under the surface? How do you convey that without tipping your hand too much?
In some ways I didn’t even think about it, and yet it was really fun to figure out. In a weird way, it just fell into place. I had never been in a film where I was in every scene before. Usually you have to gear up, and then you don’t work for two days. And then you gear up again and get back into this place, and you don’t work for four days. And you gear up again … So there was a flow. I dove into the inner portion of her and it just evolved. It was really exciting to play all of those unspoken moments.
Neither you nor co-star Andrea Martin are strangers to comedy. Was there ever the temptation to play your scenes together as more comedic?
No, we never at the moment thought about that because I think Andrea was excited to play a dramatic role that didn’t go there. And I’d already established my tone, so to speak, for Diane. But that never, ever aligned, to overplay it. Because that was the exact opposite of what this movie would be about.
It’s a somber movie, but it’s not entirely unfunny, either.
Thank God. I didn’t know at the beginning. I was worried there wouldn’t be [comedy]. But it’s inescapable, I guess. I was really happy when I first heard audiences laughing at the subtle things that I thought were funny, but I didn’t know that other people would find it that way.
I think people see their own relatives up there on the screen a little bit.
Yes, it’s like when I saw Roma and the car was in that tight parking space. I mean, that to me was hilarious that they had to go through that whole song and dance every time they parked their car. I just saw this as the humanity of families and the universality of families. We all recognize that irritating or funny thing that happened in our grandparents’ or our family home. There’s those moments that I think rang true. I’m happy that they came across.
You bring up Roma: One thing that movie has in common with Diane is an attention to setting. Kent Jones is from the part of New England where the film is set. Did you have to work to get nuances of the region right?
I was worried about that because my parents are from Texas and I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was really worried that that part of me would just destroy the Massachusetts environment, or that it would creep out and not help our situation in creating this world. But I didn’t try to do any kind of accent for the region because that would have just been ridiculous. First of all, there was not enough time for me to learn or study that once we knew we actually had the money to make the movie. And I think that would have gotten in the way. So I just tried to play the character honestly, and occasionally a little blip of a southern accent might creep in and Kent would tell me to redo the line. But I just thought, “I’m just going to play the humanity of this character and pray that the location and the snow and everything takes care of the rest.”
Did any particular elements from the region help you locate the character?
The landscape and the weather provided a lot of really crucial information for me — because it was freezing cold. It was icy, there was snow everywhere, there were no leaves on the trees. So the winter aspect of the environment almost became a character in the film. We see the highway and the town, as she goes from place to place, through the windshield. I think that was such a strong visual, that really helped give a feeling of Massachusetts. I think there’s universality to those towns — a smaller town, whether it’s in Oklahoma, Texas, or Mexico City, it doesn’t really matter. The specificity of it was universal in that, in Texas, my grandmothers took casseroles and she was always picking up somebody to take to a doctor’s appointment. I was at home being inside these small communities. People immediately connect that to their own childhood, wherever that might be.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but this is your first leading role in a movie, right?
You must have had chances before this?
I did have some chances but the screenplays weren’t exactly … I didn’t connect with them, or like them well enough. I just didn’t think it was the opportunity or the time to do a lead role unless I really, really liked the script and felt connected to it in a way that I knew I would need to, to really pull that off.
Looking at your career, you seem like someone who’s always chosen her projects very carefully. Is it accurate to say that you’ve been picky?
I’ve been picky, but I’ve also done things for other reasons from time to time. I mean, it’s been clear that when Being John Malkovich or The Big Chill or Citizen Ruth came along that they were no-brainers. Of course I was doing that. I’ve had some very odd, eccentric, specific kinds of films that I was just jumping up and down when I got those scripts. And then other things I’ve done over the years — little independent films — were favors to friends, or [I did them] because it looked like a fun shoot and I liked the other actors involved. There’s always been something I’ve had to learn. There’s been a few things that I did just because I thought it would be interesting to go to a place in Canada that I’d never been to or something. And I thought, “This doesn’t hurt the universe, I’m just going to experience this.” But I’ve not done a lot of things because I just didn’t find them interesting enough or I found them harmful to the universe. Negative energy without meaning. Certain horror films, that didn’t offer anything.
You started out as a writer and an actress. Were you surprised that you started to drift more toward acting than writing?
No, because I think writing is the hardest thing in the world [laughs]. I’m decent at it, but I’m not in the one percent class of writers. They’re brilliant. I would need to spend my entire life writing to get to that place. I’m just not as good as that. I enjoy adding and contributing to the script. There is one script I’m going to keep working on until I’m in a rest home and pass away, but other than that I don’t think that’s my true gift and calling. I think an actor is my true calling.
You have the fairly unusual achievement of having hit songs as a fictional character. What was that experience like?
That was really, really, really fun. Being Loretta was one of the most fun characters I’ll ever play in my life and getting to sing, which I always loved to do, was really an incredible experience. I had been asked to do several albums with labels but I was afraid they would be kind of novelty things, like the Laverne & Shirley song. So when Emmylou Harris and Brian Ahern, her then-producer and later husband, asked me to make a record, I knew I’d be making a real record with real brilliant musicians. And even though I really wasn’t ready — I hadn’t been on the road or anything for something like that – I thought, “When I am in the rest home, when my teeth are in a glass by the bed, I’ll regret not taking advantage of this incredible opportunity. So I’m going to jump in and do it.” And it was hard, but it was really fun and exciting. I made three albums — one as Loretta and two regular country, rhythm-and-blues kind of albums. It was really exciting. I made a lot of lifelong friends during that period.
Getting back to Diane, there’s a scene where Diane listens to songs she’s chosen on a jukebox, including Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” Did you have any personal connection to songs in that scene?
Absolutely. I asked Kent if I could do the dancing part to “Out in the Woods” by Leon Russell. He had worked on some of my music as well, and we’re both from Oklahoma. I love that song. I thought that would be the song I would dance to, because I wanted to show the trajectory of her moods during that whole bar sequence. This was the point when she was first feeling a buzz from the margaritas and it went back to the earlier more carefree times when she didn’t lug around all this guilt and shame. Just for a moment, to see her as she might have been younger, feeling free for a second.
At this point in your career, you’re a leading lady at last? Do you think you’ll do any more leads?
No. I don’t think that’s going to happen. First of all, there aren’t that many leading parts for women my age and there are a lot of really qualified amazing actresses, capable of having those parts. They’ve already been leads and can get money. I don’t think I’m probably a bankable name, but that’s okay. The size of the part is not really important to me. The thing that’s important is the meaning of the part. How interesting is it? How fun is it? Or how complex is it? What’s it about? What’s the point of the whole piece? That’s what I care about. Not the size. This was a miracle and I’m not expecting more than one.