role call

Kim Basinger Answers Every Question We Have About Playing Tom Petty’s Lady Corpse

“To be honest, it was the hardest role I’ve ever played in my entire life.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Tom Petty/YouTube

It’s kind of easy to forget that “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” recorded by Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers in 1993, ascended straight to the band’s Greatest Hits album when it was recorded earlier that year. No, it’s not a Damn the Torpedoes or Southern Accents track, as much as the elder statesman of heartland rock makes “buy me a drink, sing me a song, take me as I come ‘cause I can’t! stay long!” sound like a timeless, romanticized ode to the rebels. It’s also, as fans can attest, paired with one hell of a head-scratcher of a music video, which stars Kim Basinger as a dead woman who … uh … gets into some sort of entanglement with Petty’s mortician character when she rolls up to the morgue. Her corpse enjoys a last supper, a candlelit waltz, and a seaside stroll with Petty. Maybe they knew each other; maybe they didn’t. You can interpret it as you want, but yeah, it’s pretty bizarre.

Basinger, who had already cemented herself as a leading lady of cinema in the years leading up to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” was approached to star in the video at the request of Petty. Long an admirer of his work, the actress said yes — to this day, her only one — before even knowing what the creative cadaver concept was. “To be honest,” Basinger told Vulture during a recent phone call, “it was the hardest role I’ve ever played in my entire life.” An MTV Video Music Award for Best Male Video and nearly 30 years later, Basinger (or, perhaps more fittingly in this case, Mary Jane herself) was happy to reminisce about acting alongside Petty despite the two of them being “excruciatingly shy,” the specific scene where they couldn’t stop laughing, and what she thinks the narrative actually is.

I’ll start by saying you’re speaking with someone who owns two Tom Petty votive candles.
I’m very happy to get on the phone with you and talk about this. There’s so many requests I get any given year, most of which I say no to. But I love talking about Tom. This was a very special moment. You do tons of movies, you do tons of whatever you do in your work, and this was just one of those special moments. One of those truly little just gleaming gems. A gift that you get that you don’t see coming. So ask away. I love and I miss him as well, believe me.

From one Tom fan to another, do you often sit down and rewatch this music video?
I hadn’t in a while, but about ten minutes ago I watched it because my assistant, believe it or not, said she’d never seen it. Then she asked me, “Don’t you think you ought to see this video again?” I said, “Well, I really don’t.” I don’t like to watch myself, but for some reason I love this story. It’s quite scary. It’s so bizarre. I don’t even think when I made it I realized what we were doing. It’s in a morgue. You just have to play dead. When I was asked to do it, I remember the concept was really vague, but I was sent the music and I realized that I loved the song. I played it over and over and over again and I thought Tom was just a great writer, period, and he’s a great storyteller. That has always attracted me to him.

I’ve found that about half of the people I tell about this music video think I’m lying. “Tom Petty” and “doing things with a dead woman” don’t really seem to fit with each other.
God, you just put a thought in my head. Maybe we might not be able to get away with doing that video today. I just don’t know whether you would, you know what I mean? I don’t know, but that’s an interesting thought.

As artists, we’re all different. I don’t really run around with an artist crowd myself, actors or otherwise. But I’m acquainted with everybody, basically. I’ve been so blessed to do so many movies with so many people. And I’ve always lived on the edge of the music business since my very young life. Music was my number one love, really. I play the guitar and I play the piano and I’ve written tons of music, and I think really at the bottom of my life, that’s what I wanted to do. My father was a musician; he played the piano and he played the trumpet. He had one of the first integrated bands in America, in Chicago.

And you’re from Athens, which famously has a wonderful music scene.
It does. I have a history and a love and a pulsation about music, and it’s the seed of me. I loved watching my dad love music. He was a very quiet man, but I watched his face every time he played, and I think that’s why I stumbled into being an actress — watching his face watch actors onscreen. We had that common music denominator, my father and I.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a groupie or anything. I had many great associations with many, many musicians throughout my life. I lived with one or two and had relationships with one or two others. These are very well-known people. And with all of the dialogue that I’ve had with this myriad of musicians in my life, Tom Petty would always be brought up in conversation. I hear about Tom over and over and over again, and it was always along the lines of, “Boy, he can do anything.” You could throw anything Tom’s way, and that’s why you saw him in so many concerts with so many people. You could count on him; they counted on him.

The thing I found about Tom is he was beautifully humble. You just never saw him braggy-waggy. He featured musicians in front of him. He watched them play. I’ll never in my life forget when Prince, Tom, and George Harrison’s son played “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” together. Do you remember what that was for? I can’t seem to recall.

Oh, absolutely I do, it was a Rock Hall of Fame performance for the year when George was inducted.
I recently watched it again because I was going through a lot of rock-and-roll footage. I loved how they all just got out of the way and let Prince do his thing. I also loved watching George Harrison’s son watch Prince, but, besides that, you’ve got some of the finest, finest musicians of all time and Tom Petty is right there, with the greatest of the greatest of the greatest that will ever be. When you talk about the greats, they will always include Tom Petty. I don’t know how old you are and I’m not asking how old you are, but you sound very knowledgeable and very young. You sound like one of those young kids that really love and really know rock and roll.

I have decent knowledge, but you certainly have better stories.
You know what’s funny? I was talking to a girl the other day when she was blowing out my hair at a salon. She said, “I love Tom Petty. Tom Petty was my favorite.” I had my mask and my glasses on, so I don’t know whether she recognized me or not. But on the way out I looked at her and said, “Have you ever watched the ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ music video?” She responded, “Oh yeah, what a rad video, I love it.” I said, “When I leave, you go look it up again, okay? Because I’m Mary Jane.” I never, never do that, ever. I value my privacy. I tell this because I want to make it very clear that a lot of musicians come, a lot of musicians go, and a lot of musicians make a stamp on the world. Tom is somebody who definitely made a stamp on his own generation and generations after that. He’s a member of a rare breed. Their flames never go out. They just don’t ever go out, they just grow.

How were you asked to be the star of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”? And, importantly, was the concept always going to be a relationship between Tom and a dead woman?
I had never met Tom before being asked. I got a call about it and it just transpired. Musicians and artists are in a very incestuous business when it comes to the business part of it. Managers know managers who know agents who know managers. I got a call from somebody and they said, “Tom has requested that you be in a video of his.” I didn’t care what it was. That’s how quick I said yes. I said, “I don’t care. I don’t give a shit what he wants, I’m there. Clear my schedule.” So I never knew the concept.

If you look closely at the “Mary Jane” lyrics, you’ll see the video looked completely out of left field, but that’s the way Tom rolls. I remember when I got to the studio that day, I was a little bit nervous and especially nervous around Tom. I’m not gregarious. I was more introverted than he expected, I think, so to have two excruciatingly shy people not say many words to each other was a rather interesting way to start the day off — but actually very apropos for me being dead, which I had no idea I was going to do.

You play dead on a gurney, a couch, at a dining-room table, and dancing in Tom’s arms. What’s the secret to playing a convincing dead person?
It’s so hard. No one will ever understand, because usually when someone dies in a movie, they close their eyes and then they nod off or whatever. Or they die with their eyes open and somebody closes them. The thing about the “Mary Jane” video, though, was I had to be absolutely dead weight, and that can be dangerous. I had on a big gown. I’m not the heaviest girl in the world but … no one is really light if they play dead meat. And Tom, although he was taller than me, he was a thin dude. I thought, “Jesus, this is going to be a disaster.” [Laughs.]

We burst out into tears laughing so many times. You have to learn to relax the muscles in your eyeballs so they don’t flitter your eyelid. To be honest, it was the hardest role I’ve ever played in my entire life. To be dead that long and to be as present as I had to be was a challenge. Also, the director was rough. I don’t know if he’s still alive or not. I know he’s probably going to read this, but he was rough. I’ll just state that for the record.

A series of images of Basinger, playing dead, from the music video. Clockwise from left: Photo: Tom Petty via YouTubePhoto: Tom Petty via YouTubePhoto: Tom Petty via YouTube
A series of images of Basinger, playing dead, from the music video. Clockwise from left: Photo: Tom Petty via YouTubePhoto: Tom Petty via YouTubePhoto... A series of images of Basinger, playing dead, from the music video. Clockwise from left: Photo: Tom Petty via YouTubePhoto: Tom Petty via YouTubePhoto: Tom Petty via YouTube

You said that you and Tom were very quiet people by nature. Do you have a most cherished memory of him when you two did talk?
He works kind of like I do. He lets go. Aside from a lot of laughs, we didn’t have much of an exchange on the set at all. I’d heard that he was a fan of mine. He had seen a lot of my films, so I think he knew I was capable of handling myself. As the story started to unfold, I just knew I was a dead girl. I said, “Okay, if he wants me to play a dead girl from Indiana, then I’m on the table and I’ll do anything he wants.” At the very end I was quite surprised to know that I would be soaking in a tank that looks like the ocean. I was in Tom’s arms at one point; he was very gentle despite the massive dress I wore.

That dress looked so heavy.
It was too heavy. I don’t even want to think about it, because as a little side note, I’d worn a wedding dress before and almost drowned in a movie. I’m a really good swimmer and diver. I’d been a lifeguard. And I almost drowned to death. Nobody knows this, but this happened on the set of Blind Date with Bruce Willis. I had to dive into a pool for a scene because the two of us were meeting underwater, and I had on a wedding dress. Then somebody called lunch and I was stuck under that water with that dress over my head. I couldn’t get back up to the surface. That dress was a good weight and it kept weighing me down. I think we put some rocks in it, too, to keep its shape. Yeah, it was awful.

I’m so glad you didn’t experience that a second time.
It was a trial, but me and Tom got what we needed. I remember being thanked by him publicly when it won an MTV Video Music Award. He was just so sweet. I had spoken to him before that and he was very thrilled with the video. He loved it. You know what I think about a lot? I always wonder what would he have created if he didn’t pass. As much as we know all the wonderful things he’s done … what would he have done, what would he be doing? What other sounds and songs would he have put into the world? I don’t think he had many enemies at all.

Was Tom a good dancer?
That’s when he howled laughing the most, because it was so … do you know how hard it is to hold up a dead woman?

I hope to never find out, Kim!
Yes, let me rephrase that. [Laughs.] Okay, it was so hard that when he flip-flopped me from one side to another, I remember one take … I just bent over and started laughing. I thought, “Well, we have to get through this.” Sometimes you just laugh and you can’t get through it. But he was a great dancer. He was so playful. He was cute in that way.

I feel like it’s fitting that there are so many interpretations of the video, because the actual “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” song is misunderstood by a lot of listeners. On a scale of “weird mortician behavior” to “potential necrophilia,” what do you think is going on between those two?
It’s funny to think about, because I don’t think Tom liked this song much when he first wrote it. Are you familiar with that?

Oh, yeah, Mike Campbell told me something of the sort. It was initially called “Indiana Girl” before Tom cracked it.
Exactly. Well, Tom still wasn’t happy until he did the video.

Tom started putting some emphasis on the visuals and then he said he was really happy afterward. Really happy with it. And you know how record companies can be. They put all kinds of expectations and shit on you. As morbid as it seems, and, as you said, you can look at this video in so many ridiculous directions, but I like to think that he was obsessed with her. I think in his lifetime he was a quiet boy that observed Mary Jane through the effect she had on boys and everything. He lived that separate life away from her and maybe he might have gotten a job at the morgue just to get her out of there. That was the only time he was able to have her as his own, because he had always wanted this girl, Mary Jane, or wanted her to notice him.

Obviously she was a wild one and maybe she did pay him attention, just like that story. Maybe she did like him from afar but it was unrequited. They could never, you know? It’s the way Tom does a lot of his music. It’s very funny; it’s almost silent. The way Tom and I came to work together and the way we didn’t communicate is how we communicated. [Laughs.] I think that boy in there is Tom or someone he had observed in his life, but the way that Tom would have him speak is the way Tom speaks. Little words and a much more powerful exchange through energy. The eyes, the look. He also wanted to free her from her own existence. He saw the pain in her eyes. It wasn’t the real her dancing with the boys or whatever she did with them at night. She was a special girl, but he saw something much more brilliant in her than just the loose town girl that she was. He recognized the value and the heart of this girl and he wanted to free her for one time in her life. It could have turned into much more than “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

I ask this knowing full well that you’re an Academy Award winner with an enviable career in film, but did starring in this five-minute video give you fulfillment that other acting roles hadn’t?
I cherish this so much, you have no idea. You get a lot of offers, being in this business. It’s a very privileged position to be in. You get offers your whole life. They’ve never stopped, and I’m happy to say that I’m going back on the screen pretty soon myself. This will be one of my most cherished pieces of work that I will ever do in my life.

I guess people might say, “Oh, that’s because Tom’s gone.” I had said this before Tom left the planet, okay? I’ll say it again and again and again. It’s just an honor to be with him and have this type of material. It was an honor to be Mary Jane, let me tell you.

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Prince, for instance. Hello to Keir McFarlane, a very alive man, if he’s reading this. Blake Edwards’s 1987 movie.
Kim Basinger Answers Our Questions About Her Tom Petty Video