Born in Wilkes-Barre Oscar nominee Mary McDonnell has enjoyed a career on stage and screen that has spanned nearly 45 years. Her first Academy Award nomination came for playing Stands With a Fist in the 1990 epic film "Dances With Wolves." The second was for "Passion Fish." At 61, she is still going strong, starring in TNT's police drama "Major Crimes," a spin-off of its other hit, "The Closer." She and her husband, actor Randle Mell, have two children and live in California.
Tell me what was it like the first time you heard applause?
Oh, what an interesting question. The first time I heard applause I think on the level that you mean, I actually was crowned Miss Teenage Ithaca [laughing]. It was back in probably, 1968. I found it very reassuring. It's interesting what applause is for a performer. Really and truly it means a connection has been made. A lot of times, people think performers are sort of showoffs and live for the applause, but in fact, many performers are very shy. When the applause comes it means they connected in places where they otherwise might not be able to connect in a kind of generally social way.
The fame thing has kind of tainted the craft.
I do understand what you mean in that, at this point in our culture, there is much more self-consciousness, and it's sort of the era of "I" and "me." The iPhone, the iPad [laughing] you know what I mean? So there is a lot of putting oneself into a position of fame that we didn't used to have access to, and that has kind of skewed the way we think about things for sure.
That said, was there ever a time you questioned the value of what you do?
I've never really questioned the value of it, but I have questioned some of the difficulties that one runs into having a career as an actor. There is sometimes such deep, deep insecurity and times of complete unknown that can really be very hurtful. You have to have such a strong core and self-esteem to navigate it. Not everybody who is given a talent is also given the tools by which to build that faith. You know, you've gotta have faith to know that it's going to keep going because there are moments when you have nothing ahead of you.
As an adult and when you're a parent and an actor, it can be truly devastating to approach the abyss. There is a void ahead of you, and you don't have a job and you don't know when the next one will come.
You have talked about focusing on positive energy. At what point in your life did you start doing that?
It was pretty early on. When I was an actress on stage in New York, my early years were really, really tough. I didn't really have a path, and I wasn't quite sure of how to go there. I was always living on the brink of poverty, really [laughs]. Not to sound dramatic, but everybody was in those days. I lived in an apartment that was $90 a month, and the bathroom was in the hallway and there was a bathtub in the kitchen, so it was a kind of New York lifestyle.
I think somewhere in there I realized I had a positive energy in my upbringing. We were raised to compete and we were raised to win, and we were raised as a family of sisters and then finally a brother. My parents instilled in us that we could attempt to do anything that we wanted. So I didn't grow up with a limited sense of myself as a woman. I realized I was going to have to develop in myself a way to sustain better images on a daily basis. It took me a long, long time to figure out what that really meant. At this point in my life, I am feeling positive more than negative [laughing], which I really love!
If you are experiencing stress in real life, does getting in character present more of a challenge, or is it a sanctuary?
These are great questions. For the most part, getting into character is a sanctuary because it requires me to get the focus off myself and into the task at hand. So for those brief moments between "action" and "cut," you forget about the self. I think that might be a goal for anyone's work, really, that the work would be gratifying enough to pull one away from fear past and future and put one into the present. Even for fleeting moments, if we can get into the present, our perspective shifts when we come back out to, you know, worrying about the future [laughs].
How did life change for you after that first Oscar nomination for "Dances With Wolves?"
Life didn't really change. There were some wonderful scripts that came my way pretty rapidly. The Oscar nomination really made me visible to some amazing people and filmmakers. So it did change. For a couple of years, I worked at a very high level in film, and it was really beautiful. My career changed. My life didn't change. I was a mom, and I had a husband and a dog and tried to balance it all.
What about your own expectations? Were they enhanced by the nomination? Were you concerned about living up to them?
No, I don't think it made me nervous, but it can be a bit troubling because there is more self-consciousness to a bigger career. My success that I have had has always come from a lack of self-consciousness. That is where I do the work the best. It isn't about blowing myself up. It's almost like taking myself down.
So I almost had to develop the ability then to not drink my own Kool-Aid [laughing]. You know what I mean? I know why I did so well in "Dances With Wolves" -- extraordinary writer, extraordinary director, amazing sets, incredible native American people who helped me every step of the way. What I remember is having to resist the idea that I did that. I mean, I knew what to do once I stepped into the circumstances given the chance. I did have some kind of connection to her [the character Stands With Fist] that was unexplainable. That is what you hope for, that your instrument is in place when the opportunities come.
I am thinking vanity cuts both ways for an actor. On one hand you feel you should look good because you are in the public eye. On the other, to be good at your chosen career you have to let go of ego/vanity.
Yes, you do. That is exactly right. Therein lies the job, the way you just explained it. On the one hand, you have to be what they call "red carpet-ready" and I think that gives me more anxiety than anything else. It is an unusual and unnatural pressure for the artist to be red carpet-ready. But, you must be. It is part of your business. When you are working, that consciousness needs to go. Ego does not drive a performance. A good performance is driven by lack of ego.
So last question: You are an actor married to an actor. Can you tell when the other one is not being sincere because you are both good at acting?
Oh, are you kidding? Yes! That is a very funny and wonderful question. I think one of the reasons we got married is we saw right through each other's BS. I hate to use the word, but we did. That is part of the reason why it's lasted. I don't think anyone sees through me the way Randy does. As artists we really did see the other's problem areas and try to help right out of the gate.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.