December 22, 1991
It is early morning, but Mary McDonnell’s huge, sea-green eyes are sparkling.
“It really has been busy,” the actress says, assessing her life in recent months as she leads the way into the sunny kitchen of the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, actor Randy Mell, and their four-year-old daughter.
Things have been a bit hectic since last year, when McDonnell was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Stands With a Fist, a white woman raised by Sioux Indians in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. Now she co-stars in Grand Canyon with Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Steve Martin and Alfre Woodard.
The film, scheduled to open in Calgary Jan. 17, explores the stark demarcations between the social and economic worlds of successful whites and struggling blacks in Los Angeles.
McDonnell plays Claire, an upper- middle-class wife and mother of a teenage son who finds an abandoned baby while out jogging and decides to raise the child.
Concurrently, her husband Mack’s (Kline) car breaks down in a crime-ridden neighborhood. He is threatened by a gang of young punks when Simon, a tow- truck operator (Glover), arrives and saves his life.
Fascinated by and indebted to Simon, Mack arranges for the man’s sister and her children to move out of the ghetto into a middle-class garden apartment.
“I don’t know how to predict how people will view this film,” McDonnell says. “But when I read the script I found something very truthful about this situation, particularly in Los Angeles, where the separation of the social and economic differences are so very distinct.”
The actress says she identifies with her character in many ways.
“I think I would probably do exactly what Claire did – keep the baby,” she says. “She’s a very concerned mother, primarily a wife, and someone who I think has made a choice to not allow herself to go numb any more.
“In the beginning of the story, she’s at a point in her life where she is feeling a lot of changes occurring. Her husband is increasingly unhappy with his work as an immigration lawyer and their son is growing up.
“Like Claire, I would definitely think that maybe this was destined. Something has literally been put in her path and in life we can either make the choice to go around these things and possibly pass up an opportunity to get on a more truthful path or we can stop and say, ‘Now what do I do?’ ”
This kind of self-questioning is what led McDonnell to become an actress.
“Acting gives me the opportunity to contact things that I have inside of myself that I can’t necessarily touch in my daily life,” she says. “It gives me a chance to express it, to open up.
“I think there is a certain element in people who need to act, something we all carry, which is a lot of internal activity.
“For me there is so much going on internally that acting allows me to channel it creatively, so that it doesn’t explode inside of me and turn into daily neuroses.
“It’s hard work, but it’s a very healthy thing for me to do, a real opportunity to be a healthier person.”
A native of Ithaca, N.Y., McDonnell has done most of her work on the stage. She made her New York City debut in the late ’70s in Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child.
Starring roles in other plays followed, including Savage in Limbo by John Patrick Shanley; Still Life, for which she won an Obie award in 1981; and Letters From Home, in which she played the late poet Sylvia Plath.
Her work in films includes roles in Matewan (1987) and Tiger Warsaw (1988).
Having done so many serious and intense roles, McDonnell is especially enthusiastic about her latest project, Sneakers, in which she stars with Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley and Dan Ackroyd.
The film is a comedy about a group of guys and a woman (McDonnell) who have been longtime friends. “I love it, because it’s lighter than what I’ve been asked to do in a while,” she says.
After Sneakers finishes filming, she will work with Matewan director John Sayles on another project.
But while working steadily is a blessing, it has also taken its toll on McDonnell’s personal life.
“There’s a lot of catching up that we have to do,” she says, pouring a glass of milk for her daughter. “Try as I might, and as hard as Randy tries, sometimes we just have to make a superhuman effort not to get lost, to keep our personal lives going on with each other.”
Again, the actress echoes the confusion and desire for clarity of her Grand Canyon persona. “I see time ticking away,” she says. “I watch my family growing up and I feel like I’m a person who is trying to understand what is really useful and valuable and productive.
“I’m not very good at the process of eliminating so much of what is unnecessary in my life. I’m trying so hard to simplify my life, to simplify the use of energy so that I don’t waste as much time. We’ve all created so many unnecessary options that we’re all confused.”