Mary McDonnell Empowers Kids Through the Arts

Melanie M. Sidwell | NaplesNews.Com

October 31, 2003

Mary McDonnell is an empowering woman.

Whether it’s through education for at-risk youths, writing a one-woman play or playing an accidental world leader in a futuristic sci-fi drama, the actress known for her roles in Dances With Wolves and Passion Fish celebrates the power of the visual arts.

McDonnell is this year’s Crystal Palm Award winner at the Marco Island Film Festival. The award goes to actors or filmmakers who have made a strong impact on the audience, either individually or through film, said festival Executive Director Pat Berry.

McDonnell will receive her award on Sunday, Nov. 9, at Marco Movies. At noon, her film Passion Fish will be shown, followed by a question- and-answer session with McDonnell. Tickets for the show and awards ceremony are $25 each. Vickie Kelber, the festival’s artistic director, said McDonnell was chosen for the award because of her involvement with City at Peace, a Los Angeles youth program that helps teenagers use the performing arts to create social and personal change.

But her resume didn’t hurt either.

“When you look at her filmography, she just evokes the spirit of independent films,” Kelber said.

McDonnell has extensive experience performing both onstage and in front of the movie camera.

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., she was raised in Ithaca, N.Y., and graduated from the State University of New York at Fredonia. After a few seasons in regional repertory, she established herself on Broadway with such successful 1980s plays as The Heidi Chronicles.

She made her film debut in 1984’s Garbo Talks; three years later, she garnered attention for her portrayal of a mining town landlady in John Sayles’ Matewan. In 1990, she got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress as Stands With a Fist, a white woman raised by Lakota Sioux, in Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves.

She went on to star in the PBS dramatization of Willa Cather’s O’ Pioneers! and the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day. She joined forces again with Sayles for Passion Fish.

Although she gained celebrity for her films, McDonnell said acting in theater and acting on the big screen are both powerful experiences, albeit very distinct atmospheres.

“They’re incredibly powerful in different ways,” McDonnell said during a phone interview last week. “What’s exciting about the stage is the gigantic size of the moment, the audience, the surprise, out-of-control element. You’re required to use everything; it’s almost athletic. Film is much quieter, a simple, less-outgoing activity. I think it’s called a ‘take’ because the camera takes ideas from you, but when you’re onstage, you have to reach the person in the last row.”

Next on her plate is the futuristic four-hour miniseries Battlestar Galactica, scheduled to air Dec. 8 on USA’s Sci-Fi Channel. McDonnell plays Secretary of Education Laura Roslin, who, through circumstances beyond her control, inherits the presidency on a planet in turmoil.

The character put McDonnell in somewhat of an internal conflict, she said. “The script was like a collision into my own psychology,” McDonnell said. “You could say I have a ‘hawk and dove’ syndrome within myself. I am inspired by having to go honestly into what is the truth of what becomes of a woman as a world leader. Power is still defined as machismo, and it brings up that survival instinct to fight back, but the only way to save the planet is to nurture it and to stop killing each other.”

That same belief compels McDonnell to help youths in critical situations, whether at home or in school. McDonnell said educational programs like City At Peace empower students with encouragement, praise and creativity, rather than destructive avenues such as drugs, suicide or dropping out of school.

“The creative arts offer such a strong possibility for young people to find their paths. It saves a lot of lives,” she said.

“If a person is at risk, they can find themselves in an art form. It gives them expression and responsibility and a wonderful influence on public policy.”

On Nov. 7, McDonnell will join other actors, producers, directors, writers and editors in discussion with the more than 400 CollierCounty students participating in the Young Filmmakers Program, which assists youths in danger of not moving onto the next grade.

McDonnell said the goal of such programs is to help save self-esteem and break down economic barriers.

“There’s so much pressure that kids are up against these days, and the thing that is getting lost is the gentle truth of their souls and feelings,” she said. “These cities … are divided, and it brings together neighborhoods that would never normally see or hear each other. Seeing children perform and touch people in the audience is an empowering thing. They are able to move someone who is comfortable and entitled, and it removes that boundary and isolation.” McDonnell also is removing boundaries of another kind in a one-woman play she is writing with the help of Irish author Nuala O’Faolain, who wrote Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoirs of a Dublin Woman. McDonnell said she discovered the book by chance while trying to catch a flight.

“I was late and running out of the house and I didn’t have any reading material,” she said. “So I got to the airport bookstore and I saw this title Are You Somebody? I said to myself, ‘This has got to be written by a woman.’”

That woman was O’Faolain, a columnist for The Irish Times. The book is a candid and heartfelt self-examination of a middle-aged Irish woman dealing with the ghosts of the stereotypical woman before her: the ever-suffering martyr at home dealing with poverty and an alcoholic spouse.

McDonnell said although she is not a fast reader, she read the book from cover to cover in one sitting.

“This book takes a look at the painful growth of feminism in Irish culture; this is a new look at the very intelligent Irish woman,” McDonnell said. “What inspired me to move this into a one-woman show was that I could hear it being spoken as I read it. I understood who this woman was, and I very much wanted to play her.”

As McDonnell later bought copies of the book for friends, she was united with the Irish author in a chance meeting in New York. The two sat in a hotel room and talked about the possibility of a script.

“(O’Faolain) is such a brilliant woman,” McDonnell said. “She told me right off the bat this was going to take me years, and it has. She has the ultimate patience with me.”

So dedicated to the artistic outlet is McDonnell, she herself has become the student.

And when she arrives for the Marco Island Film Festival to accept her award and work with Collier County students, she will continue to spread the power that creativity contains.

Said McDonnell: “Being able to funnel those feelings, those spoken words into an creative art form, you can face the truth about your situation, and touch your own heart, let alone someone else’s.”