Mary McDonnell Has Acted Her Way Into The Big Time

Catherine Dunphu | The Toronto Star
September 11, 1992

Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars are rehearsing in here. They’re way back, deep in the bowels of this warehouse of a soundstage on Universal’s lot, past the protective wall of waist-high barrels, bleachers, boards, hoardings, and other movie-making debris, past the table of curling bagels, empty coffee cups and discarded bags of herbal tea.

They’re at the end of the taped lines of primary colored wires running in frantic formation along the cool cement floor under white hot lights that seem to blanch the soul.

It’s tense here; director Phil Alden Robinson wants no interlopers on this closed set. The movie is called Sneakers. It opened in cinemas Wednesday. It’s slick, intelligent, and it posits the possibility of the ultimate codebreaker – one which can access the info files of the FBI, CIA, empty the Federal reserve, you name it.

Sneakers is funny, a caper, not an Oliver Stone type expose, but for all the nerves and furtive furious glances at a reporter carrying an offensive notebook on to the set last winter, it might as well be.

This scene has a buffet food table, balloons, paper plates and Robert Redford – who doesn’t appear to be the reason for the tight security. Sneakers may be his first acting job since the ill-fated Havana but he is looking fit, more muscular than he used to.

He’s not talking. This little snippet of rehearsal belongs to Dan Aykroyd who is piling up his plate with party food and talking about the Winnebago he’ll buy, with bells and whistles and a kitchen and a waterbed and a kitchen..

Redford cracks his gum; Sydney Poitier, elegant in a dark suit, just looks that look of his; River Phoenix inhales a helium balloon and imitates a duck.

It is Mary McDonnell, auburn hair trim and slightly bouffant, who replies.

“So you’re gonna get a kitchen,” she says, low, quietly.

Okay, so it isn’t sparkling, or witty or even interesting. In fact it sounds like the talk of too many parties we’ve all been to. Nor does McDonnell’s line make it into the movie’s final cut.

That’s not the point. The point is the company McDonnell is now professionally keeping: Strictly Hollywood A list.

Back in her (not Aykroyd’s) Winnebago, McDonnell beams. There was one other scene to work through, in which she boogies with all her co-stars. She’s happy because “I love to dance, I can dance no matter when, no matter what” but also because Sneakers “is really fun and it’s good.”

She admits she’s amazed.

“I’m not surprised I’m making movies but I would never have seen myself in these movies.” Kevin Costner’s Oscar-loaded Dances With Wolves which won McDonnell a nomination for best supporting actress , Lawrence Kasdan’s poignant and in retrospect prescient Grand Canyon, now Sneakers, and very very soon John Sayle’s Passion Fish with Alfre Woodard, which is playing in the Festival Of Festivals Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Uptown 1, and Saturday at 6 pm at the Uptown – it would seem as if McDonnell has hit the Hollywood pavement running.

“I am a fairly lucky person. Things have come to me and sometimes easily,” she says. Sure she’s knocked on doors and made the casting rounds but she’s never faced a run of rejection, never hit bottom.

“I’ve had some rough moments professionally; it’s not as if life’s been perfect,” she says as crisply as a Mary Poppins, “but I’ve never despaired.”

Her stage career, nurtured through 15 years, started in New York with a part in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child and continued with roles in the works of Ibsen, Shakespeare, Chekov. Her role in Still Life won her an Obie; recently her work in O’ Pioneers was filmed for American Playhouse.

But the play, right now, is not the thing.

“I can do a play any time I want,” she says. A manicured hand flies to her mouth. She is horrified. She insists those words be struck from the record.

Usually careful about revealing too much (including her age, although she “feels the clock ticking”, where she holidays annually with her extended family, and the identity of her friends other that they are “people from the stage”), she is horrified by this slip.

She hurries on: “I’m so busy right now, I can’t even decide which coast to live on.”

She, husband Randle Mell (he played the homeless man whose ravings jolt McDonnell on her morning jogs in Grand Canyon) and daughter Olivia, 5, are renting in Los Angeles but their home is outside New York City.

McDonnell was raised in upper New York state, one of five girls and one boy. Her father, a consultant for large corporations, was the extrovert but it’s her mother who is more trenchant in her evaluation of McDonnell’s work.

Her sisters have become teachers and business people, her brother runs a restaurant. They’ve all settled up and down the east coast.

She is the only actor, and such was her upbringing that when she appeared on Johnny Carson’s show, she was horrified about what her dignified family would think of this inappropriately public display.

Her family is important to her; it’s why she craves the companionship of colleagues – and why she misses the easy and intense social and professional comraderie she had with fellow stage players back east.

“I’m sure it’s like that in the movies too but often there aren’t a lot of other women in the cast.”

Like now. Sneakers has everyone from Ben Kingsley to support players whose faces have been seen in Single White Female and beyond, but other than a fast turn by a woman playing an eastern European scientist, McDonnell is the sole female, let alone recognizable name.

In Grand Canyon, there were four other actresses, but she had scenes with none of them. In Dances With Wolves the other women were all Native Americans and “they were fabulous but I never see them.”

She is still talking about the lunch 1990 Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg hosted for all the other nominees.

“Oh God, it was great. Oh yeah, we connected. We shared war stories. We really communicated.

“It was so nice to have made real contact with these women. It went so far beyond the position we were in. The competition thing didn’t happen.”

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