Time for `The American Clock’/Actress, audience now better prepared for Depression play

LUAINE LEE Scripps Howard News Service

MON 08/23/1993 HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section Houston, Page 1, 2 STAR Edition

HOLLYWOOD – It’s hard to believe that this soft-spoken, green-eyed woman with the feathery red hair used to be a fighter.

But that spirit earned Mary McDonnell the role of Stands With Fist in “Dances With Wolves” and the part of the bitter paraplegic in “Passion Fish,” both of which won her Oscar nominations.

Though McDonnell has co-starred in the movies “Grand Canyon, Sneakers” and “Matewan,” the cinema was never part of her plans.

She spent 12 years working in the theater, living what she calls the life of a gypsy. “I didn’t even own an apartment. I sublet for four years and lived in 13 different places,” she said.

In 1978 she tried a soap, co-starring in “As the World Turns” for six months. “It was the longest job I’d ever had and the first time I’d ever made money. But I couldn’t wait to get off. At that time I wasn’t ready to settle down.”

She finally grew tired of being poor, she said with a sigh. “In the theater you’re not on the same time schedule as anyone else. As a mom I was sad about not being home at night to tuck in. It was bothering me.”

McDonnell, who has been married to actor Randle Mell for nine years, has a 5-year-old daughter. She decided that film work might be healthier for her family.

With her success in feature films, McDonnell has come full circle. She’ll star in Arthur Miller’s “The American Clock,” premiering on TNT at 7 tonight as part of TNT’s partnership with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and producer Michael Brandman.

Twelve years ago McDonnell tried out for a stage role in the same play. She didn’t get the part.

She wasn’t ready then for a play about the pervasive destruction of the Great Depression on Americans. And nor were we, she believes.

“Ten years ago we were not yet aware of a troubled economy. We were not aware of how much we’d gotten ourselves into (a pattern), a lack of responsibility and interest in comfort and the good life. It has gotten us into trouble yet again.”

Miller’s play also pictures the American character of the 1930s as far more innocent than it is now. “It wasn’t greed or denial” as in the 1980s, McDonnell says. “It was like a young America. We were like children (thinking) nothing could go wrong. `We’re wonderful, young and blessed. Let’s have fun and play.’ “

When McDonnell read the screenplay, she suddenly saw the parallel not only between that time and this, but also between her and the women in her family who came before her.

“Even though I hadn’t had a specific conversation with my mother about those years, I had, in fact, ingested a lot of her feelings about those years. I knew what it was. And I had this whole world inside of me of response to it… . I had inherited my mother’s experience on an emotional level with what it took to get through that.”

McDonnell’s mother had played a crucial part in her life three years earlier. She died of cancer just a month before “Dances With Wolves” opened. Losing her mother (her father had died in 1973) taught McDonnell a great deal about herself.

“I had no idea how to handle it all,” she said, curling her legs under her on a beige couch at the Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles.

“I learned so much about how it’s so much bigger than you, you just try and be present. That’s all you can do. You learn not to cut off, not to pretend. If you feel really awful that day, feel really awful that day. I found I could do things that I used to think I had to be in tip-top shape for.”

Though her dedication to work has always guided her, McDonnell admitted she sometimes has trouble keeping that in mind.

“It’s difficult keeping myself connected to what I’m passionate about to begin with and not getting too caught up in creating more power – even though I want more. I have to continue to trust that if I keep trying to find material that I believe in, it will create power; that I don’t have to have people representing me that are despicable in order to make money. It’s like a discipline. I have to keep re-evaluating the way I’m thinking.”

Her husband helps, she said. “What’s beautiful about being married to someone in your profession is that we share everything. If I feel I’m having a problem, he’s the first person I go to. If I’m feeling I’m having a problem with the director, or I can’t sleep, I go to Randy and talk it through with him.”

It wasn’t always that way. “When we were first together I wouldn’t listen to a thing he said. Because, you see, I was in love with him, and I was afraid he was going to swallow me whole,” she said, laughing.

“As the years have gone by, I’ve gotten a little more confident and relaxed, and (there’s more) intimacy in the marriage. And I trust him more.

“He’s always been open to it. I was this woman who thought I had to fight my way in. He had a much healthier attitude and objectivity on it, one I’m beginning to have.”


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