Mary Steenburgen: The Gift of Giving

Marsala RypkaBy Marsala Rypka (, reposted with permission)

That is an excerpt from an interview I did with Mary Steenburgen for the February 2009 “Valentine” issue of Luxury Las Vegas magazine. Talking with Mary was comfortable and easy, like two old friends reconnecting after many years.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, our nonstop conversation was filled with some surprises, some laughs and some tender moments as she talked about her childhood in Arkansas; her acting career; her marriage to Ted Danson; their children who she adores; Nell’s Compass, the candle company she and her daughter Lily started, which is named after Mary’s mom; the Home Décor shop, Rooms & Gardens, that she co-owns in Santa Monica; her close friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton; and her and Ted’s social and environmental activism.

Mary is a terrific character actress. She was still a fledgling when she earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in her third film, Melvin and Howard. Since then her comedic charm and dramatic prowess have been showcased in many movies including Parenthood with Steve Martin; Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape with Johnny Depp; I Am Sam with Sean Penn and Dakota Fanning; Life as a House with Kevin Kline; The Brave One with Jody Foster; Four Christmases with Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn, and The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.

So how did Mary get from Little Rock to the bright lights of Hollywood? Who gave her a leg up? Who opened a door? Who saw that “special something” in her?

LIFE LESSON: We all need mentors, those people who are willing to guide us, teach us, and give us a chance. Sometimes we have to seek them out and sometimes they simply find us. But remember, the door swings both ways. Perhaps you could mentor someone who needs some encouragement and support.

Mary told me she’d worked as a waitress in New York for 5 1/2 years while doing comedy improv for free at the Manhattan Theater Club. Then in 1977, when she was 24, Jack Nicholson made all her dreams come true.

Here’s a clip from the AFI (American Film Institute) in which Mary thanks Jack and explains how they first met.

“He was responsible for so much that happened to me. He says I would have made it anyway, but to have the beginning of your career influenced by such a huge talent who is such a consummate actor was an extraordinary privilege,” Mary said.

“He was his best self with me (laugh). I don’t know if I just wasn’t that attractive, but that wasn’t part of our relationship. He really mentored me. He sat me in a screening room and ran movies for me. Then he’d come in at the end and ask what I liked about them and we’d talk about the performances. I’d gone from Arkansas to New York to study theater, trying to immerse myself in a world that was exotic enough, but I’d never seen any of the classic films. Jack gave me this acting education that was quite generous and an immense event in my life. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to audition for him, but 99% of it was studying, working, putting on those orthopedic shoes every night that I waitress-ed, being prepared. If you wait for luck, you’ll waste your time. Even if it comes, you won’t have anything to back it up. I tell kids how important it is to study so they’re better than the millions of others who are trying to do the same thing.

“If you wait for luck, you’ll waste your time. Even if it comes, you won’t have anything to back it up. I tell kids how important it is to study so they’re better than the millions of others who are trying to do the same thing.”

On the small screen, Mary starred in one of my favorite television shows, Joan of Arcadia (2003- 2005) a fantasy/drama that was praised by critics and won the prestigious Humanitas Prize, a Peoples’ Choice Award and was nominated for an Emmy in its first season for “Best Dramatic Series.” Mary played the mom of teenager Joan Giradi (played by Amber Tamblyn) who sees and speaks with God who appears to her in the form of small children, teenage boys, elderly ladies, transients, people passing by, etc. Each week the show delivered a message as Joan was asked by God to perform tasks that often appeared trivial or contrary, but always ended up positively impacting someone’s life.

Naturally I asked Mary about Joan of Arcadia and I was touched by what she said. “You try to serve the piece and the writer and after that it goes out into the ether and you never know peoples’ experiences. But with Joan of Arcadia there were some amazing stories that came back to us. One letter was from parents who had a daughter in her 30’s who had cancer. She came home to be with them and no matter what was going on with her treatments they watched the show together every Friday night. She passed away at the end of one of our episodes (Mary got emotional) and her parents felt that she chose to leave the world at that time.

“People asked if the show was about God or a girl who talked to God, but I saw the show being about ripples. Most ripples go unnoticed, but the show examined the unanswerable question, ‘Where does what you do go, even if it’s the tiniest thing, and how does it affect others?’ We all put out good and bad ripples. I’m feeling shy or sad and I’m sitting somewhere with my head down and someone thinks I’m unapproachable. Where do the ripples from the things we do, like talking about each other, go? I find that deeply interesting.”

LIFE LESSON: What ripples are you sending out into the world in the form of unkind words or thoughtless actions. Be mindful of the repercussions you unintentionally create. Become more conscious of what you say and do and the power you have to hurt others. Let the ripples you send out be those of love, compassion, kindness, and generosity-of-spirit.

I believe we can all make some kind of difference in the world. One of the things I always ask the celebrities I interview is how they give back, or pay it forward, whichever you prefer. When I asked Mary that question she talked about her and her husband Ted Danson’s involvement with Heifer International.

Here is a beautiful, inspiring video that explains how Heifer helps lift people out of abject poverty and teaches them to become self-sufficient. Please take a few minutes; it is well-worth your time.

The video is narrated by a young girl here in America who tells three stories. One is about another young girl who lives in rural China who helps her family by tending to their dairy goats and chickens, which provide milk and eggs.

The second story is about the children who live in an orphanage in Rwanda and how Heifer International improved their lives by giving them a cow.

And the third story is about a remote village high in the Andres in Peru where there are no trees and it’s hard to grow food. Heifer gave the village, which only consists of 15 families, a pair of Alpacas so they can shear the animals and use the wool to make warm clothing. The wool also provides income for these families.

I fell in love with all the children in the video. They will touch your heart with their loving smiles and gratitude for what they have.

Mary explained that she first found out about Heifer International when the organization called and asked if she would present a goat as a gift to her close friend Hilary Clinton at a small party being given at the White House to celebrate Hilary’s 50th birthday.

“I wasn’t familiar with their work,” Mary said, “so I didn’t understand what they were saying. I learned that Heifer was started by a man in Europe who passed out powdered milk to the hungry during World War II. He kept seeing the same faces and realized that he was the only thing between these people and starvation. He wanted to find a way to empower them to help themselves and then pass on the gift because he felt it was demeaning to always be the recipient of others’ generosity. He understood that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

“What’s beautiful about Heifer is that they don’t just give people goats, cows, sheep, and chickens. They teach people how to care for the animals because that is the difference between life and death for them. The one requirement is that they pass on their animals’ first female offspring as a gift to others in their community. The villagers are also taught the concept of sustainable agriculture which includes using the animals’ dung as fertilizer and the practice of planting grasses that help prevent erosion and replenish the soil.

Donations can be made by going to Twenty dollars provides a flock of chicks, ducks, or geese that lay eggs; $30 gives the gift of a honeybee hive and income from the sale of honey, wax and pollen; $60 buys a trio of rabbits and $120 buys a pig which provide manure that immediately boosts the productivity of crops; $120 gives the gift of a sheep and $150 gives the gift of a Llama or alpaca that provide wool; $250 gives the gift of a water buffalo; $500 provides a heifer; or $850 provides a camel. A $10 donation will be put toward an animal of your choice.

It’s a very organic way of giving. For more information about Heifer International I have posted links to other videos at the bottom of the page. Also a portion of the proceeds from Mary’s candle company, Nell’s Compass goes to Heifer.

Before I go, I’d like to share something Mary said about her husband, Ted Danson. It’s so endearing, sweet and tender when couples speak of each other with such love, especially after 15 years of marriage.

“We tell each other the truth, even the hard truth, all the time. We make each other laugh all day every day, even on the hard days. I think this marriage was arranged in heaven and is a gift that I give thanks for every day. Neither of us takes the other for granted. I adore him. He’s the funniest, most extraordinary person. I utterly respect him.”

LIFE LESSON: How often do we withhold our true feelings or tell little white lies to those we love in order to avoid conflict? As Mary says, it’s not always easy to tell the truth, but it’s the difference between an honest, authentic relationship and a relationship built on fear and deception. You can do it gently, but do it. Speak honestly from your heart.

To read the full interview I did with Mary for Luxury Las Vegas magazine, click on Up Close and Personal with Mary Steenburgen.

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