Mary Steenburgen is an actor, singer, and songwriter who currently stars in the NBC series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which resumes this Sunday. Before speaking at a Zócalo event last March, titled “How Does Music Change Your Brain?,” she talked in the green room about writing her first song, Brandi Carlile, and the “bottom” of grief.
What’s your earliest memory of hearing music?
The only childhood video I have is from when I’m 4 years old and my grandmother is playing the piano. We’re down in Louisiana with some of my family, and my grandmother is playing the piano, and my cousin is playing the guitar. And everyone in the family is singing. And I was dancing. As was my other cousin, who was a year younger than me.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
The first song I wrote was about my youngest stepdaughter, who is adopted. And I wrote a song about her, that experience of being adopted. It was called “Hurricane,” and it was about the emotional upheaval of being given away by a parent and being raised by somebody else.
What was the last book you read?
I’m reading Education by Tara Westover. I used to be a constant reader, but I do find when I’m working, I find it very difficult to read. I also find it very difficult to watch other television shows and movies because I feel I have this world I venture into in my work, and I stay pretty secluded in that.
What place on Earth that you haven’t been would you most like to visit?
Moss Temple gardens in Kyoto, Japan.
What’s your favorite song?
I love the Brandi Carlile song “The Joke.” It’s such a beautifully written song, and her voice is so soaring and magical. Everybody who ever felt belittled and put down or bullied—I feel like it’s a support for that person. I’ve reached out to her and told her how much I loved it, and she sent me a record of it.
What’s the biggest difference between acting and singing?
Ideally there isn’t one, at all. I’ve been doing a job on a show called Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. My daughter’s character can hear what people’s heart songs are. Somebody may be real happy on the outside but inside is struggling. It’s a beautiful premise. I’m the least talented singer on that show probably by a million miles, but I find I can do what’s required of me because I just focus on the acting. I don’t differentiate between the acting and the singing.
What role do people most often ask you about?
Probably Stepbrothers. I have made 70 movies, but that’s one. I get it. It makes you happy to watch it, it’s so silly, and stupid, and fun. I had the best time making it.
What do you miss most about Arkansas, where you’re originally from?
I definitely miss the people who aren’t with us anymore. I miss my 93-year-old amazing aunt. I miss lightning bugs, thunderstorms… the sound of my father’s trains—he was a freight train conductor. I miss the sound of peoples’ voices and their beautiful accents. I miss the humidity. I miss sultry, warm nights. I miss my church.
If you could meet any person you did not know, living or dead, who would you choose?
Nelson Mandela. It’s fascinating to me that someone could be in prison that long and forgive the people who kept him there. That forgiveness and that soulfulness is very fascinating to me. I have friends who were really close with him, and people [talk about] his sense of humor.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
That there’s a bottom to grief. It doesn’t always feel like there is, but there is. The human heart eventually mends a bit.
What teacher made the biggest impact on you?
That’s easy. I was privileged to study with a man named Sandy Meisner. He taught a method of acting that is still taught today by people who studied with somebody who studied with somebody who studied with him. He was an amazing teacher, and I learned a lot from him.