Heartland Interviews: MARY KAY PLACE

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Mary Kay Place was first critically acclaimed for her role as Loretta Haggers on the comedy series, ”Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” for which she won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy. Since then, her film credits include The Big ChillThe RainmakerGirl, InterruptedBeing John MalkovichSweet Home Alabama and Killer Diller, among numerous others.

When Place moved to Los Angeles from Oklahoma, she worked for Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions, and began co-writing for numerous TV series, including “M*A*S*H” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She also acted in episodes of these shows as well as “All In the Family.” Place’s directing credits include television episodes of “Friends” and other programs.

In addition to her numerous film and television credits, Place also served as emcee at the 2004 Heartland Film Festival Crystal Heart Awards Gala. Here she shares with us some of her Truly Moving Pictures, as well as some of her thoughts on what makes a great film.

What are some of your Truly Moving Pictures?

My earliest childhood recollection of being emotionally moved through film was watching musicals. Since I grew up in Tulsa Oklahoma, far away from professional theatre and Broadway, watching South PacificThe Sound of Music, and West Side Story on a big screen in the dark was absolutely thrilling. I was swept away with the music, the costumes, the locations, and the stories. I would reenact scenes in my bedroom, learn every song, and endlessly make up dances, leaping around corners and flying down hallways, as a Jet or Shark. Though the stories occurred in places I’d never been and were about experiences I’d never had, I connected to the characters, I lived in their shoes during the life of the film and I carried the feelings these movies evoked for weeks afterwards.

“I guess it’s no surprise I became an actor.”

Another influential film for me was The Last Picture Show. It was one of the first films that I related to in a very personal way. It takes place in a small, dusty, flat, west Texas town just like the one I inhabited every summer while visiting my grandparents in Rule, Texas. I watched the town change over the years, stores shut down, and the movie theatre close. I spent endless hours with my girlfriend driving up and down the main drag and played many of the same songs on the film’s incredible soundtrack (by Hank Williams, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Eddie Arnold, Lefty Frizell) on the tabletop jukebox in the Bluebonnet, the local Rule café.

“Here was a movie that took place in a world I knew intimately – not a distant, fantasy location – and it rocked my world.”

The beautiful black and white photography by Robert Surtees added to the gritty reality of the story, to the lost dreams, opportunities, struggles, frustrations and fantasies of the people in this town. It inspired me to want to write my own stories, to share my own experiences. It allowed me to believe that it was possible.

I also loved My Left Foot, the story of writer Christy Brown, a spastic quadriplegic born into a large, poor, Irish family. Brown, who was believed to be retarded for the first ten years of his life, was loved and supported by his family, and because of his mother’s devotion, his intelligence and abilities are discovered. He learns to read and to write and paint with the only controllable part of his body, his left foot. This could be a manipulative, sentimental film – but it’s not. It is an honest and deeply affecting portrayal of this very complicated, difficult, hard-drinking, rough-talking, and arrogant man. The portrayal of Christy Brown by Daniel Day-Lewis is an unforgettable performance.

“It is an inspiring story about courage and determination and to me is truly moving.”

Another film I’d like to mention is Witness, directed by Peter Weir. This is a wonderful movie weaving action, romance, suspense, crime, spirituality, and even a little comedy into a moving, entertaining story. An Amish widow and her son travel to the city and the son witnesses a murder at the train station. Harrison Ford plays the rough, Philadelphia cop assigned to their case, who discovers his own co-workers are involved in the murder, and he’s shot and wounded in an ambush. He escapes with the widow and son to their Amish community to protect all of their lives and lives there while he heals and figures out what to do next.

The contrast between the cop’s worldliness, aggression, and violent impulses and the simplicity, honesty, and pacifist nature of the Amish people changes Ford’s character gradually over time. There is a poignant, old-fashioned love story between Ford and the young widow based on their shared circumstances, growing friendship and mutual respect. There is a beautiful buildup of tension before their fantastic first kiss (like it used to be during the days of the Hays Code) that I found both exciting and refreshing. We also experience what it’s like to live in an Amish community, and there is a lovely barn-raising scene that is a joy to watch.

What qualities do you most value in a film?

Good story telling that is original, not a clichéd formulaic approach that is automatically predictable, authentic dialogue that rings true to the spoken word, simplicity, a film that surprises you, a film that moves you honestly rather than one that manipulates with cheesy sentimentality, subtlety in acting, a film that in the midst of even serious drama knows how to make you laugh.

What parts do you choose? What is it about a project that excites you most?

Parts that hopefully contain some or all of the qualities listed above. I can also get excited about working with certain directors and/or fellow actors that I admire and enjoy working with. But most always I choose a part based on the quality of the entire script. The quality of the writing of the screenplay determines everything – the tone (most important), style, and potential of the whole film is found in the script. That’s what gets and keeps my attention.

What advice do you have for inspiring filmmakers or actors?

Always, always listen to your instincts. Your gut reaction is your most reliable resource. It tells you the truth. When I’ve gone off track I get what I call my “gut alarm” — a sort of stomach ache, a feeling of not being quite right in my own body, which instantly lets me know I’ve made a bad choice, or that my work is false, is not ringing true, is created by the intellect in some “made up” version of the truth and that I need to go deeper, prepare differently and keep working.

Also, that creating something – be it a screenplay, a song, an acting role, a work of art, a film – is a process that is always evolving. It is a combination of hard work and preparation that begins to find shape in a fixed form but must always remain flexible enough to grow with in-the-moment revelations and changes.

“That to make it in the film world means being dedicated to hard work, capable of receiving lots of rejection and being dogged in your efforts.”

Always remember that making a film is communal effort. Every single person who works on a film is a crucial part of the process and it is important to appreciate and respect every department. We have fewer and fewer opportunities to really experience community in this day and age and working on a film is a true example of community. It can be a joyful and very satisfying experience.

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