Interview by Mary McCandless
Mary McDonnell is one of Hollywood’s most recognizable leading ladies. Nominated for two Oscars — one in 1991 for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Dances With Wolves, she was again a nominee in 1993 for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Passion Fish. She has also been nominated for two Primetime Emmy awards — both for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her performances as Dr. Carter’s mother on ER (2002) and as Capt. Sharon Raydor in The Closer (2011).
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, McDonnell grew up in Ithaca, New York. With the encouragement of her father, she would eventually go on to win the Miss Teen Ithaca contest by capitalizing on her love for synchronized swimming.
“My father conjured up this idea that I should choreograph and perform a solo synchronized swimming act and he would film it and then we could show it,” Mary said. “So I did it, and swam to the love theme from Romeo and Juliet, and then I won the contest.”
As a student she discovered her love of acting through theatre. She graduated from the State University of New York at Fredonia and joined the Long Wharf Theatre Company.
“In my freshman year, I started to be introduced to the theatre. I auditioned for and did my first play called The Crucible,” Mary said. “That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, that is what I am supposed to do.’”
Eventually she developed her talents as an actress, moving from off-Broadway productions to Broadway, television and film.
“There were many years in NY, that I was pursuing it as something I love to do, but I was paying to be able to do it,” Mary said. “I was waitressing or doing this or doing that, while I worked for free. It wasn’t as if I had a career path in front of me that I kept trying to pursue or create. I was on an artistic path and knew that this was the way I would express myself and I knew that there was a world of commerce associated with it. So I knew eventually I wanted to make a living doing it.”
Gradually, McDonnell began to understand the business side of acting and how to make a living doing what she loved.
“If you are going to have an acting career you have to be very aware of how the business works — making the leap from being an artist to a business person,” Mary said. “If you want a career that lasts a lifetime you have to understand the commerce and you have to be willing to participate in it and know when it is time to say, ‘I wont do it,’ or participate… The self is the product.”
McDonnell’s long, illustrious acting career includes such well-known feature films as the Academy Award-winning blockbuster Independence Day (1996), in which she played First Lady Marilyn Whitmore, and the Academy Award-winning film Dances with Wolves, in which she plays “Stands With A Fist,” opposite Kevin Costner.
“The biggest thing that changed my life was Dances with Wolves. Part of it was getting a role that was extraordinary and that I could use my talent in a way that was extreme. But the movie itself was… so desperately needed by our culture, so it became iconic…. the respect and opportunity that came from that moment in my life is the gift that keeps on giving.”
Now, at age 62, McDonnell stars as Los Angeles Police Captain Sharon Raydor in TNT’s hit television series Major Crimes, where she “heads up a special squad within the LAPD that deals with high-profile or particularly sensitive crimes.” The series is a spin-off of ‘The Closer’ (starring Kyra Sedgwick).
“When you represent a character, your job is to represent an authentic human being and your job is to champion whatever character you are asked to play,” Mary said.
McDonnell is conscious of her own influence on her portrayal and how much of herself she brings to the characters she plays on screen.
“I think you bring a lot of yourself,” Mary said. “You may be more visible or not depending on the character. Whether or not you use your particular personality, you are still using yourself in the role. It’s your energy. It’s your emotional background. It’s your imagination. It’s your brain, your pattern. You change them. You alter them. But you do use the self in your work. It’s very dangerous being an actor to listen to yourself every time. You have to find a way to use it without it costing you.”
In Season 3, fans can expect to see a more personal side of Sharon Raydor. McDonnell said she has learned more in the first six episodes about the private life of her character than she did in the first two seasons of Major Crimes. Perhaps most inspiring about her character is that she is a strong woman in a leadership role.
“It is the perfect time for Sharon Raydor. Because this is the moment in time when women of a certain age are expanding even more, as opposed to retreating into retirement, or disappearing or having never broken the glass ceiling to begin with,” Mary said. “I don’t think it is a glass ceiling, it’s a lot more subtle. It’s like a vapor. How do you push it out? How do you keep pushing it? There are so many women of my generation who are expanding the vapor. They’re just saying, ‘No, that’s not the ceiling, I can’t see the ceiling yet. I don’t even know where the ceiling is.’”
“Not only can we continue to shine, but if you really look at the world, and what women are doing now, they are essential. Women and their years of wisdom, putting it out into the world, and using the wise woman as an archetype in the world in a major way, whether it’s business, politics, entertainment, whatever it is, is essential to the balance of things. Because we’ve been in trouble for a long time. And we are starting to see that women in those positions are actually creating balance, creating money, creating healing, creating a lot of very interesting things. The whole idea that women couldn’t handle all of that, that’s just gone,” Mary said.
With two children, Olivia and Michael, raising a family while working in show-business wasn’t always easy, but McDonnell was able to balance both her personal and professional lives.
“I don’t think people truly understand the ins and outs of Hollywood,” Mary said. “It is very difficult to raise families inside this environment that come out and emerge with a grounded sense of yourself and without an entitled sense of the world and with priorities that are clear.”
McDonnell is looking forward to joining her daughter, actress Olivia Mell, on stage in 2015 in the production The Cherry Orchard, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
But even with her busy acting schedule and the glamorous red carpet appearances and bright lights of Hollywood, McDonnell still has an appreciation for where she grew up.
“I love that entire region,” Mary said. “The Finger Lakes region of NY is just extraordinarily beautiful. I have so many wonderful memories as a high school person, swimming the gorges, just sort of being able to be near nature. There is an incredibly beautiful view of the lakes, and driving down the country roads in the snow to go skiing with friends. Winter, spring, summer and fall — it was outstandingly beautiful. That region gives me a great sense of peace.”