Mary Steenburgen doesn’t have a huge part in “A Walk in the Woods.” Her character, who runs a rural motel with her older, enfeebled mother, is just one of the people Robert Redford and Nick Nolte meet while attempting to hike the Appalachian trail. Based on Bill Bryson’s book, it’s a dramedy that, unlike some movies about older characters, takes the subject seriously, exploring characters dealing with remorse, looming mortality and the strain of putting their bodies through the ringer — all things the Oscar-winning actress identifies with.
A lot of people I know who live in California are hikers. Are you one?
I am. I don’t hike in L.A. I walk. But I do hike up in the Los Padres National Forest, because I’ve spent most of my life in a little town called Ojai, California. There’s these crazy beautiful trails up in the mountains, so my dogs and I go up there when it’s not rattlesnake season. In the summer I’ll still go up, but I don’t put in my earbuds. I want to be able hear them [laughs] if they’re around the bend. I want to hear the rattle first.
Were you a fan of the book before you made the film?
I read the book, actually, after I did the film. I’m married to a great environmentalist [Ted Danson], and it’s something we’ve shared in our lives. I love the book from an environmental point of view. If you read the book it talks about all those trees one would have seen on the trailer that aren’t there anymore. Whole parts of it are treated badly by man. It’s a beautiful book in terms of reminding us what precious things we have in this country and how much we have to take care of them.
We treat the environment terribly yet we also love the thrill factor of trying to conquer it.
I guess that’s the reason why shows like “Survivor” thrive. All of us have some little part of us that wonders how we’ll be, how well we’d do in that situation. Kristen Schaal’s character [a hiker by herself] is so interesting ¬— to think of a woman doing it alone, which is what “Wild” was about too. It’s still very different to think of it from the woman’s point of view, because there have been women harmed on the trail, killed on the trail. You start thinking you’d have to go as part of a group. Of course, what kind of people could I be with day in and day out for months? [Laughs] It is something that would be a forever bond. It would be pretty fascinating to be on a trail with Nick Nolte, having spent several mornings in the makeup trailer with him. I never wanted to leave, because the stories were unbelievable and coming fast and furious. He has a story about everyone in Hollywood.
He tends to play characters living on the edge these days, but I imagine he’s much different in person.
I think there’s still an edge. He was fascinating. He appears to have forgotten nothing about every film he’s done and every person he’s worked with.