Mary Steenburgen talks ‘Last Vegas’ and becoming a songwriter

Mary Steenburgen plays a lounge singer pursued by Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro in "Last Vegas." Credit: Getty Images
Mary Steenburgen plays a lounge singer pursued by Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro in “Last Vegas.”
Credit: Getty Images

“Last Vegas” stars Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline. If that weren’t enough Oscar winners for a light comedy, there’s a fifth: Mary Steenburgen, who plays a lounge singer who catches the eyes of the characters played by Douglas and De Niro. Steenburgen, who won Best Supporting Actress for “Melvin and Howard” in 1980, has, like her character, found herself drawn to music in her middle age: Since 2007, she’s also a songwriter, who wrote a song her character performs in the movie.

Not everything in the film was shot in Vegas. How was it shooting the scenes that were?

It was sort of a three-ring circus, in that every scene there had about 10 people deep, all around us watching us and taking our pictures with cell phones and yelling at us. You can try to control Vegas, but it can only be a little bit controlled.

It seems like everyone was just having a good time, with some work slipped in.

I think a lot of it is just the pleasure of a great job at this age and not worrying about what’s coming next, who’s got bigger billing — all the crap people worry about, especially when you’re younger. Funnily enough no one had worked together. The only two people who had were Kevin and myself, who had done a couple scenes together in a movie a long time ago (“Life as a House” in 2001). We just savored and sat around telling amazing stories about our early days in New York, theater stories, talking about our kids…

By now, you’re probably not exactly intimidated by working with actors. But were you a bit scared with Robert De Niro?

Was I slightly awed by him? Yes. Did I feel like I was about 16? Yes. But he recognizes the truth, which is that comedy is more difficult than drama. One of the main reasons I fell in love with my husband (Ted Danson) is how graceful he made it look as an actor. You can’t be taught funny. I think years ago, when [De Niro] did “Analyze This,” I saw him from afar catch the fever.

The film is a comedy, but it does deal with serious issues.

It talks about aging in a funny way. My husband and I laugh about it all the time. Parts of it break your heart, because none of us wants to exit the planet. I think that’s what’s cool about my character. Some things have ended for her: Her marriage ended, her time as a mother ended. And she decided to go for a dream she always had, even if she’s singing in a lounge with two people, and both are on ventilators. But she would keep on singing, because singing is what brings her joy. I understood that. I had a parallel to that in my life. Seven years ago I started writing music. I stared down being a beginner and being bad and making a fool of myself, and started all over at something I really never imagined I’d do.

And you sing in this movie.

Throughout the writing of music, I never really sang. I was writing for other people. The actual singing was really scary to me. It was way scarier than acting with all four “legends.” Well, they are legends, but people keep reminding me [laughs] that I should have been scared. I was way too busy being scared of the singing. I worked really hard with a vocal coach, and kept falling flat on my face. Eventually I got better and better, then finally I think I did OK. You should scare yourself in life. That said, it will be all right with me if I never go aboard that stupid Stratosphere ride again.

Ye gods. What was riding that like? [Note: Stratosphere is a ride that dangles you atop a tall hotel.]

It was hideous. I hated every single second of it. To act like I liked it was the hardest acting in the movie. Michael and I both hated it. They took us up the day before, supposedly to show us what it was so we wouldn’t be afraid. Well, it backfired, because I stayed up all night petrified that I had to go back up there. I’m sure some people think that’s fun, but for me, no. I love stuff like ziplining — that makes sense to me, in a weird way. This thing just scared the bejesus out of me. You’re staring down 100 floors and there’s nothing between you and the ground and it was too much. Hated it.

Back to music, can you talk about your segue into a career writing music?

I had a surgery on my arm in 2007. And it was a minor surgery but I had to go under general anesthetic. When I came out from underneath it, I felt very strange, and I kept saying I had a reaction to my anesthetic. I kept drinking water, trying to get it out of my system, and I kept feeling so odd. I felt like there was a radio in my brain. Everything as kind of musical. Someone would say a sentence, and the sentence would get put into this whirlwind of music.

It was very confusing and eventually when it hadn’t gone away after a number of days, it became upsetting, terrifying. I couldn’t sleep at night. After a few weeks I looked in the mirror and thought, “Look, you’re a mother, you’re a wife, you’re a daughter, you’re a sister, there’s a lot of people who count on you, and you cannot go crazy. [Laughs] You better figure out how to make this work for you.”

So I started studying music and composition and great songwriters. I went back and revisited songs that I loved that I never paid attention to, to study how they were written. Then eventually I started to take the fragments of what I was hearing and the songs out of them, and then I picked out a musician I respected and I said, “I don’t have the greatest voice but if I sing this note for note for you, can we make music together?” We did it, and I sent 12 of the songs under my mom’s name to a very wonderful music lawyer, who said, “Let me see that kid.” And manager said, “Yeah, ‘kid’ doesn’t quite describe her.” And now I write for Universal Music.

Will you still sing after this?

I got an offer to sing in a venue in San Francisco. [Laughs] And I’m sure I will say yes to that at some point. I took up a strange instrument, so I night include that. As of February I started playing the accordion. For some weird reason I have an affinity for it. I don’t know, I don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s what I like about life.


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