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.
As with Nick Nolte, you hadn’t worked with Robert Redford before.
I knew it wasn’t a big part, but he’s someone I’ve always wanted to work with. I’m glad I did it because it’s nice when your heroes turn out to be even better than you thought they’d be. I used to go watch him when I was Mary Nell Steenburgen in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a movie theater. I had this amazing day when I texted my old friend Kevin and said, “You’re not going to believe what I’m doing now. I’m in Atlanta, Georgia doing a scene with Robert Redford.” [Laughs] It’s such a beautiful little circle in life to be able to do something that as a 12 year old girl you would never have dreamt you’d do.
Odd question, but do you actually still get starstruck?
Oh, completely. Not around many people, by the way, because most of them are people I didn’t used to watch. It’s the people that are just enough older than me that I would have seen in movies. That group is just a little ahead of mine. I’ve worked with some great actors but most of them tend to be my peers, or these days younger than me.
The few scenes you have with Redford are interesting, in that you share a connection that he doesn’t act upon and seems to soon forget. It’s more true to life.
Exactly. It’s nice that there isn’t some resolution to it. Clearly he was never [going to cheat on his wife], but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a spark and a little moment of “Wow, what is this?” for half a second. Clearly more for my character than for his. But I still loved that it didn’t have to resolve itself.
Not a lot of films about aging treat it with maturity, including some comedies about aging. This one does.
I love that you say that, and I agree with you. So many films about aging, unfortunately, are just joke-filled and not really what it’s about. I love that [Redford’s character] goes on a quest that involves pushing his body somewhere he had no idea it could go. His wife is scared, but he still needs to do it. It’s not perfect for him. There are so many beautiful things in it, but underneath it all we’re all thinking of life marching on. In a world where most big movies aren’t about big ideas, it’s a simple movie about a very big idea.
It argues that one thing that keeps people healthy is being curious and trying new things. Acting is a good way to do that.
And scaring yourself, as my husband would say. My husband always says, “Why do you have to keep scaring yourself?” [Laughs] My [goals] are not Appalachian trail big; mine are other things, usually to do with music. It’s important to do that, to feel that you’re not letting your soul coast.
You took up music after a bit of surgery on your arm ended up having a strange after-effect. How is that going?
Well, thank you for asking! [Laughs] It’s very important to me, profoundly so, actually. At the moment, I’m trying to — for something I can’t talk about — but I’m trying to learn the song “Informer” by Snow on the accordion. Which is really interesting. [Laughs] But I write a lot and I write mostly with people from Nashville who are very serious about writing music. I call it a city of poets because it’s really an experience to write music there. You enter a room with somebody and sometimes you know them and sometimes you don’t, and four hours later hopefully you’ve made a little alchemy and you have a song. I really treasure that I’m one of the people they let in that circle.
And you get to access a different part of your brain.
Very different — and at times very similar, in that they’re both storytelling.