Written by Nicole Burdette
It's common knowledge that Mary Stuart Masterson is some kind of wonderful actress. But what interests me is why she's so wonderful. It has to do with her pulse and grace. You never get the feeling that she's acting. There is nothing "clever" about her; she shoots straight from the hip, living her characters with abandon while the camera follows her like it's trying to keep up with her mercurial pace. Think of her close-up in At Close Range when she sees Sean Penn for the first time, or the moment in her new film, Benny & Joon, when she seems to float upstairs, crying and pointing at her brother (Aidan Quinn) while whispering "I hate you" over and over again.
Nicole Burdette: I wanted to tell you I dreamed about interviewing Hank Williams last night.
Mary Stuart Masterson: You're kidding.
NB: Yes, and it was --
MSM: Wait, are you saying I resemble him?
NB: Well, I'll tell you. I once heard that he said the ideal thing for a country song or any art to be would be clear and perfect.
MSM: Wow, that's really true.
NB: When I saw you in Benny & Joon, I remembered that quote, because you were clear and perfect in that movie. And you know how dreams mix everything up.
MSM: I didn't think that when I saw it.
NB: You didn't? Why?
MSM: "Clear," maybe, because it might be the most unguarded "little bird left in the nest" role I've ever played. I was just so open that I felt like people were looking into my life. I didn't like it at all. I didn't like feeling that...unguarded.
NB: How do you mean?
MSM: For me, it's like watching a car wreck, or like the curiosity you feel when you go by the scene of a crime and you're fascinated but you really don't want that unpleasant feeling. You don't want to look, but you're drawn to it. I know I `have` to look at what I'm doing, because I want to direct, and it's a huge part of my life. Um, I've always thought that way.
NB: What was it like, seeing yourself surrounded by hundreds of bees in Fried Green Tomatoes?
MSM: A hundred thousand!
NB: There is nothing in this world that would make me go near one bee, let alone a hundred thousand.
MSM: The guy -- Doctor Gary, the bee man, the apiculturist, or whatever you call it, the doctor in bees -- was so sweet, and he's so in love with his bees that I was instantly comfortable. He explained their behavior and I believed him, and he told me that bees don't attack you unless they are defending the hive or the queen.
NB: What else have you picked up?
MSM: I learned how to play drums [Some Kind of Wonderful], how to paint [Benny & Joon]; lately I've been cleaning house in every way: starting over. Clean and simple.
NB: Clear and perfect again.
MSM: Yes. Like, what's perfect, anyway? Or why, in this society, is everybody striving to attain some sort of perfection, like perfect thinness or perfect strength or perfect health or perfect performance, if there is such a thing -- or like denuding everything that's interesting or flawed. Everybody's getting plastic surgery.
NB: I know. Well, it's all vanity.
MSM: I don't think it's that -- I think it's fear.
NB: Hmm, you're probably right. Who are your heroes?
MSM: Truffaut. Oh, my gosh, this is a hard question. T.S. Eliot. Chet Baker. I love Glenn Gould.
NB: But, of course, no one will know who he is, that he was the greatest pianist who ever lived.
MSM: I know, but that's O.K., we can like him.
NB: When you get a script, what makes you want to do it?
MSM: I think it has everything to do with where I am at the time, not geographically, but I always respond to stuff that addresses something I'm thinking about or feeling or questioning or searching to understand in my life. Consequently, what happens is I read things and the part I want to play is older than people think I am, so I can't do it, or something like that.
NB: Explain that more.
MSM: Well, I can't go to the prom ever again.
NB: So then what kind of role would be appropriate for you today?
MSM: I think characters that interest me are ones that have a lot they're struggling with and are just different, you know? The thing I have a problem with is you read a lot of women characters who are categorized in certain ways, and that really bothers me.
NB: I'd love to ask you about technique, as I would a musician or painter. But with actors it's considered --
NB: Or pretentious. And to me that's bourgeois.
MSM: It's like the Picasso myth. It's weird, because I always feel like such a bad girl when I've talked about technique. It's stuff I care a great deal about. It's something I know about, but it's also stuff I'm just beginning to try to understand, and every time I act in another part it's a complete learning experience. I have no idea how I'm going to get where I need to get. I know I have certain tools, and I just have to rummage through the toolbox and go, "Gee, I think I need a hammer for this scene."
NB: It's physical. It has nothing to do with the intellect. It has to do with common sense.
MSM: It's a physiological unlocking process that has to happen in order to be a canvas.
NB: And the process is there for you, personally, when you're making the film or rehearsing a play. And then when the play completes its run or the movie's finished, you gotta go on. It's not for `you` anymore.
MSM: Right, it isn't for me. That must be what it is. Because I feel funny talking about it, I feel funny seeing it, I feel funny. I really hate, I gotta tell you, when the [press] junket happens and everybody sits around and they talk about your character as if it's a different person. Naturally, it `is` a different person, but I feel so violated; I feel like, I can't believe I'm sitting here talking about this character and we're just ripping her to shreds, or having an opinion about her. It's the weirdest feeling.
NB: It's the same with writing. And then you go and do it again. And again and again. Why is that?
MSM: I don't have any idea. I have less of an idea than I ever did. You're in the part and you're like, I gotta be true, honest, never lie, never lie, never lie, and then you see it and you're like, I'm such a liar. Don't they all know I'm a phony, I'm faking? That's not the case, really, but maybe I'm seeing the character I've created and it's a shock, because it was such a real experience to me. Then I sort of kick myself; I go, God, how could you deign to say that you actually had that experience? It was a movie, get over it. I'm always surprised that it's not me, on some level, but of course it is, because to do anything you use your own life, your own imagination, everything, and you give it all away. I'm never happy when I see myself, never, but I've been happy with the `experience` several times, which is more than I think anyone can ask for.