For Diane (Mary Kay Place), everyone else comes first. Generous but with little patience for self-pity, she spends her days checking in on sick friends, volunteering at her local soup kitchen, and trying valiantly to save her troubled, drug-addicted adult son (Jake Lacy) from himself. But beneath her relentless routine of self-sacrifice, Diane is fighting a desperate internal battle, haunted by a past she can’t forget and which threatens to tear her increasingly chaotic world apart. Built around an extraordinary, fearless performance from Mary Kay Place, the narrative film debut from Kent Jones is a profound, beautifully human portrait of a woman rifling through the wreckage of her life in search of redemption. Diane also features a stellar ensemble including Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Joyce Van Patten, Deirdre O’Connell, Phyllis Somerville, and Glynnis O’Connor.
I have admired Mary Kay Place for many years, from her wonderful work on TV in shows like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Big Love, and Lady Dynamite, to her performances in films such as The Big Chill, New York, New York, and I’ll See You in My Dreams. I sat down with Mary Kay Place in Hollywood to discuss this achingly poignant film.
Danny Miller: What an extraordinary performance, Mary Kay, and just remarkable that you’re in every scene. When you work on a role this intense, do you have to bring in some resonance from your own life?
Mary Kay Place: Oh, I think you do. When I made this film, my parents and grandparents had already passed away. I certainly understood that element and I related to the community aspect of the town that Diane lived in because that was like my grandparents’ towns. They were different sizes, but I remember that same kind of casserole exchange and people picking up each other up from doctor’s appointments and all that. My grandmother did that for a million of her friends. I really connected to that aspect and I think everybody’s got some addiction in their family history, too, as I do, so I could relate to the pain of that as well.
The story of you and your son in this film is so moving. That look in your eyes when we understand that you know what the son is saying isn’t true, but you’re just trying to find a way to move on and be hopeful while still trying to protect yourself.
Yes. I try to get him to see his own truth instead of being in denial. And I know that I’m codependent, but I’m just trying to cope as best I can.
It’s so interesting how your character longs to be in control and yet keeps having these moments that are almost like a surrender. Like, okay, this is the reality of what’s happening so I just have to deal with it and move on to the next thing.
Right, to the next item on the list to cross off.
I found this to be such an adult film because nothing is over-explained. It takes a while to figure out all the relationships and to uncover the baggage that each character has. I love that. Were you always on the same wavelength with writer/director Kent Jones about what Diane was going through or did you have to find your own place in understanding how she was moving through the world and things like how her guilt was affecting her relationships?
I definitely had to find my own place. I actually wrote a complete and total history of Diane from the time I was in high school to meeting my son’s father to that relationship with my cousin’s boyfriend, every detail of that. I also researched the closing of the GE plant in Pittsfield where Kent’s mother was from and all of the things that could have affected the people in this area.
I want to read that as a novel! So you went into Diane’s back story even more than Kent did?
Oh yeah, Kent hasn’t even read what I wrote about her. I sent him an early draft but then kept working on it for weeks so I could really understand the character.
Wow, do you always do that when you play a part?
Yeah, if there’s any particular thing that has impacted my character in some way. Even if the audience doesn’t know what it is, I need to know because if it’s just some general idea, it doesn’t resonate in the body the same way. Like Diane running off with the cousin’s boyfriend. It was a moment of real spontaneity, maybe the first and only time I’d ever have that. I know why I did it but I also know I blame myself for my son’s addiction because my leaving was such a big deal in the family and everyone was scandalized.
There’s a lot there that I can relate to from my own family. I still feel like the emotions from the movie are in my cells even though I saw it a week ago. When you’re acting in something this intense, do you feel like those emotions enter your body?
Oh, absolutely. I remember reading something Jessica Lange wrote after she played Joan Crawford in that film a few years ago — that your body doesn’t know that you’re acting. And my body definitely did not know, I had a real physical thing that happened as a result of making this film, I got a physical illness from taking all of that in.
Whoa, how do you cope with that?
I started doing mindful meditation and other things to counteract how the body deals with the stress. Between this and doing the TV series Lady Dynamite, I honestly hadn’t work that intensely since I was doing Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman more than 40 years ago. I remember back then our schedule was so intense, recording that show five times a week, and I was also making films and recording albums. It affected my physically. I went into a depression in the early 1980s because I didn’t know how to book my time, and I didn’t know how to restore myself in between projects.
Interesting. I remember Patti LuPone talking about why she couldn’t do two very serious plays in a row, that’s why she does fun musicals like Anything Goes in between her more intense projects.
Right. I was offered this very deep, dark part right after doing this film and Lady Dynamite and I had to turn it down. Number one, there wasn’t enough time to properly prepare, but number two, my body wasn’t ready to go back to that place and I just knew it would not be good, I had to protect myself from that. So your question is very insightful, Danny, because it does take a toll. I think that’s why Heath Ledger is not alive today. He did drugs to counteract that stress. I think there needs to be some spiritual or psychological letting-go ritual after very creative work. I’m still trying to figure out how I can develop something like that because it’s a lot of intense energy in your central nervous system. That said, we had a lot of fun making the movie, there was a lot of laughing and it wasn’t a morose atmosphere on set. But we spent 16-hour days working and then as soon as work was over I had to prepare for the next day.
It’s hard to believe the entire movie was shot in 20 days.
Yeah, so there wasn’t really any time for hanging out and relaxing. It was all work all the time, but it was still fun and exciting.
Watching that ensemble of great actors was just thrilling. I loved that dinner table scene with all of those amazing actors such as Estelle Parson and Joyce Van Patten.
They were great, weren’t they? Estelle has amazing energy and is just titanium. I remember we were shooting a scene in the hospital at one in the morning and she was bouncing all over the place! And Joyce and Andrea Martin and Phyllis Summerville and Deirdre O’Connell as the cousin. So fabulous.
This film brought up so much stuff for me — so many family complexities that I could relate to, from dealing with mortality issues as I’m doing now to the mother leaving, as my mother did back in the day, to all the addiction stuff. What have the discussions been like after screenings?
Very interesting. A lot of younger people don’t really want to think about death. But for baby boomers, even if they’ve put off thinking about these things for years, they’re finding out that they have to deal with them now. Many people feel very connected to this story, and a lot more men than I thought would be.
I could certainly relate to Diane and see the areas in my life where I needed to look at things that I do.
Me, too, God knows. Especially that thinking where you get stuck on a loop of regret about something you’ve done in the past and you just can’t get off of it.