Mary Steenburgen on ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ and Her Incredible Songwriting Awakening

     July 8, 2020

It’s quite the challenge to cap a conversation at 40 minutes when you’re talking to someone like Mary Steenburgen. Not only does she have a filmography loaded with stellar titles, but her journey in the industry is also packed with wildly inspiring and downright incredible experiences. There was her chance meeting with Jack Nicholson that essentially jump-started her career and she also won an Academy Award for her performance in Melvin and Howard, a film that’s nearly impossible to find now.

Steenburgen is a force in front of the lens but fairly recently, she discovered another talent – songwriting – and the story of how she discovered that ability is mind blowing. During this episode of Collider Connected in celebration of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Steenburgen told me all about how The Music Man was a major influence when she was young and how her first concert was seeing The Beatles in Texas. She has always been drawn to music and said, “I had some real musical connection but I didn’t suspect that I had anything in there to offer.” Turns out, she did. It just took some “musical weirdness” during surgery for her to access it.

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Image via NBC

“In 2007 – April 17th, 2007 – I had a surgery on my arm that was rather innocuous, but I had to go under a general anesthetic and when I came out from under it, I knew something was really different in my brain. We kept trying to drink enough water or talk to someone that could tell me what was happening to make it all go away. But it didn’t go away. And basically what happened was I went from having a normal relationship to music to have a really obsessive relationship with music, which I still have. I hear music pretty much all day long and, on a bad night, all night long. I went from being like a peaceful zen little commercial on television to being an over-scored movie where music goes all the time.”

It took some time, but ultimately, Steenburgen stopped trying to make this new music obsession go away and instead, learned how to harness it:

“When it didn’t go away after a couple of months, I finally realized that I had to master it because it was kind of mastering me. At the time, I couldn’t have learned lines, I couldn’t have done Zoey’s Playlist, I couldn’t have acted. I couldn’t focus anywhere else and so I started studying songwriting and little by little, I learned to take what I heard in my mind and put it into a song.”

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Image via NBC

Steenburgen’s musical awakening is incredible all on its own, but it does add a very special touch to that story seeing how many parallels there are between Steenburgen’s newfound relationship to music and what happens on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. On the NBC show, Jane Levy’s Zoey goes in for an MRI and during the procedure, there’s an earthquake. Then, when she leaves the facility, she notices that she can hear people’s thoughts and emotions through song, whether she wants to hear them or not. The connection to Steenburgen’s experience is pretty undeniable, and Steenburgen suspects that might have something to do with why she scored the role:

“I suspect that they were somewhat inspired by my story when they wrote it, and that’s probably part of the reason why they wanted me there. I didn’t ever put them on the spot and ask them. [Laughs] But the first question I asked them when I went in is, ‘Do you know my story?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well then have you heard me sing because I’m not like those guys.’ And they’re like, ‘Yes! And you can do this!’ And I really worked at it, and I enjoy it very, very much. And it’s a very special group of people, and Jane Levy is astounding as Zoey. Just amazing.”

In case you missed me gushing over Zoey during my Collider Connected interview with Jane Levy or in this feature piece about the show, let me say it again – Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a phenomenal watch that exceeded all of my expectations for a musical comedy on network television. Also not to be missed? Steenburgen’s full Collider Connected interview at the top of this article! She spoke about singing and dancing in Zoey for the very first time and also took us back to the beginning of her career when she was working as a waitress in New York City, when she first met Jack Nicholson, what it was like making Back to the Future Part III and so much more!

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Photo by: Sergei Backlakov/NBC

Mary Steenburgen:

  • 00:41 – Steenburgen revisits the show that inspired her to become an actor.
  • 02:30 – When did it click for Steenburgen that acting absolutely had to be her career?
  • 04:30 – Even after making that decision, during the early years when she was trying to “make it,” did Steenburgen ever have any doubts?
  • 09:00 – The time she met Jack Nicholson and how that encounter changed everything
  • 13:28 – Did that encounter with Nicholson influence how Steenburgen approaches working with new talent herself?
  • 16:05 – Steenburgen revisits Melvin and Howard, and discusses why that movie is so difficult to find now.
  • 23:22 – Steenburgen talks about making Back to the Future Part III and what her expectations for the film were given that Back to the Future Part II hadn’t even come out yet.
  • 25:13 – Steenburgen explains her songwriting awakening.
  • 30:38 – How this ability might connect to Steenburgen’s involvement in Zoey’s Playlist; why the show is such a standout.
  • 32:20 – Steenburgen on her collaboration with Mandy Moore as someone who’s never sung and danced before.
  • 35:28 – If Steenburgen could pick one member of the Zoey ensemble for Maggie to get more screen time with in Season 2, who would she pick and why?
  • 37:30 – A little last minute Wild Rose talk.

Television