‘Last Man on Earth’ co-star Mary Steenburgen gives herself a B for secret-keeping

Mary Steenburgen made her first appearance on FOX's “Last Man on Earth” last Sunday night and although her name was fleetingly mentioned in a couple casting story, the Oscar winner has mostly kept mum.

“I would give me a B,” Steenburgen told me when I asked how well she did at keeping that secret. “I would give me an A if I hadn”t told my family that I was in it, but they kind of would have wondered where I was going every day at 5:00 a.m. So I”ll just give myself a B. I think my closest friends and my family knew what I was up to but I never said anything publicly about it. And I think I followed all the various instructions from my superiors.”

On thing that isn't a secret — Sorry for that segue — is that Steenburgen has been having a terrific year on the small screen, covering an absurd amount of ground. She had a guest turn on a well-regarded premium cable comedy (HBO's “Togetherness”), an Emmy-worthy recurring role on a departing cable favorite (FX's “Justified”), this newly unfolding gig on a network series and an upcoming mysterious appearance on a beloved streaming series (Netflix's “Orange Is The New Black”).

I got on the phone this week to talk with Steenburgen about Gail, who got to see Will Forte's Phil Miller at his absolute worst on “Last Man on Earth.” She talked about secrecy, the show's open creative process and the challenges of keeping a straight face around Forte.

We also discussed Steenburgen's “Justified” role (that's on Page 2 if you haven't completed the FX drama's final season) and her sense of why the current TV landscape has been so good to her.

Click through for the full Q&A…

HitFix: One of the interesting things about “Last Man on Earth” has been all of the secrecy surrounding the people in it. How good have you been or were you at keeping the secret of your role?

Mary Steenburgen: Hmmm… I would give me a B. I would give me an A if I hadn”t told my family that I was in it, but they kind of would have wondered where I was going every day at 5:00 a.m. So I”ll just give myself a B. I think my closest friends and my family knew what I was up to but I never said anything publicly about it. And I think I followed all the various instructions from my superiors. So I give myself a B.

HitFix: Is that a fun part of the process for you or is it a confusing and strange part of the process?

Mary Steenburgen: Oh it”s new to me because, you know, in the old days – in the old days? – I love how ancient I”m sounding. But, you know, in the old days like five years ago [she laughs] people wanted you to talk about what you were doing and that was really important to them. But now because things move so quickly through social media and impressions can be formed, good or bad, so quickly that are beyond what you intend, that I do understand why they”re more careful. I do get it. And also I get it that part of it is protection for the viewers. I just did an interview with somebody who kept asking me to tell him what was about to happen and I finally said, “Aren”t your readers going to be annoyed with you?” If I answered that I would think that they wouldn”t be very happy with him or me, if I spoil things. And I just think it”s, especially in a show like this where it started with one man and then it did grow, so to have known that ahead of time it would have really taken away from the adventure of it. And so I really get it but, you know, it”s also kind of hard for me to live my life and never tell anyone what I”m doing.

HitFix: How forthcoming were the guys with giving *you* information about the character and what not or is there as much secrecy among the people involved with the show as there has been elsewhere?

Mary Steenburgen: No, I think one of the beauties of this show is that it”s very alive as we”re doing it. And there are things that are in the next few episodes that happen literally they weren't planned that morning and then by that evening, by the time we shot it, we had found this incredible little idea, something that we could do or how to change it. It”s done in an incredibly creative way. And I”d be so happy once we finished the last episode to tell you exactly what I”m referencing specifically, but there”s several for my character that they just like that didn”t exist in the morning and then the afternoon we”re shooting it. And that is thrilling to me. I know some actors don”t like that, because they feel more secure with just what”s on the page, but this is a group that came out of “SNL” and they”re used to that. There”s a lot of risk-taking on the show and I love that. And so in terms of knowing who Gail is, we”re still finding her truthfully. Because –- and I consider that to be a good thing — because it”s much more like life,  when something isn”t a hundred percent predictable and life isn”t. And this show is very alive that way. It”s new and it”s creative and I really hope it keeps the same sense of itself as we go along and that it doesn”t become too set because trust me, it”s not, and I like that.

HitFix: Well how active is your participation in the shaping of the character? How much conversation do you get to have with the writers as she”s being shaped?

Mary Steenburgen: They”re so open and so lovely. I don”t consider myself at all a writer. I don”t want their job because I don”t think I”m particularly good at it. And I write music but I”ve never been able to write screenplays or plays or things for television. And I tried in the past and it”s not my forte, but I love writing music. But these guys are incredible and so I guess what I can offer them is just different from being inside the character and finding myself different thoughts. But often I find that I also I had an idea and then they”ll take it to just such an interesting place that I never would have thought of. And some of the ideas they”re talking about for next year are kind of wonderfully scary to me and that makes me happy. I”m so knocked out by this team of writers and they”re there every day on the set, diving in and trying, switching things around. Even when you think something was fun they”ll shift it again and say, “Well try this.” And it hasn”t been done because, “Oh boy, that doesn”t work.” It”s been done out of, “That”s funny, let”s see if we can push it a little further,” or “That”s surprising. Let”s see if we can find even more of a moment there.” 

I love the fact that when I go to work every day I do not know what”s going to happen. I like that. I”ve had jobs where they're pretty comforting and safe, but this is not that job and I really love that about it. And I love the people I”m working with. They”re delicious to watch and, in fact, last night in the scene which is one of the first scenes I shot when I was still a real newbie, where Cleopatra and I are having dinner with Will, in every over-the-shoulder that includes my shoulder, you can see my shoulder shaking because I”m laughing so hard. And I felt bad about it because I”m doing that right in his face but he actually famously doesn”t break, but I”m sure it”s not the nicest thing to look over and see your supposedly professional actor shaking with laughter but I was. I mean I could see it last night. I”m with my friends and I'm like, “Look at that! I”m shaking. I”m laughing.” I”m the oldest on the set and the worst behaved by far. By so far.

HitFix: There was the scene last night where he was doing the silent treatment with everyone and it looked like almost everyone was on the verge of breaking in that scene.

Mary Steenburgen: January [Jones], who usually will be the one to go right after me… Mel [Rodriguez] is almost as bad as me. January is probably, if Mel and I go then January has to go because Kristen doesn”t break and Will never, never breaks. Cleopatra is pretty good but, I”m just the worst. And yeah, that scene they have like only that one usable take. But the worst was the dinner scene and oh, also his sitting on the bed like his trying to get comfortable on the bed. Forget it. [She's giggling just thinking about it.] I should have just left the room and let him use a crew guy for eyeline on that shot, because I was paralytic. And I mean who doesn”t want to go do that? I feel so lucky to be a part of it even though I know I need to be better. But I do. I feel so blessed to have a job that”s that much fun to me.

HitFix: So your character described herself as “a dumb little country girl.” How accurate is that or is it modesty or is it something else? Deception of some sort?

Mary Steenburgen: I think she has that thing that she was kind of always told that. And she”s surrounded by people that she assumes are more urbane or sophisticated or worldly than she is. And I think it”s a place for her to start from and to go somewhere else, you know. But I think that she means it when she says it and she probably said it before. And it”s a shame she feels that, but I don”t think it”s necessarily where she”s going to stay. That”s part of her deal. I think we”re all going to be immensely effected by our new world. And in the beginning I think it”s really about when you”ve had no one around you for a long time and then you find one person and in my case it was Cleopatra and I think we became everything to each other for a certain amount of time. And then there was actually a man and that”s like the most exciting thing in the world. And then there”s potential friends and I think one of the interesting things about this show is, it”s this kind of micro-world of what we ultimately all end up obsessing on, which is love and maybe sometimes power and all the things that people fight over and everything else is part of the humanity of the show. But in Gail”s case I think it”s just a place where she begins.

[Not everybody has seen the final season of “Justified” yet, so Steenburgen's spoiler-y discussion of her “Justified” character and also the wealth of opportunities she's finding on TV are on Page 2…]

HitFix: And changing gears a little. You had such a great arc on “Justified.” What was your reaction to seeing the endgame for Katherine?

Mary Steenburgen: I couldn”t believe it! And I called Graham [Yost], you know, and spoke to Graham and said, “Wow, I asked for a great death and you definitely delivered!” I mean it was such an extreme, extreme end. I”m assuming you saw the episode?

HitFix: Certainly.

Mary Steenburgen: I loved it and I loved playing her. She was a fascinating character for me because, of course, I didn”t judge her. I can now, a little bit, but playing her I didn”t want to judge her. I would sometimes say she was bad to the bone or something like that. But honestly that was more for other people. When I was doing it, I understood why I made every move I did and I could justify every single bullet. And I could justify — sorry I didn”t mean to be using the word justify — I could. I could justify every move that Katherine made. And because I was her. I was her advocate. I was her champion. And so while other people might say it”s hypocritical or it”s a double standard or it”s despicable or any other words you throw at it, I loved her and understood her. But now that it”s over, I”ll always miss it a little but I just feel so lucky that I was a part of such an interesting group of people and great actors, incredible, incredible writing. And that they knocked themselves out to give me a great character and a great demise. 

I loved… I mean I”m not a huge proponent of violence, nor do I usually watch much of it, but the kind of craziness of shooting a guy through my purse when he isn”t, thank God, prepared for it and then walking over and speaking to one assumes is my cleaner in French, telling them there”s a little problem that needs to be cleaned up in room 203 or whatever it was? I love that Katherine, there”s so many questions that were left about Katherine. And I like that in characters that you think you know who they are and you just go “Wait, why does she speak French?” And those kinds of touches are just what they were so brilliant at and what Elmore Leonard was so brilliant at. It”s been an amazing year. It”s been a crazy, crazy year at an age where I really honestly, when I was younger I pictured this time of my life and I didn”t picture this. I didn”t guess this, that I would be doing kind of these wonderful things I”m so honored to do. So I feel very blessed.

HitFix: What has it been like for you realizing the options on TV? Because you”ve done some great stuff in the past few years and all across the board. So Fox, FX, HBO, Netflix, et cetera. So how has it been to realize that TV actually was this place that was offering you great work?

Mary Steenburgen: I mean I keep hearing the phrase “the golden age of television” and I really do think it”s true by looking at my friends and the interesting work so many of my friends are doing. And the fact that I think all of us feel the same way. Our TiVo”s are like — or whatever you use, TiVo is probably an obsolete way of describing it now — but you have way more shows recorded than you have time to look at, to sit down and look at them. And certainly “House of Cards” being so groundbreaking and causing people to understand, “Yes, we actually will spend a day and a half of our lives doing nothing but watching your show.” Those kinds of ideas are so revolutionary. And they didn”t make the quality of TV worse. They made it more creative and made more unique people be attracted to it. And my whole family is kind of – my husband”s doing – I don”t know if I”m supposed to say what he”s doing right now. 

HitFix: We know he”s doing “Fargo,” if that”s what you meant.

Mary Steenburgen: Okay, okay! I didn”t know. I”ve been so busy with my own secrecy.

HitFix: No, that much has been announced, that he”s doing “Fargo.”

Mary Steenburgen: Okay, good. So my husband”s doing amazing things and just these brilliant scripts on “Fargo” that he”s telling me about. [She pauses.] Just as I said his name he”s calling. He”ll figure out that I”m still doing interviews. My son just directed a pilot for HBO. Everybody I know is doing really interesting stuff in TV. And I”m still doing films. I just finished doing two indie films back to back. And so I feel like it”s an extraordinary time for a lot of us. And it seems to be that it”s also a better time for women. I mean I really hope that”s true. I”ve seen so many wonderful women working of all ages. 

Again, you know, I”m at an age where I think when I was young I don”t think I saw too many faces of women my age on television or movies, to be honest with you. It was horrible and there were all these wonderful, talented women that people didn”t think about anymore. And I feel like there”s something about the younger generation that is just more open to diversity but that includes diversity of age. I don”t know. I don”t know what it is but I just know that it”s unexpected and I”m happy about it and I”m having like the time of my life literally.

HitFix: Excellent. Well thank you so much for chatting and I will let you call Ted back now.

Mary Steenburgen: Okay!

“The Last Man on Earth” airs on Sunday nights on FOX.