by Shawn Zeytinoglu
Screening Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard for a group of film students is like listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival or Lynyrd Skynyrd in the first crucial miles of a youthful road trip. Blaring "Bad Moon Rising," "Down on the Corner" or "Sweet Home Alabama" is an indispensable part of the road trip experience, at least that's the way I always saw it. Melvin and Howard holds a similar importance in the process of becoming an attuned and literate filmmaker. The film is filled with countless moments that resonate on all levels. From its unparalleled display of the intimate moments people share to its awing use of music, Melvin and Howard is a rare cinematic gem and a distinctive slice of life. When I heard Mary Steenburgen was coming to my school (Chapman University) to screen the film for a hundred or so students, I was hugely excited. During the Q&A she addressed a variety of topics, including her work with John Sayles (whom she greatly admirers), and her process as an actor. The following is a paraphrased excerpt from that Q&A.
On her first experience, as a professional actor:
"My first gig consisted of doing improv. I was doing these comedy shows in New York where our improv group would perform for alcoholics and drug addicts. I thought to myself, 'If I could make these people laugh, I could make anyone laugh, even in Hollywood.' My cab fare to and from these acts were paid for. I had been paid to perform!"
On her first big break:
"I used to be very shy. I still kind of am. I remember going into this agency to see if they had any acting jobs for me. I was sitting in the office one day when all of a sudden Jack Nicholson (who was in town casting his film Goin' South) appeared, hovering over me. My head was buried in this script I was reading. He asked me if I was waiting to read for him. I didn't want to look up at him because I knew I could look a lot better on a later day. I answered no. He told me to come back tomorrow to read with him: he would have a few minutes, he said. Well, I went home that night and stayed up all night working on the script and trying to come up with an appropriate outfit that I thought the character would wear. The next morning I took a cab, which was a big deal, to meet Jack (laughter). I was very nervous. When I arrived, Jack asked if I was nervous and I answered 'yes.' He thought it would help to just talk for while. Eventually, we started reading the script. When his pizza arrived I assumed it was over but he asked me to stay and read the entire script with him. It was great. At one point the secretary came in to make sure everything was okay. She looked stunned. I guess she thought we were doing something else (laughter). Before I left we discussed the probability of me getting the part. We both knew he needed a big female star to play the part. I had no real expectations. I later received a phone call asking me to attend a screen test in LA. I was there with five other women, all big names. It went well but, again, I thought I had no chance. Incidentally, at this point I was receiving calls from all these casting agencies asking me to come in. Apparently Jack had gone around and told people I needed to be seen. All these agency people were telling me I was not going to get the part in Jack's movie but I would get some smaller, lower profile roles. As I was leaving L.A. to return to New York, I realized I didn't have enough money to get from JFK airport to my waitressing job in the city. I went into the offices because I knew they owed me one night's hotel pay. I saw Jack there. He told me not to worry 'sweetie' because I was on the pay role now."
On becoming involved with Melvin and Howard:
"After working with Jack Nicholson on the Goin' South, we became quite good friends. When the script for Melvin and Howard was being sent around by prospectors, it was sent to Jack. He declined the part due to a previous commitment (The Shining). He showed me the script as a kind of example of good scripts I should be looking out for. I was immediately drawn to the script. I talked to Mike Nichols, who was originally attached to direct. Eventually, I auditioned with Jonathan Demme who later took control of the script and ultimately became the film's director."
On Pauline Kael:
"She gave me a couple of bad reviews on my first two films (Goin' South and Time After Time), but that was never really a huge concern of mine. When she reviewed Melvin and Howard, Jonathan, being such a huge admirer of hers, forced me to read the review. It was glowing. But I think reviews are meant to be read by everyone, other than the actors. Critics don't understand what it takes to act and the process of acting so I don't really feel their opinion affects me."
"I was very proud to be a part of that movie. The film dealt very bravely and honestly with some sensitive issues. People have always been uncomfortable with homosexuality and AIDS, particularly before this film. But the movie really, I think, played a part in reversing that. I met this flight attendant who told me she had rejected her son because of his homosexuality. I brought her and her family to see the film. They all loved it and were, more importantly, really enlightened by the experience. They have since reunited and finally accepted their son. That was really the most poignant experience in my career."
On the difference working with Demme on Melvin and Howard and, thirteen
years later, on Philadelphia:
"Working on Melvin and Howard was great. That part was truly unique. Some of the best lines I've ever had were in that film, namely 'c'est la vie Melvin,' 'it's French,' and 'I told you it was a dream.' Jonathan Demme is an extraordinary and true artist. He has the confidence to listen to everybody around him. He maintains the same crew of really great talents. Tak Fujimoto, for one, and there are many others. He risks it every time, never settling for the easy. He's so open to suggestions, which is very refreshing. Also, musically he's incredible. I just saw The Truth About Charlie and the music in that movie is fabulous. The primary difference between working with Jonathan on the two films is that on Philadelphia he was clearly stronger and even more confident."
On her career:
"I don't care about my career, I care about my work."