Mare Winningham’s Secret to Career Longevity on Screen + Stage: ‘Don’t Gossip’

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

After getting signed by an agent out of high school, Mare Winningham quickly carved a small-screen niche for herself with dozens of TV movies, ultimately earning two Emmys. Her career continued with films “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Georgia,” the latter notching her Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award nominations. On hiatus from acclaimed Broadway musical “Girl From the North Country,” she can next be seen in the Tom Hanks–led “News of the World.”

How did you land your first agent?
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and went to public schools. There was something in the water at that time in the ’70s in the Valley—we were all very theater-obsessed kids. There were all these festivals and competitions we were involved in, in addition to our productions. I was very single-minded about theater; I did it in my free time and during school. We started getting noticed because of all these festival competitions around Los Angeles, and our school was always winning. I think somebody had a relative who worked at an agency, and they came out to see “The Sound of Music,” which we were doing when I was in 12th grade. I got invited to see this agent, Meyer Mishkin, who had a boutique agency—one of the few that was high-powered but was just a single-entity agency. He ran it himself, and it was called the Meyer Mishkin Agency. Lee Marvin was a client. I remember running into Richard Dreyfuss in the waiting room. He said that he was going to take me on as a client. This was at the very end of high school, just about when I was wondering, How do I parlay this love of theater into a career? From the beginning, he had this plan. He said, “You’re not going to do commercials. We’re going to do TV movies.” At that stage, it was very divided: Movie actors didn’t do television. I think he thought: You’re going to corner that market, kid. I started working right away, mostly small parts on “Starsky & Hutch” and “Family,” these TV series of the late ’70s. Then I got my first TV movie and started working pretty much in television movies for many years.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Open up, don’t gossip, and don’t listen to gossip. Film sets and rehearsal rooms—everyone describes them as instant families. There are good families and there are bad families. I would tell myself to not be fraught and not worry so much and let stuff roll off a bit. And if you are a leader, lead with love.

READ: How Negativity Affects Career Longevity

How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?
I remember being confused about this Catch-22 about how you can’t get a SAG card without having a job, and you can’t get a job without having a SAG card. I was grateful that there was a casting director casting this teen idol show that was very popular called “James at 15,” and in that episode, he was having a Miss 15 pageant. There were about six of us; each of us was a contestant in this Miss 15 pageant. They had backstage scenes where we were all discussing James. We all got our cards. In some ways, I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier. 

Do you have an audition horror story you could share with us?
There were so many. I had an interior casting director in me, and in my mind, I would see someone and go, “Oh, they’re much better for it than I am,” and I would defeatedly go in the room and carry that thought with me. One time, I saw the [character breakdown] sheet, and it actually said, “We’re looking for a Mare Winningham type,” and I didn’t get it! I think I was my own worst enemy a lot of times. I probably have a career because I didn’t have to audition for those TV movies.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done to get a role?
The best job of my life is the one I currently hold. When Broadway reopens, I have this incredible project that started in London, this Conor McPherson–Bob Dylan musical, “Girl From the North Country.” When I had to audition for it two years ago, I started picking on myself again, and my sweetheart said, “No, I’m not watching this. Take your dulcimer, go in there, [and] sing the songs.” And I said, “No, they’re going to have an accompanist there.” And he said, “Do what you want. He’s going to want to hear your best. This is how you want to sing it? Do it.” I fought him and fought him and finally did it his way and got it.

What’s one performance every actor should see and why?
When I was a little girl, they used to play “The Wizard of Oz” before the holidays. I was so frightened of Margaret Hamilton—Miss Gulch, the Wicked Witch. She was the first scary person in my life, and I had to leave the room when she was on. Later, as I watched her as an actor, I loved that performance. I find Miss Gulch so awful, and I love the way she built that performance.

Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master.” He has a close-up in that movie that I couldn’t get over. I don’t even know if I want to watch it again because it affected me so much. He’s being scrutinized, and it’s excruciating watching him go through what he’s going through. In a more humorous way, no less powerful, would be at the end of “Sense and Sensibility,” when Emma Thompson’s character, it’s beginning to dawn on her, as she’s listening to Hugh Grant’s character, that their love can be now. That’s a beautiful close-up. Tom Hanks at the end of “Captain Phillips.” How did he do that scene when he’s being examined by the doctor after the ordeal on the ship? That’s how I like to watch acting now: in the quiet dark of a theater or at home. I love to see an actor blow my mind. It makes me want to jump up and shout. Almost everything I watch, I find something that makes me want to jump up.

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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