LOS ANGELES — The secret to a happy marriage and family is to do everything backward, says actress Mary McDonnell.
The star of TNT’s “Major Crimes,” may be by-the-book as Capt. Sharon Raydor, chief of L.A.’s major crimes squad, but as a wife and mother, she threw the book away.
She’s managed a 30-year marriage to actor Randle Mell (“24”), parenting two grown children and a career that earned two Academy Award nominations. Her performances in “Dances with Wolves,” “Passion Fish” and TV’s “Battlestar Gallactica,” endure, not only in the minds of fans but with the people she worked with.
“It’s never been the way it’s supposed to be with us,” she laughs. “Not once, not ever.”
Last Thanksgiving her then-19-year-old son, Michael, presented a toast to his parents that reflects what McDonnell is saying, during a break on the set.
“‘I’d like to toast my parents because despite the fact that they kind of got it all backwards, we’re still here, and we’re pretty cool,’” he said.
“‘For example, when I was in middle school my mother was on a space ship in Canada. My father was touring the country. I was alone in L.A. (with nannies) but when I got to high school and didn’t want them around anymore, my mother got a walloping job that’s keeping her in Los Angeles for the rest of her life. And my father’s at USC. I’m just sayin’.’
At 6 months old, her daughter, Olivia, cooed backstage while McDonnell recited a play in Hartford. They celebrated Olivia’s second birthday with a pancake breakfast at the Holiday Inn in Rapid City, South Dakota, where McDonnell was filming “Dances with Wolves.”
“But that stuff does take its toll. I think the healthiest way to say it is that every child comes into a situation that gives them the challenges they’re set up to have,” McDonnell says.
While she was filming “Battlestar Gallactica” in Vancouver, she got a call from her husband. He’d just been offered a national tour of “12 Angry Men.” “I need to talk this through with you,” he said. “I know I can’t do it . . .”
“My rule is: there’s no can’t,” she says. There’s no ‘can’t’ here. ‘Let me think how we can do this.’ And we did it.”
Ever since she sat as a child at the dinner table, McDonnell has been steeped in logic and debate. They were orchestrated by her father, whom she describes as “outspoken, progressive, Democrat, Irish-Catholic, trained by the Jesuits.”
She was only 21 when her father died. She was in England waiting in the wings to audition with a Shakespeare monologue when they told her. “That was really rough. You know what your parents are to you. We knew we were loved and connected to a much bigger clan. We knew we were admired as a family — big family of five girls and one brother. My father was very active in the community, so you knew who you were. Suddenly you don’t know who you are without that person.”
She says she didn’t cope well for a long time. “I went into a tailspin for a while — more like a wild-child reaction. I just remember having the sense that there are no rules now. If this can happen, what is this about? What I found out pretty quickly then too — the thing that grounded me and saved me was acting.”
Contrary to the stereotype of the spoiled actor, she says performing requires rigid discipline. “If you want to do it well and you want to succeed, you can’t act out a lot. You have to hold your emotions closely, use them appropriately and understand when you’re getting too mixed up. And you can’t go out partying every night. You just can’t do it.”
Another abiding force in her life is her husband. But she says the route to wedded bliss is not always blissful. “In our case we’re both very stubborn. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight a lot. It’s an Achilles’ heel kind of thing. There are power struggles that happen in my marriage that are just ridiculous because we’re both very stubborn. But, in the long haul, that stubbornness has helped us get through the tough times. And I think we found each other through like-minded values,” she says.
“I dated a lot of actors before my husband, but I didn’t date very many actors who came from a big family, who wanted a family, who loved sports. … he was like, ‘Check, check, check.’ And he was incredibly talented. I never develop a crush on an actor unless they’re talented. Randy was so talented, and we have the same values still. I think that’s extremely important in a marriage. I think there has to be a friendship.”