Mare Winningham may have gotten her start on The Gong Show as a teen, but this two-time Emmy winning actress isn’t kidding around. A star of the classic ’80s hit St. Elmo’s Fire, Winningham went on to earn seven Emmy nominations for her work on TV, winning twice for Amber Waves and George Wallace. The actress and singer-songwriter showed off her vocal chops in Georgia, earning an Oscar nod for her portrayal of folk singer Georgia Flood. After starring in off-Broadway’s 10,000 Miles and After the Revolution, Winningham is back onstage in the North American premiere of Nina Raine’s Tribes at the Barrow Street Theatre. In this moving and thought-provoking drama, Winningham plays Beth, a British mother of three adult children, including one son who is deaf. Broadway.com spoke with the award-winning actress about reuniting with co-star Jeff Perry, the magical world of her new film Mirror, Mirror and playing “Mama Mare,” both onstage and off.
What did you think when you read Tribes for the first time?
It was so clearly a great new piece of work. I immediately Googled it, because I was thinking, what’s up with this? I saw a picture of Nina Raine and she looked so beautiful and young [laughs]. Which is neither here nor there, but it was exciting to think of someone so young having a piece of work coming over to the States, and having people fight for it. Tribes popped up on my iPad screen as a double whammy, this great new playwright and [director] David Cromer. So when I read it, I was excited and wanted it.
What is David Cromer’s directing style like?
When I first met him, he was in Los Angeles doing a production of Our Town. He said, “Let’s walk on the beach,” so we walked for about an hour. I don’t know why I assumed [Tribes] would be made into a localized American production. I just thought, okay, it won’t be English, it will be on the Upper West Side or something. And he said, “No, why would we do that?” The second thing that caught me off-guard was he said he was doing it in the round, which I’ve always been suspicious of. I did a production of Glass Menagerie in the round and I was always frustrated.
What are the challenges of performing in the round?
I have a performance ego—but in my defense, I will say that for all performers, I think [stage acting] is about getting something out, putting something forward, building something that everyone should see at all moments. You have to let go. Your voice tells a story and your back tells a story, and movement. I certainly have learned a big lesson, because I love this play in the round. At the beginning, when we were rehearsing and I was arranging tickets for friends and family, I would be obsessed with “What section are they gonna be in?” And now I don’t even ask anymore. I completely trust the production and the way David directed it.
The chemistry you have with your onstage family is extraordinary. How did you as a cast work to develop that deep familiarity?
Talk-talk-talk-talk-talk-talk-talk [laughs]. I’ve never worked on anything with this much talking. We were around that table, and I love table work. I don’t know whether it’s a fear of standing up, but I really love sitting at the table and blabbing. I learn so much that way, and I think I get free that way, free from inhibition and fears. But this thing, oh my gosh. It was just talk-talk-talk-talk-talk from beginning of rehearsal. It was overwhelming.
What is it like communicating with your deaf co-star Russell Harvard?
It was a little outrageous, I would imagine, for Russell. [He] had a translator—a woman named Candace [Broecker-Penn] throughout rehearsal. I watched them carefully during all of the talk-talk-talk-talk-talk, and I really was fascinated. Candace is a bit of a miracle worker because she succeeded in translating everyone at all times. Maybe because I’m playing [Russell’s] mother, but from the first day…for all of us, he has our heart. What a thing to come in to! The deaf community is very tight-knit, and he stepped out of it to do this play. We’re learning [sign], we have a little lesson every night with him, but it gets kinda jokey. Unless we spend hours and hours every day with a private coach, our progress is gonna be slow. So we are really close as a cast, but I think there’s a deep sense of longing to have more with [Russell]. There’s nothing more touching than knowing that the longing is there, and knowing that we can try every day to grow with that.
You’ve worked with your onstage spouse Jeff Perry before. Was that nice to have a familiar face going into Tribes?
When David told me that Jeff was playing Christopher, I really did fall down [laughs]. Jeff and I met during [Hard Promises in 1991], where we played husband and wife. And then 20 years after that, we played husband and wife in Grey’s Anatomy, and now we’re playing again. We went from movies to television, and it’s been a dream of mine to work with Jeff onstage. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company is the be-all, end-all. I think every one of those company members is an acting virtuoso. I worked with Gary [Sinise] on George Wallace, a TV movie, and loved him. I’ve been a fan for so long, and a friend, so this represents a huge triumph for me, to be onstage with Jeff. I think he’s just the greatest guy, and so enormously talented. I love playing with him every night.
You’ve been a lot of moms over the years!
I love playing moms! I remain friends with many of the [actors] who I mothered, so I’ve become “Mama Mare.” I’ve had the opportunity to play mothers of depth. I’m crazy about this character [in Tribes]. She’s a woman undergoing a change. Most importantly, she’s always concerned with the fate of her children, each and every one. As her daughter says, “Mom, you know what your problem is? You just have too much empathy.” I do love this mom. But I’ve also played some mothers who shouldn’t be mothers. And I’ve played stepmothers, who are maybe the unsung heroes in life.
You have the most beautiful singing voice. Would you ever release another album?
Thank you! The last one I did was [Refuge Rock Sublime] in 2007. So yeah, I’m due, I need to make another one. Or better yet, I need to do a gig here in New York. Usually when I do a play, I end up playing somewhere, like Joe’s Pub, but here, Barrow Street has these concerts they do. I gotta talk to [artistic director] Scott Morfee, ’cause he floated that idea back in January to me. I think I need to take him up on it, and then maybe you would come.
I’d love to! Between albums, films, movies, TV and theater, is there one thing you’d like to ultimately be remembered for?
No, I have that thing I think all moms have, which is that the [project] you’re doing is like the baby you’re nursing. I can’t play favorites!
You’re playing a maternal role in the upcoming film Mirror, Mirror starring Julia Roberts, too.
I’m [Baker Margaret], Snow’s confidante in the castle, and someone who believes in her. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I don’t know how much I’ve ended up in, because you never know how they’re gonna edit it.
What was it like to work inside that cartoony, whimsical world?
That was wild. I was most struck by the costumes of Eiko [Ishioka], who recently passed away. She’s a tremendous artist, and I’m excited to see her work on the screen. The whole shoot was on a set in Montreal, and when a film is contained like that, the magic of movie making is really apparent. The sets and the lights—that’s the way they used to make all movies, in a bubble like that. It’s a fascinating way to work. The imagination really soars, because you see how they’re creating this thing from the ground up, and they’re not using anything sourced from the outside. It’s all within this little test tube.
How is that different from your other new project, Hatfields & McCoys on the History Channel?
Hatfields & McCoys was on location in Romania, out in the wilderness, and using the trees of the world, if you will. Somehow, behavior on location becomes more organic. The roads and the dirt and the soil and all of that was integrated in our little miniseries, which I can’t wait to see. And then to come full circle, talk about a mom: I had 16 kids in that one! [Laughs.]
Wow! So you’ve got children all over the world.
You know that old woman who lived in a shoe? That’s what I looked like!
See Mare Winningham in Tribes at the Barrow Street Theatre.