NEW YORK—Before becoming a full-time actress, Mary Stuart Masterson studied mime. She also thought about being a dancer and at one point was certain she was going to clown school.
Words still can get in the way.
“Language is so imprecise and the more word you have the less precise you can be,” she said. “You think words describe things better and better, but it masks the intent more and more.”
That can happen, especially during an interview. Masterson seemed torn between a free thinker’s impulse to say what pops into her head and the celebrity’s need for keeping certain opinions to herself. Doodling faces on a yellow legal pad, she expressed herself with the nervous care of a defendant called to the witness stand.
The actress has appeared in two movies released this year. The first, Married to It, was delayed several times due to financial problems at Orion Pictures. Despite a cast that also included Ron Silver, Beau Bridges and Stockard Channing, this look at three contemporary New York couples was popular neither with critics nor with the general public.
“It seems like it’s the kind of film that could make a lot of people happy, connect to in some fundamental way, but it’s a question of, ‘Is it enough?’” she said, letting out a groan at the mention of the movie.
“There’s some . . . Oh God, I’m badmouthing a movie . . . There’s some good moments, some good stuff in it, the stuff with Stockard and Beau is funny. But I thought there was a really good opportunity to find something interesting. That wasn’t the nature of it, I guess.”
Her latest feature, Benny and Joon, has done much better at the box office, but many reviewers were not charmed by the whimsical love story of an artistically inclined schizophrenic (Masterson) and a spacey silent-movie fanatic (Johnny Depp).
“One might assume from this portrait of madness that managing mental illness is as easy as enrolling in an arts and craft class,” wrote Patricia Bibby of The Associated Press. Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune praised the look of the film, but added “It cloys without mercy.”
“First of all, the film is stylized,” Masterson said. “There’s nothing in it that’s not possible. There’s no lies, no cop-outs, no medically incorrect or cavalier treatment of mental illness.
“The fact is it’s also sweet and also a fable and it deals with those aspects of their personalities that are metaphors for larger themes: the mystic in everyone, that isolation everyone feels until they have love.”
She then wondered if people misunderstood the film’s happy, boy-gets-girl ending.
“In the end, it looks like they’re cured and everything’s fine, which is not intended at all; they’re happy and are going to make a stab at it. All the clinical aspect was cut out, all the stuff about medication, and the serious questions as to whether or not she can have her own apartment. All that’s been edited out, that was a choice that’s been made.”
Did she agree with that choice?
“At first, it really bothered me, then I came around to understanding what kind of film (director) Jeremiah (Chechik) made and I really appreciate it for what it is. My fear is people are going to think I didn’t do my homework. That’s still always my fear. There are people whose sisters and brothers who are on similar functioning levels as Joon and they assured me they bought it. So I feel a little better.”
In person, Masterson seems more fragile than the fiery character she played in Fried Green Tomatoes. Her build is slight, her features soft and her brown eyes give the impression of someone easily moved to tears.
Masterson is the daughter of actor-writer-director Peter Masterson and actress Carlin Glynn. She made her film debut at age 7, playing the daughter of her real-life father in The Stepford Wives.
But Masterson said she didn’t really want to become an actress until the mid-1980s, when she appeared off-Broadway in Lily Dale. Her work has since included the plays The Lucky Spot and The Three Sisters and the films Gardens of Stone (in which her real father again played her father on screen) and Immediate Family.
A great fan of old movies, Masterson cited Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunn and Jean Arthur as among her favorite stars.
But Masterson rarely gets to show that side of herself in movies. Her concerns aren’t very different from most actresses: She wants work, but she doesn’t want to compromise. She reads dozens of scripts, but rarely finds one she likes. The ones she does often are too uncommercial to get made.
“Right now, I’m getting sent the parts of unstable, vulnerable women,” she said. “A year ago (after Fried Green Tomatoes), all I got offered was tomboy, rough and tumble parts, and a lot of lesbian parts. That’s fine. It just means I made a strong impression.
“I cannot figure out how to play a stereotype. I wouldn’t do it, or to play myself, god forbid; I’m just too insecure. I just want to play any character that’s interesting and has cool problems to solve.”