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The not-so-minor accomplishments of Mary Kay Place

Actress/director/writer is busier than ever, thanks to HBO and IFC shows

Mary Kay Place (above in 'Jackie Woodman') has earned an Emmy as an actress and received a nomination as a writer. Mary Kay Place (above in "Jackie Woodman") has earned an Emmy as an actress and received a nomination as a writer. (susan anderson/ifc)

HOLLYWOOD -- Mary Kay Place could have made an entire career of playing country-quirky mothers.

Her big break came in 1976 as Loretta Haggers, a would-be country-western singer who yearned to be a mother, on the groundbreaking soap satire "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." (She won an Emmy for supporting actress in a comedy series that same year.) There was also the role of Reese Witherspoon's mother in "Sweet Home Alabama." Currently on HBO's "Big Love," Place plays polygamist Adaleen Grant, mother of Nicki (Chloe Sevigny). On IFC's "The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman," she has a recurring role as the mother of Jackie (Laura Kightlinger).

But Place has taken her career in other directions: She's been an Emmy-nominated writer ("M*A*S*H") a Grammy-nominated singer (for an album she recorded as "Loretta Haggers") and a prolific director ("Baby Boom," "Friends," and most recently "The Minor Accomplishments").

As both a serious and comic actress, Place has appeared in 37 feature films ("The Big Chill," "Girl, Interrupted"). Recently, her schedule has filled with back-to-back projects, notably HBO's "12 Miles of Bad Road," in which she'll star along with Lily Tomlin as sisters in a large, rich, dysfunctional Dallas family.

Place, 59, said she's grateful for the recent boom in cable programming that has provided a surfeit of roles, many unusually cliche-free, for older actresses. "Right now, there seems to be this incredible variety of nicely written, nicely layered work that involves women our age," she said. "It's a blessing, I have to say."

"12 Miles of Bad Road" reconnects her with creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, her writing partner on "M*A*S*H." Shooting will begin later this month, yet Place said she doesn't even know what the plot is. "But it's a smart show," she said. "It's a laugh-out-loud comedy."

Place's screen mothers tend to be smarter and more complicated than the usual. Adaleen on "Big Love" is "an unemotional, detached, repressed person because of her circumstances" as the sixth wife of compound patriarch Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), Place said.

"She buys into it lock, stock, and barrel," she said. "She has her own subversive way of getting around it, but she keeps that to herself."

A native of Tulsa, Okla., Place has neither married nor had children. But she said, "I have godchildren. I have nieces. I feel like I have a lot of mothering experience." To her, Adaleen seems "unmotherly. She does the opposite of what the natural mother instinct would be. . . . It's certainly not what I experienced from my own mother."

In the current season of "Big Love," Adaleen's character has been given more layers, letting viewers see her humanity, she said. In one episode, Adaleen banished Nicki from the compound, disowning her. Then she destroyed a tape recording that would have ruined Nicki's family. "You get to see that she does care about her children."

She said strangers have been stopping her in the street and at nail salons, telling her how much they like the show. "Not Hollywood people. Airport people. From Texas and Oklahoma. They're fascinated. They relate to the dynamics of the family even though they're not in a polygamous family. It talks about the universal, multiplied by three," she said.

On "The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman," a sardonic portrait of Hollywood C-listers, Place plays the mother of jaundiced screenwriter Jackie.

"She drives Jackie crazy, but she's got a sense of humor," she said. "All of our mothers may irritate us, even though we madly and dearly love them. I think she's based on Laura's real mother."

Until "Jackie Woodman," Place said she hadn't directed for eight years. "I did a lot in the '90s, for television. I stopped because I was working on an independent film for a while, and then I was doing a lot of acting. Once you fall out of that loop and turn down a couple of episodes, it's hard to get back in the ring."

She said she's comfortable working as an actress and a director but that she doesn't like to mix the two in one episode. "I enjoy directing. It's a whole other head," she said, explaining, "I call that the 'outside head.' Acting is the inside head. When you're acting, you're inside the head of your character. When you're directing, it's about everything."

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