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Mary Steenburgen Reveals Why 'Zoey's Playlist' Is a Career Highlight (Exclusive)

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For Mary SteenburgenZoey's Extraordinary Playlist has been a singular experience.

In the hour-long musical dramedy, Steenburgen plays Maggie, wife to Peter Gallagher's Mitch, who has been diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), and has only weeks to live. As the family prepares for the inevitable, Maggie and her children, Zoey (Jane Levy) and David (Andrew Leeds), visit a funeral home to begin the difficult process of looking for a casket and final resting place for Mitch.

"It was released into a time where people are really thinking about who they love and they're either missing people, they've lost people or they're staying at home to protect from losing people. They are seeking their joy because it's a hard thing to find when you turn on the news," Steenburgen tells ET of the engagement around the show. "Zoey's Playlist taps into both the joy in human existence and the joy of dance and music, but also into a breaking heart when you lose someone."

"It's kind of an amazing moment for the show. I think the show would've been appreciated without the coronavirus, but I think the coronavirus has deepened people's reactions to it and I know this because I read what people say on Twitter," the 67-year-old actress notes. "It's very moving what people are writing to us about how this is helping them through it. One person said, 'I had the idea I was going to get through this without ever crying once and your show opened the floodgates, but I feel so much better and more connected to my own heart.' There are just so many beautiful things that are being written to us."

Ahead of Sunday's penultimate episode, Steenburgen -- who has a "musical brain" due to unexpected side effects following routine surgery in 2007 -- spoke with ET about being part of Zoey's Playlist, dusting off her singing pipes and why the finale's ambitious seven-minute musical number, filmed entirely in one take, is one of her proudest career accomplishments. 

ET: What does playing a character like Maggie mean to you?

Mary Steenburgen: Well, I've lived a pretty long time. I'm not young and I have had loss and I have lived through a lot. I've raised four kids and I have three grandchildren. I think a lot of what you see there is me bringing my own life to it, even though I'm blessed to have a healthy husband [Ted Danson], but I know what it is to love someone and I know what it is to lose someone. Some of what you see is me having to dig deep into my own heart. To be honest, I don't know how else to do it. That's one of the reasons I love doing comedy is that you don't have to go there. You don't have to go quite so into your own little fractured bits of your own heart. With Zoey's Playlist, thankfully there are moments that are comedic, which are really sweet, but for my character, a lot of it has been about loss.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
NBC

Maggie's storyline isn't easy to do on a daily basis, I'd imagine, because you're exploring topics such as loss, grief and preparing for the end of someone's life. Did it take an emotional toll on you?

I'll be honest, it was at the end of the season, everybody who knew me knew that it had taken a little bit of a toll. I went straight from that show into a comedy movie, which was a wonderful relief in a way. Having said that, this show means so much to me on so many levels because there's the acting of it, but the whole musical experience of it is very new to me. I'm the baby. I'm the oldest one on the show and the baby in terms of having danced and sung before. I've sung a little bit in movies. I've danced a tiny bit in movies. I literally never sung and danced at the same time.

Last week's duet with Peter was the first time in my whole life that I'd ever sung harmony with someone. Peter is so special to me. He's a very dear friend and he kept saying, "You can do it." And we did it! There isn't an age where you're too old to scare yourself a little and do things you've never done and say yes to things. It would be easy to say, "Well, I don't do that." I also have the privilege of working with Mandy Moore, who is such a brilliant choreographer. Her way of doing these dance numbers is not about being the world's greatest dancer. It's really all about what's in your heart, what are you feeling, what is your character feeling, how would we show that with our body. It really comes from them. It's such an interesting exploration. Austin Winsberg, who created the show, I can't say enough about what he's done because his dad did die of PSP, and he took that grief and he made such a beautiful but also a generous thing with it because there's so many people who are getting through a hard time right now. If a little part by using the show as part of what's getting them through it. I know because they write me every single day.

Maggie and the family are forced to really think about the end in Sunday's episode. Can you tee up what we can expect to see with the family going through this process?

It's such a weird thing to do, but it was so cool at the same time. I don't think anybody's ever seen this before. More than once, I've had to go shop for a casket. It's a really hard thing to do. I'm sure it's really hard to be the kind people helping us on the other side of it too, who are handling all this stuff. But for the person who doesn't want to lose the person you love, it's almost like admitting defeat. It feels like, OK, this is going to happen. If you're a good mother, you don't ask your children to do that. It doesn't matter how old they are. You do it yourself.

In this case, [Zoey and David] wanted to support their mom so they're there too. I just think, like everything else on the show, it has this interesting blend of being some of the more real and painful moments in people's lives and then this magical device that shows us what we're feeling. If you're going to show us what we're feeling, the language we all understand is music. It cuts through everything. It doesn't matter how old or young or what your political beliefs are, who you love or any of those things. Music just cuts through everything to the heart of all of us. The fact that we're dealing with these very universal things that... all of us, at some point, are going to lose somebody we love and we're going to have to do some of this stuff. In the case of this upcoming episode, I thought it was a brilliant way of being both real and musical and maybe bizarrely amusing, which all of life, including its hardest moments, are that way. It's not just all sad. There are moments in it that you just go, "Holy cow. This is weird." I'm just proud to be a part of something that's so brave.

You also get to work with Paul Feig and Bernadette Peters in this episode.

I'll start with Paul. Paul's a producer on our show, but he was working on other projects when we were doing this, so he hadn't had a chance to come be in the show. Austin asked him to play this part and we were all like, "Fingers crossed he's going to do it." And he did. He was so funny that it was hard for me to get through the scenes. There were multiple takes ruined from me getting the giggles, which I'm kind of infamous for. When I did Last Man on Earth, we did a Zoom experience, the Last Zoom on Earth and somebody had the question, "Who was the worst about breaking up?" Everybody at the same time went, "Mary!" But with Paul it was really hard because he was so funny. He's a very good improviser and he was riffing. It was really fun to work with him.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
NBC

And can you speak to sharing scenes with Bernadette?

As far as Bernadette, I'm a huge fan of hers. I heard they were going to ask her and I knew she lived in New York and I thought, "She's not going to come all this way." But she came and she did it. I had met her a number of times; I would go see her in things, go backstage and tell her how brilliant she was, but I'd never actually worked with her. Her voice is so beautiful that I think a lot of times everybody talks about her in terms of that incredible voice, but I don't think they talk enough about what a fine actor she is. She was just so connected and centered. Every single take was different. We didn't know what we were going to do or how it was going to happen or what the emotion was going to make us do. It was very alive.

In terms of Maggie moving on, potentially without Mitch, what do you think her life will be like?

I know that I still hold Maggie as a character that means something to me, that I feel strongly about. She's in my heart, so she's alive in that sense, but how it's all going to play out, we really don't know.

When I spoke with Austin, he said the finale was incredibly "personal" and includes an ambitious seven-minute musical number that's all done in one take. And Jane said it was "moving." How would you describe the final episode of the season?

The final episode of the season has a number of amazing scenes in it, but one of them is the single most interesting thing I have ever been called upon to do in the 45 years I've been in the business. It was so ambitious and so difficult and took a group of 150 people all doing exactly what they needed to do at precisely the right moment, in sync with each other. It was incredible. It took a day's rehearsal for this one scene. I'm so proud to be a little part of it. It was just one of the great creative moments of my career and I bet a lot of people feel that way.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

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