Mary Kay Place could have made an entire career of playing country-quirky mothers.
Her first 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." 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 Nicolette (Chloë 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 a Emmy-nominated writer ("MASH") 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 up 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 said she's grateful for the recent boom in cable programming that has provided a surfeit of roles, many unusually cliché 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 old writing partner on "MASH." 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.
"It's definitely an ensemble piece," she said. "Lily is a sort of Ann Richards, the more liberal branch of the family. I'm more conservative. Sometimes, we have more money than good sense. It reflects different kinds of values in our culture and comments on a lot of different things."
Place's screen mothers also tend to be smarter and more complicated than the usual. "Big Love's" Adaleen 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 has her own subversive way of getting around it, but she keeps that to herself.
"Like the women of the South, she can only be powerful in a subtle and sort of underground way. They're not overt. That would be threatening to the men in that dynamic. In order to live in that world, she had to suppress a lot of real feelings. If she allowed them to come up, there might be trouble. Big trouble," Place said.
A native of Tulsa, Okla., Place has neither married nor had children of her own. 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. She just cuts it off.
"It was bizarre to play initially," she said. "It set against any instinct you might have. It's certainly not what I experienced from my own mother."
In the current season of "Big Love," which airs tonight at 9, 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 streets 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. "She's not irritating in that cliché sitcom kind of way."
"All of our mothers may irritate us, even though we madly and dearly love them," she said. "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."
Ins and outs
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."
She divides her time between her home in Los Angeles and her apartment in New York and has been so busy she hasn't replaced a beloved pet dog that died. "I've been on the road so much, I have not gotten another pet. I would have to be more present with a pet.
"It's enough to have life maintenance, family maintenance, friend maintenance and work maintenance," Place continued. "I feel my life is chock full. I'm totally satisfied. There's plenty. Life is good."