Mary Steenburgen begins her arc on Justified this Tuesday as Katherine Hale, the widow of a crime boss Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) had worked for — not Theo Tonin — and a woman whose opinion Duffy clearly values. Though she’s been out of the business for a while, Katherine remains, as executive producer Graham Yost says, “as sweet as a mint julep and as lethal as a copperhead.” Steenburgen seconds that. “The character is very Elmore Leonard-like in that she’s full of surprises and you don’t ever really turn your back on her,” she says. How soon might we see her strike? “You may see some of it sooner than you think,” she answers coyly. And if not, there’s always next year. She’ll stick around for the show’s final season: “Where she goes next season is why I wanted her to join this rather than just do a couple of episodes. It’s a really fascinating journey,” she says. “It gets set up a little bit in the last episode this season, and then it’s really cool what they’re planning.”
Her first scene (pictured) is with Burns, who she knew because he co-starred on the ABC comedy Help Me Help You (2006 to 2007) with her husband, Ted Danson. Yes, she enjoys watching him as much as we do: “The characters [on Justified] are on guard at all times. Anybody at any moment can do something incredibly violent to each other. That’s the world of that show. There’s not the usual half-page warning that something terrible’s about to happen. It just, like, comes out of nowhere,” she says with a laugh, “and so as an actor, part of the job is to be extremely observant of each other. You’re watching. And watching Jere Burns is a joy. It’s such an interesting, bizarre character that he’s created.” (She’s also enjoyed watching Walton Goggins, with whom she’s shared scenes. She hopes to work with Timothy Olyphant for the first time in season 7.)
Though Steenburgen admits she hadn’t watched the show before she was offered the role, she says it was on her binge list. “I can’t believe I missed it, and I’m mad at myself, but it’s fun to catch up on it, which I’m doing slowly,” she says. She already understands how devoted the series’ fans are. “I’ve had people stop me in the airport, which amazes me, because I haven’t even been on the air yet. You can see they’re very invested in the show,” she says. “And I’m surprised at how many of them are women. I sorta thought, ‘Oh, it’s a guys’ show,’ and men certainly seem to love it. But the characters are so rich and so unusual. Elmore Leonard managed to write about very dark things but with this kind of very wonderfully sophisticated sense of humor, and I think that’s what appeals to people. It appeals to me. It felt like a different kind of comedy than I had ever done. I don’t know that you can flat-out even say that’s what it is, but it has a darkly comic overtone to it.”
In addition to loving the show, Steenburgen discovered she loves the way the writers and cast work. On her first day on set, that scene with Burns was reworked. “Everything stopped and everybody went in a room, including myself, and we all worked through this scene. It was my introduction to what I’d already heard about this show, which is that it is very collaborative…. There’s the sense of, ‘Oh my god, this is great already. How can we make it even better?'” she says. “There’s a sense of life to this show. I do know actors who don’t like this kind of thing because it makes them feel insecure: They want to learn their lines, and get that down, and know exactly what’s gonna happen, and not be thrown any surprises. I started in comedy improv, and then doing things like 30 Rock or Step Brothers or Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is all improvised, there’s a danger that comes with taking something and not expecting it to be set in stone, but rather to constantly be looking for ways to let it breathe… It’s like walkin’ on the wild side, but it’s a nice place to walk. You want to be there. I love that about them.”
“There’s this love and respect for the process, and a real sense of honoring Elmore Leonard. There’s this kind of commonality of purpose that you feel the second you walk in there,” she continues. “If you’ve been in the business as long as I have, you try to always work with the best writers. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes you’re trying to do a little bit of damage control. That’s not true in this case. Really it’s just living up to the great writing of Elmore Leonard and then to the incredible writers he let his material be in the hands of. I just feel lucky and honored to be on the show.”
Justified airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.