It’s been 22 years since Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning movie “Dances with Wolves,” but actress Mary McDonnell still gets recognized as Stands with a Fist, her character from the film.
“People say, ‘There’s the girl from the Indian movie,’” says McDonnell, 61, with a boisterous laugh. “I’m not exactly a girl anymore, so I love that.”
In the two decades following her portrayal of a white woman raised by Sioux Indians, McDonnell took on many other film and TV roles, frequently playing take-charge women such as the first lady (“Independence Day”), the U.S. president (“Battlestar Gallactica”), a surgeon (TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”), and most recently, a Los Angeles police captain in TNT’s “Major Crimes,” a spinoff of “The Closer,” another popular series on the network.
“With Capt. Sharon Raydor, I have the opportunity to explore the archetype of the mother, the boss, the leader, the warrior,” says McDonnell, whose character first locked horns with Kyra Sedgwick’s lead character on “The Closer.” “I’m just beginning to understand how big she is.”
Her husband, Randle Mell, 61, an acting teacher at the University of Southern California with dozens of acting credits of his own, including “Monk,” “24” and “Law & Order,” says McDonnell is perfectly equipped to play a tough internal affairs officer turned detective squad chief.
“She’s just an amazing and powerful person,” he says.
“She’s Wonder Woman!” says the couple’s daughter, Olivia Jane Mell, 26, an actress and singer living in New York City. “She’s very gifted at playing a strong woman because she is one.”
‘The importance of women’
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., McDonnell grew up in Upper Merion Township, Pa., and later Ithaca, N.Y., surrounded by dynamic women, including her mother, Eileen, who died in 1991, as well as four sisters, whom she describes as “beyond impressive.”
“I learned the importance of women and girls as a collective and as individuals,” says McDonnell, who from ages 6 to 13 performed with her two older sisters on a synchronized swimming team. “Plus, we had so much fun in our house, bartering for clothes, hairbrushes flying everywhere!”
The odd men out were McDonnell’s brother, the youngest of the brood, and her father, Jack, who died when she was 22.
“My father was very bright, gregarious and aware,” she says. “He always kept us interested.”
Jack McDonnell sparked Mary’s interest in acting by suggesting she take a theater course her freshman year at State University of New York in Fredonia.
“Prior to that, I hadn’t really demonstrated an academic acumen,” McDonnell says. “Finally, I found something I was excited by.”
After college, she moved to New York City to pursue acting. Between auditions, she worked a variety of jobs, including waitressing and peddling Fuller brushes office-to-office in Rockefeller Center.
Two actors meet
In 1978, she made her Broadway debut in Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Buried Child,” and “The New York Times” included her in an article on “Faces to Look Out for in the New York Theater.” Another “face” in the piece was her future husband, who met McDonnell when both were asked to read a newly written play for potential investors.
“I walked in and there was Mary McDonnell wearing an off-the-shoulder sweater, a headband and tights,” Mell recalls. “I fell head over heels.”
“We didn’t date right away,” McDonnell says. “But we definitely became friends and fans of each other.”
A few years later, the actors were cast together in a new play. “Then it was Katie, bar the door!” Mell says. They married in 1984.
Life changed with the birth of Olivia in 1987 and later their son, Michael, now an 18-year-old college student.
“Maybe the only place Mary is more talented than she is as an actress is as a mother,” her husband says. “She’s a phenomenal mother.”
Life after Dances
In 1990, the family’s life transformed in nearly every way following McDonnell’s Oscar-nominated performance in “Dances with Wolves.”
“It was literally like Oz,” Mell recalls with a laugh. “We were a couple of Broadway and off-Broadway actors, working in regional theater. Then suddenly we’re in this world of red carpets, big productions and big money. It was a whole new world.”
The family moved to Los Angeles, where McDonnell acted in a string of films, including “Grand Canyon,” which also featured her husband as part of its large cast. “She played a housewife and I played a homeless guy,” Mell says. “All my scenes were with Mary.”
“She’s really an extra-ordinary actress,” says “Major Crimes” director Arvin Brown, who also directed McDonnell alongside two other up-and-comers, Tom Berenger and Kevin Spacey, at the Long Wharf Theater in 1988. “She works from real life. That’s her palette.”
But to play “Major Crimes’” Capt. Raydor, who was at first despised by the other characters, McDonnell, a former high school cheerleader and not experienced with being so unpopular, had to shift her thinking and reach beyond personal experience.
“At first, the idea of not being liked was so foreign to me,” she says. “But then I realized not needing approval leaves you totally free.”
So as she’d done at other junctures in her life and career, which brought her from Fuller brushes to Broadway stages, from one coast to the other, and to a level of fame that she once never could have dreamed, she made the leap.
“Why not embrace the challenge?” she says.