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From Philadelphia to Happiest Season, Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen has chosen roles in productions -- over the course of decades -- that have advocated for the LGBTQ+ community.
And in return, LGBTQ+ people have taken note. It was a "beautiful letter" from out director Clea DuVall that instilled in Steenburgen the importance of portraying the mother of a lesbian daughter in Happiest Season, the actress revealed; in the note, DuVall explained how she had never before seen herself reflected in the holiday genre. "If it's meaningful to people out there, that makes me extremely happy," Steenburgen said.
Now, as Steenburgen prepares to return to television on season 2 of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, NBC's LGBTQ-inclusive musical dramedy, she reflected to The Advocate on what it means to be held in high regard by the community for her longtime work as an artist and ally. "I can't imagine anything nicer," she said.
"It's been something that's been an important part of my life, that advocacy since I was very young," she said. "I was raised in quite a conservative community in Arkansas, although my own family was very tolerant. And actually, my church really taught tolerance. So based on their inspiration, I cared about these things from the time I was quite a young girl.
"I had LGBTQ friends before those letters existed, and they were important to me and I couldn't bear ever seen them hurt. So it's just been something that's been inside of me for a long time. And it's not even anything I have to think about. It's nature."
On Zoey, Steenburgen portrays a character with the ability to inspire: Maggie Clarke, who in the new season must deal with the death of her husband after his battle with a neurological disease.
The actress revealed that, when the first season aired in 2020, she had received an extraordinary level of feedback from viewers who were coping with the pandemic and its impact on their families. The show comforted them, particularly in its message in the power of music to process grief. (The main character, Zoey (Jane Levy), has the supernatural ability to hear the thoughts of others through "heart songs" that they perform for her.)
"There isn't a vehicle for emotion that's better than music. There just isn't. It's the international language," she said. "It doesn't care if you're a Republican or a Democrat, it doesn't care, you know, who you love. It doesn't care about any of those things. Music just literally goes inside of all of us and unites us. And so I think Zoey was very powerful to people during such a heartbreaking time. And it almost felt like, wow, somebody up there was kind of pulling these strings, because it could not have actually come out at a more meaningful time."
Music also plays a vital role in Steenburgen's life. She said she recently wrote a song for a friend who is dying. As for songs that bring comfort to her, she cited Brandi Carlile's "The Joke," in part due to its message of LGBTQ+ acceptance. "The first time I heard it, it just brought me to my knees," she said. "It's very beautiful."
Season 2 of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Watch the trailer below.