Nearly all of the main characters on CBS’s The Good Wife are walking around with some kind of secret past (or present). But who knew that Mary Beth Peil, the actress portraying Peter Florrick’s mother, Jackie, had a secret past, off-screen? Paste had the pleasure of speaking with Peil about her new film Contest—in which she plays the supportive grandmother of a bullied teenage boy—and the talented performer opened up about her fascinating life as an opera singer-turned-television actress.
Before we talk about your new movie Contest, can you tell us a little bit about how you began acting? I know you started out as an opera singer.
Mary Beth Peil: What? How did you know that?!
Oh, just a little light research on Wikipedia.
Peil: (laughs) That’s amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this in an interview!
Well, that’s great. I’d love to hear about it, if you don’t mind sharing.
Peil: When I first started acting, I never told anyone that I was an opera singer; I had to keep that a secret for some time. But yes, I started at a young age, and I guess you could call me an early bloomer in the opera world. And then, when I was 43, I did my first musical, which I’d never been allowed to do as an opera singer. I did Kiss Me, Kate with Minnesota Opera, and it was like a lightbulb went on and I just said, “Oh my gosh, I think… I’m… an actress, not a singer!” (laughs) And that was it.
Peil: So then I did musical theater for a while. By my mid-to-late 40s I realized that with the ingénue roles, I was never gonna do a “Carousel” or a “West Side Story” so I started taking acting classes with the hopes of being taken seriously as an actress once the music roles dried up. I was just lucky to find a brilliant acting teacher Michael Howard, who taught me how to make mistakes and be messy instead of being perfect, which is what you have to be as an opera singer. I had a great agent—still do—and things started falling into place. I got the Dawson’s Creek role, and it’s just been a wonderful, wonderful, miraculous journey!
It sounds amazing—it’s a great story.
Peil: At 73 [years old], I have such a variety of work that just keeps coming. I’m just so grateful.
Now Contest has a lot of light-hearted, comedic moments, but it also takes on some heavier issues like bullying. I was wondering if that was one of the things that drew you to the script.
Peil: Definitely. The subject matter and the purpose of the movie were a big draw. It’s always wonderful to do something where you feel like there’s a message and somebody is going to carry something away from it, even subconsciously.
The good thing is that Contest has a PG rating, so a lot of young people will get to see it.
Peil: Exactly, it’s quite educational in that way, but it’s also entertainment. And at a certain age, that’s the best way to be entertained—so you don’t feel like you’re being lectured.
Absolutely. Now the movie features a lot of up-and-coming actors like Daniel Flaherty and Kenton Duty. Can you talk about what it was like working with them on set?
Peil: It was amazing. These kids—a lot of them are from the Disney machine. Is that what they call it? I had no idea that there was even such a thing. But they’re such an amazing group! They were so professional. To hear 15-year-olds talking about their careers? It really gets your attention. (laughs) But they were great.
Now, for those of us used to watching you play Jackie Florrick, it’s kind of surprising to see you as this really sweet, pizza shop-owning grandmother. So I have to ask, off-screen are you more like your character in Contest, Gran, or are you more Jackie?
Peil: (laughs) I’m not Jackie Florrick, I can tell you that. That’s why she’s so much fun to play.
Peil: She’s a piece of work. And that’s the writing. The writers for The Good Wife are so fantastic, half of the actor’s work is already done with the script. It’s just great.
Well, I’m gonna go ahead and squeeze in one more question about The Good Wife. We’re all still buzzing from the 100th episode and that kicker at the end with Marilyn’s baby being named Peter. Obviously, as Peter’s mom I know you know what’s going on. I won’t ask you to spill, but what can we expect as the season progresses in terms of general drama?
Peil: Oh, I think you can definitely expect more fireworks and more drama. They came out of the gate this season with just—well, every time I get a script my mouth drops to the floor just reading it. Even if I could spill anything I wouldn’t, but I can guarantee a lot of fireworks.
That’s great. Well, I loved your performance in Contest and, of course, I’m looking forward to seeing more of you on The Good Wife. Thanks again for speaking with me.
Peil: Oh, it was my pleasure.