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Mary Steenburgen Discusses True Love And Holiday Cheer On 'Happiest Season'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Here's a twist on a holiday rom-com. Abby is touched when Harper, the person she loves, invites her to join their family at home for the holidays. They're on their way when Harper has something to divulge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPIEST SEASON")

MACKENZIE DAVIS: (As Harper) Do you remember this summer when I came out to my parents and told them we were together, and they took it really well?

KRISTEN STEWART: (As Abby) Yeah.

DAVIS: (As Harper) OK. Well, that wasn't entirely accurate.

STEWART: (As Abby) They didn't take it well?

DAVIS: (As Harper) No. No, no. I didn't tell them.

SIMON: Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper in the holiday film "Happiest Season" on Hulu. The film also stars, as the clueless mother, Mary Steenburgen. And Mary Steenburgen, the Oscar-winning actress, joins us from California. Thanks so much for being with us. It

MARY STEENBURGEN: It is my pleasure.

SIMON: This is a kind of new seasoning on an old formula for holiday films, isn't it?

STEENBURGEN: I think so, maybe a welcome one, because, you know, Clea DuVall, who wrote with Mary Holland - and then Clea directed the film - had always loved the genre of holiday rom-coms but had never seen herself as a gay, young woman. And so when it never came, she just grew up to write it and direct it. And it was an honor to be in something that was a bit of a first.

SIMON: There's a moment in this film, the kind of cry from the heart moment when Harper says, I'm not hiding from you; I'm hiding from me.

STEENBURGEN: Right.

SIMON: And that just struck me as kind of the theme of the film.

STEENBURGEN: Absolutely. As it turns out, so is my character, Tipper, hiding so much of who she wants to be. And like so many people in this kind of fruitless pursuit of perfection, being what other people think, it's such a tough lesson. We have to keep learning over and over in life not to worry about what people think or at least not to let that worry drown out what our heart's desires are.

SIMON: You were in "Philadelphia" more than 20 years ago.

STEENBURGEN: Yes.

SIMON: While you were shooting "Happiest Season," did you ever reflect on on what changes have accrued in the world since then? I mean, you've gone from a film in which a gay man couldn't palpably keep his job in a law firm to a film set in a time when there's same-sex marriage, even if not everybody seems to be comfortable with it.

STEENBURGEN: In many ways, things have improved. But when you see how many trans women especially have been killed in a year's time and when you encounter the prejudice that still exists, it's hard to feel too pleased with the progress.

I was on an airplane one night a few years after it had been out. And the flight attendant came and said, may I speak to you for a moment? And I said, of course. And she said, I come from a very conservative family. I do call myself a conservative still. My brother came out to our family, and we were not comfortable with that lifestyle or with his choice. We felt that he was making a choice. And we really told him that we couldn't be around him anymore. And she said, about three years after, he got in touch with us and asked us if he could just have one afternoon of our time. And that was - he wanted us to go see a movie together.

And so we said yes. And we all went to see "Philadelphia." And afterwards, he explained that he had AIDS and that he didn't most likely have very long to live. And she said because of that movie, we were all with my brother when he passed because in that movie, a family showered love on their son. And once we'd seen it, we knew that we could do that. And she said, I am so grateful to every one of you that made that film. And she said, I'm still a conservative person, but I have really changed my feelings about people who are gay. I found that so moving because a lot of times these films reach people who are like-minded. But sometimes they reach people whose hearts are seeking for a different point of view.

SIMON: Yeah. What's it like to become part of so many families during the holidays - I mean, to become the mother, the stepmother?

STEENBURGEN: Yeah. I think it's very touching because this is ultimately what everything we do is about, is, you know, you're really putting it out to - and hopefully leave the world a tiny bit better a place or take people away for a few minutes. And, you know, I just have never lost that little girl part of me that was so touched by watching movies with my parents and having traditions. And to be a part of giving that back out to people is really lovely. And Clea DuVall, I can't say enough about. She's just such a good director. Working with her is like silk.

SIMON: I have to tell you, I think - I told myself I thought I could see where "Happiest Season" was going. But it didn't matter. I was crying at the end.

STEENBURGEN: Me, too. And by the way, the scene that you're talking about, I'm pretty sure, whether the camera was on us or not on us, we all cried...

SIMON: Oh, my God.

STEENBURGEN: ...Multiple times throughout the day because it was so earned. And, you know, an awful lot of gay kids or young people come out at the holiday season because that's when they're going to be around their families.

SIMON: Yeah.

STEENBURGEN: And it's still - you know, some people have the story that with parents, they have an idea about what they want for their kids and the way their life should go and the way the path should and what will people think. And so I just found it really moving to be a part of it. And I appreciated that my character didn't stay in one place. She evolves herself and in her own funny way.

SIMON: Mary Steenburgen is one of a number of stars, along with Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Victor Garber, in "Happiest Season," now on Hulu. And, Mary, you're the first person I've said it to this year. Happy holidays. Thank you.

STEENBURGEN: Happy holidays to you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDY CANE LANE")

SIA: (Singing) Take a trip down Candy Cane Lane with me. It's the cutest thing I swear you'll ever see. It's the best. So get dressed and impressed, you and the colors of the rainbow. Take a trip down Candy Cane Lane with me. It's so magical. It's cooler in your dream. It's the best. So get dressed... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.