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July 24, 2015

So Good at Breaking Bad

Lately, Mare Winningham is relishing some ruthless roles.

Ann Farmer
  • Greg Endries
  • Greg Endries

Among the many rancorous in-laws on Showtime’s The Affair is Montauk family matriarch Cherry Lockhart — played by Mare Winningham — a pleasant-faced woman with ice running through her veins.

“I had seen Mare in multiple plays in New York, and I knew she had the perfect combination of kindness and a killer instinct that we wanted for the character of Cherry,” says Sarah Treem, creator–executive producer of the series. “Introducing Mare into a scene is a quick way to elevate the drama.”

Throughout her career, Winningham — who has won two Emmys and been nominated for an Oscar and a Tony — has brought naturalness, believability and authority to her roles. Lately she has become noted for characters that go for the jugular.

Her two recent turns on FX’s American Horror Story, for instance, are treacherous souls: one mother is trashy and incestuous (Coven). The other (in Freak Show) enjoys martinis and girlish party dresses, but kills her baby and pins the murder on her vulnerable sister. 

“She’s just this horrible, awful, ugly spirit, who thinks she’s Ann-Margret but couldn’t be more wrong,” Winningham says. “I think your job, if you are just coming in for an episode, is to find some inventive way to be horrible. So I had a lot of fun.” 

Chatting recently in a New York City café, Winningham notes that she has logged almost 100 roles in her rock-steady 40-year career.

“I played Helen Keller. And I played a runaway who was impossible. I don’t see anything in common except that they were relatable emotionally.” She pauses. “Well, no, I can’t even say that,” deciding that one hard-core, death-row character wasn’t that accessible.

She took the job seriously, though, arranging to meet a death-row inmate for research. And for her Emmy-winning turn as Lurleen Wallace in the TNT miniseries, George Wallace, she analyzed footage of the plainspoken governor’s wife “to capture her -isms.”

In God Bless the Child, she was so empathetic as a homeless mother let down by the system that the 1988 telefilm was screened at the Reagan White House and is said to have helped boost federal funding for America’s homeless population.

One trend does emerge in her career: she launched it on television and stayed the course.

“I sort of became the queen of the TV movie,” she says. “It was a really good gig for me,” allowing her to raise five children away from the Hollywood glare. She and her husband started out in a teepee and continued to live off the grid in the eastern Sierras for many years.

Growing up in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, Winningham got the acting bug early. Her classmates included Kevin Spacey, who starred opposite her in a 12th-grade version of The Sound of Music.

Her first foray on the small screen was as a 16-year-old guitarist and singer on NBC’s Gong Show, which she won. The next year, in 1977, she recited three lines on the NBC series James at 16 and snared her SAG card. 

She’d already landed her first Emmy, for her supporting role in the telefilm Amber Waves, when director Joel Schumacher invited her to join St. Elmo’s Fire, now considered a Brat Pack classic.

She took the role of Wendy, the good girl. Then she got pregnant with her third child and told Schumacher she’d have to back out.

“And he told me, ‘Well, I always saw Wendy as plump.’” She laughs. “So, I was plump Wendy.”

Over the years, she’s continued to appear on series like ER, Grey’s Anatomy and 24. She moved to New York, she says, “Because I wanted to work in theater my whole life,” making a beeline after her youngest son left home.

What’s next? She’s not sure. But Winningham is not worrying about the future. “I just wake up every day very happy.”

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