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Dianne Wiest Talks Tackling The Prison System In Mayor Of Kingstown - Exclusive Interview

Chances are, iconic actor Dianne Wiest has starred in at least one of your favorite '80s or '90s movies. Unsurprisingly, her newer role as Miriam McLusky in "Mayor of Kingstown" certainly lives up to the intensity and impact of her vast catalog of films and TV shows. 

Wiest got her start in Hollywood in the mid-'70s with a TV movie and TV show, later starring in a slew of films that would become multigenerational classics. The '80s were a great decade for Wiest, who appeared in "Independence Day," "Footloose," "The Lost Boys," and "Parenthood." Kicking off the '90s, Wiest played Peg in "Edward Scissorhands" before starring in movies like "Bullets Over Broadway," "The Birdcage," and "Practical Magic." 

Wiest's notable roles didn't end there, however. She went on to score roles in "I Am Sam," "Law & Order," "Passengers," "The Mule," and "Life in Pieces" — and, of course, "Mayor of Kingstown." 

During an exclusive interview for the DVD and Blu-ray release of "Mayor of Kingstown," Wiest revealed what it was like working with Jeremy Renner and carrying out that iconic Hollywood slap between Miriam and Renner's character, Mike. She also discussed her character's prison volunteer work and what we could be doing better in our own prison systems. Wiest then went down memory lane to chat about projects like "Edward Scissorhands," "Footloose," and "The Lost Boys" — including casts, creatives, and the impact they've had on pop culture. 

Hollywood-slapping Jeremy Renner

Miriam is the glue that holds the McLusky family together. What was it like playing Jeremy Renner, Kyle Chandler, and Taylor Handley's mom on the show? Do any moments from filming stand out to you in working with your onscreen sons?

Yeah, I think it was Episode 1. The first scene I do with Jeremy, who is ... I adore working with him. He's such a great actor. It's right after my oldest son is shot and killed, and it's a weird thing. I'm sort of accusing him, but what I'm really trying to do is save him from the same fate. But it's hostile; it's mean because Miriam is a woman that's filled with rage because of her losses.

You have an epic moment where you slap Jeremy Renner's character, Mike, in a desperate plea for him to understand the loss and heartbreak that you've had in the family. How did you prepare for that scene? How long did it take to shoot, [and] what was it like getting to Hollywood-slap a [super]hero?

I had to have stunt help. There would've been stunt help anyway, but I needed to have a stuntman tell me that I wasn't going to hurt him. The camera had to angle a different way so that I was sure I wouldn't hurt him because I am no good at that kind of violence; I'm a failure. I did not enjoy [it]. I was very happy when that scene was over. I don't enjoy hitting people.

Did he walk you through that and tell you that it was okay?

Yeah. He was wonderful, and he didn't flinch. Of course, I'm the least of the violence that happens to him in the show [because] he goes through so much, but he didn't flinch. I would've gone, "Oh, don't, don't," but he stood his ground there. I actually ended up slapping him and then hitting him on the shoulder because that is something I could do more easily.

Tackling an unjust prison system

Your character volunteers to teach history in a prison. She makes sure to give the prisoners the full story and not the watered-down version that often exists in textbooks that makes the oppressors look better than they actually were. What drew you to this storyline? Did you do any significant research or read any of the books shown in the class?

Yeah, I did all of that. I've been involved in the prison system and the injustices in the prison system — which is the prison system [itself]. The injustices are so rampant in this country that ... And teaching is being cut out by the privately owned prisons in America, so there's nothing you're giving the disenfranchised: no hope, bad food, and abuse. How is anybody going to recover from that? How is that punishment? What are we doing? What are we doing to people? We put [together] all of our problems, like racism, immigration, poverty, [and] lack of education, [and] we throw everybody in jail. We have the biggest prison system in the world.

Finding compassion underneath emotional armor

Though Miriam could take on any character in this show in a fight, she chooses her compassionate side more often than not. It's not the first time you've played a deeply compassionate character. What draws you to roles like Miriam and characters like Peg in "Edward Scissorhands"?

Peg in "Edwards Scissorhands" — I don't know. That was such a unique experience. I didn't think of them in the same breath. Miriam is so different from Peg in the 1st season. She's going to have a change, though, coming up in the 2nd season. Peg believed the best of everyone. She didn't see any wrong in anyone, and she was real. I loved the way Tim Burton wrote her.

Miriam is filled with hate [and] rage. She doesn't believe in family anymore. All she wants to do is reach the mind[s] of prisoners. I think that's a cover for fear of losing her two remaining sons, Jeremy and Taylor Handley.

An iconic movie resumé

You played Winona Ryder's mom in "Edward Scissorhands." What were some of your favorite moments filming the surreal horror movie and acting alongside Winona? Did you feel like a proud mom yourself, watching her career take off through the decades? Did you offer her any advice at the time?

No, she didn't need my advice. She was already a big star by the time of "Edward Scissorhands." She was doing pretty well on her own. And that's so long ago. ... I do remember her sweetness and the love that was between her and Johnny, and I mean her and Edward, and how wonderful Tim Burton was, really wonderful.

"Footloose" has become one of the most iconic '80s movies of all time. Do you have any fond memories [of] working with Kevin Bacon and the rest of the film's cast? Do you all keep in touch?

Yes. I see Kevin on 79th Street frequently. He lives right outside my neighborhood, so I see him frequently. I've been in touch with and worked with John Lithgow a few times since then. I guess that's all I've seen since. Yeah, that would be it.

Can you think of any fond memories from that set, or was that also too long ago?

No, we all had a great time. We had a great time. We were in Utah shooting and up in the mountains somewhere, and ... I remember we were all staying in this little motel around a swimming pool and pushing each other in. We had a good time.

The relevance of modern-day censorship

Why do you think the small-town censorship of "Footloose" was such an important story to tell back then? Why do you think it still holds up today with steady interest and even the recent remake?

For whatever reason, the tribes that each of us belong to vie for control over the behavior of the other tribes, and they can't just let people be if it's not who they're being. If they're religious and believe in this God, they want you to do that too. Otherwise, it lessens their belief.

So if some minister sometime said there should be no dancing, yes, there should never be any dancing anywhere. And whoever's dancing ... It's not unlike — I hate to bring this up, but it's not unlike abortion. We've outlawed abortion. Our Supreme Court, appointed by Trump, has outlawed abortion in America. Talk about going backward at the speed of light. It's wanting everyone else to behave the way you do because you are right.

Looking back on some of your most iconic roles, which have been the most impactful to you? Which were you most surprised by their decades of success and multi-generational appeal?

I'm stunned by "Lost Boys." I had no idea "Lost Boys" is a big deal among young people. That's amazing to me. I thought I was just making a vampire movie with these wonderful people. That was Ed Herman in "Lost Boys." And [with] "Footloose," the same. I knew when I was looking at Kevin; I thought, "Oh, Kevin, he is some huge star in there, some wonderful actor, incredible dancer, incredible singer. He's got it all." So I had an inkling because of Kevin, that if it was any kind of a movie, it would stick around because he's so wonderful.

The seedy underbelly of multi-level marketing scams

I love how Peg in "Edwards Scissorhands" was one of the first projects to shine a light on how shady multi-level marketing companies like Avon scam their reps into buying a ton of products, causing them to go into debt to feed the top. How do you feel about this storyline now and how it helped spark a movement against these pyramid scheme-adjacent companies?

I didn't know that. I didn't know it sparked a movement. That's wonderful to know, wow! I remember going over to do research and talk to a couple of Avon ladies, and they all had a little gathering, and they showed me their things and everything. I had no idea, but that's still going on. My daughter was involved with that from her hair salon. She got involved with some makeup product. She bought them, and then she was trying to sell them. I thought, "What? That's [like] Avon."

"Mayor of Kingstown" is available to purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray now.

This interview has been edited for clarity.