Bridget Mary and Mary McCormack: The Rhapsody Interview
Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin , will interview a public person of interest -- authors, actors, athletes, political wonks, etc. -- about their relationship with music. Today, we've got the McCormack sisters: celebrated actress Mary and her older sibling Bridget Mary, a Michigan Supreme Court candidate. Together they're responsible for the recent West Wing reunion video/campaign ad that became a viral sensation. Listen along to this post with their specially made Rhapsody playlist, Growing Up McCormack.
Bridget Mary McCormack attended high school in central New Jersey before graduating with highest honors from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1988. Her sister, Mary, two and a half years younger, followed her as far as Trinity, but eventually landed in Hollywood. Mary is a Tony-nominated actress who has played Howard Stern's wife in Private Parts and Deputy National Security Advisor Kate Harper on The West Wing (the third and final McCormack sibling, Will, is also in Hollywood; his most recent project is Celeste and Jesse Forever with Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones).
But Bridget went in a different direction. Following law school at NYU and a teaching stint at Yale, the elder McCormack sister settled in Michigan, where she is now a law professor, as well as the founder and codirector of the Michigan Innocence Clinic. She is currently campaigning for a spot on the Michigan State Supreme Court; in an effort to assist, sister Mary gathered her former coworkers from The West Wing and created a most unexpected reunion video, which has now been viewed more than a million times. We gathered the McCormack sisters in mid-October to talk about the video, elections past and present, and the role of music within a family. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Let's begin with the timely: How did the West Wing reunion video come about?
M: Really, the way it came about was we were just chatting about the election, and Bridget was explaining about how there's the nonpartisan section of the ballot, and that most people, you know, go in and think they're voting a straight party ticket. They think they voted for everyone, and they actually didn't. Unless you go to the nonpartisan section of the ballot, and sort of come in knowing about the different justices who are up for election and vote for them, actively, then you haven't actually participated in the Supreme Court election. So I just was dumbfounded by that. I couldn't believe it. And she said, "So part of our job is educating people -- whether they're Democrats or Republicans -- just educating people about the nonpartisan section of the ballot, and how important it is to find it and actually vote." And so that was when I thought, like, "Wow! I wonder if there's a clever way to get that message out."
And there was.
M: And there was! And then luckily enough, I happened to have been on a political show and, you know, I've made great friendships on it. And they're a terrific group of people who are pretty politically active, and a lot of them are really good friends of mine, and also know Bridget, and really are inspired by the work she does. You know, I brag about her. So they all sort of already were familiar with her work and her priorities, and they jumped right on board. It was amazing. I mean, they're a great group of people, and they worked really hard, all day long. It was a long shoot, and we had a ball. We really had a blast.
So Bridget owes Mary a better Christmas present than Mary owes Bridget, I'm guessing.
B: [Laughs] I know.
M: Thank you so much. I'll take it.
Bridget, have you run for anything before? Did you serve as junior class treasurer in high school, or is this your first campaign?
B: [Laughs] Well, it's funny. I've never had a real campaign, but at Trinity College, where Mary and I both went, as did our little brother, Will, I was the vice president of student government one year.
M: And she was also president of the middle school at Kent Place Middle School in Summit, New Jersey.
B: I was also president of the Calculus Club in my high school.
I certainly hope that one's on your resumé.
M: She had a Calculus Club T-shirt that she printed, bless her heart. There were only, like, three people in the club. And she had T-shirts with some sort of proof on the back. It was just nerd central.
So are there any lessons learned as president of the Calculus Club, as middle-school Student Council president, that can be held over for this campaign, or is this entirely new territory?
B: I think it's entirely new territory. I mean, to be serious for one minute, I think being honest feels like the right call in every setting, but I don't think there are many lessons from winning my student-government presidency in high school or middle school that are helping me today. Michigan turns out to be a huge state.
M: It's a huge state, and also the State Supreme Court, you know, it's like you're really affecting people's lives every day. All of a sudden it's ...
B: ... actually important, as opposed to, you know, "Should we add another water fountain in the hallway?"
M: That was important.
B: Okay, I guess so.
Let me see if I can tie the political part of this to music. I don't believe President Clinton can walk on a stage unless Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" is playing. Mary has to have had entrance music as a guest on talk shows.
M: I've gone on talk shows, but I don't have a song.
B: You should. You've got to pick one.
Bridget, have you ever had entrance music?
B: I did at the convention, the nominating or the endorsement convention, party convention in March. I had to pick one, and I picked -- what's it called? "Small town girl/ Born and raised in south Detroit…." [That'd be Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."]
I understand that show business and politics aren't exactly the same thing, Bridget. But Mary and Will are both out there in the public eye, and running for State Supreme Court is a little higher-profile than being a law professor. Has there been anything in their experience that has either encouraged you or maybe even discouraged you from taking this step?
B: That's a good question. I mean, I think my personality is less of an in-the-public-eye kind of personality than Mary's, and probably even Will's. I'd rather just, you know, read the briefs and write the arguments. So I have always felt comfortable where I am, and I think they're amazing where they are. And so this is not perfectly comfortable for me, that part of it. But it's nice to have good examples in the family.**
Same room or separate rooms as you were growing up?
B: Both. We shared a room in the house that we did most of our growing up in. Then we moved to a little bit bigger house when we were kind of in high school, and—
M: —and we each had our own room and shared a bathroom.
Is it a safe assumption, since Will is five years younger than Mary, that in order for him to listen to what he wants, he either had to wear headphones or wait for you guys to leave for college?
M: Yeah, he was a baby. I mean, he didn't have any say. And he didn't have any headphones. [Laughs]
B: [Laughs] We were the boss of him.
So he didn't get to choose.
M: He was lucky to get fed.
[Laughs] So if I go back in time to the McCormack house on a Tuesday night when you both are in high school and there's music playing, who's most likely to have made the selection?
M: I would say this, and, Bridget, you tell me if I'm wrong. Downstairs, the music choice would've been different than your room.
B: Yeah. For sure.
M: Yeah. But downstairs was different than upstairs. Meaning, if our parents had to also listen to it, then it had to be a sort of music that the family sort of agreed on, as opposed to when you were in your room with the door shut.
B: That's right.
B: Oh yeah.
M: And then you moved into some Grandmaster Flash. But there was a vintage rock time.
B: I read that whole book about Jim Morrison. I was pretty sure he was still alive.
M: Oh yeah. You were in deep in the Jim Morrison thing.
[Laughs] So if Mom and Dad are around, there's a certain adult-oriented radio quality to what's being played, like Anne Murray and Chuck Mangione.
B: Yeah, my dad would not permit, like, Led Zeppelin on downstairs.
M: Or the Muppets. We had the soundtrack to The Muppet Movie, and that could be played downstairs.
B: George Carlin.
M: There was a George Carlin comedy album. We could play that downstairs. Which is real interesting.
George Carlin was allowed but Led Zeppelin wasn't?
M: That was allowed. Dad was sort of really into George Carlin. Like, he really was into the whole First Amendment quality of it. And, so, yeah, that was allowed, but you wouldn't play Zeppelin downstairs.
B: Yeah. He would just mock you for that.
Mocked for Led Zeppelin? Wow.
M: Well, by him. You know.
So when it was to go upstairs and do your homework, could you listen to music while you were studying?
B: Yeah. There wasn't much supervision of that. You kind of did what you want.
M: Bridget was a pretty good student. I mean, they didn't have to worry about her. She got her work done. [Laughs] I'll never forget it: She had a filing cabinet in her room, where she would clip news articles and then put the news articles in the different files. And the files were like "Arms Race," "Economics." She had, like, an actual office file. She was always sort of the brains of the operation. She always knew … like, one file was labeled "Social Justice." I mean, she was a pretty serious kid.
You started acting at a young age, so I'm guessing that Bridget is not surprised by your career choice. But it also sounds like you are in no way surprised at Bridget's career choice.
M: I am in no way surprised at her career choice. She was always making a case, like really logical cases to even go to the movies. But mine … I started acting for fun at a young age. You know, when you read the IMDB thing, it sounds like I was a professional at a young age, and I wasn't. It was a pretty relaxed beginning. So actually I think I'm as surprised as anyone that it's my actual job, because the odds of, you know, turning a hobby into something real is slim, so I'm surprised but happy that it worked out in the end.
B: I probably am a lot less surprised than Mary, just because I just always thought she was so talented and so great that it didn't surprise me at all that she'd be incredibly successful in that business.
M: I think, for me, it was really great that our interests were so different, because we were always able to sort of cheer each other on without any real rivalry. Our talents were so divided, which was pretty cool, I think.
We know that Bridget was a good enough student -- and the file cabinet proves it -- that she could listen to whatever she wanted to while studying. Mary, were you also allowed the privilege of rocking out during homework time, or did you have a stricter rule?
M: You know, I don't think there were any rules on what you'd listen to when you were studying, but Bridget really was, as a teenager, a real music lover. Like, her Christmas presents were albums, and her Christmas list was albums, and that kind of thing. And I didn't have that, I think, because by that age I was really into acting. I listened to show tunes and stuff. I was kind of a musical-theater nerd. I don't think I ever had a sound system like that. I don't think I actually had an album collection.
B: Fiddler on the Roof. You were playing Fiddler on the Roof.
M: Yeah. Like, I just didn't. That wasn't me as a teen.
So Bridget's stereo went to Hartford with her when she started college.
M: Definitely, yes. That's true. Right, Bridget?
M: But by then it was tapes, right? You had, like, a cassette folder. And a boombox.
B: Right. [Laughs]
You didn't grow up with restrictions on music while you were studying. And I know that some of the kids are too young for this to be an issue, but do your older kids study with music? Do they get to choose, or are you stricter than your parents were?
M: Mine are too little to listen to music and do homework. Mine can only barely get their homework, because they're eight and five. Their favorite album right now is this Lenka album. My husband gave it to them, and they are obsessed with it. They're obsessed. They know every word. Like, she's cool, and the music's cool. And they are really into that kind of music, but they don't do it when they do their homework, because they're just too little to concentrate on two things at once.
Bridget, your kids are a little older. Are they little Bridgets? Do they all listen and do homework with file cabinets in their room?
B: [Laughs] They're actually all really pretty different, but frankly I have pretty strict rules about electronics, so we have a pretty low-tech household until Friday night and Saturday night. But on weeknights, they don't have a lot of time to work with anyway. Everybody does a lot of sports and a lot of music on their own. My kids all play in orchestras, and so they can practice their own instruments, but otherwise they don't have time for that during the week.
Your kids playing instruments reminds me: We talked about Chuck Mangione earlier, and he was a favorite of people who played in marching bands, as he's probably the only flugelhorn player in history with a Gold record. Did either of you play an instrument growing up?
B: [Laughs] We all took piano when we were little, and I think I lasted a little longer than Mary did, but none of us were very good. I mean, she's a very talented singer, and started singing at a pretty young age, but no, we were kind of talentless in terms of musical instruments.
M: It's terrible.
We talked about the difference between upstairs teenage music and downstairs family music when you were growing up. Bridget, do your kids think you have cool taste in music?
B: That is such a funny question right now, because I'm at the age where just about everything I say and do is incredibly dorky to my kids, who are all teenagers. Including music. I mean, my husband will always have jazz on, and the kids just, like, roll their eyes. They mock us nonstop for our music. But they're funny, because they play really complicated classical music in their orchestras. You know, they're all pretty accomplished string players, and they appreciate the classical music they play. And yet they still, like all teenagers, just like the crappy teenage music of the day. And they think we just don't appreciate and understand what good music is. They crack me up.
M: Our challenge is different. I have three daughters. The ones who are listening to music are five and eight, and so for us our challenge is, we try to find them music that they think is pretty and hip, a little older, but the lyrics are not about, like, sex or going out to party all night. That's our challenge. So my husband and I try to find music that they feel like is more mature than, you know, little kid music, but that doesn't have sort of weird, sexual undertones. A lot of the music that little kids are listening to, like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry... All my daughter's friends, my eight-year-old daughter's friends, are shocked she doesn't know every Katy Perry song, but we don't allow all those songs in our house.
Have you been able to find that happy medium of no undertones, yet hip and cool?
M: Yeah. You can find great music. The whole Lenka album is like that. I mean, you can find great music -- great music -- that's about love and complex feelings, that doesn't have to do with, you know, inappropriate stuff. But it's hard to keep an 8-year-old in this climate. My husband finds tons of good stuff, but it's hard. You know, she has friends now, and she goes on play dates, and she goes to other people's houses, and we'll be driving in the car and I'll be flipping around and some song will come on, and she's like, "Oh, I love this song." And I'm like, "How do you…?" And she's like, "Oh, Eliza taught it to me." You know, they have different rules at their house, so it does become harder and harder to sort of keep your kids young.
And that problem, I imagine, will continue each and every day until they head off to Trinity College.
B: And bring their boombox, yeah.