Movie critic Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Encyclopedia, called Mary Steenburgen “one of the screen’s most compulsively watchable actresses.”

Having won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1980’s “Melvin and Howard,” Steenburgen’s work has continued to draw many admirers—even as she continues to devote her life to projects she finds worthy.

Listening to Steenburgen talk one October day at the Regency Hotel in New York, one gains the impression that Steenburgen’s two lives—the professional and the personal—form a true synergy.

Steenburgen was away from her home in Los Angeles to promote her new movie, “Elf,” which opens Nov. 7. It stars Will Ferrell as a human, raised as an elf at the North Pole, who travels to Manhattan in search of his family. Steenburgen plays the mother—a role to which she is accustomed both on screen and off.

Steenburgen and her husband, actor Ted Danson, have four children, all of whom are between the ages of 19 and 23. She said parenting was, and still is, difficult work.

“There are times I feel like I do it well, and sometimes I feel like I could do a better job,” she said. “I have to say no a lot to my work. I try not to say no to my children. I’ve gone for years at a time without working, by choice, to be home, when I felt like I needed to be.”

In addition to shooting movies and performing on stage, Steenburgen is a cast member of “Joan of Arcadia” (CBS, Fridays, 8 p.m. EST). This rookie drama revolves around a teenage girl who receives visits from God. Steenburgen plays the mother, trying to keep her family of five together.

The TV show keeps Steenburgen close to home most of the time, an arrangement that she appreciates.

“It’s like a balancing act,” she said of dealing with work and children, “where you try to keep it in balance as much as you can.”

After Steenburgen’s comment, one of the journalists in the room mentioned that because women now work outside the home almost as often as men, “we don’t have that kind of nurturing home life …”

Steenburgen was quick to counter.

“I wouldn’t say that we don’t have a nurturing home life,” she said. “My children would disagree.”

Steenburgen then did agree with the journalist that many parents now approach home life differently than in years past.

“But I think there’s also something to be said for people’s dreams,” she continued. “As a parent, I’m a better parent for being the best person I can be, the most fully realized person I can be. I’m not sitting home thinking, ‘I wish I was doing something else.’ When I’m there, I’m very there, and that’s most of the time.”

Steenburgen also supports a variety of organizations. She is a founding member of Artists for a New South Africa; a national spokesperson for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation; and a supporter of Heifer Project International, based in her native Little Rock, Ark.

With “Elf,” Steenburgen hopes audiences will join her in something she loves to do: reconnecting with the magical spirit of Christmas.

“I’m a firm believer in postponing growing up as long as possible, so I still love all the stuff around Santa,” she said. “The holiday season is an amazing time for people to connect with each other and to renew for the New Year—but also to look for that part of you again that’s five years old. When you’re little, that stuff’s handed to you by the books and the magic, for most children.”

“If you were one of the kids that didn’t ever get that, then this is the time of year to try to find it. The thing I love about our movie,” she said, “is it’s handed to you. For two hours, it’s just hilarious and innocent and magical.”

Adults, she said, often have to battle difficult life experiences, paying the bills or just a “mindset of cynicism” to embrace the magic they once encountered.

“The magic is something that—when you’re grown up—you can choose to have or not have,” she said. “You have to seek it out.”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

Visit the official Web site of “Elf.”

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