You haven’t seen Brenda Strong in a lot of episodes of Desperate Housewives, but you’ve heard her voice in every single one. As Mary Alice Young, her suicide was the mystery that started the whole show. She’s been the narrator every week, tying the threads together and pointing out the morals of each subplot.
With Desperate Housewives entering its final season, Strong came out to reflect on her time behind the scenes on Wisteria Lane. As you may know, the nearby Universal Studios lot houses the set for the iconic street where all the drama occurs.
Celebrating with the Television Critics Association over the summer, Strong towered over everyone in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. I held my recorder up to hear the voice of Desperate Housewives reflect and look ahead. Strong will be starring on the TNT relaunch of Dallas while Housewives wraps. Desperate Housewives returns Sept. 25.
PATCH: Do you work much on the Universal lot?
STRONG: That’s the only place I work is on the Universal lot. The Alfred Hitchcock Theater, ADR4 in the basement, right above the mixing stage for feature films. It’s quite a historical building.
PATCH: Yeah, what has that meant to you, to be on that lot and that stage all these years?
STRONG: It’s been an incredible honor because Universal is one of the oldest studios and there’s a tremendous amount of history there. It’s been an incredible blessing to be part of a show that’s not only been a part of the social change of how television has been viewed over the last 7-8 years, but also I feel like we’ve maintained our audience. We have great writing. I feel like it’s so rare in this business that you stumble upon a show that’s this good for this long. It’s like winning the lotto. It’s a blessing so to have it end is extremely sad but I’m also extremely grateful because there’s a lot of actors who never get this experience and I’m just really blessed.
PATCH: What are some places in the Studio City area you like to go on your way to and from work?
STRONG: I’m a big Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf fan. I love Aroma Café on Tujunga. Sharky’s on Riverside is a great little place to stop and have lunch. There’s a great little spa, Oasis Nails if I need to get a manicure before I’m on set.
PATCH: Over the years, what bit of Mary Alice wisdom has resonated with you?
STRONG: I think what I’ve kind of realized is that Mary Alice talks about the intricacies and the intimacies of being human, of life. She also talks about the macro. So it’s micro and macro. She helps bring us to a better understanding that it’s not the small things that matter. It’s the big things like relationships and love and kindness and generosity and the things that we value in others, in our neighbors and our relationships. So in a lot of ways, she kind of makes us appreciate all the nuance of life even more and I think that’s maybe why the audience cares so deeply about all these characters is they see themselves in them.
PATCH: Which of the show’s surprises and twists surprised you the most over the years?
STRONG: Oh, the killing of Martha Huber. I loved that character. I thought it was great that Orson started out as this kind of evil character and he eventually ended up being a really sweet guy. I think because everyone just fell in love with Kyle [MacLachlan], Marc went, “Oh, we’ve got to keep him.” So there are certain characters we lost too early and certain other characters we probably kept too long because they were just so beloved.
PATCH: Zack Young never really got redeemed, did he?
STRONG: No, hopefully he will in the eighth season. I hope so. God knows, when you have a child, you always hope that there’s redemption.
PATCH: I love that Paul Young became the J.R. Ewing of the show. He’s just never going away, you can’t kill him, he’s always going to come back.
STRONG: Yeah, and I’m really excited to work with Mark [Moses] again if they end up bringing us back for the finale.
PATCH: I love when the hired killers drag him into the van, you see it shaking around, and Paul’s the one who walks out having dispensed of the tough guys.
STRONG: Mark’s badass. Don’t mess with Paul Young.
PATCH: Were you going to jump into another series anyway, even if Desperate Housewives weren’t ending?
STRONG: Well, at the end of the contractual obligation of seven years, we all negotiated for an eighth and ninth year. Because Mary Alice has not been on camera very much in the last several years, it was important to me that I got to do something on camera somewhere. What we negotiated was to have the freedom to do another show so I was really grateful that Dallas came when it did.
PATCH: Could you have imagined a greater new job, that already comes with a legacy in the name?
STRONG: I couldn’t. If lightning strikes twice, maybe it’s because I’m tall. I’m closer to the clouds so lightning’s striking twice for me. I feel like I’ve just stumbled into another epic, beautiful series that will go on for a while.
PATCH: Who do you play on Dallas?
STRONG: Mrs. Bobby Ewing, Patrick Duffy’s wife. Her name’s Ann Ewing. She’s a tough cookie with a heart of gold but you don’t want to cross her because she carries a shotgun and she’s not afraid to use it. She’s a very, very equal partner to him. She comes from a moneyed family and she’s definitely more of a Miss Ellie in that she’s the matriarch of the family now. Although I think if you were talking to Sue Ellen, she might disagree but Ann Ewing is definitely one of the more senior members who’s going to show the young people how to do it.
PATCH: So that’s a new character pairing up with a classic character.
STRONG: That’s right. When the pilot airs, the audience will find out that we’ve been married for seven years, so there’s some history there.
PATCH: Are you shooting it in Dallas?
PATCH: Do you have to relocate for it?
STRONG: Yeah, relocating for four months, then I’ll be going back and forth while I do Desperate. So I’m going to be spending a lot of time in the air.
PATCH: Will Dallas be just as juicy as it ever was?
STRONG: Absolutely, that and then some.
PATCH: Are you needed on the Housewives set more this year, to come back as Mary Alice in person?
STRONG: I have no idea if Mary Alice will be used more this series. I know Marc has intimated in the past that whatever the last season is, there will be more of a callback to the original pilot and season one. So my hope is that that would be the case. I certainly love working on the set. I love being seen. There’ll be a little bit more of a logistic issue for me shooting both. I trust that my executive producers on both shows are good enough that they’ll work it out and they’ll play nice. So I’m sure it’ll work, whatever they decide.
PATCH: When did you hear the news and how have you processed it?
STRONG: I heard on Friday [August 5.] I got a phone call from my representation and then I got a phone call directly from Marc. It was so nice to hear from him, from the man who changed my life and has been making me talk ever since. We both really kind of saturated each other with a lot of appreciation because I’ve been so blessed by this experience as an actress and also as a human being. I love the people I work with. My post-production producer and creative team are phenomenal. They were at my house for dinner last night. This has really become a family and there are certain members of the cast that are in my heart and in my home and wherever I go forever, we’re friends. I’m taking them with me so the show may end but the relationships won’t.
PATCH: How do you feel about the idea that you won’t be going in to record that voiceover anymore?
STRONG: It makes me so sad. I love being Mary Alice. I love tying together the morality, the humanity and tattletaling on my friends and kind of making fun of them and loving them at the same time. I’m going to miss it. I hope that I end up coming back in some way to narrate DVDs about the show or specials or whatever it is. It’s definitely a different job than I’ve ever had.
PATCH: What are your final thoughts on the legacy of Desperate Housewives?
STRONG: One thing that I’m extremely grateful for is that I got nominated for an Emmy this year. So for me, it was the only one that the show received and in a very strange way it’s just so nice to be acknowledged after all these years. So surprising because you don’t expect it. Maybe the first or second season I would’ve gone, “Well of course, the show’s doing so well.” This late in the game it’s just such an honor and blessing.