Melanie Mayron on Directing ‘Jane the Virgin,’ ‘Grace and Frankie’ and Age in Hollywood

Melanie Mayron TV Director and Actor
jessica chou for Variety

Emmy-winning actress Melanie Mayron may still be best known as Melissa Steadman from the ABC hit “thirtysomething,” but she’s had a steady career as a TV director ever since that ’90s drama. This season she helmed four installments of “Jane the Virgin” (and appeared on camera in the recurring role of Professor Donaldson), plus episodes of “Grace and Frankie,” “Faking It” and “Pretty Little Liars.”

What made you interested in directing?
Back in 1976, Claudia Weill directed a movie called “Girlfriends.” It seemed like everybody was out of film school. The energy was so amazing, I was like, “Oh my god, filmmaking is incredible.” When I got on “thirtysomething,” all the guys were lining up [to direct] and I asked every season. They let me do [two episodes]. All of a sudden my agent booked me in all this TV directing. I said, “How come I got so many jobs?” He said, “Good gets you the job.” As an actor you could be really good and it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t mean you get the job. But if you’re behind the camera, being good can get you the job.

How did the “Jane the Virgin” job come about?
I cast Gina Rodriguez as my guest star in an “Army Wives” episode about six years ago. We got to be friends. I really tried to get her on [ABC Family movie] “Mean Girls 2,” and she wound up taking care of my kids sometimes when they were little. When I heard she got the show I immediately got in touch with her to say, “Gina, can you put in a good word for me?”

And then you wound up with a recurring role, too.
They had a part of her feminist literature advisor in episode 213, they were like, “Would you do it?” I said, “Well, yeah.” “Can you direct yourself?” “I’ve done that before.” It was so funny to work off each other, it was just fantastic. They liked the character so they kept writing her in. I wound up being in five episodes in a row, and then they went, “You’re in the finale.”

What a great finale they had, so many twists and turns.
They didn’t let anybody know what was happening, the table read with the whole cast there — everybody was reading it cold. There were like eight big surprises in it and each time something happened everybody started screaming. It was crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever gone through anything like that. The one table read that was closest to that was on “thirtysomething.” Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and Peter Horton had kept it a secret when Gary died. The cast had no idea. We went to the table read the last day of one episode right before you start the next episode — we read that and nobody could believe it. Just like when it came on the air, it was the same kind of bomb dropping.

Are you still interested in acting, or just focused on directing?
Whatever pays the bills! What happened after “thirtysomething” is we were so known as those characters, I think it was hard for people to hire us. I got some acting work after that, but people would see me and say, “Oh my god Melissa Steadman!” They did that with everyone else. It’s been hard.

As an actress and actors too, I think a little more for women, the trend is always toward the younger gals. It’s a drag. Actors usually can play five to eight years younger than they are. Even on all the high school shows everyone’s in their 20s because they don’t want to hire a kid under 18. You never play your age but I was like how could we have been on a show called “thirtysomething?” It had our ages in it! Even if we might have been on the young end. Anyway, you get older and the parts get less. Thank god I was able to get the directing work.

I was talking to Sissy Spacek last year, we started together, we have the same manager. I’ve known her since she was 21 and I was 19, she was like, “Melanie how did we get to be the old guard on set?” I said, “I have no idea, we were always the youngest ones, how does that happen?” We’re the old guard.

One show where you’re not necessarily the old guard on set is “Grace and Frankie.”
No, [laughs] not as much there. One of the crazy things that just really started hitting me in the last couple of years because I’ve had a lot of work consistently these last few years, thank god — it’s one of the few jobs out there where people right out of high school to people in their 80s are working together. All these ages are working together on one job. You go on a set and the greensman could be 85 years old, it doesn’t matter how old anybody is on a set. If they’re doing a good job, they’re doing a good job. Everybody’s working together, talking to each other, it’s all ages. On “Grace and Frankie,” you’re with a group of actors and these are their roles and this is the story.

Was there any intimidation to directing legends like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin?
I’ve crossed paths with Jane Fonda a few times over my career, when I was 24 I was in “Last of the Cowboys” with Henry Fonda and Susan Sarandon. It was a wonderful crazy movie. I got to know Henry pretty well and Jane’s stepmom, Shirley. Over the years we’ve crossed paths. Lily had hired me right after “Girlfriends” in a CBS special called “Lily Sold Out.” We shot it at Caesars Palace for a week in Las Vegas. I was a feminist newscaster following Lily Tomlin around trying to get the scoop because I thought she sold out and was doing her show for money in Vegas. Jane Wagner had written it and we’ve been friends ever since. Lily and Jane were very influential in helping me get the job. Sam Elliott and Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston — they were all really great to work with.

You directed some really lovely scenes with Fonda and Sam Elliott in that episode.
The first day was [at] Musso and Frank for a day with the two of them. I couldn’t believe it, that was so wild. They were great, wonderful together. Such good casting, I thought. And Sam was also great opposite Lily [Tomlin] in “Grandma.”

What’s next?
Right now I’m prepping “Pretty Little Liars” and after that I’m going to do another “Grace and Frankie” for their third season and then three more “Jane the Virgin”s in the fall. It’s great I’m getting asked back on these shows. With “Pretty Little Liars,” I’ve done one every season since the second season and I know this is the last one. It’s bittersweet because you work with the same people, you see them every year, and it’s like, “Oh no, is this gonna be it?”