Valerie Mahaffey (‘French Exit,’ ‘Big Sky’) on having ‘such empathy’ for her quirky characters [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Valerie Mahaffey is a staple of primetime television, with memorable performances in such shows as “Dead to Me,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Northern Exposure,” for which she won an Emmy. But this year she has a standout role in film thanks to “French Exit.” In the film, Mahaffey plays Mme. Reynard, a quirky, lonely widow who befriends Michelle Pfeiffer‘s character, Frances. “She’s the polar opposite of Frances, who is divesting herself of things,” says Mahaffey in an exclusive new webchat for Gold Derby, while Mme. Reynard is “grabbing life with both hands.” Watch the video interview above.

While Mahaffey has been cited as the comic relief of “French Exit,” the actress did not necessarily play her scenes in an intentionally funny manner. “I don’t want any artifice and I wanted to play the truth of every moment,” she reveals. While it can be easy to judge eccentrics like Mme. Reynard, who come on a bit too strong when trying to make friends, Mahaffey sees her character’s humanity. “Because I got to play her, I have such empathy for people like that now,” states Mahaffey. “Everything drives her out of loneliness.” Mahaffey was struck by how comfortable she felt on-set because of director Azazel Jacobs‘s trust in her. “When you’re relaxed, stuff just occurs to you in the moment,” she observes. “There were quite a few times in the movie where that happened and they’re like gold, but it only can happen if you’re relaxed.”

Meanwhile, Mahaffey is also starring in the new ABC mystery drama “Big Sky.” The actress plays Helen, the mother of a troubled man who is responsible for kidnapping women and girls. “She is really complicated,” notes Mahaffey. “She thinks she’s doing the right thing, Helen, but she took a weak boy and worked him mightily.” It is yet another idiosyncratic role in her extensive repertoire of television work. Asked to pinpoint a character or two that has stuck with her over the years, Mahaffey points to “Northern Exposure” and “The Powers That Be,” a short-lived Norman Lear sitcom from the early ’90s. She reflects, “I have lots of wonderful characters.”

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