In 1993, Kim Basinger played dead for Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” music video, still arguably one of the best videos ever made — part creepy, party amusing, part wishful thinking. Directed by Keir McFarlane, the singer plays a morgue assistant who openly wheels out the beautiful cadaver on a trolley and drives her home, flopping about on the front seat.
He props her down on a couch in front of the TV, then dresses her up in a wedding gown and applies the finishing touches — red lipstick — at a banquet table for their romantic candlelight dinner.
Basinger (whose films at that time included Never Say Never Again, 9 1/2 Weeks, The Man Who Loved Women and Batman) gives an Oscar-worthy performance: not a flicker of the eye, not even a tiny smile, as Petty waltzes with her, feet dragging on the ground.
The kicker in the video — declared best male video at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards — is in the final moments. Petty once said of his choice of Basinger for the role: “She’s got to look really good or why would he keep her around after she’s dead?” True enough.
Billboard spoke with the actress about what it was like to shoot such a demanding role and her memory of working with Petty, including worrying that she would hurt him.
The song and the video still stand up today. I’m sure you didn’t say yes to many music videos. What was it you liked about such a creepy script?
I did it for one reason — I did it because of Tom Petty. There are certain artists that you go through life and they either entertain and help you get through a period of your life, or they have a significant influence on the message that they brought during that time. I’ve often heard people speak — and it’s so true because it’s true in my own life — that Tom Petty helped so many of us get through so many difficult times in our lives, again, whether it’s the memory of the song or the entertainment it brought or just the message that he bought.
And that video, when he called — I don’t know who he went through, an agent, whatever — ‘Tom asked me!’ I didn’t know Tom Petty. I didn’t know him back then, before that video, so I was just blown away, and thought, ‘Okay, I’ve been asked to do videos, I have not done one.’ I think I did one with Don Was. I don’t know when that was, but when he called, I went, ‘Yeah!’ I didn’t care what it was about [Laughs]. Then I heard the music, and I was so in love with the song. I had no clue on the day I actually went to film this — I mean, I had a previous wardrobe in the wedding dress, but I remember that’s all I really wore, so I didn’t really know where this was going. And, of course, I had heard a version of the story he was going to tell but I truly didn’t care. I really didn’t.
Now, I remember too. This is silly. This director was a rough guy [Laughs]. I just remember him very of gruff. I don’t know where he was from, but I do remember he had a gruff voice and a very stern one, and he wanted kind of like his way or the highway. I know that, as we were filming, Tom I found to be always incredibly sensitive and sort of a backseat guy, no matter how brilliant the message was. He was just very humble, beautifully shy. I’m not the most outgoing human being in the world — I thought, ‘I’m shy; he’s shy.’ We hardly said three words to each other in the beginning, but as the story unfolded, and this director kept saying, ‘Look, you have got to be dead weight in this,’ I remember I was very conscious of my costar and the people I deal with. Dead weight! This guy [Petty], he was taller than me and everything, but I thought, ‘God, he’s going to drag me around this whole video [Laughs].’
He dances with you and dips you and your feet are off the ground. He puts lipstick on you and you’re playing dead. Were there parts that you laughed?
We laughed so hard. I said, ‘Okay I’m going to go for this’ because the director kept saying, ‘You have to play dead. Completely, all your weight. Everything.’ And it worked [Laughs]. But when I slide down the side of him, I just honestly couldn’t keep it together sometimes. So near the end too, it was very eerie, but it was the fun part.
Kids, they’re macabre, today, yesterday and many years ago and will be in the future. [The video] does hold up. My daughter is 21 and she loves this video as much as we did, our generation, and some Hispanic kids that I know — they’re part of my family — they just went to the Tom Petty concert. This man, he’s brought a lot of joy and a lot of heartfelt meaning.
Is it hard to be weightless?
Yes. That’s what I’m saying. This is the hardest role I’ve done because you are dead. I mean, dead. He didn’t want eyes fluttering. He didn’t want anything. You really have to be still. When you see people die in these movies and the camera is right on, that’s really very difficult to stay that still. For me to have to do it during the entire video and then at the end, come from the bottom of the pool, have her eyes wide open under water, it was just eerie, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I remember getting out of the pool that day and just being so glad it was over, but so proud that I had been honored to have worked with him. Period.
And this video did so well that year. I remember it won best video at MTV. I think he was quite happy with it. He always had a flair for entertaining and I love him as the Mad Hatter [in the ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ video] but I just love him. He does have that flair. He’s really visual. He really was a very good actor. I’ve worked with a lot of people; I’ve been very blessed in my life, so what more can I say? I did want to tell the story of the worry that I had of hurting him [Laughs]. If you’re dead weight on somebody, you’re never dead weight, even if somebody picks you up. You’re not going to be completely dead weight, you know what I mean? I just remember, I was laughing so much because he had a great sense of humor too.
What was the set like? Was it in an old home or was it a set on a lot?
It was a set on a lot. I can’t remember where we shot this. And, of course, the last scene, when he walks into the ocean [shot at Leo Carrillo State Park], I think that is really quite brilliant.
When was the last time you watched it?
Maybe I saw it five months ago. The new people that I run into, they’ll say or yell across the camera, ‘Well she was Mary Jane.’ [Laughs]. ‘Oh I gotta go home and watch that.’ So I think that’s the last time I watched it. I don’t really love to watch myself. It’s not really my favorite thing to do.
It’s such a great video — almost 24 million views on YouTube.
It’s a classic video and I’m very proud having been a part of it.