If Mare Winningham seems perfectly at ease playing the much-adored folk-rocking title character in Georgia, there’s good reason: She’s an accomplished singer herself, and anyone who knows her thinks she’s the greatest thing since the one-four-five chord progression. Until now, though, the Emmy-winning TV-movie veteran (Amber Waves) and film actress (St. Elmo’s Fire) has never flaunted her musical chops in a feature film. ”I thought it was weird to parlay some TV-acting career into music. It gave me the heebie-jeebies,” says Winningham, 36, whose lilting, vibrato-filled alto is a sweet surprise in an otherwise bitter tale.
Her performance is even sweeter considering she first turned down the part in 1992. ”I could see it was a great acting role,” Winningham remembers, ”but something was really weird about playing a famous singer when I was just trying to start my singing career.” Six months later, Bay Cities Records, which released her debut album, What Might Be, went belly-up, and the actress changed her mind, kissing goodbye her husband and five children in Northern California and heading for location in Seattle.
Though their on-screen relationship is less than harmonious, Winningham and costar Jennifer Jason Leigh, 33, have been friends since their days at a summer camp in Northridge, Calif. Winningham, then 17, serenaded her campers, occasionally tossing in an original. ”Jennifer would say, ‘Who wrote that?’ And — totally red — I’d say, ‘Well, I did,”’ recalls Winningham. ”Jennifer wrote home about her,” explains Leigh’s mother (and later Georgia scriptwriter) Barbara Turner. ”’Voice from God’ was something she said. She never stopped saying it, actually.”
Since fewer than 2,000 copies of What Might Be were pressed, Georgia will effectively introduce the Voice From God to the public, and the actress anxiously awaits the reaction. ”I want nothing more, with the exception of the health and happiness of my children, than for someone to want me to sing,” she confesses. ”I really want someone to pick up the ball.” Whether a big-time recording contract lies ahead remains to be seen, but either way Winningham is sure to derive some self-indulgent pleasure from Georgia. She says with a chuckle, ”I get a huge shit-eating grin every time somebody says, ‘I didn’t know you sang.”’