Actress Mary Stuart Masterson is now keeping bees in the Hudson Valley

Mary Stuart Masterson, the actress, collects beets from her garden in a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Masterson decamped to a cozy, ramshackle house in the countryside five years ago with her husband and their four young children, fueled by the now common dream of living off the land. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - On a drizzly Monday afternoon in August, the actress, director and producer Mary Stuart Masterson scrubbed homegrown beets in the kitchen of her home in the Hudson Valley of New York. The beets were enormous, the size of softballs, but she loved the leaves best: sauteed with oil and garlic and finished with ponzu sauce.

"My kids don't eat them," she said with a sigh. "But they do eat borscht. They like puréed things. Squeezles!" This, her family's name for those ubiquitous fruit and veggie pouches.

It has been 30 years since Masterson played Watts, a pioneering character of gender nonconformity - or what used to be known as a tomboy - in Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987) and almost five since she decamped to the countryside from Brooklyn. She moved there with her third husband, Jeremy Davidson, an actor, and their four children, ages 4 to 7, fueled by the now-common urban dream of living off the land.

Masterson, 51, learned how to use a cold frame and cultivate seedlings. She dehydrated and canned. The experience was both humbling and completely unsustainable.

"On Little House On The Prairie all those kids worked on the farm and slopped the hogs," she said. "It's not one person doing it for six people."

They live in a cozy, ramshackle house, just off the roadside in a town that Masterson would rather not specify, lest overzealous fans hunt her down. There she has learned less about self-sufficiency than the importance of community and connection.

"I had a lot of attention very young," said Masterson, who had her first cinematic role at age 8 in The Stepford Wives.

"It just became part of my norm to be unfindable, ungettable and private. I've always been such an individualist, and learning to have roots is something that's coming to me later in life."

A kind of pioneer wife among the late John Hughes' many muses - a group that includes Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy and others - Masterson now grows a lot of food in her backyard, including grapes and spotted trout lettuce, and plans to raise chickens. She recently installed two beehives on her 14-acre property to keep the family literally in honey.

"I've always wanted bees, but ever since Fried Green Tomatoes I've felt like a sham," she said, referring to her role as the "bee charmer" Idgie Threadgoode.

Just like Idgie, who trades in her restless ways for small-town living, so too has Masterson become intimately involved in the fabric of her community, whose population hovers just over 1,000. She knows the mayor and local historian, brings her family to pancake breakfasts at the firehouse and attends town council meetings to vote on issues like water treatment.

She befriended the owners of Sawkill Farm in nearby Red Hook, New York, and bought from them a sheep's wool throw. (It cushions a hanging Serena & Lily rattan chair - "a splurge" - which is her favourite seat in the house.)

She and Davidson also started a theatre company, which stages multimedia readings based on local stories. And last year, she started a pair of initiatives to turn the area into a television production hub that employs local residents: a would-be Hollywood in the Hudson Valley.

"Quite honestly, when you talk to most rank-and-file union members, they'll tell you that they can't afford to raise a family inside the zone," Masterson said, referring to the 48km radius from Columbus Circle over which film and TV trade unions have jurisdiction.

"I have four kids. I can't afford it. So it's not like I'm unique. I love the city. I grew up there. But I actually want to raise my kids and be part of their lives."

In late 2016 and early 2017 she accepted, with reservations, a few appearances on the CBS crime procedural NCIS, which shot in Los Angeles, but she turned down a TV show in Vancouver. These days, even the three-hour commute to New York City, which Masterson is currently making for a recurring role on the NBC drama Blindspot, has begun to feel wearisome.

And so she founded Stockade Works, a nonprofit work-training program for local residents, and Stockade Studios, a for-profit production company. The nonprofit trains residents in "below the line" production work, from lighting to set design. Its locus will be a warehouse in Kingston, New York, that Masterson is renovating into a film and technology hub, complete with dine-in movie theater, modest soundstage and postproduction space. She led a letter-writing campaign of A-list actors and producers who have residences in the Hudson Valley to secure tax breaks and hopes to lure major network shows by building a bigger soundstage: 200,000 square feet.

This July, Stockade Works ran a production "boot camp," during which Hudson Valley residents learned how to read a call sheet and rig a camera. The camp was held at the unlikely location of the Unification Theological Seminary in Barrytown, New York, a campus and retreat center run by the Unification Church, the religious movement founded by Sun Myung Moon.

Masterson led many of the sessions, imparting basic industry knowledge, like the fact that "lunch" on set is exactly six hours from call time - even if call is at 3 in the morning. The goal of the project, she said, is to combat the rampant "nepotism" in her industry (she herself is the daughter of the actor and director Peter Masterson) and encourage more women, minorities and the economically disadvantaged, and so she is working with local vocational schools and community colleges. A welder, she said, "might be a key grip and make US$85,000 (S$115,000) a year."

After the boot camp ended, trainees apprenticed on an independent film called The Rest Of Us, which Masterson is producing, about minorities on a college campus post-9/11. She is also helping develop a feature film that her husband wrote about a boys' home in Kingston, and a web series about a single mother of twins who moves to the Hudson Valley.

"She thinks it will be Green Acres and is like, 'Oh, wow, this is hard,'" said Masterson, who is the mother of twins and wrote the pilot with a friend, a single mother.

Back at the homestead, the beets were scrubbed and Masterson set to scouring an oatmeal pot from breakfast. She was hurrying to clean up before her children and husband returned from their outing to the local library and grocery store. Then, they were packing up the minivan for their annual family trip: to Brooklyn, where they would spend a week visiting museums, parks and, for the first time, a Broadway show for the children (The Lion King). When you leave the city for upstate, you reverse-vacation.

She would have to work at least one day that week, at the soundstage in Brooklyn where Blindspot is filmed. But that was certainly preferable to Toronto or Los Angeles.

"I always had one foot out the door in Hollywood," Masterson said.

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