Bold and Offbeat: Mary-Louise Parker
by Bradley Gray
BOLD, COMPLEX, DIVERSE, OFFBEAT,
alien and self-assured—any of these words define Mary-Louise Parker, who has found success on the big screen, the small screen and the stage. In May of 2013, she received the Spotlight Award at the 16th Annual Sonoma International Film Festival, entertaining an enthusiastic and capacity crowd at the Festival Gala.
Ms Parker burst into the limelight with unforgettable roles in “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Grand Canyon” (both 1991) and kept upping that ante from “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994) to “Howl”(2010). But she is probably best known for her television performances in “West Wing”(2001-07) and, of course, the outrageously successful “Weeds”(2005-12).
On the stage, she was magnificent in “Prelude to a Kiss” (1990), “Reckless” (1995) and “Proof” (2001) for which she recieved a Tony Award. But she is best known as Nancy Botwin, the freaky mother hen in "Weeds". By providing the emotional gateway to a crazy California family, she probably did more than any other single factor for the last decade's medical marijuana revolution.
Ordinary she is not. Mary-Louise Parker is certainly a beautiful woman. But her real beauty exudes from her heart, her ability to challenge herself, and her commitment to her own truth. Yes, she’s ballsy, offbeat, complex, alien or whatever else. And for the record, she’s light, easy and sweet. At least according to this journalist.
CineSource’s Bradley Gray joined Mary-Louise over a glass of wine at the Sonoma International Film Festival, and the Tony and Emmy Award winning actress told some very revealing stories.
CineSource: You have been called “boldly offbeat.” How does this label fit you as an actor and as a person?
Mary-Louise Parker: I don’t mind that description at all. I remember at school I was told a lot that I was a little eccentric at times. It generally comes out in my work. I’m more reserved as a person. It’s as an actor where all that stuff tends to come out.
You have said that you had an unhappy childhood. Can you elaborate?
I don’t know if anybody can say they had an ideal childhood. I did win the parent lottery. I got the two best parents ever. I have a great sister and two great brothers and I’m very grateful for that every day. But I was in my head a lot. My father used to say that I never said more than two words in a week. I was monosyllabic and I stuttered. I wasn’t a fun, outgoing child. I was a lonely child for a lot of reasons.
You’ve said that you felt like an alien at times.
Yeah, I think I did. I felt separate from other people. I think that tends to give a child the right imagination and I was able to use that.
Do you think that aliens make good actresses?
Yes, probably. One of my acting teachers used to say that to me all the time. He’d say. “You’re not of this world!” I don’t know quite what he meant.
You’ve done television, film and theater. Which medium suits you best?
The theater is the most fulfilling because it’s the hardest. In certain ways, film is really arduous in a very specific way. Theater is really soul tapping. It’s a lot. But it gives back, so I’d say it’s where I’m the happiest.
I did love being on “Weeds” because it moved quickly. Film is a little slow for me. There is a lot of time spent in your trailer, there is a lot of time spent waiting, a lot of time spent being hot or being cold. You earn your money in a different way than you do in theater.
Actually in theater you don’t make any money! But it doesn’t matter. Yes, I’m most comfortable in theater.
Of all of the roles you’ve played, which one is the most endearing to you?
I did a play called “Proof” on Broadway that I loved a lot. I did it for a long time. I loved that character.
I did a play called “How I Learned to Drive” that was a really deeper experience. It was a really hard play to do. I did it eight times a week, but I loved it. I did it with an actor named David Morse, who was really spectacular.
So I’d say those, and playing Harper in “Angels in America.” I wanted that part so badly and I just couldn’t believe that I got it. I still can’t! It’s one of those things in life that you just can’t believe actually happened to you.
Tell me about that.
Well, it happened really slowly. I would have wished there was a phone call so I could really have that moment. But it was more like, 'We think it’s happening, we think it’s happening.' And that went on for like a month. So I was eased into it. That experience was blissful, and I really miss being able to say those [Harper’s] words.
You were in “Howl,” about Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial. Do you feel a connection to the beat generation of the 50s?
There is some of the beat generation that I love. I love Richard Brautigan and I love Kenneth Koch. I love Allen Ginsberg but he’s not my favorite poet. But I can appreciate him.
My brother came to the hospital the day my son was born, and one of the things he read – he read to my son from “Howl.” So there was kind of a reason for me doing “Howl.” I did it for my brother Jay.
And, I’m a poetry geek. We share a love of words, my bother Jay and I. My father was like that too. That’s where the writer in me comes from.
What is your definition of obscenity?
I would say that unmitigated cruelty to me is the only thing that is truly obscene in this world. Carelessness. I don’t find sex obscene, I don’t find a lot of things obscene.
You know, when they photographed Eric Clapton’s child on the street, to me that’s obscene. That’s pornography. It’s something that we shouldn’t see.
I feel that there are things we shouldn’t see and that’s a distinctly unpopular sentiment in this day and age. People show their tuna salad and their sonogram, whatever. I like holding things back.
You certainly did! You didn’t start doing nude scenes until you were in your mid-40s!
Oh, I did some. Nudity doesn’t phase me in the least. Nudity can be dramatic.
I did a scene on 'Weeds' that had a lot of nudity in it. I over-thought it. I had these ideas about my character. Then I saw it and it looked like porn! I thought, 'Why did I bother over-thinking this?'
I like romance, and I think that scene was telling about [my character] as a person. She wanted something punitive and in the moment. She wanted to be ugly and she wanted to be punished. You can use nudity to reveal a lot about a character.
You did a pretty steamy scene with your Russian pyromaniac cellmate on 'Weeds'. What was that like? Were you comfortable?
Yeah! I liked that scene! I was completely comfortable! That kind of thing really doesn’t phase me. Holding a gun phases me. I feel really conflicted about it and I don’t like it and I sometimes have to be talked into it. Then I hate myself for doing it. That I have a hard time with! Kissing a woman—big deal! I mean who cares?
Do you maintain a Facebook page?
I don’t do any social media at all. I can’t relate to the idea of social media. It’s like I’m back in Junior High in a way. It feels like a popularity contest. Very representational, you know, like I’m going to get the best possible pictures of myself so other people can see what I think I am.
I’m very resistant to it and I have very complex feelings about it. But at the same time, when my father was elderly, he got on Facebook and loved it. So I can see the value in it, but for me, I think a lot of people abuse it, and take it to a level that I find distasteful.
What actors that you’ve worked with have been the most rewarding, and which ones were the most influential on raising the bar for you?
Sidney Portier! It’s too hard to pick more than one because I’ve loved so many so much. On different levels, so many actors have taught me so much.
The guy that played my son on 'Weeds', Hunter Parrish, I watched his process and work flourish into something incredible. That was wonderful to watch.
On different levels, so many actors have taught me so much and I am just in awe of them. I love watching somebody thinking, 'Wow! I could never have done that!'
Sidney was so wonderful in every possible way. He was patient and elegant and intelligent. His choices were humane. He could do nothing with something and make it resonate incredibly. He was a poem to me, and incredible to work with. I would love to do anything with him again. Some of his performances, and moments in his performances are my favorites.
So you are in the Sonoma wine country. Do you have any favorite wines?
I love red wine. Full, dark, complicated wines! I don’t like things that are sweet or light.
Are you full, dark and complicated?
I’ve been accused of that! I would love somebody to say that I am light, easy and sweet, but that just doesn’t come up.
What future projects can we look forward to from Mary-Louise Parker?
I’m doing a play in the fall on Broadway ['The Snow Geese'], and I’m really excited about that. I have four movies coming out in the Fall, 'R.I.P.D.', 'Red 2', 'Behaving Badly', I think one of them is called, and 'Jamesy Boy'. Movies are a challenge for me in more than one way. They move slowly.
Good luck with those! You’re a really good interview, and I hope I didn’t scare you.
Not at all! It was really fun.
Bradley Gray is a Sonoma-based journalist who covers quite a range of really cool stuff from wine to rock and automobile racing. He’s happy to accept comments atBradley@vom.com.
Posted on May 07, 2013 - 12:33 PM