LAUREN GRAHAM IS BACK. You can tell by the way the cashier at Joan’s on Third, one of Graham’s favorite gourmet shops in L.A., questions her excitedly about whether the actress likes the store’s trademark lemon bars. “Oh, to die for, totally,” Graham says, to the cashier’s delight. Her return is evident in the way her smartphone keeps warbling from the innards of her massive black handbag. “This thing won’t stop today,” she says, fishing to find the off button. And it’s apparent in the elegant black blouse and black pants that make a perfect backdrop for her diamond hoop earrings and black Prada boots. “This is because I had to meet Brian Grazer today,” she says, referring to an executive producer of her new series, Parenthood, and making an exaggerated spokesmodel gesture toward her fabulous self. Graham laughs. She is tall (five foot nine, even without the heels on those Prada boots) and charismatic, and when she laughs, everyone within earshot seems to lean in a little, just to have whatever she’s having.
It’s been nearly three years since Graham, 43, wrapped production on Gilmore Girls, the beloved series about the world’s coolest (and chattiest) mother-daughter relationship. The show ran seven seasons, an eon in TV time, and it established Graham as an icon for a generation hip to cultural references (what other TV mom had a Hello Kitty waffle iron?) and the joyful absurdity of modern life and love.
Graham was the bedrock of all 154 episodes, and she admits that it threw her life a bit out of whack. When you’re that committed to a TV show, she says, “you’re thinking, you’re running, you’re talking, you’re focusing. It’s easy to lose track of everything else.” Indeed, after it ended she briefly retreated. “I cleaned out closets, I gave clothes away, I got to see family I hadn’t seen,” says Graham, now seated at one of the shop’s quiet back tables and working on a meal of salmon and fingerling potatoes. “I would go to things people invited me to. They were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I’d say, ‘You invited me.’ ‘Yes, but you haven’t come for the past seven years.’ ”
She also recharged by diving into indie movies (Flash of Genius, The Answer Man) and playing Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls on Broadway. “Musical theater is what I cared about growing up,” says Graham, who starred in Hello, Dolly! in high school and took in as much Broadway as she could while attending college and auditioning in New York. “I got this great voice teacher, and I was reminded of how much joy that kind of work brought me.”
“We relied on each other a lot,” says Oliver Platt, who played Nathan Detroit to her Adelaide. Graham’s role was “tricky because it’s easy to play Adelaide as dumb,” he adds. “She was sweet and tough and vulnerable.”
But Guys and Dolls closed in June, and Graham, having pretty much exhausted everything on her what-if-I-had-all-the-time-in-the-world-and-could-do-anything-I-damn-well-please list, found herself itching to work again. “Actors are so weird,” she says. “On the one hand, you’re always nervous: You don’t have a job, and you need a job. Then you get a job and you’re like, ‘But now I can’t get any of the other jobs that are out there.’ ”
The gig that cropped up was another TV series; this time Graham would be a lead but also part of an ensemble. Parenthood, loosely based on the 1989 Ron Howard film and set to premiere in March, is an hour-long NBC drama-with-laughs that revolves around four adult siblings (played by Graham, Peter Krause, Erika Christensen and Dax Shepard), their parents (Bonnie Bedelia and Craig T. Nelson) and the emotional baggage that keeps them all dysfunctionally enmeshed. “We rehearsed a big scene yesterday where we talked all over each other,” says Graham, whose character is a divorced mother who moves in with her parents. “This is about building a dynamic that feels real—and real in a group of people would normally be messy.”