Mary-Louise Parker Likes to Reveal Herself

The acclaimed actress on dating, adopting and her Weeds nude scene.

By Meryl Gordon
Photograph: Photo by: Brigitte Lacombe

But lately there have been no ashes on the menu. From what Parker says, it seems that life has been good. Her inquisitive, mop-haired son and her adorable daughter, an Ethiopian orphan she adopted, are thriving. Weeds, in which she plays a widowed mother who turns to drug dealing to earn cash, has given her visibility and financial stability. She’s writing honest and edgy personal essays for Esquire magazine. It’s been a creative, satisfying period for her. “I’m doing most everything I always wanted to do,” she says. “The one thing I’d love a little more of is sleep. And there is some existential yearning that I’ll probably always have, because that’s who I am.”
And there have been some professional frustrations. This past winter, she starred on Broadway in Hedda Gabler, corseting herself to play the anguished and angry heroine who defies the rigid rules of nineteenth-century society. Parker, who dutifully took piano lessons for five months so she could perform authentically for less than five minutes each night, has become accustomed, over two decades on stage, to rapturous raves. But Newsday slammed her “deadpan delivery,” USA Today remarked that she came across as a “sulking teenager,” and New York Times critic Ben Brantley sank the hatchet: “The forever fresh-faced Ms. Parker, one of our most delightful actresses, has traded in her usual air of easy, quirky spontaneity for the robotic petulance of an I-hate-everybody adolescent in a yearlong sulk.”
The Times review felt like “a physical assault,” Parker says. “It was really hard—that has never happened to me in a play before. I know when something’s bad; I’ve been in things that are bad. It’s certainly not that bad if you have people standing up at the end and cheering” (which is exactly how the audience reacted at the performance I attended). Then, grinning mischievously, she notes that ticket sales were solid even after the bad reviews and makes a middle-finger gesture at the Times. “You think you can kill me?” she says. “I don’t think so.”
Parker has a conference call scheduled this afternoon with Weeds personnel to hear about the antics planned for her character in the fifth season, which starts June 8. She sounds a bit wary, admitting that she remains upset over a nude scene from last season’s finale. She’d been fine with the series’ wildly erotic sex scenes, she says, as well as an episode where she had to pretend she was peeing into a bottle, but the shot in the bathtub in which the camera lingered on her breasts seemed intended to titillate. “I didn’t think I needed to be naked, and I fought with the director about it, and now I’m bitter,” she says. “I knew it was going to be on the Internet: ‘Mary-Louise shows off her big nipples.’ I wish I hadn’t done that. I was goaded into it.”

The show’s coexecutive producer, Roberto Benabib, defends the moment, saying that the nudity was necessary to convey the character’s vulnerability. “We felt at that point in her life, her defenses had been so thoroughly stripped away, there was a nonchalance to the nudity that informed the scene,” he says. “I thought it was wonderful, one of the five best scenes Mary-Louise has ever done [on Weeds].”

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