A self-described lonely adolescent, “crippled by my awkwardness,” Parker finds it ironic that she is now perceived as a sex symbol. “I never had a date in high school, not one,” she says. But onstage, she could transform herself into other characters, a marvelous escape; and when she arrived at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts at 17, she became an overnight success, accepted and appreciated. “Every boy wanted to date me,” she says, still astonished. “It’s because I was at school with a bunch of artists, a bunch of freaks. It was OK to be what I was. Knowing this made me come out of myself.”
Upon graduation in 1986, she moved to Manhattan with $500, shared an apartment with three women and worked as a temp, a shoe store clerk and an operator at an answering service. (“I really wasn’t good. I wouldn’t write down all the digits; I can be very absentminded.”) But it wasn’t long before she landed an agent and acting jobs in the theater. Nominated for a Tony Award for Prelude to a Kiss, she lost the movie role to Meg Ryan. “It was an incredible injustice,” Lucas says. “She did a screen test and melted the camera, but they made it pretty clear that they wouldn’t make the movie without [Ryan], who had had a huge hit, When Harry Met Sally. It didn’t occur to me when I signed the contract that they wouldn’t use [all] the actors who made the play so brilliant.”
The same thing happened to Parker after she won the Tony for Proof in 2001; Gwyneth Paltrow starred in the film. “I feel like I do all the work in these plays, and then . . . ” Parker pauses to collect her thoughts and adds, “Well, if I had to pick, I’d pick the play. When theater is right, it’s transporting; a thousand people are in the room and you’re making it happen and they’re helping you make it happen. That’s a bigger experience than having 50 people standing around a camera and you’re acting for a minute and a half and they’re going to edit it.”
That said, Parker’s career has encompassed a memorable and acclaimed array of movie and TV characters: a fragile mother in The Client, an abused wife who finds happiness with a girlfriend in Fried Green Tomatoes, an AIDS-afflicted woman in Boys on the Side, a prickly activist in The West Wing, the haunted, drug-addicted Mormon wife of a closeted gay man in Angels in America. As her credits mounted up, she embarked on her romance with Crudup, until it all went awry shortly before their son was born. Her friends stepped in to fill the breach.