Mary-Louise Parker’s duplex apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village has just the sort of eclectic, whimsical touches you might expect from this boldly offbeat actress. To enliven the TV nook, she commissioned a mural of an underwater barbecue, with an octopus brandishing multiple hot dogs. Her children, William Atticus, five, and Caroline Aberash, almost three, have been allowed to crayon on a narrow wall by the kitchen. The books on her bedside table include Howl by Allen Ginsberg (she has a role in an upcoming film about Ginsberg’s obscenity trial), essays by the poet Charles Simic and a volume called Knitting for Peace, which is both instructional and inspirational.
Besides sweeping city views, Parker’s spacious living room offers an antique chandelier, rose velvet chairs, a cream sectional couch and two framed Al Hirschfeld caricatures of her in Broadway roles. In the midst of all this one morning, she is down on her hands and knees on the rug, listening intently as a medical technician instructs her in CPR. Her reason for learning: Back in L.A., where she’ll soon be shooting the fifth season of her Showtime series, Weeds, she has rented a house with a pool for her children, and she wants to be prepared in case of an emergency.
Several friends and nannies are taking this class as well, and as I arrive, the group is practicing pumping on child-size plastic torsos. When the exercise ends, a familiar-looking, rakishly handsome man in blue jeans and a gray shirt sits up: actor Billy Crudup. Given the excruciating circumstances of their breakup—he left her in 2003, while she was pregnant with Will, and not long after linked up with actress Claire Danes—it’s startling to see him here.
Yet the atmosphere is amicable as the exes go through their paces, studiously somber in contemplating the life-and-death repercussions of CPR and then collapsing into nervous laughter. Crudup lingers afterward while Parker calls a pediatrician for a progress report on Will’s strep throat. Once he leaves, I remark to Parker about the relaxed scene, and her reaction is immediate and fierce: “I’ve never commented on the situation, and I won’t because it’s not fair to my son,” she says. But when I note that friends of mine who are bitterly divorcing can’t even be in the same room together, she softens and says, “Who wins? No child can benefit in that situation. Your love for your child should eclipse any other feelings you have for another person.”
Settling down in her photo-filled study to talk, Parker makes our interview a riveting performance, her expressive talents on full display. She is by turns funny, exasperated, exuberant, sarcastic and vulnerable. She dodges some simple biographical questions yet is revealing on hot-button topics, from her “profoundly unhappy” childhood (“I think everyone should be in therapy, don’t you?”) to her conservative finances (“I don’t have stocks. I’m not a gambler in any way; I have a Depression-era mentality”) and her romantic misadventures (“I always wanted something storybook. But my life has never been linear, never been ordinary”).
Her friends frequently use the words eccentric and original to describe her. “Mary-Louise has a truthful but skewed look at things, and that’s my kind of gal,” says Susan Sarandon, who has appeared with Parker in two movies (The Client and Romance & Cigarettes) and is one of Will’s godmothers. Director Joe Mantello, who was Parker’s fellow student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and helped start the Edge Theater with her in New York in the 1980s, says that Parker is endlessly innovative as a performer. “She always appears to come at things from an odd angle. She’ll be hilariously funny, and then she’ll break your heart. You never know what she’s going to do,” he says, recalling how Parker once, on stage, licked her finger, plunged it into an ashtray and began eating cigarette ashes. “Only Mary-Louise would think of that completely interesting choice, shockingly weird and absurd, and make it work.”