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.”
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].”
The popular series is meant to be controversial, but costar Elizabeth Perkins agrees that sometimes the writers go too far, saying, “I’ve had issues with certain things I’ve been asked to do.” She adds that there is a double standard for actors—that a man is seen as being in charge of his craft if he complains about lines or scenes, whereas a woman is branded a “huge bitch.” Parker, she says, “is frighteningly intelligent, and she’ll call a spade a spade. I suppose it could come across as prickly, but it’s not meant that way. She’s just smarter than anyone else in the room.”
Creative differences aside, Parker stresses that she enjoys playing her complex and devious character. “I like it the more extreme it is. Jenji [Kohan, the series’ creator] has been amazing in surprising me.” But, she adds, “I don’t like it when it’s crass and crude for humor’s sake. And I don’t like it when it’s sentimental, when she’s a sweet mother. To me, she’s not that.”
To actually want to look your age on camera is a violation of Hollywood’s youth-at-all-costs handbook, but Parker says she has urged the producers not to digitally enhance her features, telling them, “Don’t take out my wrinkles. I’m happy that I look a little tired.” She hasn’t had Botox or plastic surgery, she insists, contorting her face into a series of hilarious expressions to prove it. “Somebody told me that they’d read that I had all this work done and showed me a picture, and it was totally airbrushed,” she says in outrage. “It made me so mad. I don’t like what that says to other women. I’m 44, and I look OK for 44. I’m not trying to look 34.”
In interviews , and even with friends, Parker has built a reputation for being withholding about one major topic: her family background. “Maybe she’s the love child of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn,” quips playwright Craig Lucas, whose Prelude to a Kiss provided Parker with her breakthrough role in 1990. Adds Perkins, “I feel I know Mary-Louise really, really well, yet I know nothing about her.” Parker drops clues in her Esquire essays, however, and it’s possible to tease out a few relevant facts, even as she gives me a thousand-yard stare and protests, “I want people to know as little about me as possible!”
The youngest of four children, Parker was born in South Carolina but led a peripatetic childhood as the family moved often for her father’s Army career. The actress speaks fondly of her “amazing” parents but makes it quietly clear that her childhood is not full of pleasant memories. “My parents did everything they could; I had books, clothes, a home and a warm bed, but I was never happy,” she says. “Part of it was my nature, and part of it was circumstantial and things I was soaking up from other people.”
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.
“The birth of Will gave us an opportunity to be closer,” says Sarandon, the mother of three. “That is an area where I’ve made my mistakes, and I tell her what not to do and reassure her that the kids will survive.” She laughs and adds, “Mary-Louise is a great mom, very hands-on. She has a flair for making an occasion of every holiday.” Adds Liana Pai, a Manhattan boutique owner who befriended Parker through their kids’ school, “Mary-Louise will send me a picture of her having a Monet day; she’ll put flowers in the bathtub, and the three of them will be doing drawings.” On Salvador Dalí days, the family dons mustaches and fools around with clocks.
Parker says she “wanted a lot of children, and that didn’t happen.” So in 2007 she opted to adopt, something she “always wanted to do, my whole life,” she says. At first, “I thought, I’m single, it’s too hard. But then I thought, I don’t want to be on my deathbed not having done something because it was too hard. I’m so glad I did—she is magical.” She was open-minded about where she would adopt from: “I just wanted a child who needed a mother and a home and food and love,” she says. When she met with Jane Aronson, MD, who runs Worldwide Orphans Foundation, “everything fell into place.” The actress now supports the Brighter Futures Project, which raises money to aid orphaned girls around the world.
Parker has had an on-and-off relationship with actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, which she declined to discuss. But ask what it’s like to date as a single parent of two, and she replies, “Some men are daunted by it, some are really attracted. I had someone ask, ‘Does this mean we can’t go out anytime we want?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what it means. It means you come fourth, ’cause it’s my kids, my job, my family.’ ” Then she pauses and defiantly declares, “I don’t ever want to come first to anyone. It’s too much pressure.”
She adds that she’s about to take a mini break from her kids, indulging in two nights at a Manhattan hotel, and later hands me some of her Esquire articles, including a lighthearted riff about the erotic possibilities of clandestine sex in hotel hallways and by the ice machine. In a follow-up phone conversation, I ask how much of that essay was autobiographical. “It was not all speculative,” she replies, laughing. “It was not conjured.” A little danger adds a thrill? “I just like danger in general,” she says. “I don’t like to hang out of an airplane, I don’t want to get on a motorcycle. But I like to reveal myself, and I like things that are psychologically dangerous. That’s why I like acting.”