Lauren Graham's Novel Approach

The endearing star of "Parenthood" and "Gilmore Girls" mines her early career for the plot of her first novel, "Someday, Someday, Maybe." Here in the present, she’s forged a unique bond with her half sister and found love with an old friend and costar    

by Margy Rochlin
lauren graham image
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

When Lauren Graham was growing up in suburban Arlington, Virginia, her single dad had a standard response to his only child’s endless questions: “Look it up. Everything you want to know, you can learn in a book.” But on this rainy New York afternoon, the Parenthood star dashes into the library at the Greenwich Hotel and realizes at once that a lounge filled with reading material just won’t do. “It’s too quiet in here,” says the actress as she sheds a pile of cold-weather gear—white knit cap, Catherine Malandrino quilted jacket, rickety black umbrella—to reveal a formfitting black Helmut Lang dress. Simultaneously, she offers an apology for showing up 15 minutes late, which she will later repurpose as a self-deprecating tweet: “Actressy things I said during today’s More magazine interview: ‘Sorry I’m late—I couldn’t get a cab in this rain.’ #actressy.”

As it happens, Graham, 46, is fairly new to Twitter, which Ballantine Books asked her to join to help promote her first novel, Someday, Someday, Maybe, published this month. The surprise for her fans: Though on TV Graham is the Queen of Single Moms, bringing humor and heartbreak to her roles in Gilmore Girls and now Parenthood, her book is closer to her own past—a breezy, semiautobiographical account of a young actress’s professional and romantic struggles (see excerpt, page 90 in the May issue, on newsstands now!).

In Parenthood, Graham’s character, Sarah, is divorced and broke when she arrives at her parents’ house in Berkeley with her two mopey kids in tow. They desperately need a home and so must deal with all the parents’ issues, as well as with Sarah’s three siblings and their mates, who constitute the extended Braverman clan. Playing a forty-something woman who has been rubbed raw by life, Graham gives a delicately nuanced and movingly authentic performance that critics stop midreview to praise. Take the shout-out from the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum: Considering the episode in which Sarah’s younger boyfriend suggests they have a baby together, Nussbaum lauded the actress’s reaction as “a twenty-sided facial expression that should earn Lauren Graham a special Emmy.”

The next Graham reviews you’ll hear, however, will be from book critics. Now resituated at a corner table at Locanda Verde, a restaurant adjacent to the library and noisy enough to suit Graham’s conversation requirements, she explains why she chose fiction instead of the standard celebrity memoir or a collection of humorous essays like Tina Fey’s Bossypants. “It’s sort of like, ‘Who would be interested?’ ” says Graham, a lifelong bookaholic and Barnard College graduate who majored in English. Instead, she decided to peel back the curtain on what young actors experience by combining small, autobiographical moments with imagined details.

“I started from a kind of nostalgia and a relief at not living in that time anymore, that time of just starting out,” says Graham, whose protagonist, aspiring actress Franny Banks, rents an apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone in the mid-’90s (as did Graham), was raised solely by her father (as was Graham) and constantly monitors the number on her bathroom scale. Regarding the autobiographical accuracy of that last detail, Graham, who has just vetoed the grated Grana Padano on the menu’s salad, says simply, “I’ve been on a diet for 35 years.” (Later, she tweets, “ ‘Can I get that without the cheese?’ Actressy things I said today at lunch interview. #actressy.”)

“I wanted to write about the tiny, tiny progress and the complete unknown of wanting to follow any impossible dream,” she says. In her case, that dream entailed “time running out and being in a pursuit where no one is going to tell you to leave. Acting is the most bizarre profession. You can stay in it for years and not really be in it and be waiting for someone to give you an opportunity. It’s like when I watch American Idol and see people who have been told to believe in themselves at all costs: It’s not always a good idea.”

Graham admits, however, that one reason she sat down and wrote a novel was the jarring difference between her dialogue-heavy, 14-hour-a-day Gilmore Girls starring role and her relatively relaxed position as just one member of the sprawling Parenthood ensemble. Suddenly there was downtime in her schedule, and initially it threw her off. “It was very hard for me to enjoy that; it made me really antsy,” says Graham, adding that the notion of writing a book was first suggested to her by actress and author Diane Keaton, who played her compulsively meddlesome mother in the 2007 romantic comedy Because I Said So and whose advice she claims to follow unquestioningly. (“If she had told me to consider a career in banking, I would have done that.”)

In her free hours, Graham began crafting a 100-page sample of the novel. Once that sold, she says, “I’d finish my scene for the day and then stay in the trailer and work.” Peter Krause, Graham’s Parenthood costar and now her boyfriend, was the first to point out to her another element that fostered a productive writing schedule: the drabness of her trailer. Says Graham: “There’s not a lot of distraction, and there are only ugly pictures of fake flowers on the wall.”

What Graham’s editor, Jennifer Smith, noticed in the early drafts was that the actress, after reading hundreds of scripts over a 17-year career, was able to make each character’s voice distinctive and keep the plot moving. “She had a kind of innate feel for the rise and fall of a story,” says Smith, who was also impressed by Graham’s perfectionism. “I think she would have kept working on it if I hadn’t pulled it out of her hands at a certain point. She’s a really hard worker.”

The constant tinkering may be one reason many of those closest to Graham haven’t yet laid eyes on the novel. “My father just finished reading a book on the making of Patton, so I’m not sure this is going to be his cup of tea,” she says of Lawrence Graham, for whom she was named and who once also aspired to be a novelist. What about Krause, who shares her Spanish-style Los Angeles home? “I have not allowed him to read one word yet because the revision process was so intense,” she says. “It’s such a girly book. I just want to give it to him once, you know?”

Her “girly book” did make it into the hands of 24-year-old Mae Whitman, who plays Amber, Graham’s kohl-eyed Parenthood daughter. “I’m the exact perfect target audience,” Whitman says. “I loved it. I read it once and then started reading it immediately again.” The young actress, who is so close to Graham that they exchange almost daily texts and frequently belt out show tunes together, considers her a role model: “She’s honest and loving and just so smart. I think she really has a good balance and a good head on her shoulders. She’s definitely someone I look up to.”

Graham also dropped off a bound manuscript of her book with her writer friend and fellow debut novelist Kathy Ebel (Claudia Silver to the Rescue), then quickly took it back to do further revisions. But Ebel, who has known Graham since their Barnard days, says that when she was finally allowed to read Someday, Someday, Maybe, the first thing she thought was, “The way she puts her observations, her turns of phrase, I can really hear her.”

So many in Graham’s circle refer to her as family that it’s hard to believe she grew up in a household of two. Her mother, Donna Grant, moved to London when Graham was only five, leaving other women in the little girl’s world—relatives, teachers, neighbors—to fill the maternal gaps. “I can remember things, like I did some children’s community theater and they sent some costume pieces home to be sewn by your mother,” says Graham, whose stitching was eventually completed by her father’s secretary. “But I don’t remember it being an emotional thing. I just remember thinking that I didn’t know anybody else [in my situation].”

Over the years Graham has had enough practice talking about her mother’s life choice to get her arms around a difficult subject. “[She was] a person who needed to find herself. She was in a band, she was a painter, she designed clothes—she was so talented in so many ways,” Graham says. “She gave me exposure to a world I would never have seen otherwise. I only view that as a positive in having an example of the possibilities.’’ And it isn’t hard to draw a line between what she calls the “nontraditional choices” of her mother and the special resonance Graham has brought to her roles on Gilmore Girls and Parenthood, playing single mothers who are smart and beautiful yet can’t seem to get their lives in working order.

For the next 10 minutes, Graham sketches out the contours of her jury-rigged relationship with her mother, which included rollicking adventures in London and a half sister, Shade Grant, 15 years her junior, who was dispatched to the actress’s L.A.
home for vacations. But when Graham addresses memories of her mother’s breast cancer and death at age 61, her voice gets tight with emotion. “I felt like I wasn’t there during the months when my mother was deteriorating,” says Graham, whose intense Gilmore schedule prevented frequent travel. “So my young, young sister was handling this all on her own.”

Graham moved Shade to L.A. There, daughters who shared the same parent but knew her in radically different ways merged into true siblings. “To help her get on her feet? It made me feel good,” says Graham. A very long moment passes. “I promised my mother I would do that,” she finally says, her blue eyes filled with tears.

Graham’s father eventually remarried and had two more children, but, she says, “they were just babies” when she shared their household. Until Shade, then in her twenties, moved in, she’d never really known how it felt to have a sibling. Their hours together were uninterrupted: After breaking up with a longtime beau, Graham found herself dateless. “I just went from always having a boyfriend to being like there was nobody I wanted to go out with,” she says. “And nobody wanted to go out with me.” She was so unattached that in 2009, when she was starring as the lovelorn Miss Adelaide in a Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, Graham joked to costar Oliver Platt that even her skimpy attire wasn’t enough to land an invitation to go out. “I’m up on a stage in lingerie,” she said in mock chagrin. “Really? No one?”

Yet just a year later, the right gig revealed the right suitor. Graham walked onto the set of Parenthood and looked at love in the form of an old friend. She first met Krause, who plays her sensible older brother, Adam, in 1995, when the two were guest stars on an episode of Caroline in the City. “It was just a funny timing thing,” says Graham, who recalls asking Krause to carry a dresser she’d bought up a flight of stairs and, on another occasion, going to his house to play board games. “We were friendly. But our lives went in separate directions. I would see him now and again. It wasn’t like I thought, Oh, someday.”

When they finally connected, it was as if Cupid had shot his arrow. “We were just together,” says Graham, who believes her forties were the perfect time to make a relationship work. “For whatever reason—it could have been my upbringing or whatever—but the idea of getting married when I was in my thirties panicked me. I was very ambitious. I just wasn’t ready.” Does that mean she and Krause plan to walk down the aisle? “I don’t know,” she confesses, then clarifies her state of marriage readiness: “I just mean the feeling.”

As for starting a family, Graham says, “I’m just focused on enjoying what I have right now. I know it’s not the same thing, but I love Mae [Whitman] and Miles [Heizer], my TV children, so much. It’s an extremely satisfying relationship, and they let me mommy them a little bit. I feel really lucky to have those kids in my life.”

Not only is Graham comfortable being in her forties, but she’s comfortable talking about them. “My mom was very shy about her age, and I thought, I just want to go the other way,” she says. “I remember when I first got to L.A., a friend and I had a 30th-birthday party, and we wrote the number on the invitation. Some casting person was like, ‘You shouldn’t have put that number on there.’ It was still sort of the time that you could fudge it, before [the age-revealing show business website] IMDB. I was like, ‘I don’t care. Whatever.’ ”

Life with Krause is equally casual, with occasional weekends in Northern California to visit his 11-year-old son (he shares custody with his ex-girlfriend Christine King) and time to indulge in her favorite form of procrastination: making dishes from David Chang’s cookbook-memoir, Momofuku. “Our pantry looks like Korea blew up inside,” she says of her culinary obsession, which now encompasses all food from Asia. “Peter sometimes will take a bag of bonito fish flakes out and say, ‘Are we ever going to go through this giant bag? What is this even for?’ ”

For the past hour or so, dark rain clouds have been gathering in the Manhattan sky, and Graham is lamenting her decision to wear fashionable instead of practical footwear. “Peter gave these to me for Christmas,” she says of her black calfskin Herm├Ęs boots. But aside from that wardrobe choice, Graham doesn’t have many complaints. In March she began work on a movie called A Friggin’ Christmas Miracle, with Joel McHale and Robin Williams. (“I’m going to try to be in all the fun Christmas movies from now on,” says Graham, who played a sexed-up Santa groupie in the gloriously profane 2003 Bad Santa.) Then there’s the follow-up to Someday, Someday, Maybethat Ballantine has already commissioned. “She’s growing up and maturing,” says Graham of her heroine, Franny, who will next learn to navigate her way through Hollywood. The newly minted author is deep enough into this project to pull up on her iPhone a rigorous-looking chapter-by-chapter schedule sent by her editor.

After lunch, Graham plans to meet with Platt. (Later she will tweet, “Off to meet my friend Oliver Platt! #namedrop #actressy.”) Back when the two starred in Guys and Dolls, they used to sit backstage and play a mournful speculation game called “What Will Become of Us?” At the time, it was a comic way to deal with the gnawing are-we-closing-tomorrow? uncertainty that comes with being in an expensive Broadway show that was greeted with mixed reviews. But since then, Graham has decided that constantly worrying about the future robs you of the day you’re in. “I’ve spent a lot of time wondering, What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” she says. “I try not to allow myself to do that much anymore. I think I’ve gotten more comfortable with the unknown.”

 

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First Published Tue, 2013-04-23 10:25

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