Mary-Louise Parker is exhausted. She is starring in two movies that both open today. She’s in the middle of moving her family to Brooklyn, but it’s not going smoothly, and she needs to find a sublet. Plus, on what one assumes was her billionth press junket interview, she said something that is coming back to bite her in the ass. She said that she was thinking about quitting acting, due to the mean-spiritedness of the Internet. The Internet picked up on it, and has been having a field day with the story (SEE: Ironic). When I bring this up, she laughs and tells me Mike Nichols beat me to the punch. “He told me at lunch today. I had no idea!” Mary-Louise doesn’t like the Internet and she doesn’t spend much time on it. She tries not to read what people are saying about her. She assumes it’s all bad. It’s not. Most of the Internet thinks she’s swell. Lots of “The best actress ever!” and “She’s so hot!” In ruder territory, she’s considered old, as in, “That’s one hot MILF I’d like to fuck!” Alas, the Internet is nothing if not redundant.
Mary-Louise: It’s become so toxic. Everyone’s paparazzi. Everyone’s in the park with a cell phone. There’s a sense of entitlement, like “You’re famous, you should expect it”. No, I shouldn’t. There were no cell phones when I started acting. There was no Internet. I’m 49 years old. I would have been a kindergarten teacher. I wouldn’t have gone to theater school for four years if I just wanted to be famous. I would have slept with a senator or made a sex tape. This isn’t what I wanted. And I’m so thin-skinned. It’s so easy to hurt my feelings. It’s so hard to get me to believe a compliment.
Alec: Wow. It’s wild what you project versus what you feel because you come off as pretty kick-ass.
At work I am quite clear and confident and I’m able to express myself. Maybe too much. But, in my personal life, no. I became an actor because I was an awkward, sensitive child. I was a monosyllabic little girl and …it was the only time I was comfortable speaking. I stuttered. You take that person and you put them in a world where the most important thing is (screaming hysterically) “What dress are you going to wear?!” I don’t want to care about that.
You went to North Carolina School of the Arts, right?
Yeah. (Sighs) I loved it. I wasn’t popular in high school. I thought high school was going to be The Brady Bunch, and I was going to have a boyfriend and he’d have a convertible, but I was such a wallflower. So I graduated early, and went to live with my sister, and I did a play. When it was time to apply to college, I filled out two applications and only mailed one in, and it was to North Carolina School of the Arts. I didn’t even know what a monolog was, and you had to do two! So my sister, who was an actress, took me to meet a woman, a director, who coached me. I auditioned and got in. I just loved (college). I was so un-self-conscious. Being on stage, I just felt so… unafraid. I made the best friends I have. We started a theater group. We wrote our own plays when we first moved to New York, and a couple of people became pretty successful from that theater group.
Pretty successful, indeed. Parker started The Edge Theater with the director Joe Mantello, and writer Peter Hedges. Parker moved to New York the day she graduated, with $500 in her pocket. It wasn’t long before she started landing some notable roles. Parker’s stage career is impressive, and it started strong right out of the gate. At 25, she starred in Prelude To A Kiss, and was nominated for a Tony Award. A few years later she starred in Proof. This time, she won the Tony. It has been a while since Parker has done a play, but she is about to get back on stage, starring in Snow Geese, a new play co-produced by Manhattan Theater Club and MCC Theater.
What was it about this play that made you want to do it?
It’s a very visceral thing. I think I usually know within the first three pages if I want to do a play or not. We did a reading, and I felt like everyone was really listening to it… to the very end. It’s very Chekhovian, without that … sometimes Chekov reads beautifully, but when you see it played, it can have a certain distance to it. This doesn’t have that. It has a lot of depth to it. Lots of surprises. I think the writing is really great.
Does doing a play let you work the muscles that you might not be able to use in film or television? I guess what I’m asking is, do you feel like they’re three very different acting techniques?
I think they feed each other, but I get more out of doing a play. It feels arduous in a different way. At the end of the day, I feel like I did something like I earned my money. Sometimes, I go home after doing a movie and I feel like, “Wow, they just paid me to sit there all day and look at refrigerators online.” But that’s hard in a different way, because you have to summon everything for those few moments when the camera’s ready. They’re both challenging in their own way.
I have read that you don’t watch your films. Is that true?
No, I don’t. I watched Weeds, because I gave notes on it, and I was involved in a different way. And I had a voice. But you don’t have a voice in film. And I’d just rather not be disappointed.
I’m not trying to be all strokey on your ego, but you’ve been in some really good films. It would behoove you to see some of them.
Well, I’ve seen a couple. I watched Angels In America and Longtime Companion. The ones I had an emotional attachment to. But in the past ten years I don’t think I’ve seen one.
Speaking of Longtime Companion, I wonder if we can talk about that for a second? From very early in your career, you were associated with films dealing with the AIDS epidemic, and gay issues in general (in Boys On The Side, Parker played a woman dying of AIDS, and in Fried Green Tomatoes, she played a Depression-era woman in love with another woman). Was that a conscious effort on your behalf, to seek these roles out, even though there might have been professional repercussions?
Well my mentor, Norman Rene, who directed Longtime companion, who died, he was one of my best friends, and taught me most of what I know about acting. He and Craig Lucas… we had just done Prelude To A Kiss, and they said, “Craig’s written his AIDS movie, and we have someone to produce it, even though it’s going to have one of the first scenes where you see two men kissing. Do you want to be in it?” and I said, “I’m in.” They said, “Do you want to know what you are playing?” and I said, “No. I really don’t care.” My agent called and said, “They said that you said you’d do it, even though you haven’t read it” and I said, “That is correct.” I just wanted to be part of it. And, you know, I lost… well, we all lost subsequently, Norman, and my hairdresser on that movie, and… I can’t even see a single frame of that movie without bursting into tears. I just… I don’t know… I’ve had so many dear, wonderful friends that I lost.
I mention the final scene in the movie, where the three friends are walking along the beach, imagining a world after the cure for AIDS, when suddenly, hundreds of people come running down the dock towards them, laughing and waving. Among the crowd are the friends who had succumbed to the virus, all looking healthy, as if nothing had ever happened. The scene is both exhilarating and devastating. When I mention that I cannot watch the scene without sobbing, I realize that there is a silence on the phone that feels thick and deep. The scene that affects me like no other is clearly as personal and heart-breaking for Mary-Louise. Fearing I’m losing her, I quickly change course, and go trivial, with a few light-hearted, innocuous questions.
What is your best trait?
… And with that she sounds like she might cry again.
Oh, god. I am so down on myself today. It’s like, every question you ask, I want to start crying. Oh, god. Do I have one? (Long pause) I’m pretty compassionate.
I go even lighter. Questions of the “Who’s your favorite actress?!” and “What’s your biggest indulgence?!” variety (Judy Garland, and Robin Wright; Lingerie and a good hotel, respectively). Then, I toss out what I assume is another softball:
Who would you like to work with?
This time, the pause feels endless. Finally, she rattles off a few names (Campbell Scott, Hunter Parish, Mike Nichols), and while it’s clear that these are all people she loves and respects, they sound like obligatory answers. Then she stops.
I don’t really want for much in my career. I’m so grateful for what I’ve got, and I’m so grateful when I get a job, but… in terms of career, I’m not ambitious at all. I feel like I got everything. I got more than my share of the spoils. If I never got anything ever again, I’d feel lucky. I wouldn’t feel cheated of anything.