Catching Up With... Mary-Louise Parker of Weeds
After all the success Mary-Louise Parker has had giving life to conflicted, seemingly doomed but somehow lovable widowed-suburban-mom-turned-pot-dealer Nancy Botwin, it’s easy to forget how much she’s already accomplished in her career as an actress, both on screen and on stage.
Her impressive résumé includes hard-hitting AIDS film Longtime Companion, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, The Client, Bullets Over Broadway, Boys on the Side, Reckless, Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, The Five Senses, Red Dragon, Saved! and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. She’s appeared in Broadway plays like Prelude to a Kiss and Proof, and TV series like The West Wing and Angels in America. She’s won two Golden Globes, an Emmy and a Tony. Somehow, though, when you talk to Parker, it’s as if she’s unaffected by it all.
With a but a few days to go until Weeds’ Season Five premiere, Parker—who’s also a diehard music aficionado—spoke with Paste about the show, her all-time favorite albums, her new film Solitary Man (co starring Michael Douglas and slated for a late-2009 release), the undeniable appeal of Josh Ritter, her Esquire bedtime-stories project, and her appearance in singer/songwriter Charlie Mars’ new video.
Paste: I just watched the new Charlie Mars video you were in, “Listen to the Dark Side.” I guess with you having been in high school in the late ’70s, the whole “getting stoned and listening to The Dark Side of the Moon” thing was probably familiar territory.
Mary-Louise Parker: Not really, only ’cause I was such a geek.
Paste: Oh yeah?
Parker: I really wanted to be the person who got invited to parties where you got high and listened to Dark Side of the Moon, but I was the girl who sat at home, reading under [the covers] with a flashlight.
Paste: How did you meet Charlie Mars, and what made you want to work with him?
Parker: Somebody took me to one of his shows on a date. It was at the Soho House in New York. I just met him briefly that night—a bunch of people went to dinner after, and I just talked to him briefly, then he called maybe a month-and-a-half later and asked if I wanted to be in his video.
Paste: Legendary photographer Danny Clinch directed the video. What was it like working with a photographer as a director?
Parker: He was amazing. He’s such an incredible photographer. He really understands and appreciates music, and is just a really cool person, so that's half of it—being able to communicate. He's truly easy to be around. Truthfully, I didn't know how he was going to make a video out of [what we had] because we didn't shoot for very long. It was just half a day. We really didn't get that much footage, and I didn't know how he was going to put it together and make anything out of it, and he did, so I think he's really talented. I know the extent of his talent because I know how little we shot and what he did with it.
Paste: I hear you're a really big music fan. If you had to pick one, what would your favorite album of all time be?
Parker: Oh my God! Ah!
Paste: I know, it's a tough question.
Parker: I just—to pick only one
Paste: OK, how about your top three or five?
Parker: OK, definitely [The Beatles’] Help! would be one. [Rickie Lee Jones’] Pirates, and
maybe [Tom Waits’] The Heart of Saturday Night? And [Elvis Costello’s] Imperial Bedroom—I got to say Imperial Bedroom. I'm sorry, can't leave it out.
Paste: That's a respectable list. Is there anything you've been listening to lately, anything new you think people should check out, or an old favorite you've been listening to a lot lately?
Parker: I've been listening to Rufus Wainwright—Poses, Want One. Sufjan Stevens yesterday, Illinois. Band of Horses. I've been listening to Uncle Tupelo, Bright Eyes You know, I write for Esquire, and I’ve written about music a couple times—about Josh Ritter. Oh! Josh Ritter. Gotta say Josh Ritter! He's the greatest. I wrote about him—that's how I met him, actually, ’cause we're friends. But I think he's incredible. He just opened for John Prine here, so I went and saw him. He completely had the crowd, which was like—everyone was over 50 and a bunch of old hippies, and he won their respect in like a minute and a half. He's so, just, I dunno—so genuine but also such a true musician that you can't really dismiss him. He's such a great lyricist
Paste: Yeah, some of the stuff he did on that last record—I mean, I'd put “To the Dogs or Whoever” right up there with Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Parker: I know, I KNOW! I'm sorry, I'm shouting.
Paste: It’s cool.
Parker: You know, I said that to somebody and they said I was being sacrilegious. Truthfully, I'm not—and maybe you shouldn't print this because I'll get hate mail—but I'm not a massive Dylan fan. I know I should be, but it just doesn't happen for me. But I love that [Josh Ritter] record. I love Hello Starling, too. I think Hello Starling is beautiful.
Paste: Yeah, everything he's put out, I’ve really loved, all the way back to Golden Age of Radio.
Parker: I love Golden Age of Radio. He's so humble, too.
Paste: Season Five of Weeds is premiering Monday, June 8, on Showtime. Anything you can tell us about next season? I heard Jennifer Jason Leigh is going to be playing your sister and Alanis Morrissette your obstetrician.
Parker: Yeah, Alanis Morissette is playing the obstetrician, which is pretty crazy.
Paste: She was great as God in Dogma.
Parker: Oh, I never saw that. She's a sweet lady, though. She's almost so sweet that it doesn't really compute that she does music with such a like, a rocking, angry I don’t know, maybe that's how she gets it out. ’Cause on set she's completely, I mean she's so Canadian—she’s really polite and really chill and really clean [laughs]. But this season is good, though. I feel like there's a lot of anticipation and a lot of tension ’cause my character [Nancy] is kind of escaping, she's kind of on the lam, and she's in danger a lot. You know, last season was my favorite season ever. Last year we had Albert Brooks, and that was just great. This year, I just can't really tell ya. It seems like it could be good.
Paste: So this season is gonna wind up even more you think, and just kind of build in intensity?
Parker: I like it when things end on a really wack, like crazy note. Where you scream and you're like, “What the hell?! How is she gonna get out of this?!” The crazier, the better—like, guns at my head or whatever. So I'm hoping that they'll come up with something for this year. I don't know how they're gonna [finish it], like me setting my house on fire [in the Season Three finale].
Paste: The character you play on Weeds, Nancy Botwin, is amazingly complex. She’s this widowed single mother and there's a little bit of a sadness and weariness there, and she's trying so hard to take care of her family and figure things out, but she's flawed and occasionally gets derailed by her selfishness, and she gets in so deep over her head, but she's smart and resourceful, too. And then there are times when she's barely holding it together. Some of my favorite moments on the show are when she has those moments of clarity about how fucked up everything has gotten, and you can just see the horror in her. As an actress, how do you so convincingly get at that intricate set of emotions that are happening all at the same time?
Parker: I'm glad you said that because sometimes you think nobody notices what you're doing. But part of the way I structured the character was that she only has a few moments where the penny drops, I feel like she has two a season where she sort of gets the gravity of what she’s doing and how lost she is, but the rest of the time she's not thinking ahead and just going for the instant, and, to me, I kind of like that, because she's so mindless that it allows her to do irresponsible things and selfish things and insensitive things without a great deal of conscience. She has a big sense of entitlement, which is true of a lot of people who are damaged and have been really hurt, or who are grieving and not dealing with it. They tend to be the people who are really dangerous to be around because they don't mind hurting you. And I like playing that because it allows me to go somewhere in my imagination; she reacts to things in ways that I wouldn't. The only thing that we have in common—she's extreme, I'm extreme; we just have different extremes.
Paste: In what ways do you relate to Nancy? You just said you’re both “extreme,” but you also have two children like Nancy, and have been a single mother. Does that help you connect with the character?
Parker: Hopefully, I'm a mother in a different way. I feel like she’s more of a procrastinating parent, like she'll be a better parent tomorrow—pay more attention to them tomorrow or next week. But you gotta do it when they're in front of you, even if it's not convenient. I mean, this morning I left my daughter standing next to the shower while I was taking a shower, and it's like, ‘Well, I have to go to work today, so if that's when I'm gonna see her, I'm gonna talk to her through the shower door and play with her.” You gotta do it when they're in front of you. And [Nancy] doesn't really, almost to the extent that she's running, like she’s gonna do it later. Hopefully, I'm not like her. But, like I said, she's an extremist and I'm an extremist, and she likes nice shoes [laughs].
Paste: Do you relate at all to that difficulty of figuring out how to raise two kids and be responsible for them when you don't always have a lot of extra help?
Parker: Certainly, I relate to the concept of constantly trying to figure out how you can manage it, and do it better, and keep them happy. And just the stress of it—it’s a lot of stress to have two people to be responsible for. But I'm coming at it from a different place. I always put them first. [Nancy] doesn't quite put other people first; not that she’s a bad person, not that she’s a horrible parent—she just doesn't necessarily put people first, even when she thinks she is.
Paste: After five seasons now, what's the most rewarding experience that you've had that's come from working on the show?
Parker: Because it’s been such a long process, it's afforded me the opportunity to practice not giving up, and really working to clarify things and make things better, and just not get lazy, ’cause it really tests that in you. You really get the opportunity when you keep working on a character to keep trying. There are things that you think about the character, and you go home and you think, “Oh god, that wasn't right.” Last year, one time I went home and I thought, “Wow I didn't play that—that scene I was really unhappy with. I mean I played it well, but it was coming more from a Mary-Louise spot than a Nancy spot, so I just went back to the producer, like on my knees, and I was like, “Can I please re-shoot it,” because that's a lot of expense, a lot of time, it's a lot of money and some people just see it as a waste. And I was like, “Just please let me shoot it again,” because I thought it was important. And they let me, and it was really great. You can't do that all the time, but I just want to always keep trying to think about what this person would do, and take it as far as I can—almost to the extreme.
Paste: One thing I like about these really high-production-quality HBO or Showtime series is that—with a series even more than a film—you get this really long story arc, and so much time to really learn the characters. As a viewer, you get to know them so much better and more intimately than you can in a two-hour movie. And I'm sure for you, as well, as an actor, you can get into character more.
Parker: Yeah, in little ways. Like now, I know exactly what shoes she would wear. But then there are things that I just want to keep open because people contradict themselves and they're surprising. It's a good exercise as an actor. Justin [Kirk, who plays Nancy’s brother-in-law, Andy, on Weeds] said that, too—that he feels like he gets a little better every year. Working with somebody like him is great. We've done a lot of things together this year, and I could just act with him forever. He's just awesome.
Paste: you've got a new movie in post-production called Solitary Man that's coming out later this year. Playing the character Jordan [Douglas’ “high-powered society beau”] in the film, what was it like working with Michael Douglas and Susan Sarandon?
Parker: Susan and I didn't have any scenes together, but we've worked together before [in The Client]. She's actually my son's godmother, so we're like really super close. But Michael Douglas is awesome. He's just so professional and considerate. He's kind of old-fashioned in a way—just really gentlemanly and prepared, and there are no complaints about him. In this business, sometimes people get sick of the people who are tough to be around, who—to put it nicely—don’t have all those qualities. But, clearly, Michael has been around forever, and I think part of it—aside from the talent—is that he's just so nice. [As for Jordan], I haven’t seen any of the film yet, but I made a choice of this particular quality that I wanted her to have, and I don’t know if it'll come through or not, ’cause it's a film, and you don't really have too much time to rehearse. I didn't have that much time to cultivate it, what I wanted to do, so I don’t know if it'll come off at all, but I wanted her to be somewhat medicated—medicated and still trying to maintain a sense of propriety. Almost like she thinks she's Mrs. Onassis. You know how Mrs. Onassis had that sweet voice? She was kind of the ultimate lady in some way, the ultimate Upper East Side lady, and I feel like this woman wants to be that, but on top of that she's just a little over-medicated.
Paste: Is there anything else that you've been working on that you want to let our readers know about?
Parker: Well, actually, I'm doing this thing for Esquire which is gonna be kind of awesome. I don't know if I am allowed to talk about it. Well, I can't imagine why I wouldn't be. We're doing this thing where I'm gonna be reading bedtime stories on the Internet. Like, I'm in my pajamas—we shot it in my bed—and my editor [David Granger] was laughing so hard he had to leave the room. But I don’t know if it's the kind of thing that will only be funny to us. Like, I'm reading this Gay Talese story, and I'm reading this Charles Simic essay. I read—oh god, I read the lyrics to “Blinded by the Light,” but I'm sitting there with a glass of milk in my pajamas like I'm reading to a five year old. I think it's gonna be really cool. And “Blinded by the Light,” I was trying to see if I could do it without looking, ’cause I used to know the lyrics by heart, and I don't so much anymore. That used to be a point of pride with me, that I could kind of recite it, but not so much anymore.
Paste: One more question for you. You’ve had this long, successful, really creatively satisfying career—what do you think is the most important thing that you've learned, either personally or professionally, along the way?
Parker: Be brave. Don't be afraid to look like an ass. No matter what. I try to practice that every day. It just kind of goes against your human nature; you don’t want to humiliate yourself [laughs]. But you can't be afraid of that as an actor because people do humiliate themselves, and I want to be as much like a person as I can when you’re watching me.