A few days before I interview Mary Louise Parker, one of my coworkers told me Parker’s “quitting acting.” A snippet of an interview the actor had done at the press junket for Red 2 had gone viral, and it seemed like every news source on the Internet had announced that she was leaving her long-time profession because “the world has gotten too mean, it’s just too bitchy” and that all she wanted to do was take care of her kids and goats and “throw [her] Internet in the lake.”
“Well,” I said. “I guess I’ll have to talk to her about that.”
But I didn’t want to talk to her about that. What was there to talk about, really? That Parker has opinions—strong opinions—about things like protecting her privacy and the sometimes-toxic environment of online reporting? How is that even news? There were so many other things that I wanted to talk to Parker about: her upcoming return to Broadway in The Snow Geese after a three year absence; her recent move to Brooklyn; her writing (if you haven’t read any of her Esquire columns, please do so immediately; start with “My Dad, My Boy” and prepare to cry); her uncanny ability to inhabit whatever part she plays—leading or supporting—so completely that she makes an indelible impression with every one. While she’s probably best known for her eight-season run on Weeds as Nancy Botwin, television’s first real female antihero, almost everyone with whom I spoke about Parker has a different character with whom they identify her. Whether it was her Emmy-winning turn as Harper in HBO’s Angels In America or feminist Amy Gardner in The West Wing or her characters in those classic movies-you-have-to-watch-every-time-they’re-on-TV Boys On the Side and Fried Green Tomatoes, Parker is known for assuming a wide variety of roles whose only common thread is that she plays them with sensitivity and intelligence. So, quitting acting? I did have to ask about it.
I meet Parker in the lobby of the hotel where she’s staying while her new Brooklyn home undergoes renovations. I arrive a few minutes before we’re supposed to meet, but she’s already there, waiting for me in an oversized chair from which she quickly rises so she can lead us to a more secluded spot, where she makes sure I get an iced coffee—the consummate hostess even though we aren’t technically in her home—explaining, “We’ve been living out of suitcases in hotels, which has been a huge drag.” Once settled, I ask, “Are you quitting acting?”
She looks up from her coffee and says, “You know, after that came out, people started emailing me and approaching me and telling me not to quit acting, and they were so sweet, but the point was that those comments were born out of a conversation, the genesis of which was a journalist asking me what my long-term goals were, and I said I’ve never been one for long-term goals. And I literally said that I feel so over-blessed and so grateful, and if it all stopped, I’d be ok, and I’d love to just go back to doing theater. And I said, also, you know, the culture has gotten... it’s turned so toxic. And so he asked me about that, and all that came out in the end is that I was pissed off and that I felt like people were attacking me, and it all came out of this conversation where I literally said I feel so lucky. But, I guess, who’s going to read a headline that says, ‘Actress Feels Blessed’? Nobody’s going to print that.”
This is true. (Ahem.) It’s also true that Parker boasts both a dry, dark sense of humor and a candidness on subjects like Internet bitchiness that can combine to beget sensationalized headlines and anonymous outraged online comments. So, yes, occasionally this’ll lead to some short-lived uproar over something she said in an interview, not only because, as Parker points out, “you have to be a much better writer to write from a positive point of view,” but also because the media just like to provide sensational stories. But Parker isn’t all intense opinions and controversial declarations. She’s also the type of person who handles the approach of a young fan with total aplomb, telling the teenage girl (who admits to being “obsessed” with Parker and shows evidence of said obsession by displaying her Weeds iPhone case) that she’s flattered and also that she thinks the girl has “gorgeous hair.” Parker handles the girl’s enthusiasm with grace and kindness, while also managing the situation in such a way that no photos are taken and no autographs given, yet the young fan leaves happy. So while Parker might be known for being outspoken and opinionated, she’s also charming, gracious, and above all, professional.
Parker is a mother of two—William, 9, and Caroline Aberash, 6—and it’s clear that her relationship with them is her priority. Our conversation never strays far from what parenting means with respect to the rest of
Yet she doesn’t seem to feel like she’s giving up anything. Rather, it seems like she just adds more and more to her life, figuring out along the way how to manage everything. At a time when women are told that they can have it all if they just learn how to balance every part of their lives, Parker keeps an honest perspective on what she can and can’t do. “The thing is that I don’t balance,” she says. “There are days when I just feel so wildly imbalanced. I was at a press junket in London, and there I was texting my daughter’s camp and my son’s doctor at the same time, and it just does not stop. Unless, of course, you’re willing to delegate, which I’m not. The thing is I’ve always been a single mother, and when I adopted my daughter it was as a single mother. I knew I was getting into something that was going to be too hard. And it is too hard. But I never would have not done it.”
As is always the case when any woman (or man) tries to have it all, though, something has to give. “I’ve been told so many times that I need to do more for myself, and I’m just starting to see that it’s true,” she says. “But it’s hard to have a relationship if you have kids. It’s really, really hard—I’d say it’s almost impossible. It’s not as important anymore.”
This is easy enough for many single mothers to relate to: there’s only so much of you to go around, and because your children come first, other things suffer. I tell Parker that I understand the fierceness of both a mother’s love for her children and the love that comes right back. I also tell her that my sons’ father calls our children “Oedipus 1 and 2.” Parker laughs and says about her own son, “I used to call him Oedipus when he was a baby! You know no one will love you like your kids. And you’ll never love anyone like them. That’s the problem. The other kinds of love seem so, like”—she sighs and then continues—“much smaller. I mean, if I didn’t have children, I would not be moving to Brooklyn. I’d be moving to Paris. But instead I have all this.”
Part of “this,” her son Will, joins us for a while because he and Parker are preparing to go to their home upstate (which is also home to those goats), where they’ll be joined by Parker’s daughter, who’s finishing up a session at sleepaway camp. Will is charming, intelligent, polite, and funny; it’s easy to see why Parker can look at her son and say, “I feel like I never saw myself accurately, really, until I saw my child.” Parker leans in toward me and recalls a time when she was in a relationship and felt herself pulled in too many directions to handle, remembering that once her kids were in bed, she wanted just to be by herself, realizing, “I need sleep more than I need love. I have love. And I realize how callous that sounds, but it’s true.”
But it doesn’t sound callous at all. Not any more than her comment about hating the toxic atmosphere of the Internet sounded sensational. The thing about Mary Louise Parker is that she sounds honest; she sounds like herself. And being herself means being an intense, opinionated woman who isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind, because she has better things to do than worry about how everything she says will be interpreted by strangers. She has her children to take care of (and those goats) and her life to lead. •
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Mary Louise Parker