Home cover story Mary-louise Parker

Mary-louise Parker

by devnym

photography by Baldomero Fernandez
by Zoe Stagg

Real New Yorkers can do anything in the back of a cab, and Mary-Louise Parker is a real New Yorker. When her cab driver starts yelling out his window mid-conversation, she pauses until he’s done, and picks up again without missing a detail in her trademark, deadpan cadence. She’s a chameleon for a living, playing parts that range from a drug-dealing, suburban mom on Showtime’s Weeds to an action-movie damsel opposite Bruce Willis in the comic-to-screen movie Red, to her Tony-winning turn in Broadway’s Proof. It’s all a quick-change act that she’s pulled off since childhood. “I was exposed to lots growing up. I was never just with the rich kids, or the poor kids, or the middle class kids. I think that just being able to be comfortable with being the odd person out allows you to go into different situations and observe and just learn and not be scared. I feel like people who are really overburdened with a sense of self image are less likely to try new things. I spent a lot of time between the extremes in my life – and my family spent time in different levels of comfort – and I think that was really useful for me.” Parker has managed to take that skill and parlay it into a career that not many actresses can boast: a resume of projects without pigeon holes and no sign of stopping. But her success today has always had a price tag. “I felt like the odd one out a lot – because I was. And I still do a lot of the time. I never fit in. It wasn’t a question of learning to fit in, because I never have.”

Growing up as the daughter of an Army dad, outsider Parker moved around a lot, gaining worldly perspective along the way. “My parents really exposed me to all kinds of people. There was never any prejudice in our home about what you did, or how much money you had. It wasn’t like that.” That’s part of her upbringing she’s eager to pass on. “I want my kids to be like that too. My son went with me when I went to Africa,” Parker recalls of when she adopted a daughter from Ethiopia in 2007, “and it was really important to me that he saw that. I’m really conscious of the fact that they are in certain ways very over-privileged. Though in other ways I’m also very conscious of ways that it’s hard for them for me to be their mom. So I just have to neutralize all that, and hopefully they just feel loved and feel like they have a magical life – the one that I want them to have, and that my parents tried to give me.”

Having played parts in projects that have unflinchingly dealt with AIDS, both in Longtime Companion and Angels in America, Parker is committed to the idea that art can advance an argument and support a cause. “I think there are a million ways to express a thought. You can do it with a painting, or even photographs.” But that nudge to thought is just that: a first step. “Just because someone’s been moved, doesn’t mean that it’s going to enrich them or cause them to support anything. It has to be the right moment in their life and they have to open to it.” While both projects were shocking looks at this health emergency, time has passed. Parker’s career has now spanned a troubling trajectory of attitude regarding the disease. “What’s really terrifying to me is that a lot of kids see it as like something that can be maintained with medication. It’s not terrifying to them the way it was to us. I think they feel like they can take AZT and they’ll be fine. It’s like if you get a cold, you can take TheraFlu. I’m being flip, it’s not that extreme… but it’s not that scary at all. Kids have told me that. It doesn’t seem like a death sentence to them.” Even the best efforts of artistic movement and activism sometimes aren’t enough to do battle with the psyche and inspire people to take action. “People are going to do what’s convenient for them. Like, ‘It’s easier for me to sleep with this person than to go do this test, or it’s easier for me to not tell this about me.’ Sadly, I think people will do what’s convenient for them. Because I think, largely, the human spirit is lazy. People that I respond to in life are people who are not. Lazy is just something that is very hard for me to relate to.”

A propensity for sloth is just what the current generation of clicktivism is all about: just enough passion to “Like” something on Facebook, but not enough to get out and do something. “I think it’s so weird. I mean maybe I’m too old for that, but the whole Facebook, Twitter, MySpace? Guillermo Diaz,” she says of fellow Weeds actor, “and I were sitting around – and we do none of that – and we were joking about how we would say, “Hi! I’m hanging out with Guillermo Diaz today. He’s not wearing underwear.” Or “I just put extra milk in my coffee.” I mean who gives a SHIT? Who really cares? It’s just glorifying the banal in a way that’s just vulgar. To me there’s some beauty in being remote. This is just the way I communicate with people. I’ve never been a highly social animal. I just can’t relate to it at all.”

Though where there’s a vacuum, there’s the danger it will be filled. “People will create fake Facebook pages for you. There used to be one where a woman was asking for donations for a charity in my name. That’s just horrifying to me. You can just hijack anyone’s identity. You can hijack your own identity in this culture. You really can.” Flatly, Parker says, “I’d rather have all my teeth taken out than have a Facebook page.” Her dad on the other hand? “He’s 86, and he gets something out of it. He can see his children and it’s really great for him. He’s very modern, and really super bright and he’s not out amongst people as much, so I do see the value then.” It’s not the first, nor the last time she brings up her father, whom she clearly adores. He’s a World War II veteran who Parker defines as simply, “The most amazing person you’d ever meet.”

In the apple-and-tree scheme of things, Parker’s real, non-digitized work on behalf of causes shows pretty impressive generosity. And giving back isn’t something she feels like she has to do. “I wouldn’t say it’s an obligation; I would say it’s an inclination. Because really, if I can do anything, I will. I’m not a political person. I don’t read the newspaper, I’m not involved in politics even a little, but I have an emotional responsibility.” Recently participating in Aid for AIDS’ Best in Drag Show, she says, “That show was one of the greatest nights of my whole life. I was so honored to be there and they were so openhearted and so brave and bold. And it sounds so corny, but that was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.” Slacktivists take note: here’s how you really make a difference. “There was drag queen at the show who made a dress that was like a deli platter. These people are just unbelievable and you can’t believe they’d have that kind of sense of humor. And to me that’s just the opposite. That’s getting out there and making a fucking BALL GOWN, no matter how many T-cells they have, you know? That has my respect right there.”

Despite upcoming high-profile projects – Season 6 of Weeds and playing opposite Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren in Red – Parker is still the same corset-wearing board-trodder as when she started. “I don’t see what I do as glamorous. I went to theatre school, so I thought ‘Well, I’m going to be an actor who plays parts.’ I just thought that’s what an actor does. I never had a career trajectory in mind. I wasn’t shooting to be a movie star or that sort of thing. When I got my first few regional theatre jobs, I was thrilled. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had.” It’s still the work that attracts her. “I’ll play any part as long as it’s well-written; I don’t really care what it is.” And a lifetime of watching people from the outside gives her plenty of un-romanticized grist. “People are flawed. I’m not really interested in making a character likable or appealing. They’ve said that to me before on Weeds. ‘I don’t know… I think that makes her unlikeable.’ And I really just don’t give a shit. And I really don’t think that’s true. And if it is, well, I just really don’t care.”

Stepping from her cab, it’s clear after a life of living in different places and playing different people both likable and otherwise, New York is where she belongs. “I lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere and it is absolutely my home. My son was born here. It’s where I live and it’s what I am. I’ve been here 25 years. When I walk through Times Square close to curtain time, there’s a feeling I get that’s just completely indescribable. I had a secret exit when I was doing Proof and I remember just slipping out quietly and getting into the car and driving through Times Square and all the lights… I just never, ever got tired of it, and I hope I never do. I just love it, there’s nothing like it. It’s just the best city. I don’t know why you’d want to go anywhere else. It just suits me, and it’s who I am.” She pauses, thinking, and you know her next thought will be poignantly considered and worth the wait. “It’s a little hard and it’s a little sparkly, and you either want to be here or you don’t. And when it lets you in, it makes you feel… accepted.”

So in New York City at least, Mary-Louise Parker finally fits in.

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