Mary-Louise Parker rarely gives interviews. And she’s never given one to a British newspaper. You might say ‘well who is she anyway, so who cares’? Well she’s one to watch that’s who she is. Although you shouldn’t conclude from that that she is some new arrival just embarking on the slippery slide up the greasy pole of showbiz success. She’s been around for a while and actually she’s THE one to watch. But her professional life has been spent much more on stage than film, which is probably why her name doesn’t dance on your lips in the way her talent demands.
At almost 40, she’s one of the very best actresses of her generation who, on and off Broadway, has been nominated for every stage award on offer; a full set of formal professional compliments that culminated in the year 2000 when she finally took home every one of them for her performance in David Auburn’s Proof.
This week she will arrive in Britain on television in The West Wing as Amy Gardner, the Women’s Rights campaigner who falls for Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) in a relationship redolent of the kind of Hepburn/Tracy romance, wit and sophistication to which the political drama so successfully aspires. Sex crackles through every moment of their verbal jousting. “I want a seven minute sex scene “, she says with a bit of a bad-girl glint, “Just me and Brad. And then the whole time we’re talking in perfect paragraphs.”
While she has been so lauded for her stage work, Parker has not been without some modest film success. She packed in far more than the role had room for when she played Ed Norton’s wife in the Hannibal Lecter pre-quel, Red Dragon, and people invariably remember her poignant portrait of the battered young wife in Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe. And she gave expression to a career long commitment to the fight against AIDS by appearing uncontroversially with Whoopie Goldberg and Drew Barrymore in the slushy road movie Boys on the Side in 1995, where she played a young woman dying of AIDS, and more challengingly in 1990 in Longtime Companion the first major feature film release about AIDS, directed by her mentor Norman Rene who died in 1997. And she has just completed filming Angels in America, the Tony Kushner stage trilogy that used AIDS as the binding narrative in a sprawling and brilliant critique of contemporary America. Directed by Mike Nicholls and co-starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson it is, she says “one of the greatest parts I have ever read. I have never got a part that I wanted so badly.”
This conversation has taken a long time to organise. Stressed publicists combined with apparently punishing schedules – changed irregularly at the whim of the West Wing producers – meant that the time and place altered day-by-day from New York to LA. Finally we’re in New York where she lives with the actor Billy Cruddup. She apologises. Very nicely. “I got back one time from LA and twenty-five minutes later I got a call saying can I come back. I hadn’t even unpacked my bags. So however frustrated you were…. “ But she concedes “Yeah I know … I will for ever be known now as the bitch who scheduled and re-scheduled.” Well, yes you will.
But even though she definitely confirms the reputation that precedes her for being a bit of a flake, the pain swiftly subsides because she’s good fun to talk to. The bits in between the often rather dreamy pauses are filled with intelligent, smart, yet often slightly vague, conversation, which is punctuated with the realisation that she is very beautiful indeed and thank goodness is wearing large actressy dark glasses. She is a beguiling combination of the discreet and un-showy with flamboyance and revelation. She barely talks about her family and upbringing, yet she’ll appear naked in Esquire. Twice. The second time she only did it on the condition that the editor did it too “so that he could get the feel of the experience. That way when he next suggests a photo or looks at one, he will have the whole other, more deeply informed point of view. Egalitarian. I’ll show you some of mine if you show me some of yours.” She’s a classy kind of tomboy.
We had to move restaurants too because the first one – an Upper East Side fashionable euro-deli – was full of thin Upper East Side un-euro women with kids who screamed. So we ended up in an unfashionable diner two blocks away. And there, instead of just paying the minimum to be able to sit at a table now we only wanted coffee, Ms Parker ordered apple sauce and a Greek salad. She then had it wrapped and given to me to take to Central Park after the interview to give to a homeless person. “You can leave it on a bench” she said helpfully. It was a genuinely nice, if rather inconvenient gesture. It seemed typical of her scatty kind of passion.
On being asked about her family she heads you off by saying, “It would cost me and them more than anyone would gain by reading it.” But what you can glean from her is that she was an army brat and she lived all over the place as a child. She went to North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston Salem – “you know where that is?” she asks helpfully – and she clearly adores her parents. She wrote of her father in Esquire that he was “a sweetheart, a warrior, a magician, and, these days, a positive happy man. He is seventy-six and he’s improving.”
She eventually ended up living with her “incredibly supportive” sister in Texas when she decided to audition for plays. There had been no life long desire to be an actress and no moment of revelation when she realised that was what she wanted to do. “I don’t ever remember wanting to be an actress before I knew what it was. I was too shy at school to do it. I was terribly unsocial. Very solitary. I oftentimes felt a real inability to communicate as a child. It was excruciating. It was funny when I started acting because it was just easy, natural. It is the one time I feel that I can fully communicate with the world and I feel completely unself-conscious, honest and present in the world in a way that it is often difficult for me to feel in life. Before I was this incredibly awkward, lonely, look-at-me-wrong-and-I’ll-cry kind of girl. It transformed me absolutely socially.”
And she believes that theatre transforms audiences too. “If you ever go to the theatre and you sit there and (in a play you’re not enjoying very much) take a moment to look around and maybe you’ll light on a face of someone who is enjoying it and for that one moment that person is relieved of whatever burden they had when they walked in. People need a moment to catch their breath. And it is where you understand empathy too. You get to put yourself in the role of someone who is totally different from you.” Then she adds, “Sometimes I think Oh God shouldn’t I be in The Peace Corps or whatever, but you know someone has to entertain the Peace Corps… though of course the people in The Peace Corps can’t afford to go to the theatre at the moment…. we’ll work on that one.”
Parker comfortably fits the kind of liberal actress stereotype so despised by the right-wing American commentators, the kind of people who call her show The Left Wing. But ask her if she’s politically aware and she responds instantly “Oh no, I am not. I am trying. The show teaches me a lot. My brother gave me two books for Christmas: the dictionary of American politics and a book of legal terms. I’m still on the phone though every two minutes to him, going ‘Jay, what’s a gag rule?’. I just love that about the show. Aaron (Sorkin, the writer) doesn’t pander to the audience. I love that I barely understand it when I watch it. I think if you raise the bar a little people will step up to it. If you keep feeding them reality TV the whole time that’s all they’ll want. And programmes like Batchelor (You don’t know it? Lucky for you!) make me feel embarrassed to be a human being and an American”.
President Bush just makes that worse for her. “I mean he’s trying to stop abortion in this country. He says he’s devoted to life or whatever his exact phrase was and now he’s about ready to bomb people. That doesn’t sound like an intelligent person.” Like so many Americans she’d rather have Martin Sheen’s fictional President than the real one. “You know I love this country, I really do. But I have a very hard time going to other countries and being faced with any kind of animosity for being an American. I feel like ‘F*** you. They don’t answer my calls in the White House.’ “ Though of course they do on TV.
She has recently taken her politics to the screen, in another way than her fictional forays into women’s rights on the West Wing. After September 11th she made a series of ads to counter Hate Crime. “Thank you for asking about that”, she says, “No-one ever asks about that. Everybody was looking for something to do. On TV I saw the story about the Sikh gentleman who was murdered at the supermarket in Arizona and I was really devastated by it. That’s terrorism too. We don’t need to be starting little wars. So we made these ads called Stop The Hate. In the ad we say ‘Remember what the flag you’re waving stands for. In America there’s either room for everyone or it’s not America’. You know there’s no such thing as someone who is more American. We’re all citizens”. The ads showed on TV, but nothing like as often as they were supposed to. “There’s something called the ad council. I’ve been trying to get an answer about that from them, but no-one seems to want to talk about it.”
I guess it’s facile to say that Amy Gardner would get an answer. But that’s what makes Parker such a great actress. She really is nothing like the women she plays. In fact she’s so good she’s barely recognisable in them. How different I think ‘Politically focussed Amy and well intentioned Mary-Louise’, as I deliver our second lunch to a bench in Central Park.