“After I open up a play script, I have to love it a lot before I say yes,” says Tony Award winner Mary-Louise Parker. “I don’t work on something just because it’s there. Theater is hard work, especially doing it eight times a week. And believe me, it gets harder as I get older.”
Parker, who recently turned 55, has found success in every entertainment medium—from her award-winning work as drug-dealing housewife Nancy on Showtime’s “Weeds” and the drug-addled Mormon wife Harper Pitt in the HBO adaptation of “Angels in America” to her roles in such acclaimed films as “Longtime Companion,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Red.” But doing theater remains Parker’s greatest passion. She’s returning to the Broadway stage this fall in Adam Rapp’s striking two-character drama “The Sound Inside” (which begins previews on Sept. 14 at Studio 54), in which she plays Bella, a college professor of English who strikes up an unusual friendship with one of her students.
The actress, who lives in Brooklyn with her 15-year-old son, Will, and her 12-year-old daughter, Caroline (whom she adopted from Ethiopia), spoke to IN New York about why she chose this play, the challenges of being a single mother and what she sees in her future.
So, you must have loved “The Sound Inside” immediately?
No. When I first read it to myself, I didn’t think I was right for it. But when I did a reading of it for the Williamstown Theatre Festival [where she performed the play in 2018]—I think we did it in my living room—and I heard myself reading it aloud, I felt like, yes, this is right. Within the first few lines, I felt truly comfortable with the part. It’s always a hard decision for me to commit to a show; even though I’ve never been married, I feel like taking on a play is like agreeing to be married for a short period of time.
In addition to being a teacher, Bella is also a writer. And so are you; you published a memoir called “Dear Mr. You” in 2015. Was that one reason you felt comfortable with the role?
I don’t necessarily need that kind of personal insight into a character. But yes, I’ve always written. I wrote for Esquire magazine for many years, and even some of my close friends didn’t know about that. In fact, I think I am happier writing than acting. But I do understand a lot about Bella, especially her intellect. Although I think she likes gathering facts more than I do. And, generally, I think she’s smarter than I am.
Like a lot of your stage work, from “Prelude to a Kiss” to “Proof” to “Heisenberg,” this will be the second time you’ve done the same play. Is that something you do on purpose?
No, but it’s one of the things I’m proudest of. When you do a play the first time, you never know if it will work. And especially if you do it in New York, you have to be prepared to listen to people detailing everything they dislike about it. You have to be able to withstand their glee about how much they hate you. Luckily, I can do that. But the real joy for me is, no matter how well a first run goes, every play always gets better the second time you do it! [Editor’s Note: On Aug. 13, it was announced that Parker would be returning to Broadway in spring 2020 in a play she first performed Off-Broadway in 1997, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel. Appearing opposite Parker on Broadway will be her original co-star, David Morse.]
There are a lot of similarities between this play and “Heisenberg.” Were you looking to replicate that experience?
No! I said to everyone after doing “Heisenberg” that I would never do another two-character play, never do a play where I talked so much and never do a play where I had to directly address the audience—and now I’m doing all three again. Sometimes, I think the surest way to get me to do something is to announce I’ll never do it again. But I promise you, I won’t be doing much else—or talking much at home—during the run of this play!
How do you balance single motherhood with this career?
Sometimes, I don’t know how I do this. When the kids were younger, and I did TV in Los Angeles, they could come out with me. But now I find it isn’t usually worth it for me to be away from them. I don’t see how you can be a mother from another city, never mind another country. Fortunately, I’m not super-ambitious when it comes to my career, and I can make the choice, financially, not to leave New York if I don’t want to.
Why did you choose to raise the kids in New York? You’re not from here originally. Is it just that the work is here?
They have so many things available to them here, from going to museums and concerts to doing volunteer work, and especially seeing theater, which they both love. Will [whose father is Tony-winning actor Billy Crudup] has literally been part of this world before he could walk. I remember taking him to see the dance troupe Pilobolus when he was 4 years old, and the usher warned me there was nudity, and all I thought was “Thank God!” Will already has three completely full Playbill binders. I suspect he’ll follow his parents into acting; it’s in his every fiber, and he’s very good at it. Caroline is good at a lot of things, including art and music. But the most important thing for me is that they’ve become nice people, honest people, and they always look out for the underdog!
You’ve said you’re not sure how much longer you’ll keep acting. Do you know what’s next?
I am not sure. I am always writing, but I need to find an organizing principle to finish something. I tend to overwrite, and then I rewrite like a fiend. But I might like to try my hand as a playwright. And I always thought I’d be a better dramaturg than an actor because I love structure. If I do stop acting, though, I feel like I have had more than my share of success—more than I ever wanted or expected.
As hard as acting is, especially now, would you encourage young people to go into the profession?
Absolutely. One of my favorite things is to be a mentor or coach to young performers. You can tell quickly if someone is really invested in the process, which is what matters, and not just the result of the process. It’s funny, I found a letter the other day from many years ago where someone tried to talk me out of going to an acting conservatory. Thankfully, my father gave me encouragement to pursue my dreams. [Parker graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.] I tell young people that you don’t need a fallback profession; you have the right to believe that impossible dreams can become possible. If you need a fairy godmother, well, I am more than happy to be that fairy godmother.
“The Sound Inside,” Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., 212.239.6200, www.soundinsidebroadway.com. Previews begin Sept. 14, 2019, opens Oct. 17, 2019, tickets on sale through Jan. 12, 2020