Together, Mary-Louise Parker’s many roles bring to mind an E. E. Cummings line: “nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals / the power of your intense fragility.” Throughout her three decades of acting, Parker has embodied vulnerable roles with ferocity and delicacy. In the miniseries Angels in America, she was Harper Pitt, a valium-addicted agoraphobe; in her breakout film, Fried Green Tomatoes, she was Ruth Jamison, a victim of domestic abuse; and in the long-running HBO series Weeds, she was Nancy Botwin, a pot-dealing suburbanite mother.
Despite her on-screen success, Parker considers herself more of a “stage animal.” She once said of theater: “Sometimes it rips me up and spits me out, but I don’t even mind.” She continues to act on the stage, most recently appearing in Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg—a two-person play about a chance meeting in a train station between a woman in her forties and a man in his seventies. With no props but two chairs, the actors are left to orbit each other and collide for eighty minutes without intermission. This is her idea of bliss.
Parker also sought no-frills emotional honesty in her memoir, Dear Mr. You, which was born from a column she’d written for Esquire. The book is narrated in the form of letters, each addressed to the men of her past—romantic figures, mentors, fleeting connections. The prose is lyrical, funny, boldly unapologetic, but never unkind. “Risk creates intimacy,” she writes, recalling advice from a former mentor in the letter “Dear Risk Taker.” By exposing herself emotionally, Parker invites us close enough to force our own self-reflection.
The following interview was conducted at Parker’s apartment in Brooklyn, where she lives with her two children and their dog, Eleanor Roosevelt. Small talk seemed to make her anxious, so we didn’t waste time with pleasantries. She spoke with candor and generosity about her work, while snacking on dried mulberries.
Toward the end of our conversation, I told her the romantic story of my parents’ meeting. She replied, empathically: “That ruins you, sadly. You’re never going to get somebody to believe in that [kind of love] unless they see it for themselves. They have to want to manifest that. They have to want it so badly.” When I asked her if she thinks such romance is an illusion, she says she’s divided: part of her doesn’t believe in it—she doesn’t see it anywhere—but she’s also moved by the stories, which means she still has hope.
Before I left, she showed me through her framed broadsides of poetry. When I mentioned Philip Levine, she took me to her study, with its bloodred walls covered in sticky notes, and showed me a folded copy of a Levine poem that her father always kept in his wallet. She now keeps it in her desk, together with his other favorite poems.
I. “I WANTED TO BE JOHN MALKOVICH. I DIDN’T WANT TO BE AMERICA’S SWEETHEART.”
THE BELIEVER: When did you start paying attention to words? MARY-LOUISE PARKER: I think probably in songs. I was force-fed a lot of music when I was little, by my teenage brother and sister. I knew all the words to most of the Beatles songs by the time I was four or five. It’s usually the lyrics in music that move me; it’s usually the text in theater that moves me. I’ve always written and I’ve always been somebody who loves poetry. I think of lyrics as poetry also. A lot of people don’t like poetry and I think it’s because they want to understand it and say they don’t understand it. But I think it’s so much like music: you really just have to let it wash over you sometimes. Sometimes it’s just the rhythm. There’s something to do with the rhythm of words that I’ve always found super moving, which is ironic because I was such a quiet child. Maybe that isn’t ironic, because I was the one listening, I guess. I was very, very quiet—I stuttered and I didn’t talk very much, but I read. I liked to be inside another narrative. I think that’s a fairly common thing—lonely children like to live inside someone else’s life. And then I grew up to be someone who stepped inside other people’s realities. I find that comforting and freeing and it is what makes me feel—it is when I feel the least lonely.
BLVR: When you step into someone else’s narrative?
MLP: Yeah. When I’m onstage—not on film—but onstage, I can just go. Like in Heisenberg, with [actor Denis Arndt], who was just so extraordinary and so wanted to go with me. I felt more connected to him or to David Morse in How I Learned to Drive than I have in many relationships in life. [Pause] And in writing, too.
BLVR: How so?
MLP: I find it really thrilling and relaxing and fun. I don’t apply those particular words to hardly anything else—except maybe sex. It’s all about communicating. If you are somebody who doesn’t have a natural ease with other people—I’m really fucking lucky that I get to do things so I can talk to people in a way that feels really honest and really unzipped and satisfying. It’s not that satisfying to communicate with other people sometimes.
BLVR: Is there something about the structure of your memoir— personal letters that no one has to respond to—that enables more-successful communication with the people of your past than any previous attempts at communication?
MLP: Yeah! Yeah! Well said. [Laughs] The end. [Laughs]
BLVR: Was it always going to be letters? How did that structure come about?
MLP: My editor at Esquire called and asked me to write a piece about men in general. I said, “Could you be more specific?” And he said, “Not a finger-wagging thing.” And I said, “I can’t do that.” And then I just sat down and it came out like a letter. “To You, Whom It May Concern.” I loved writing it like that. It felt like the beginning of something I could just keep going with. All these memories kept coming; it was such a freeing format. When my editor asked me to write about my dad, that was also direct address. I had been wanting to write a book and wasn’t really sure how—but I liked the idea that these two letters or thank-yous might frame something. To me, the book is just a bunch of thank-you notes, anyway, because I think apologies are thank-you notes also. It’s the same thing. I wanted it to be about gratitude and I wanted it to be positive. I didn’t want it to be snarky or bitter. I wanted to be truthful and I wanted it to be a celebration, under the umbrella of my dad, who was so massively influential to me and who probably created this little male-centric, man-hungry—that sounded horrible, but—
BLVR: Or just truthful.
MLP: [Laughs] It wasn’t very well said. But this little—whatever that is in me that’s never really sated, and now will never be sated, because I don’t have my dad anymore. His was the one approval that I needed and that was so complete and thorough I didn’t even seek approval elsewhere, except in wanting a man for myself in the way that he and my mother had one another. He was so devoted to my mother. I wanted to have that, too, and realized at a certain point, That ain’t gonna happen, not like that. But I realize just how affected I am by men. By their approval or disdain or dismissal of me, or their love. Then you add sex into the equation. I couldn’t write a book about men without sex in it, because sex is quite uncomplicated for me. I’m not freaked-out by it. It’s just not shocking to me. It’s something that was always really present and necessary and good.
BLVR: Where you don’t even have to deal with language.
MLP: It’s a different kind of language. Exactly. But you can be so real without using language. And it’s also a great place to use language—not to get cheeky or whatever. I felt like it wouldn’t be a truthful book if sex was extracted from it—if that was extracted from it, it’d be like, “This ain’t no book about Mary-Louise Parker.”
BLVR: I think for a lot of this book the sex is there, it’s present, it’s a part of life, it’s a part of human interaction, but you’re never apologizing for it; you’re not ashamed and you’re not hiding it.
MLP: I don’t have any of those impulses, really. I graduated early from high school because I felt so unsuccessful at being a highschool student. I was never asked to a dance, I never went on a date, I just left high school feeling really invisible. When I went to college—it was an art school—suddenly there were freaks everywhere. I was so ready for that. It was like someone had just taken the lid off of a pot or something. It wasn’t something I was trying to provoke with; it was something that I was just really happy to be feeling. I don’t even know that it was something that I was separating from anything else; it was just all a part of being uncensored and feeling unzipped and feeling free and extreme and being allowed to be extreme. I don’t know if you can separate sex from that. It’s all appetite. And it’s all fear.
BLVR: Was there ever a point when you started being aware of the fact that to be a woman in our society and to own sexuality in that way for some people can be seen as subversive?
MLP: I guess so. It’s curious—when you’re an actor, people really rush to categorize you. I was in theater and on Broadway and people saw me as one kind of creature. Then I did a couple of movies and people didn’t really see them and then I did the first movie that people really saw, which was Fried Green Tomatoes. Suddenly there was this assumption that I was Southern, or that I was this apron-wearing, homesteady type. At a certain point, with women, people realize there’s no effective way to really pigeonhole you, if they haven’t been able to successfully do that yet. The women who are the most successful in my business—financially or in the classic terms of success—are the ones who are a “thing.” Even if they go off and do this kind of role, they’re still basically that “thing.” I think I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to sort of go different places. I didn’t have an excess of beauty that would get in the way, so I could still play somebody who was unattractive. My looks aren’t that extreme, so I can look like different things, use different aspects of myself. I wanted to be John Malkovich. I didn’t want to be America’s sweetheart.
BLVR: What do you mean by that?
MLP: I remember Bruce Springsteen saying, “I wanted to go into people’s homes, I wanted to set them on fire,” and that’s how I felt about the theater. I wanted to bang up typewriters with golf clubs. I wanted to set theaters on fire. I wanted to do new plays. I wanted to be seismic when you go into the theater; I didn’t want people to fall in love with me necessarily. Do you know what I mean? Of course you want people to like you, but I had to let go of that a long time ago. I’m not for everyone. I’m not somebody that people are going to across the board get behind and love. I’m not overburdened by image, so I can—
MLP: Ya, somewhat. I don’t have to worry about losing my audience. I don’t do social media, so I don’t have followers, but to me that’s emblematic of something I would never do. The idea of having followers is obscene.
BLVR: Throughout your career you’ve played characters who find strength in vulnerability and in exposing themselves.
MLP: That’s true. I’m interested in characters at their most brave or their most cowardly. To me, bravery is almost the most moving thing to witness. When you see true bravery, someone really putting themselves behind someone else—nothing brings me to my knees like that. On the other hand, there’s almost nothing harder to look at than when somebody’s really cowardly; nothing makes you wince more. I like the extremes. I like the ugly-ugly. And I like the silly-silly. I’m not much for the nicey-nice thing.
BLVR: Do you feel a significant difference between the vulnerability and explorations of acting versus writing?
MLP: It’s funny, when I’m acting I feel really self-protecting. I can be shut down so easily and I can be knocked off balance really easily. I’m not somebody who can just roll in. I have to be in a certain state. I have to have a lot of preparation and then I have to feel that I can let go of that preparation. But with writing I don’t feel so touchy. With acting I feel like I have to be protecting myself all the time because I might get shut down or I might shut myself down. Live performance is so much better than film because no one can stop you. When you’re on a set there’s a whole social element. Especially as a woman, people expect you to be much more friendly and welcoming than men. Whereas, though I’m a bit of an exhibitionist, I’m also a reserved person. Something inside me is fighting itself: to hold back and to give everything. That’s what it is. There is a fight all the time. And when I’m acting, I can give all, but I can’t if I feel at all like something’s in my way or I feel threatened. I want to be relaxed and be somebody who comes in and lets everything roll off her back, but I’m not that person when I’m acting.
II. DEAR SHITHEAD
BLVR: Was the process of creating characters from your past cathartic for you? Was it at all different from the catharsis you reach at the end of a performance?
MLP: Ideally, if it’s a perfect experience like Heisenberg was— perfectly imperfect—there’s nothing better than when you walk off the stage. The only thing better is being out there. You walk off and you feel wrung out. My costar and I would sit in the dressing room after, share a shot of tequila, and just stare at each other, barely speaking. It’s a great feeling. Mary Karr talks about how a lot of stuff comes up that is physical when you’re writing. She got pneumonia for the first time when she was writing her first book. I almost died while writing this. I was really sick. But I don’t know if it’s cathartic. I did feel super energized and thrilled sometimes while I was writing. But I didn’t feel any kind of release, necessarily. Really, after you’ve acted you do feel a greater sense of space in you. It’s like after you meditate or something—you feel a little bit more space, a little bit lighter, a little bit sweeter.
BLVR: Do you have any anticipation of what an audience’s reaction will be?
MLP: I try to stay away from certain kinds of reactions, because we’ve become this culture of humiliation. Everybody has an opinion and everybody has a platform. Sometimes I wonder why we have to have an opinion? I ask that of myself sometimes if I’m being overly critical of something. I think we could all do with having far fewer opinions. Our country could afford to be way more Canadian, I think. There’s something healthier about that.
BLVR: In your book, you imply that certain people have allowed you to understand your own place in the narrative of your life. You see them as an extension of yourself.
MLP: There used to be this letter in the book that everyone hated, except for me and maybe two other people, “Dear Erwin Schrödinger.” I love Schrödinger’s cat experiment. Trying to measure the distance between you and another person is impossible. You never know how far away they really are, because you’re the one interfering with that measurement. You don’t really know where you begin or end and you don’t really know where they begin or end. You don’t know if that cat is dead or alive or both. You don’t know what happened to that cat in that box. Who knows what it is or isn’t, forever. You have no idea. I’m here to tell you, if I know one thing: you have no idea. We don’t know what’s coming. We know a couple of things. There will be weather. We will die.
BLVR: From the get-go you acknowledge that these stories are plucked from your life. Does writing a memoir invite personal critique?
MLP: I think had I written it as a traditional memoir, if it wasn’t creative writing, if it weren’t poetic and if it weren’t abstract, I don’t know that I could withstand that. But I also wouldn’t be interested in writing that kind of book.
BLVR: One of the things that makes this book at once so specific and so general is the form of the second-person letter.
MLP: I couldn’t stop! My editor said to me, “OK, did I really just get ‘Dear Guys I Met at Benihana Last Night’?” I walked in one day and on my bulletin board I see “Dear Shithead.” Nobody in the house is taking responsibility for it. My daughter swears that I wrote it and I don’t remember having written it.
BLVR: Were there other sources of inspiration or consolation you turned to while writing?
MLP: I mostly read poetry. Only recently have I honestly gone back to reading and it has made me so unbelievably happy. For the longest time I used the excuse for not reading that I have children, because I would always fall into bed exhausted at the end of the night. Sometimes I would find myself in hotels and I would be by myself and I would have half an hour before I had to be somewhere and I wouldn’t know what to do so I’d turn on the TV and watch Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel. It was so embarrassing. I didn’t know how to do anything else. I had stopped doing a bunch of things when I had kids that now I’m saying I have to do. And it’s actually for my kids. If it’s for me, it’s for them. Now, I can say to them, “Let’s all go get our books and go sit on the bed and read.” What the hell is better than that? Nothing.
BLVR: That was one of my favorite rituals growing up—reading in bed with my parents. To this day, they always have a book they read together aloud to one another before bed.
MLP: No! And they’re still together? That’s probably why…
BLVR: Do you have poets you’ve been turning to lately?
MLP: I have the same ones as always, and at the moment I’m reading Kevin Young and really obsessed with him. He has this line: “At night I count / not the stars / but the dark.” Mark Strand—he was really important to me. His anthology, which came out a few years back, is by my bed. And Stanley Kunitz I love. Jorie Graham. I like this guy Andrew Zawacki. I also just read this book Making Maxine’s Baby by Caroline Hagood. I thought that was a really beautiful book of poetry and I just happened to stumble upon her reading at Book Court. I love Charles Simic, and Philip Levine, I love. I have a line from a Philip Levine poem stenciled on my wall in the country: “…the one road / whitened in moonlight leads everywhere.” It’s from “Ask for Nothing.”
BLVR: Levine’s poems are so humble. They make you long for all the big words, the big nouns. We’ve lost a whole generation of those kinds of poets: Philip Levine, Mark Strand, Galway Kinnell.
MLP: Galway Kinnell! I can’t even. You know you think, all your life, If I were going to write a book, what would I put as the epigraph? What’s my favorite line from a poem? The dedication of my book is just “For my mother.” But there were a few lines of poetry I considered putting in. One was from Wallace Stevens, a line from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and one from his poem “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu” and then [Mark Strand’s line] “…in / A world without heaven all is farewell. / Whether you wave your hand or not,” his answer to the Wallace Stevens poem. But the line I really wanted to put was from Galway Kinnell’s “When the Towers Fell”: “Sorry sorry good luck thank you.”