On a recent Sunday evening a snaking single-file line of finely dressed, thirty-something men formed at the box office of the Playwrights Horizons Theater on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. Freshly coiffed and visibly anxious, the gentlemen resembled suitors waiting their turns to court a princess. In truth, they simply hoped to score tickets to a sold-out play that, frankly, wasn’t even all that good.
The first man in line approached the ticket agent unsurely. “I just wanted to check again to make sure my name hasn’t been called,” he said. “Where should I stand to wait?”
The next guy, his hair gelled and his suit pressed, asked, “Can you make sure I’m on the list?” A forlorn-looking man standing outside simply mumbled over and over, “I need a ticket, I need a ticket.” These men were not here because they wanted to see Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a slightly funny play about, as one might suspect, a woman who answers a dead man’s cell phone. No, these men were here for Mary-Louise Parker.
What explains the suddenly ascending sex appeal of the 43-year-old actress who, until recently, was best known for her role in the 1991 chick-flick Fried Green Tomatoes? How did the star of such other family-friendly fare as Boys on the Side and The West Wing transform into one of the nation’s more coveted sexpots, luring scores of men to see an otherwise unremarkable play? Why does Googling “Mary-Louise Parker” and “MILF” pull up 79,100 hits?
Parker calls it sheer dumb luck. She didn’t set out to become a much-beloved sex symbol, she says, it just happened. Her career-changing decision to take a role on Showtime’s Weeds as a housewife-turned-pot-dealer, who somehow always seems to end up splayed across a desk in a lacy bra and black panties, was not strategic. “I always took the best thing that was offered to me,” says Parker.
In person, Parker resembles her TV, movie and theater characters, only more so. The sheen of her signature alabaster skin is brighter, the bulge of her breasts more prominent. On this afternoon, she’s decked out in a black Gucci jacket, black Prada boots, a gray knit dress by Mon Petit Oiseau and knee-high stockings that call out, ‘Hey, I dare you to try to avoid staring at my thighs.’ Her dapper assistant, Jeff, hovers inconspicuously one table away. Parker casually uses a large vocabulary, slipping in words such as “disquieting” when something much less expressive would suffice. She also crinkles her nose a lot, like a genie — sometimes it’s her way of emphasizing a point, sometimes it’s her way of saying, ‘This is a boring, awkward moment.’ And like her character on Weeds, she affects a big-eyed, girlishly surprised expression when something not so surprising transpires — for example, a reporter tells her he doesn’t read much fiction. It’s kind of adorable and makes you want to surprise her.
“I don’t have something mapped out,” Parker says. “A lot of people think, ‘I want to do this kind of movie and this kind of movie so I can achieve this.’ I don’t think in that sense. I take jobs. I gained more success as I got older.”
Indeed, the twin pillars of Parker’s suddenly booming fame — her commercial and critical success, as well as her place alongside the uni-name starlets in the tabloids — trace their roots back to a single, relatively recent and perhaps unlikely event: becoming a mother. Parker’s 2003 pregnancy may be famous for generating some of the more tawdry headlines in recent memory, but it is more notable for bringing the sexy back to motherhood.
This is not to say that Mary-Louise Parker’s career began the moment she got knocked up. In 1990, at the age of 24, Mary-Louise, as her friends do indeed call her, landed a lead role in the Off-Broadway premiere of Craig Lucas’s supernatural romance Prelude to a Kiss. Her star-turn landed her a Tony Award nomination, a number of movie roles and a romance with her co-star, Timothy Hutton.
Though Parker’s first and only love is the “journeyman, blue-collar” world of theater — “With movies it’s like, ‘What are the numbers? Did people come out to see it?’ Nothing about it is the same” — she spent most of the next decade in front of a camera. She played the abused wife in Fried Green Tomatoes, and the mobile-home momma Dianne Sway in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s The Client. You may have also seen her partnered with John Cusack in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. Her most hardcore fans remember her bewigged appearance in Longtime Companion, an early, notable film about the AIDS epidemic. Her highest-profile theater gig in the 1990s was her Obie Award-winning turn in How I Learned to Drive.
Her career “snowballed,” she says, with back-to-back successes in 2001 — one on the stage, one on the small screen. First, Parker won a Tony for her starring Broadway role in Proof — the second time her acting contributed to Hollywood’s decision to adapt a play, then casting a better-known actress for her role. (Meg Ryan got the nod for Prelude to a Kiss, Gwyneth Paltrow for Proof.) Next, she won the heart of most every American male between the ages of about 20 and, say, dead, with her all-too-brief Emmy-nominated turn as the flirtatious feminist Amy Gardner on The West Wing.
Parker’s roles have had little in common, other than Parker herself. She plays a Southern-fried girl one day, the Chief of Staff to the First Lady the next. Each time, though, a bit of Parker shines through — the crinkling nose, the surprised looks, the undeniable smarts, the ineffable hotness. Parker was well on her way along the same approximate career track as maybe Joan Allen or Helen Mirren — a respectable track, to be sure, but one that would have been wholly devoid of the photo shoots and magazine covers and starring roles that have marked the last few years of Parker’s life. And then Parker got knocked up, and everything changed.
Motherhood complicated Parker’s career in ways traditional and ground breaking, predictable and novel — the changes began, however, not with her son’s birth in January 2004, but with the scandal that erupted two months earlier, which Parker famously (and understandably) refuses to discuss. Nearly every profile of Parker opens with a line about how much the obsessively private Parker hates to be interviewed. Reporters do this for two reasons: First, they hope to appear brave and to make clear why they were unable to elicit anything particularly interesting from their meeting with Parker. And then second, because it’s true.
“A lot of the people who have interviewed me have said at the end of the interview, ‘Oh, I thought that was going to be so hard, I was so scared, I was so nervous,'” Parker says. “I just did this interview with The New York Times, and it’s valid, because I did say to him I didn’t want to do the interview, and now I wish I hadn’t, because he made it all about that, when we went on to talk for almost two hours, and we had a nice talk and we were laughing and I know all about his life.”
As much as it pains all of us — particularly Parker — the incident that brought Parker’s private life so much undesired attention (“Mary-Louise Parker” and “scandal”: 489,000 hits), one can hardly make sense of her distinctive career, or her pained relationship with the press, without it.
In late 2003, when Parker was seven months pregnant with the fetus that would soon become the uncommonly cute William Atticus Parker, Parker’s longtime partner, the heartthrob Billy Crudup, left her for a younger, blonder woman — My So-Called Life‘s Claire Danes. Crudup instantly became one of Manhattan’s more reviled villains for his apparent lack of gallantry; Parker became a folk hero for her astonishing stores of resilience. Though neither Parker nor Crudup has ever publicly discussed the specific circumstances, one clue suggests that the separation may not have been as hostile as many believe: Parker still gave their son, William, his father’s name.
Ironically and Oedipally though not coincidentally, motherhood has transformed Parker into a pinup girl. Her naked rump can be found in the pages of Esquire, her bare torso in ads for Weeds. And thanks in part to a rap by Weeds guest-star Snoop Dogg, Parker is also now perhaps the world’s most famous MILF (if you have to look it up, you probably shouldn’t)
Parker began filming Weeds, which enters its fourth season in June, about a year after William’s birth. Parker plays Nancy Botwin, a suburban soccer mom who turns to selling — you guessed it weed — after her husband dies while out for a jog. The show is notable on many counts. It ranks as the first prime-time (cable) show to portray pot the way that millions of Americans perceive it — not that big of a deal. It has also further established the idea that smart television can in fact gain an audience and survive (if only on cable). And, in a nod to Freud, Weeds marks the return after an extended absence of Mother as sex symbol. In an era where many cover girls have yet to develop hips, Parker takes distinct feminist pride in having her sexy moment while standing at the precipice of middle age.
But Parker feels no need to clear up misconceptions, or voice her take on her life, as most clearly demonstrated by her total embargo on ‘The Breakup’. She disdains that so much of what already gets published is wrong. Contrary to published reports, she is not a Southerner, she says — spending the first six months of her life in South Carolina hardly qualifies her as a Dixie chick. (She’s more like a traditional military kid, with layovers everywhere from Thailand and Germany to Tennessee and Arizona.) She’s not engaged to a Weeds co-star, she says, contrary to what you might have read (“Mary-Louise Parker” and “engaged” and “Jeffrey Dean Morgan”: 37,600 hits.) Indeed, she says, she is quite single.
Parker hates that once the media fixes on a particular story, that’s the one story reporters will continue to tell, as if it’s a bad habit. She cites a Daniel Day-Lewis interview in which he claims that he could drink until the wee hours of the morning and bond with a reporter and still come out, as always: looking like an undertaker. Reporters have an attitude of, “‘this is what we already know, and let’s perpetuate it,'” she says. In her case, it’s the simple story of a Southern girl, wronged by a Hollywood Lothario, who moves on to find love with her co-star. Wrong, wrong and wrong.
Therefore, already inclined to a privacy that borders on obsessive-compulsive, Parker never shares more than the little details on the edges — the candidate she favors (Obama), her current reading (a book of short stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides), her unrequited crushes (that “sexy prick” Campbell Scott). She wonders why reporters even ask. “Maybe you think I’m going to go, ‘Congratulations, you’re the one, I’m finally going to [really open up]. It’s just not going to happen — ever,” she says. “So I don’t know why people ask certain things. Because I’m never going to answer them.”