Visit Mary-Louise Parker’s New York home, and you’ll notice a small stage that’s a permanent fixture.
It’s not for the actress, who is more often seen on Broadway stages, but rather for her children.
"I was tired of using my dining-room table as the stage," Parker says, "because you have to keep moving the salt and pepper shakers. The coffee table isn’t a good alternative either."
Clearly 7-year-old William Atticus Parker, whose father is actor Billy Crudup, and 5-year-old Caroline Aberash Parker, adopted from Ethiopia in 2007, are set to follow in Mom’s footsteps. William also pens his own screenplays.
"Will they follow me into this business?," Parker wonders. "It’s certainly nothing I would ever wish for. It’s a tough business with a lot of heartbreaking moments. Then again, it’s not really my choice. You can’t really direct that or predict it or even redirect it, because it’s just in some people."
Sipping tea in a Manhattan hotel, Parker is strikingly pretty, with long, glossy, black hair. Her topic is the new season of her Showtime series Weeds, which will return on June 27. By now Parker is thoroughly comfortable as Nancy Botwin, a widowed suburban mother who sells marijuana to help her family make ends meet. Most recently she has fallen into a relationship with a Mexican drug lord that involves some very athletic sex.
"I love our show because it isn’t just the norm," Parker says. "We don’t hold back. We get a little bit out there, and that’s fascinating to me."
What lies ahead in the new season?
"I don’t want to give it away," she says, "but Nancy is still dealing with her situation. It gets pretty crazy. Crazier than it has been for awhile."
Parker enjoys having creative input on Weeds.
"It’s very loose," she says. "I have an idea and I’ll tell everyone. I do have a voice, and I’ll take it. I just always want the show to be better."
A particularly vexing aspect of this show is how to explain to her kids what it is that Mommy does on television.
"Finally the oldest knows that the show has to do with drugs," Parker says, "but he doesn’t know what the word means. I just avoid the whole thing and say, ‘Drugs are just something people might use, but not us, so what do you want for dinner?’"
Parker grew up in Fort Jackson, S.C., as the daughter of an Army judge whose career took the family around the world during her early years, with stops in Tennessee, Texas, Thailand, Germany, and France.
"I was always reinventing myself to fit in," she recalls. "In many ways it was like one giant acting class."
Parker majored in drama at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, and made her television debut with a brief stint on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. She went on to such celebrated films as Grand Canyon (1991), Fried Green Tomatoes, (1991), The Client (1994), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Boys on the Side, (1995), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), and Red Dragon (2002). Her television work has included a recurring role in The West Wing (2001-2006), the award-winning miniseries Angels in America (2003), and, since 2005, Weeds. She also has continued to appear regularly on the stage, winning a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Drama for the Broadway play Proof (2001).
Given her flourishing film career, some were surprised when she accepted the lead role in Weeds, a commitment that was likely to last for years.
"Sure, there are moments where there simply isn’t time to work on a film," Parker says. "But I console myself thinking, ‘The role on Weeds is so good, and you can’t find that type of material often in most features these days.’ I’d rather do a few killer pages on a TV series than be in a film where the writing is just so-so.
"My last film I was falling and rolling down a hill thinking, ‘You know, it’s actually much easier to do that six-page monologue. Words don’t make you ache and want to take a bath.’"
"I also know, with my Weeds cast, that we’re all 100-percent there for each other," she adds. "It truly is an amazing ensemble."
Besides, Parker says, she’s put off by the violence in many of the film scripts she receives.
"Frankly, I don’t want to be in the same room as a gun," the actress says. "But what’s funny is that I had to shoot a crossbow on my show, which was totally ridiculous.
"My dream film is something with no violence that casts me in an old-fashioned Irene Dunne role from the ’30s or ’40s," Parker says. "I love female banter that’s sweet and genuine."
She isn’t against violence per se, however. Only last year she scored one of the biggest hits of her career with Red (2010), an action-packed, violence-filled thriller which cast her as the clueless inamorata of a retired CIA spy (Bruce Willis) who ends up on the run with him and three of his former colleagues, played by Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren. The comic-book-based film was a box-office smash, and a sequel is in the works.
Parker says that she is working on relaxing in her own life.
"I’ve learned not to feel guilty about pleasure," she says. "That’s the great part of getting older. You have a piece of cake and forget about it. Life is too short to walk around ashamed of yourself."
As a hardworking single mother — she recently broke up with her Weeds co-star, Jeffrey Dean Morgan — she has to devote much of her off time to her children. Once they’re tucked in, however, she makes a point of setting aside some time for herself.
"I’m a reader," she says, "and I read mostly poetry these days. I’m quite passionate about it.
"I have two small children, so it’s hard to finish an actual whole book," Parker says with a laugh. "That might be asking too much. Poems are just easier."