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Mary-Louise Parker Sidebar: Adapt or Die...

In 2006, Mary-Louise Parker won a Golden Globe Award for her performance as Nancy Botwin, the suburban mom who deals pot to relieve her family's financial straits in the TV series Weeds. Her fellow nominees? A quartet of actresses from Desperate Housewives. If they'd been around New York theatre for the last 20 years, they'd have known that no one does desperation like Parker.

    Since the late 1980s, the 40-something mother-of-two has created a calliope of characters who all seem so alive and electric that they're ready to jump out of their skins. Parker's full throttle emotional immersion in a wide variety of roles—from her early Broadway success as the intoxicating newlywed Rita in Craig Lucas's Prelude to a Kiss (Tony nomination) to her Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning turn as the Valium-addled Mormon wife of a gay man in the HBO movie version of Angels in America—always results in performances where her characters wear their feelings from their sleeves to their knees. Parker, like her Angels co-star Meryl Streep, is a leading lady with character actor chops.

    As she began working on Hedda Gabler for Roundabout, Parker affirmed that she'd tackle Ibsen's iconic Norwegian role as the bored-to-tears general's daughter with her usual deep-sea diving approach to acting. “I like to put the lines in my body,” she tries to explain, but can't quite articulate how she dons these characters like new clothes. To her, the acting process seems enigmatic. “The idea I've got a role completely right doesn't fit with my philosophy,” she told the New York Times a bunch of years back when talking about the seething, sulking mathematical genius she played in Proof (2000). What she's trying to convey is the idea that her characters live and they grow and they mutate. That ability to make every moment of every performance possibly spontaneously combust won Parker that year's Tony Award and almost every other New York stage acting honor.

Parker took a few moments on the phone from her own kids' domestic demands to talk about taking on the role that many consider the female equivalent to Hamlet.

FRONT & CENTER: How did director Ian Rickson's vision for Hedda Gabler make it a project worth reviving again?

MARY-LOUISE PARKER: We had the same idea. We wanted to do something that felt new and viscerally exciting and that felt true to what Ibsen wrote. It was a really controversial play when it was first put on, and there's no reason it shouldn't be that exciting and engaging now. It's not going to carry the same amount of “shock” because it takes a lot to shock an audience these days. But neither one of us wanted to do the typical revival of a classical play where someone walks onstage and talks in that position for 20 minutes.

I read an interview you gave where you talked about the difficulties of playing a role that you'd seen another actress perform. The reference was to Rachel, the lead role in Craig Lucas's Reckless, which you revived on Broadway, after having played Pooty in the film version... I was wondering whether you might have the same obstacle portraying Hedda, especially after recent productions starring Cate Blanchett and Kate Burton.

Mary-Louise Parker

Michael Cerveris and Mary-Louise Parker in Hedda Gabler.

Well, I also saw Reckless onstage downtown at Circle Rep with Robin Bartlett as Rachel, who was amazing. But when I started preparing for the part, I realized the role wasn't going to come out of me the same way. As for Hedda Gabler, it's not a problem really because I haven't seen the play so I don't have an intense memory or emotional attachment to it, not in the way I did with <Reckless, after having worked on it with Norman Rene, the original director. That was a more emotional memory.

You mentioned in an article once that you worked on Ibsen as a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Your classmate, director Joe Mantello (Pal Joey), said you were “a fierce Nora” in A Doll's House.  Is that where you first confronted the role of Hedda also?

Yes. But not extensively. I worked more on Nora in school. I did some scene work with Hedda. It was a classical training and so we worked on Ibsen a long time.

Do you see these two characters as similar?

They're both trapped. Hedda's more acutely aware of her stifling boundaries than Nora. And Hedda's aware that she's being suffocated. Nora takes it as a rude awakening and a betrayal.

They take very different escape routes.

Yes. Nora does something heroic and escapes. And Hedda… well, she escapes as well.

When this production was first announced I couldn't imagine you as Hedda, though that may be my failing of imagination.

Really? Why not?

I always think of Hedda as a grand, Nordic ice woman. Heartless and cavalier. Your presence seems, I don't know, so much more human and sensitive and vulnerable. I've rarely seen actresses offer that side of Hedda.

Well, she has to be fairly sensitive or she wouldn't blow her brains out.

I guess so. Or very selfish.

People only do that when they're in a great deal of pain. It's not a narcissistic choice. It isn't about narcissism. It's about being in pain. Primo Levi said something like, “Suicide is about an escape from a physical pain because once an emotional pain becomes that overwhelming it has to become physical.” It's like a disease. You can't escape from it. But I don't see any point in doing it if it's going to be the same Hedda that's always been done. Or maybe you're right. Maybe I'm wrong for it. Maybe I'll stink.

Oh, I don't think so. Actually, when I started reading Chris Shinn's new translation I began to understand how you're a brilliant choice because the script takes the frost off the older translations and seems perfectly suited for you.

That's the danger with the part: that people will just play for the chill. They play how cold or manipulative or mean Hedda can be. All those things stem from a particular kind of pain. People aren't just randomly like that unless they're sociopaths or mentally ill. But I don't think Hedda's mentally ill. She's not well, but I don't think she's deranged. If I read or see one characteristic for a role, my inspiration as an actress is not to play that single thing. It's to find out what makes that one thing happen and communicate those underlying causes. Otherwise you're just playing a bunch of moods.

When do you first start working on a role and what kind of work do you do to prepare?

It depends on the character. For Hedda, I'm playing piano every day and looking at the text and talking to Ian about it. I also try to give myself a break if I'm thinking about it too much. It's good to just let things start off sometimes.

I guess there's a balance between preparing yourself and yet not making too many choices before working with the cast.

You can't really do that. You can think thematically and structurally and you can come up with ideas. It's great to come into the first day of rehearsal with a million ideas. You just have to be willing to throw them away because everybody else is going to come in with stuff and that's the beauty of it. You don't want to crush someone else's inspiration by trying to dictate what everyone else should do.

Do you try to memorize lines flatly before rehearsal so you have them at your disposal or do you accomplish that organically as you work through the scenes?

It depends on the part again. I don't normally but with this part I'm going to try to learn a little before. With certain plays I don't do it at all, like Reckless. I like to put the lines in my body, as I'm moving. But with this one I will. I have two children now so I don't have as much time to run lines at home. I want to get as much of a start on it as I can.

“Much of what I draw from as an actor comes from my inability to communicate.”

For the film Boys on the Side in which you played a woman dying of aids, one article I read claimed you'd lost 15 pounds. Do you often approach a role physically like that?

Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. In that film, I'm supposed to be dying of aids and so I was stick thin. I made really strong physical choices in Dead Man's Cell Phone. In some ways it made me easy to dismiss; because I've noticed that as people get to know an actor better they don't want you to transform as much. When I was doing theatre earlier in my career I could make all sorts of big, broad physical choices and people embraced it more. People can be a little bit more disparaging when they see you take risks or try something a bit more dangerous.

Can we go back a little bit and talk about when you decided this was the career path for you?

I don't remember so it must have been forever. Since I was tiny-tiny. I just remember always wanting to act.

You once said growing up you felt like “a car-wreck” socially. Frank Langella said almost the same thing—he thought most actors were socially awkward and needed the stage to express themselves.

I certainly feel awkward much of the time. Not all actors would say that however. There are the exceptions. I was with Rachel Griffiths a while back, and she said not everyone's like that because there's Tom Cruise or Sandra Bullock, and those people weren't utter misfits when they were growing up. They probably had people to sit with in the cafeteria. I do think much of what I draw from as an actor comes from my inability to communicate.

How do you choose a project, whether it's film, television, or something for the stage?

Well, it used to be purely a creative choice, but now that I have children, they're involved in the decision: where it is, how long the commitment is, etcetera. I just try to connect to the word, the person's particular dilemma.

You mentioned that you were talking to Roundabout's Artistic Director Todd Haimes about acting in Merchant of Venice I was going to ask you whether you had any yearning to try Shakespeare?

Just that particular play, really. I like Portia. Aspects of the play are tricky and don't work and are controversial and potentially could be problematic. But I really like Portia. She's such a bad ass.

No Lady Macbeth?

I don't connect to her. She seems too operatic to me.

Are there other roles you'd like to have a crack at in the near future?

Not really. I'm always really looking for the new play. That's what I'm excited about.

Looking back on your career and your experiences as an actor, is there one thing you know now as an actress that you'd wished you'd known earlier on? Any piece of advice you would give your younger self?

I probably would have just said, “Give yourself a break.” I still could say that to myself. I'm still very hard on myself. I'm acutely aware of all my shortcomings, both in a broad sense and in my day-to-day life. I'm always thinking about what I didn't accomplish, and I wonder what I could do better.

Even now? After all your success?

Well, they say it gets better as you get older. A friend told me that every decade you get a little nicer to yourself. I'm still waiting.

John Istel is the Editor of Front & Center

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