The actress discusses her career and latest projects, Broadway’s Heisenberg and TV drama Mr. Mercedes.
Multi-Award Winning Actress Mary-Louise Parker
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Mary-Louise Parker inherits the best of both worlds for an actress. She’s dominated stages in New York, London and now Los Angeles from her Tony Award-winning performance in “Proof” to her current role in “Heisenberg”, but she’s also known for her powerful onscreen characters, whether it was “Weeds”, “The West Wing” or “Angels in America”.
Tonight she joins us to discuss the play, “Heisenberg”, now in L.A., her career, as well as the upcoming Stephen King drama, “Mr. Mercedes”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with M.L.P., Mary-Louise Parker, in just a moment.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Mary-Louise Parker to this program. We were chatting already [laugh]. For the past two years, she’s been playing Georgie in the Broadway play, “Heisenberg”. The work by Simon Stephens is currently running at the Mark Taper Forum here in Los Angeles.
And if you cannot make it to L.A. to see her in the theater production, you can watch her next month in the new Stephen King series, “Mr. Mercedes” on the Audience Network. I am honored to have — may I call you M.L.P.?
Mary-Louise Parker: Sure [laugh].
Tavis: M.L.P. on this program. I’ve always wanted to say that like I’m a friend of yours, M.L.P. yeah. I was saying to you when you came on set, I haven’t seen the play yet. I’m dying to see it. From what I’ve heard about it from friends who’ve seen it, they give you and your costar high marks because it’s hard to hold command of an audience when there’s just two people. Not a whole lot of bells and whistles.
Tavis: What’s that experience like?
Parker: Well, I feel like the director this production deserves so much credit because I think for me it takes a lot of confidence as a director and a really risky move to produce a piece of theater where the direction is almost invisible. You don’t really see it, you know. There’s no storms onstage and there’s no set. You know, I’m basically wearing my own clothes.
So it’s without any — you know, there’s no artifice, there’s no — as you said, there’s no bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors. It sort of allowed us to really delve into the meaning of the text and what Simon wrote and this relationship. I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.
Tavis: I want to follow you in here. Since we don’t have those factors by which to judge how great the direction is, how do we judge it?
Parker: We have to be good [laugh].
Tavis: You got to be good, yeah [laugh], but how do…
Parker: If we fail, then it’s all over.
Tavis: How do we judge that? How do we judge the brilliance of a director then? On what are we basing it?
Parker: Right. Well, for me, there’s no point in doing theater really unless you really give everything you have to that moment and to try to give that evening’s show. Because that’s what’s special about it. It’s one of the last — I was thinking about this the other day.
It’s one of the last experiences we have as a culture where we’re people sitting in a room having this sort of complicit, this consensual experience where no one’s looking at their phone — or they’re not supposed to — and we’re listening. And that’s really rare, you know. I mean, I can’t think of many other times where people aren’t at least expected to or allowed to interact with the device.
You know, it’s an ancient kind of ritual and it’s what I love about it. I feel that it takes a lot out of you and I realized I’ve been doing it for 32 years now professionally. The last two weeks of the last production, I felt like I had a couple of shows where I was like, okay, that was what I meant. That was what I would have wanted to do and I don’t think they were perfect shows.
I think they were actually maybe a little bit sloppy, but I felt — you know, when you’re so alive that you feel sound coming out of you. You feel words coming out of you. You don’t feel completely in control of that. You don’t feel like the architect or the driver, if that makes any sense. It just feels sprung, you know. I think that’s exciting to watch.
Tavis: I’m curious now. What did you do with that feeling?
Parker: I just got really talky. I’m sorry [laugh].
Tavis: No, no. It’s a talk show [laugh]. What did you do with that feeling? I mean, I think I know what you’re feeling because there are times when I’m onstage as a presenter or giving a lecture or talk or some other performance, and you do feel that. It’s a great feeling and, to your point, it doesn’t happen all the time. But what do you do with that when you feel that?
Parker: Well, that’s amazing to me that you’ve felt that yourself because I have never felt it as myself in front of people. I don’t know that I’ve felt it in life even as much as I’ve felt it onstage.
Tavis: But there are times you’re — maybe you’re being too kind — but there are times, I think, for all of us when you walk offstage and you feel like you haven’t done your best, but there are other times…
Parker: More of that, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, you see, you’re being way too modest. But there are other times, though, when you — don’t you ever like sort of levitate offstage when you feel like this thing really worked tonight?
Tavis: You sort of levitate offstage.
Parker: Yeah. I’m really, really hard on myself. I’m quite unforgiving, but I think that’s why. And I think it probably drives some people crazy. You know, I want to stay at rehearsal until everybody is “Can we just go home?” But I think that’s what’s allowed me to do it.
It’s giving me some kind of velocity to keep going back because, you know, it doesn’t feel very nice. Because you’re failing in front of a room full of people if you feel like you haven’t done your best. Not that the actors are always the final best judge of their own work, but…
Tavis: Oftentimes they aren’t.
Parker: Yeah, but I think if were I satisfied — even last week, there was something that I just felt that I needed to go back and look at the text and I did. I realized there were two words that I was omitting that over time they’d sort of fallen away. I thought about what that meant.
Just being able to work on things, you have to become — if you aren’t infused with some kind of energy or passion really, it’s just passion, to have that feeling because it’s not only you want to give that kind of lightness, that kind of levity, to the audience as well.
If you don’t have the passion, the need to do it, I don’t know why you’d do live theater. Because it’s quite tiring and, you know, people can be a bit brutal with you. Not that they aren’t completely lovely and generous, but it’s for that experience and it’s so humbling at times and transcendent also.
Tavis: So now I agree with all of that, but now you completely…
Parker: Lost you?
Tavis: Yes [laugh].
Tavis: And here’s why? Not because I wasn’t following you, but because I’m trying to understand what drives M.L.P., which is to say, if you are that hard on yourself — and I tend to be that way about myself — the difference between you and me is, as hard as I am on myself, I’m not operating in a medium that is that unforgiving.
You screw up on the stage and there are tons of people watching you. Ostensibly, if I make a mistake in the next five minutes, I could stop this and do it over again and the audience at home would never know that I screwed up.
Parker: Yeah, because the difference between a mistake and feeling like I haven’t done my best. I think the mistakes are sometimes the greatest opportunity for other things.
Tavis: I totally agree, but what I’m getting at is if you are that hard on yourself, where is the joy in operating in a medium that is that difficult?
Parker: I think when I feel like I’ve done a good job when I go home, you feel like you’re kind of wrung out in the best way. But at the same time, I don’t want to be fully satisfied. I don’t think that’s who I am and I don’t think that’s what keeps me going and keeps me trying and keeps me looking to the other actor and making sure I’m really, really giving them all that I can. I don’t know.
I think I don’t know that I’ve worked with that many people who I thought were roundly satisfied with themselves artistically, who I thought grew necessarily over time, you know? Because I think that my performances, they often start off one place and I do keep working to the very end. They’re not finished.
That’s why it’s odd to me sometimes that critics come at the beginning and then I feel like sometimes people feel like, “Okay, it’s over now.” It’s the beginning of the run, so you have a million things to…
Tavis: I’m just getting started, yeah.
Parker: So you have a million things to — I did this one play and I really felt like I discovered the majority of the character like six weeks in. I think that’s always true and it’s like so amazing, you know, just standing there in life.
I mean, I imagine if you’ve been in a relationship — not that I know — a very long relationship with someone 20 years or something like that of my parents at 64 years, to turn around one day and see that person in an entirely new way and have some feeling wash over you that feels different, I imagine that must be fortifying in a really different way than just being in love with somebody for the first time and having the epinephrine or the high or whatever. Does that make any sense?
Tavis: It does.
Parker: I mean, the feeling of having the history behind it and having that being infused with something new, I think that would be…
Tavis: Your parents are still living?
Parker: My mother is, yeah.
Tavis: But they were together for 64 years?
Tavis: See, now you got me really fascinated. What did you learn…
Parker: Not going to happen to me [laugh].
Tavis: Or to me, so don’t feel bad [laugh]. But what did you learn watching your parents love on each other for 64 years?
Parker: Oh, God.
Tavis: Tell me about that.
Parker: Well, in fact, I wrote a book and I write a lot about my mother and father throughout that book, my father especially. It’s dedicated to my mother, the book. One moment that when you just said that actually, when you said what have you learned, I don’t know.
This moment stuck out that I do talk about in my book where my mother and father were with someone else and my mother said something and my father — he felt like he kind of shut her down and she walked by his door later. He was sitting there just staring and she said, “What’s wrong, honey?” He was just kind of staring. He said, “I feel like I hurt your feelings.” It kind of kills me.
But just that he examined that moment and that he came to it with humility and said, “I’m sorry. I was wrong” and that he was sitting there really thinking about that moment that he was willing to examine, that she mattered so much to him that it wasn’t about his pride. I mean, I think that’s maybe what keeps you going over the course of decades rather than…
Tavis: Hey, stop. I’ll be crying in just a second [laugh]. I think we’re all going to be crying. It’s such a beautiful story.
Parker: I can’t tell the story as well. I think I wrote it fairly well, but to tell it, I think would probably make me dissolve in a way that would be highly unattractive. But he had a very thoughtful way about him, my father. Just that he was sitting there considering her, you know, at that point after five and a half decades together and apologized.
My father also was brilliant at apologizing. He didn’t expect something back and he didn’t expect to be absolved or anointed by you or something. It was as though he wanted to let you know that he was wrong and he was going to try better.
Tavis: See, I wish your father were alive. I would invite your father in a heartbeat to come on this program. Because if there’s anything that annoys me to no end, it is the inability that so many of us humans have to apologize. I remember my mother one day sitting me down as a child and really explaining to me how you appropriately apologize.
Even at the highest levels, people don’t get it. I think of Bill Clinton who I love — I like Bill Clinton. Friend of mine. We travel the world together. End up being tons of times in the White House. But you may recall this and certainly the audience does. He got caught up in that Monica Lewinsky scandal. This guy could not say I’m sorry…
Parker: It was a qualified apology.
Tavis: He kept saying, “I regret.” I regret, I regret, I regret. He could not say “I was wrong. I am sorry” and the media beat him down so bad about that. It took him like six tries and he finally got it right at a prayer breakfast where he finally got it right when he said I’m sorry in the way you’re supposed to say I’m sorry.
I remember just watching that unfold and going back in my mind in my childhood and my mother teaching me the appropriate way when you are wrong…
Parker: What did she say?
Tavis: Well, she made the point that — there’s a lot she said in that conversation, not to be bringing all that back, but the point was that there’s a difference between regret and sorry. There’s a difference between regret and remorse. Just because you regret something doesn’t mean you’re remorseful about it. So there’s a language that goes along with…
Parker: Does it mean you wish it hadn’t happened? Is that what you mean?
Tavis: Regret means I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I hadn’t gotten caught. I wish it hadn’t come out. I regret. It’s very, very different than saying I was wrong. I mistreated you, I maltreated you, I was selfish, I was whatever it is, and I’m sorry. Will you please forgive me?
And we live in a world now where people just — let me get off my soapbox here. My point is that you got me started, talking about your dad here. But we live in this world, I think, where people think that saying I’m sorry somehow diminishes them, that they can’t bring themselves to say…
Parker: Oh, 100%, 100%.
Tavis: But your father, he understood this.
Parker: Yeah. He was an animal at it. He was amazing. The thing that I’ve noticed — I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this in yourself. I think I do owe that gift to my father is that there are times when I do apologize and there’s this little thing in the back of you that wants to say but or because. You want to qualify. You want to explain and that’s…
Tavis: That’s not a sincere apology.
Parker: Well, you’re hijacking the other person’s — you know, you’re disallowing their ability to…
Tavis: And you’re justifying your behavior. That’s not a true apology. If you have to justify why you did what you did, then you’re not really sorry that you did it.
Parker: Well, as you say, the word regret which I hadn’t really thought about that before, but really in regret, sorry is not implicit in that word. It basically is saying I wish that hadn’t happened, but not necessarily I wouldn’t do it again if no one watched me or if I was certain I wouldn’t be caught.
I’ve thought a lot about that recently, about like things that have happened to me over the years or things that people have done to me or that I’ve done to other people.
I think to myself, would I have done that if no one was watching me? It’s quite a powerful thought to think, okay, if someone left a million dollars here and said no one will ever catch you, no one will ever know that you took it, would you take it? I feel really, really clear that I would not.
I know that there are other things that I don’t feel quite as clear about that I’m not as proud of, that I might do if no one were watching. And when you ask yourself those questions, it’s pretty powerful because you have to really admit to yourself like where your threshold is, your morals.
Tavis: Those are character questions. That’s how we define who we are. Those are character questions. I’m just fascinated by the fact that posthumously your father had led us into a conversation about apology. That’s how powerful your father is. You see this?
Parker: He’s the most powerful person I’ve ever known, yeah. He really was. It was that ability to sort of — he also was just so curious about other people and had such a rapacious appetite for books and literature and people.
There were only like a couple of things that I would see him get pretty much shut down with people. People who sort of boasted about their wealth, I think to a certain degree, made him really uncomfortable or people who were incredibly right wing. But for the most part, he would accept anybody who came into the house.
Tavis: So born to this union, how did you find your way into the arts, into theater, into acting?
Parker: Well, also recently again, I thought about my father. I remembered that when I called him and said, “You know, Dad… — I went to North Carolina School of the Arts and I don’t actually have a proper Bachelor’s degree. I have a diploma. If you took a certain amount of academic classes, you’d get a Bachelor’s degree and it was not that hard. It was four classes or something or only over the first year and a half.
I remember calling my father and saying, “I think this is going to interfere with my art classes and I know that I’m going to be an actor and that I’m going to write and I don’t need to take these lessons. They don’t seem inspiring to me.” “I think that’s a good decision.” He really felt like if I made an informed decision, that was the right decision.
I think now, if one of my kids came to me and said, “I’m going to spend four years at college and I’m not going to get a Bachelor’s degree”, would I have the courage to trust in them? Would I give them the courage to trust in themselves?
Tavis: So you knew early on that you’re calling, your vocation, your purpose, was in the arts?
Parker: Well, I always hoped I would write, and David Granger allowed me to write for Esquire. I wrote for Esquire about 10 years while David was there. I wrote for a few other magazines and then I wrote a book. But as far as acting goes, yeah, I was very, very shy and I didn’t have a lot of confidence and I stuttered a bit. I wanted to do that even before I knew what you really called it. I felt comfortable there.
Tavis: Aaron Sorkin said you weren’t so shy when you called him and left a voicemail about…
Parker: I don’t remember leaving that voicemail, but I loved the story so much that I want to take credit for it [laugh]. So I’m going to say that it’s true. I don’t fully remember.
He says that I called him and said, “Josh Lyman needs to get laid and I’m the one to do it”, which I do remember saying that, but I thought I said that after I’d already done one episode, but I’m not really sure. I do remember the first. I definitely remember saying he needed to get laid because he did. So I’ll cop to that.
Tavis: It worked out for you and for all the rest of us who loved “West Wing”. I mean, it all worked out.
Parker: I was lucky to be on that show.
Tavis: Isn’t that a great show?
Parker: Oh, his writing was incredible. I felt like every time I got a script, I couldn’t wait to open it and see what he said.
Tavis: Let me circle back to this play because my time with you is running out and I could do this for hours. And we jumped so fast into deconstructing your methodology and your onstage persona and how you measure that that I didn’t ask you to say a word about the play itself.
Tavis: So would you like to say a word about the play, M.L.P., yeah, yeah?
Parker: Almost got of here, yeah. Well, Simon Stephens wrote this beautiful, beautiful play that Mark directed that I knew I wanted to do on page three. It’s just about the unexpected in the Heisenberg principle.
These two people, you almost don’t expect them to keep speaking after their first greeting. At the end of every scene, their relationship could end and it doesn’t. And it always jumps to somewhere unexpected, very unexpected.
I think it’s a beautiful story and I love that it’s two people who — there’s something about my character. She’s off-putting, you know, and I really felt that if I wasn’t somewhat embarrassed while playing this part and I didn’t alienate some people in the audience in the first few moments, that I would be doing something wrong.
Because, you know, people — she states that in the text, that people pretty much leave the country to get away from her. So there’s something abrasive about her that’s, you know, quite different from me and I wanted to be able to show both sides of that, that there is something sweet in her, the fact that she doesn’t filter herself, and there’s something honest even in her dishonesty.
I love that both can sort of exist at the same time that is unfiltered. And when she’s telling her own truth, she thinks she’s telling the truth, so I found that really interesting. And acting with this particular actor is just exhilarating and wonderful.
Tavis: You must be getting something from this because you’ve been at it for a while.
Parker: And I think I might be a little bit addicted to this play. I think there might be some kind of problem because it’s about two weeks before it’s quitting and we go backstage and we’ll be like, “Isn’t there another city where they’d want us to do this play? Couldn’t somebody call somewhere? Berlin?”
I kind of was definitely not finished with her the first time or the second time. This time, I do kind of feel like there’s one more in me.
Tavis: Tell me about this Audience project that you’re about to do.
Parker: Which one?
Tavis: “Mr. Mercedes”.
Parker: Oh! The “Mr. Mercedes”, yes. I have no earthly idea what network it’s on. I’m probably going to get in so much trouble for that.
Parker: Yes, the Audience. All my friends at the Audience Network. I love you so much.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah [laugh].
Parker: Thank you so much for producing this. Thank you for having me, yes. But it was directed by a lovely man, Jack Bender, and Brendan Gleeson, who is just delicious and amazing and wonderful. Stephen King was phenomenal and I think he just knows how to do it.
Tavis: Pretty good writer, huh?
Parker: He knows how to do it.
Tavis: Before my time runs out, you are a writer or an actor first?
Parker: I think I’m a mother. I think I’m a mother, number one.
Tavis: I take that.
Parker: I think, oh, in my heart, I think I might be — sometimes I feel I’m a little bit better as a writer, but I do love acting. I love acting onstage.
Tavis: And you’re pretty good at it and I can’t wait to come see this play, “Heisenberg”.
Parker: I hope you do.
Tavis: I will see it, I will see it. To all of our friends at the Audience Network [laugh]…
Tavis: We’ll be checking out M.L.P. and “Mr. Mercedes” coming up in just a few weeks, as a matter of fact. Honored to have you on this program.
Parker: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Your first time, hoping not your last.
Parker: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Come see us again.
Parker: Definitely. I would love to.
Tavis: You’re welcome back any time. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.