Time Out New York, August 11, 2005
Mary-Louise Parker has never inhaled, but she’s creating a buzz with her
role as a dope-dealing suburban mom in the new series Weeds.
By Bruce Kluger
episode of Showtime’s new series Weeds,
Mary-Louise Parker pulls off an anatomical
miracle, somehow whipping the muscles of
her face into a spasmodically choreographed
dance. The result is a kind of craniofacial
meltdown—and the effect is heart-wrenching.
Until that point in the show, Parker’s
character—widowed suburbanite Nancy
Botwin, a tightly coiled mother of two living in
an impossibly manicured hamlet of luxury
homes—has pretty much held it together.
Okay, her husband recently dropped dead of
a heart attack while jogging; and maybe
things have gotten a little tense, what with
her cash flow running dry and the clucking
ladies of the PTA eyeing her every move.
living—not exactly a qualification that will land her on the board of the Junior
But everyone has a breaking point, and Nancy’s composure finally snaps when she
learns that her younger son has been suspended from school for paint-gunning a
classmate pink, then moments later catches her eldest in bed with the daughter of
the community’s most uptight prig. Predictably, Nancy hits bottom, and that’s when
Mary-Louise Parker commands her face—then her body—to collapse into one
exquisitely miserable heap.
“In acting—just like in real life—it’s mostly about what you don’t show,” says Parker,
nursing an iced coffee at a bistro near her West Village home on a sticky July
afternoon. “Which is why I want Nancy’s feelings to come out kind of sporadically,
even inappropriately. For her, life is mostly about suppressing. She’s grieving and
damaged, but she’s trying to put on a positive face, even if it’s manufactured and
“So in portraying her,” she continues, “I’ll hold back for a long time, then make a
very conscious choice to insert something unexpected at a specific moment—
something that’s part of the trajectory I’m going for. That’s what that breakdown
scene is all about.”
This isn’t just some Inside the Actors Studio blather, but rather a small peek into the
commitment and energy Parker has devoted to bringing her Weeds heroine to life.
Known in the ’90s for bouncing between the New York stage (Prelude to a Kiss,
How I Learned to Drive) and movie screens (Fried Green Tomatoes, Boys on the
Side), the actor has in recent years become a must-get among TV executives
eager to capitalize on her TV-friendliness. From 2001 to 2003, she won acclaim for
her role as Amy Gardner, the sexy feminist politico-turned-White House-aide on
The West Wing; two years ago, she walked away with an Emmy for her tortured
turn as Harper Pitt, the agoraphobic, Valium-popping wife of a closeted gay man, in
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (on HBO). After that, a gig like Weeds was
"When I was first offered the show,” Parker says, “I knew I didn’t just want to do
some half-hour sitcom about a fun-lovin’, drug-dealin’ mom. I wanted the series to
have some kind of muscle and depth. I wanted it to have chiaroscuro—that
interesting blend of dark and light. To me, nothing is really funny—even if it’s a
comedy—if it isn’t crammed up against something that’s also deeply human and
disturbing and touching. Without those elements, it’s just shock radio—it’s porn.
And hey, I like porn as much as the next person, but I don’t really want to do it as a
To be sure, Weeds is not Cheech & Chong in Suburbia. Written in acid, directed
with a smirk, and graced by a supporting cast of comedic sharpshooters (including
SNL vet Kevin Nealon as Nancy’s perpetually stoned accountant and Elizabeth
Perkins as the rich bitch), Weeds is a warped and wily satire, the kind of show that’s
destined to attract a cult following of bemused fellow parents and bong-sucking
It’s also a good bet that the series will enrage red-state critics of popular culture.
Sex and drugs are flaunted, as Weeds giddily reveals the dirty double-life of the
American middle class.
“The show is absolutely filled with hypocrites,” says Parker, whose character is but
one miscreant in a lineup that teems with lying spouses and IRS cheats, and
features a vixenish local tennis pro known for a sexual proclivity that involves her
racket. “Think about it: If Nancy gets caught selling pot, her kids go into a foster
home. I have to keep reminding myself of that. I know she’s struggling, but
personally, I think it would be a lot healthier for her to work at Starbucks, sit around
and be angry.
“And yet, what makes the character so appealing to me,” Parker continues, “is that
none of her bad choices are conscious. People who are grieving act like children in
a way. You know how they say toddlers are so cruel? That’s basically because
they're completely egocentric. That’s Nancy. Then again, over the course of this
series, I see her beginning to wake up. I like to think of her as this little ball of yarn
that keeps unraveling. Where she’ll end up, I still don’t know."
It’s a testament to Parker’s acting skills that she herself is a far cry from the
screwed-up pot peddler she plays. “Nancy has no access to her feelings
whatsoever,” she says, “which is nothing like me. Sometimes I wish I couldn’t access
mine so easily."
One of the only areas in which the women have common ground is parenthood:
Nineteen months ago, Parker gave birth to a son, William Atticus Parker. (His father
is actor Billy Crudup, with whom Parker had an infamous breakup during her
pregnancy.) But even here, the two clearly part company, and Parker is critical of
the character she portrays. “Nancy doesn’t put her children’s needs that much
higher than her own,” she says. “Her priorities are really skewed. Me? Being a
parent is the most interesting thing I’ll ever do. I think children are fascinating. Just
by looking at their little faces, you can tell what they know. You can see what they’re
taking in. They’re just so smart."
While being a mother is relatively new to the actor, the drug theme of Weeds puts
her in completely unfamiliar territory. “I’ve never even picked up a joint,” she says. “I
think it should be legalized, but personally, I’ve never even had a hit, never inhaled.
In fact, I hesitate to tell people the truth, because I don’t think anybody’s going to
"It’s funny,” she continues, “if you saw me in the ’80s on St. Marks Place, you’d
immediately think D-R-U-G-S. I looked like a druggie. But basically, I think every
joint has blood on it—it’s one more penny in the pockets of the people who bring it
into the country.
“The whole subject is so loaded,” she says with a sigh. “Do you know I can’t get on
some talk shows to promote Weeds because it deals with pot? They’ll have on
James Gandolfini as a guest, and he knocks off people for a living on The
Sopranos! But not me. I suppose if I sold guns on Weeds, I could get on these
shows, but because it’s about pot, I can’t. It’s mental."