Talking Books, Plays, and Kindness With Mary-Louise Parker

The award-winning actress on writing and the importance of kindness.

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Mary-Louise Parker has won a Tony, Emmy, and two Golden Globes since she started acting professionally three decades ago, but she's a writer at heart. Her book Dear Mr. You, in which she writes letters to the men in her life — both real and imagined — was published in 2015 to widespread acclaim and New York Times best-seller status. In this collection of essays, she addresses a former teacher to whom her "use of sexuality [was] offensive"; the unfortunate cabdriver who picked her up when she was seven months pregnant, having just learned her partner had left her; and the dying man she met at a party with whom she had a brief but unforgettable friendship.

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We met near her house in Brooklyn, but the café was crowded so we grabbed coffee and retired to her place, an art-filled and airy house that she shares with her two children. Along the way, we talked about writing and music (we were walking along Dylan's Montague Street, after all) and the Hillary Clinton fund-raiser she had attended the night before. It was easy to forget that I had watched her for years in The West Wing andWeeds, and in Angels in America, and that I had first seen her way back in 1991 in the movies Grand Canyon and Fried Green Tomatoes.

Now, as she returns to Broadway for the first time in three years, costarring in the two-character play Heisenberg, an unusual and ambiguous love story — a nod to the titular physicist's uncertainty principle — this lifelong writers' groupie has a literary following of her own. Inside her bedroom, with a boudoir draped in female nude photographs, we spoke about aiming for kindness in a mean-spirited world, the random people who find their way into our hearts, and all that's contained in the last word.

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Leigh Flayton: What's different since your book came out?

Mary-Louise Parker: I feel a bit more like myself. I feel I have a place in the theater. I feel connections to people there, and if I'm sitting at a table of theater people, I feel very comfortable. I don't feel that way necessarily in Hollywood. I feel like a bit of an outsider; not in a horrible way, not in a painful way. I just feel a bit apart, and not entirely comfortable. I always felt very comfortable around writers and very excited to just be able to have a conversation. Like when I first met Mark Strand or James Galvin or Elvis [Costello]. That's exciting to me, and I think it's always who I was.

LF: You exhibit so much kindness to your subjects, and to yourself as well. There's a lot of forgiveness. In "Dear Movement Teacher," your teacher made no secret of his disdain for you, but you reconciled and wrote, "It would have been so sad if I had spent all those years and never reintroduced myself. I would have missed out on all of your special wisdom, not to mention the thrill of the view up there on the high road."

M-LP: He really gave me that by letting me change his mind about me. He could've stayed closed. That door could've stayed shut. It's a lesson that I have had to learn 75,000 times subsequently. Would that I could have only learned it that one time! I wanted to write these little tributes, and I wanted them to be positive, and I wanted them to be about gratitude, and I didn't want there to be indictments. They're little valentines. They're just a bunch of thank-you notes, really.

LF: In an interview with Electric Literature, you said the book is "how we sift through our memories. It's funny, the people that remain." That reminded me of a Carson McCullers book. Have you read her work?

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M-LP: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of my top three favorite books.

LF: You'll like this, then. In The Ballad of the Sad Café, she writes a passage about the lover and the beloved: "A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon, two decades past." Your book captured that essence so well, about who you chose to recall.

M-LP: That is so beautiful. I have not read that book. I have to read that book.

LF: You wrote about family, friends, and loves, of course, but also that awful argument you had with that cabdriver when you were pregnant ... I still think about a guy at the New York Public Library I saw years ago, who was backlit, walking toward me. He never even saw me.

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M-LP: I love that. Don't you wonder, Why that person? Why that moment? You had an awakening.

LF: I saw the writer Pico Iyer speak once, and he said the last word of anything worth its salt encapsulates the whole thing. For instance, the last word of The Great Gatsby is past.Slouching Towards Bethlehem is fire. The Glass Menagerie is goodbye.

M-LP: [Gasps] It is?

LF: I went through your essays: "Dear Daddy" is ocean. "Grandpa" is sky. "Father Bob" is kindness. "Former Boyfriend" is not. "NASA" is up. And the last word of the book...

M-LP: Will.

LF: The last line is "Just write. Keep writing. Promise me that you will."

M-LP: I changed it at the last minute. [It was] anything. "Write anything," and then I went back and looked at what [my father] said to me that day, and I couldn't quite remember, and I tried to hear his voice, and I heard "will."

LF: That's your son's name, too. Can we say, for the record, that I made Mary-Louise Parker cry?

M-LP: Yeah, please. Seriously.

LF: In Heisenberg, not to spoil anything, but the last words?

M-LP: The last words are thank you. You just blew my mind in about 75,000 ways.

LF: What attracted you to Heisenberg?

M-LP: It was the writing, and it came at a moment when I thought, I don't know if I want to even do theater anymore. I'd just done a play, and I felt like I hadn't done a play in three years, which is the longest I'd gone without doing a play in the past 30 years. Somehow, within those three years, it seemed to be forgotten that I ever did a play. I was met like a TV actor coming to do a play for the first time. I spent the first six years of my acting life in a corset, doing regional theater. The disconnect for me was really upsetting. Everyone has a podium now; everyone has a platform. It's just a very mean-spirited world, and it becomes about the result, and it becomes about the reaction to the result, and that's not interesting for me. I'm too thin-skinned to withstand it.

LF: And the culture is so coarse; people feel entitled to be armchair critics and awful.

M-LP: It's the new sport; they're their own Olympics.

LF: Which is why I like the kindness in your book.

M-LP: That's partly why I wanted to do that. I had to learn that also. I wrote one thing in Esquire once and I saw it and I was so ashamed. I wrote something snarky or bitchy. It wasn't even that bad, but I really felt like there's no reason to do that.

LF: So we won't see you roasting anyone on Comedy Central anytime soon?

M-LP: I couldn't. Someone asked me to do that recently, and I said I'm sorry, I don't think I could write anything mean like that. I mean, I could, but I don't really want to.

LF: Speaking of kindness, the essay that nearly killed me was "Dear Man out of Time," about the terminally ill man with cancer with whom you had a brief friendship.

M-LP: I loved him.

LF: The line: "We were such a nice surprise, you said, and a reminder that things could still keep popping up." It's wonderful to keep reminding ourselves that things can keep popping up.

M-LP: The actor that I'm working with now (Denis Arndt), this is one of his biggest moments.

LF: Heisenberg is his Broadway debut, right?

M-LP: Yeah. He's 77, and he's wonderful. Aside from that, we're having this amazing experience together, regardless that it's on Broadway. Honestly, I would do it at Macy's. I would do it in the alley.

LF: I'd love to see it in Macy's or in the alley! And then there's "Dear Oyster Picker," about your father. Obviously, every essay means something to you, but that's kind of off the charts.

M-LP: He loved books, he loved to read, and he loved poetry, and it's perfect and it's excruciating that because of that I have the book — because of him — and that he can't read it. I wouldn't have written it if he were still alive, probably. It wouldn't be what it is. There would be no "Dear Oyster Picker," and that moment of me running out of the house going to find oysters.

Then, what was interesting about that piece was it really became genuine. I really did begin to envision [an oyster picker], and I really did realize, Oh, wow, when I've had oysters I thought they just come to your table. I didn't realize what someone had to endure in order to get them to that plate. And I didn't know the metaphor of that and what that person did for a living. And how like my father that is and how romantic they are and how beautiful they are and how there are just a million metaphors — the oyster itself. They are everything that is my father to me.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Leigh Flayton is a New York City–based writer, editor, and playwright.

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