by Justin Theroux

Ninety-nine percent of actors are cheap dates. Even those actors in the upper percentiles of praise and credibility often lean in and wink, ever so slightly, to their audience in order to acknowledge their own cleverness. Mary-Louise Parker, however, doesn’t just eschew this practice, it simply does not exist in her. She is thrifty. But for those lucky enough to have seen her perform onstage or on film, it can be well understood why in the same breath I can conversely describe her as startlingly magnanimous. Generous in a way that has more than once left me stumbling out of a theater, unable to do so much as hail a cab, and in the days following, slightly unbalanced to see her once again in the role of friend. In her performances, she always begins the evening with a full, if not somewhat jumbled, deck and over the course of an evening will cut and shuffle it to exhilarating effect, never laying down more than exactly one card at a time. She is meticulous yet remains free in the form. She does not give herself up easily, in life or in art. I have never seen her have a false moment or take a cheap shot, and never, ever has she played anything for a laugh, which isn’t to say she is not very funny. She sets the bar high for everyone in the arts by example. She is not cheap. She is not driven. She is genuinely private, and not deceptively so in the illusory way that so often courts more attention. She has a titanium core and a moral compass that consistently finds true north.

In the years I have known her we have rarely talked about acting except in passing. As a matter of fact, I have never seen her brag. Not even subtly. Her beauty is the most immediately identifiable place to do so; it would, however, be the least, and just the beginning, of a very long list of things to brag about. She is a class act. She is also a dear friend. And yes, I am bragging.

JUSTIN THEROUX: A lot of actors talk about their work and say, “Yeah, it’s my therapy. I really need to work stuff out.” Do you find your work therapeutic? Because sometimes I can be very monastic about acting. At the end of the day, when you’re doing what you love to do, it’s art. There are times when I take it dead seriously, and I won’t pretend otherwise.

MARY-LOUSE PARKER: Most of the time I take it dead seriously — to the point where most people find me kind of tiresome, I think. Not that I care. It’s just because I always believe it can be better, and I always strive to make it better. I always feel like it’s a living thing, and you should treat it as a living thing. I don’t think it’s a product that should be delivered and finished and tied up, like it can be quantified, like it can be understood. People used to make fun of me for getting to the theater early and preparing, always being there hours ahead of time. It’s not like it was work; I just love it. There’s no place I’d rather be. And I would go home at night, quietly through the back of the theater and get into my car and just listen to music — just feeling like I did a good show or a bad show and not really having to take in anybody or talk to anybody, just sitting with myself. I was so happy.

JT: Okay, I want you to lie down and relax. [Parker lies down] You’re in a fictional screening room in your house, and you’re in a really big, comfy chair. You’re gonna give me a slide show. It’s dark, and you flick on the projector, and kachunk, the first slide rotates around. Describe it.

MLP: Um… It’s that picture of Will [Parker’s 19-month-old child] that you took with his little cap on. It’s a really dark picture, taken right after he was born.

JT: I know exactly the one.

MLP: Flip it again?

JT: No, you haven’t flipped it yet.

MLP: Because I just got another picture.

JT: Oh, all right. Shit. What is it?

MLP: It’s a picture of me on the beach, on Plum Island, when I was, like, 26, jumping on the beach — it’s one of my favorite pictures of myself. I’d been really sad for a really long time, and I just remember it was the first time I looked happy in a really long time, and I always loved that picture because of that.

JT: Now I want you to go to a deeper place. I want you to imagine the most peaceful place that you can possibly put yourself.

MLP: I just keep going back to my mother, like being on a porch playing with my mother. I’m just kind of sitting next to her. But it’s very dark and very green, and I hear crickets, and we’re listening to some music coming in from the other room.

JT: What kind of music?

MLP: Frank Sinatra. Really quiet.

JT: So you’re just sitting there looking out into the green darkness?

MLP: Mm-hmm.

JT: What’s the sky doing?

MLP: [very softly] The sky’s completely black. And there are really tall trees. And there are a lot of stars. And there’s a random piece of caramel cake at my feet.

JT: Get out! Did your mother make it?

MLP: No. My grandmother made it, which is weird [laughs] because my grandmother’s dead, but maybe she just came back to make a cake and then left. My mother doesn’t know how to make it, so I don’t know how else it would have gotten there.

JT: Did your mom used to sing to you when you were little? Before bed or anything?

MLP: Not really. I guess she’d hum and sing in Swedish sometimes. Because I’ve heard her sing to Will in Swedish, randomly. So I guess maybe she does sing, now and again. But I don’t really recall her singing much.

JT: Do you still find her comforting?

MLP: Oh, God, yeah. Well, you’ve met her.

JT: She’s amazing. Okay, fantastic. That’s enough. Oh, the “no look” drawings!

MLP: The who drawings?

JT: “No look” drawings — we look at each other and draw without looking down at the paper. Let’s do that before I go.