Mary-Louise Parker has long been known as a different kind of Hollywood creature. On the occasion of her new memoir, Jessica Pressler observes the untamed, unfiltered actress in her natural habitat.
So there’s this bird up at Mary-Louise Parker’s farmhouse in upstate New York. “And it keeps flying into the same fucking spot in the window,” the actress says on a summer afternoon at her apartment in Brooklyn, planting her feet in the plush rug and gazing out the wall of windows, as though expecting the bird to be out there now, circling her penthouse aerie.
It has been happening all summer, she says. She’ll be listening to records or something and then—thwap! Parker bangs her fist into her hand. “And I just know it’s this massive metaphor. But what do I know?” she says. Maybe it’s just a strange bird.
Kind of like Mary-Louise Parker herself. A few minutes earlier, she’d answered her door clutching a box she was decoupaging with photos for her sister’s birthday. “I’ll be right back,” she said and ran for the deck, leaving me with a smiling Spaniel mix in a turquoise diaper. “Hi,” I said. (“What?” Parker called from the deck.) The dog’s named Mrs. Roosevelt, Parker explained when she returned, and she doesn’t wear diapers because she’s incontinent but because she’s forgetful. “She has a lot on her mind,” the actress said, in her deadpan, can’t-quite-tell-if-it’s-a-joke way. We sat on the couch, where an assistant had laid out iced coffees and snacks. “This cow just died on my lawn,” she said, out of nowhere. Which led to the subject of the window-smashing bird, and a sad story about the miniature dwarf goats she’d gotten on the advice of John Malkovich, one of which died of a brain tumor last year. “Isn’t that bizarre?” Parker asks, her brown eyes hypnotizing. Which part?
So yeah. Mary-Louise Parker is a strange bird. This is not a dig: It’s her weirdness, in part, that has made her so compelling to watch over the past few decades—from Fried Green Tomatoes toWeeds. Of course, she is also talented—and beautiful. At 51, or “half a century old,” as she puts it, she is long and lean, with wild dark hair and skim milk–colored skin that, for all its smoothness, actually folds when she lifts her eyebrows. But it’s the weirdness, running through her like an animated current, that really separates her from the pack: the distracted drawl, the crooked Mona Lisa smile that suggests her mind is elsewhere, maybe on something naughty. In an industry that produces replicas, there is no one else quite like Mary-Louise Parker.
Appropriately, Parker has written a memoir that is unlike any other celebrity memoir. Insofar as it is a memoir at all. Dear Mr. You, out this month, is a series of letters to men Parker has encountered during her life. Funny, heartbreaking, and profound, they’re little character sketches through which the author’s personality gradually emerges, like a lost-wax casting.
The idea grew out of a piece Parker wrote for Esquire a few years ago, her advice about how to be a better man. Ostensibly, the magazine figured Parker had some ideas, given that in 2003, her longtime boyfriend Billy Crudup famously dumped her—when she was seven months pregnant—for his younger costar Claire Danes, otherwise known as one of the dickiest dick moves in history. Parker wasn’t going to write about that (she has never commented publicly on the subject, and she and Crudup continue to co-parent their son, Will, now 11), but it turned out she had a lot to say on the subject of masculinity.
“I was always really pulled to what is really, really male, sort of enthralled by a lot of it,” she says now, folding her legs up underneath her. “I was always a romantic and liked dropping everything and going to Paris with someone I didn’t really know, and I used to bristle when girls would sit around and, like, bash men and roll their eyes, because I always had such close friendships with men, and I felt I operated in the world in some ways more like a man.”
In this age of rah-rah sisterhood, a book in praise of men feels almost out of step. But Parker isn’t so much interested in the Zeitgeist. She abhors social media, doesn’t keep up with the news (“Bill Cosby from The Cosby Show?” she says, confused, when the subject of his rape allegations come up), and is impervious to bandwagons. “I’m not crying huge tears for women in Hollywood. I’m just not,” she says, on the topic du jour among many of her peers in the industry. “‘Cause, sorry, I kind of think that women have it bad in the south of Ethiopia. Just carry 25 buckets of water or chop down eight trees. Have someone cut off your clitoris and feed it to a pig. I don’t feel sorry for me at all, and I sure as fuck don’t feel sorry for you.” She winces. “Sorry, that was a little harsh.”
Parker gives the impression of a person who goes where her instincts take her. “She’s completely feral,” says author Mary Karr, whom, if the project is green-lighted, Parker will play in a Showtime miniseries based on Karr’s memoirs, The Liars’ Club and Lit. “She’s also a very carnal person. I don’t mean that in just a sexual way. It’s that she just kind of occupies her body. It’s a strange form of presence.”
Watching Parker cross the room to fetch her decoupage drying on the deck, I can see what Karr means. Improbably, she is sexier at 51 than she was at 25. After the Crudup incident, Parker went on to date a string of hunks, such as singer Charlie Mars, and landed a role as a sexed-up suburban mom on Weeds, which had no shortage of erotic moments. Neither doesDear Mr. You, which features a park-bench fingering and a thrust-by-thrust accounting of a “fuck-our-lights-out-fest.”
But this is not a tell-all. It’s literary nonfiction, by a real writer: Someone’s skin is viscerally described as looking like “fruit with cream painted on top.” An entire person is evoked in the line, “homegirl could work some camel toe.”
“When I read it, the language was really kind of electric and poetic,” says Colin Harrison, her editor at Scribner. “This was not someone who had started writing a few years ago; it was someone who had studied language and thought about how words were put together.”
Parker obscures identifying details of her paramours, and while there are some nasty real-life bits—notably, in a stylized chapter called “Dear Cerberus”—she is forgiving and even sentimental about her exes. “He was such a great guy,” Parker reminisces about one lover, whom she also writes about stabbing in the hand with a fork. If anyone is hoping that this book “finally reveals what a dick Billy Crudup was,” as one website put it, they’ll be disappointed.
“There’s not one that’s like, ‘Hey, fuck you, buddy,'” Parker says. “I could write that book. But I wanted to write something positive. That’s what life is, you know?” There is, she points out, only “one meanspirited line, and I’m not going to tell you what it is.” (A guess: “Having sex with you was like making snow angels under a rhino.”)
When she does address the Crudup incident, it’s in a letter apologizing for shrieking at a cabdriver—”I am pregnant and alone!”—when he got her lost during that time. “I caused your turban to pop loose from its foundation and that was extreme,” she writes. Parker’s definition of masculine is expansive. There are letters to a drag-queen friend, her gay childhood priest, one of the goats.
The main inspiration for the book, and its emotional center, though, is her father, John, who died in 2010. “He’s probably why I could just ruminate on the masculine forever,” she says, brushing her hair back over her bony shoulders. “Because he was a mythic character and so informative to who I am in every way. Things about me that people really don’t like are him, and the things about me that people appreciate or do like are either him or they came out of what he fed me.”
John Parker could have been a writer, she says, but he grew up poor, and so he joined the military, serving in World War II, Korea, and finally Vietnam. Parker spent some of her childhood on army bases, and they were living in Thailand when her father decided he’d seen enough death and destruction. After his retirement, they moved to the suburbs of Phoenix, where he got a job as a bank manager and settled into what they hoped would be a routine middle-class lifestyle. But her father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and would occasionally fly into uncontrollable rages, leaving holes in walls, chairs upset, and waiters quaking. After he came to “like a sleepwalker,” she writes, “I’d see the confusion and shame wash over him, almost the worst part.”
Most likely, growing up around this walking land mine contributed to Parker’s ability to observe and record minute shifts in human emotions. While this skill serves her well as an actor and, now, as a writer, when she was a teenager, she just felt profoundly unhappy. It wasn’t until she entered the drama program at the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts that she found her tribe. “Surrounded by every rejected neighborhood freak, I was free to be myself,” she writes. Her depiction of the theater-student milieu is as vivid and true as any that has ever been committed to paper: “I was wearing opera gloves to breakfast and holding my unitard together with safety pins. My friend Ken and I would roll on the ground, having pretend breakdowns in the cafeteria just for laughs.”
There’s no similar recounting of what happened after college, when Parker moved to New York and joined the real adult theater world, getting her first big break, opposite Timothy Hutton, in Prelude to a Kiss on Broadway. There’s no mention, even tangentially, of her Tony Award–winning turn in Proof, or the way Hollywood rebuffed her early on, preferring to cast easy blondes like Meg Ryan and Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively, in the film versions of Prelude to a Kiss and Proof, what the writer of the former once called “an incredible injustice.” Maybe this is because that would be too celebrity memoir-ish. Maybe it’s because even though she eventually found her niche in the industry—in thinking women’s movies of the ’90s like Fried Green Tomatoes and Boys on the Side, and later in TheWest Wing, and for eight years in Weeds—she still doesn’t feel like a Hollywood person. She lives in New York; she doesn’t drive. She seems to feel about the industry the way she felt about high school: half resents it, half wants to be a part of it. “You know, you can sell yourself as a product and make yourself superattractive, but I’m not a good salesperson,” she says. “I don’t think I have the components anyway. I never had that beauty or that kind of charm, or that kind of willingness to forfeit my real feelings in the moment.”
She would rather do theater than a movie, she says. But “I have to pay for private school, so that’s probably not the wisest choice.”
This reminds her: She was supposed to do voice-over for Chronically Metropolitan, an upcoming movie in which she plays the mother of one of the Pretty Little Liars. “Shit,” she says, lunging for her phone. Phew, not until tomorrow.
While Dear Mr. You doesn’t address Parker’s career, it does assume you know something about it. There are passing references to a designer friend scaring up a last-minute dress for the Emmys, and the chapter “Dear Abraham” tells the touching story of her first meeting with her longtime accountant.
Which brings us back to men, and the bird and the window, and the metaphor. Throughout her life, Parker says, she has had a habit of flying headfirst into relationships and getting her beak smashed. “I think it had a lot to do with mistakenly idolizing people, or having an improper investment in somebody else’s happiness and well-being—as though that was my fucking responsibility—because I think you stand by somebody who is difficult because underneath it all, they would stand by you and would die for you, literally. Like my father. Instead, I just stood by people and that didn’t happen.”
In her telling, as Parker’s father got older, he not only mellowed out but also became almost enlightened: a model father and husband, the kind she’d want for herself. But “that just wasn’t my thing,” she says. “To end up somewhere very neatly in some nuclear family. I thought I would, but it didn’t happen, and I honestly don’t know very many people who have that. A man doesn’t love a woman the way my father loved my mother; a woman isn’t devoted to a man the way my mother was to my father. It doesn’t—it just doesn’t happen.”
Instead, she made her own family. With Will and Ash, the daughter she adopted from Ethiopia in 2007, who is nine. At the moment, they are packing for a trip to Ethiopia so that Ash can meet her relatives for the first time since her adoption, including the uncle who brought her to the orphanage, who has his own letter in the book. They’re also paying a visit to Hope North, a school in Uganda that Parker supports, which is run by an escaped child soldier the actress describes as “almost like my best friend. It’s so bizarre. We just are like soul mates.” His name is Okello Sam, although in the book he is called “Rafiki Yangu” (“My Friend” in Swahili).
Of the 33 letters, there were at least as many more that didn’t make it in. “Honestly, had I had more time, I could have written a book as big as Infinite Jest,” she says. One of the walls of her study is covered with Post-it notes: “Dear Benihana Manager.” “Dear Caveman.” “Dear Erwin Schrödinger.” Wait, “Dear Mr. Shithead”?
“My son put that up,” she says. “He was like,”—she affects an adolescent drawl—’Hey, Mom, do any of them look different?’ ”
One of the more hilarious letters in the book is “Dear Future Man Who Loves My Daughter” (“Yes, you may have had a difficult childhood, but please allow me to introduce myself: Hello, I am the woman who doesn’t give a shit”). But there’s no “Dear Future Man” chapter. Maybe because Parker doesn’t see one swooping in anytime soon. “Those kind of, like, responsible men, the superreliable ones that are sort of quiet and steady, those kinds of guys don’t talk to me so much. I’m older now. I don’t have the confidence or the stamina. Like I said, I’m not a very good salesperson. And I have stuff to decoupage. A dog to walk.” She looks down. Mrs. Roosevelt has wet her diaper. “And I understand I am not for everyone. Someone has to know what they want. But I’m not completely opposed,” she says. “I am a romantic, so you never know.”