When Weeds debuted on Showtime in 2005, it seemed to burst with quirkiness. Foremost, the premise: a suburban housewife who starts dealing pot to make ends meet after her husband’s death. Then, the characters: Kevin Nealon’s sleazy pothead accountant, Justin Kirk’s slacker brother-in-law, Tonye Patano’s sassy black supplier. But the casting of Mary-Louise Parker as the series’ central character helped ensure Weeds wouldn’t suffocate under its seemingly unbearable lightness, and Weeds quickly established itself as far more nuanced and complex than its kooky premise might imply. Credit of course goes to the show’s writers—particularly creator Jenji Kohan—but Parker has inhabited the role of Nancy Botwin so naturally that it’s hard to imagine anyone else making such a flawed (and frequently unsympathetic) character so compelling. Throughout her career, Parker has proven dexterous with complicated, dark figures, from her role as the hallucinating Mormon pill-popper in Angels In America (for which she won an Emmy) to her Tony-winning turn as the troubled daughter of a disturbed mathematician in Proof. That skill has served her well on Weeds, where each season has progressively raised the dramatic stakes: Season five, which debuted June 8, finds Nancy Botwin pregnant by a Mexican drug lord, and losing her tenuous control over her two teenage sons. Just after the new season began, Parker talked to The A.V. Club about moms selling drugs, her castmates, and getting naked.
The A.V. Club: During the first season, you said you didn’t treat the show as a comedy.
Mary-Louise Parker: I never treated it as a comedy. I thought it was a drama. They’re the same thing; life is life, and you shouldn’t play things for tears or laughs. It’s somewhere in between, but they said the network had bought and expected a comedy, so it was something we needed to fulfill. Truthfully, in the beginning, I felt like it was pushing for that. But I never felt like or even wanted to feel like we were trying to push to be some flat-out crazy comedy, because you lose things. You don’t have the other part of it, the other aspect of it.
AVC: So much of the comedy comes from Justin Kirk or Kevin Nealon. There’s less hilarity when Nancy’s around.
MLP: Because I bring on the dark. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve said you were attracted to her for her flaws, and you seem to be drawn to darker material. Do you prefer flawed characters?
MLP: No, but I feel oftentimes people seem to think of me. “She’ll do it!” In college, my teachers were usually after me for going after comedy too much, leaning too much in that direction. Just when I got out of school, I seemed to get hired for a lot of dramatic things, and people tend to remember you how they’ve seen you the first time. I don’t know that I’m Miss Romantic Comedy, you know? I’ve done a little of that. I just don’t know if I’m your girl, if that’s what you’re wanting. I don’t know that I’d come to me first.
AVC: Legend has it that you turned down the Susan Mayer role on Desperate Housewives so you could do Weeds. Is that true?
MLP: Well, yeah, I’d never admit it, because I think that’s kind of rude to the actress who did, except that it came out a couple of times, so I feel like it’s all right for me to admit it. I just felt like somebody else could probably do it a lot better. I felt like I was more suited to a different kind of world, and I hadn’t read Weeds yet when I read Desperate Housewives—I wasn’t choosing between two things. But I think it might not have worked as well with me as with [Teri Hatcher]; she’s totally suited to it, and she does a great job. It just didn’t feel like I was gonna serve it as well as someone else might.
AVC: It’s hard to picture you doing the more physical comedy and pratfalls.
MLP: Yeah, but I love to watch a good pratfall. [Laughs.] But yeah, that’s not really my thing.
AVC: You occasionally step out and do lighter stuff, like the music video for Charlie Mars’ “Listen To The Darkside.”
MLP: I’ve been offered some [videos], and usually I don’t have time—this one, I didn’t have time either, but you know how sometimes you say you’ll be somewhere, and you don’t know why you said it? [Laughs.] That’s what happened. Then right before shooting, I was like, “Oh God, why did I say that? I’m so tired.” But then I went and I think it came out really well. I like it.
AVC: When Weeds debuted, you said you didn’t think people would like it, or they’d be offended by it. What made you think that?
MLP: I guess I feel like a mother selling drugs—I didn’t think people were really gonna go for it. In our country, people are really, really intense about drugs. [Laughs.] Certainly as they should be, but I don’t know…
AVC: Was it mostly the drug angle that you thought would turn people off?
MLP: Yeah, but also because it was a mother. People generally don’t take to mothers when they’re not represented in an idealized way. There’s a lot of stuff. The last line of the pilot, I think, is “I should’ve had an abortion.” Elizabeth [Perkins] says it. So to think in the U.S. of A it was gonna be a big hit… I guess people still found something in it.
AVC: Does Weeds have the same shooting schedule every year?
MLP: Yeah, pretty much. It’s been pretty consistent. There was one year we did a couple more episodes than we did the year previous—we did like 15 instead of 13, but generally it’s the same. We start in April and end like in mid-July.
AVC: How long does it usually take for you to get into a rhythm?
MLP: By now, I’m usually looking forward to being there, because I miss it, and I feel like everybody’s really good to each other, and we’re all happy to be there again.
AVC: Does it take you longer to get comfortable when you do stage or film work?
MLP: Truthfully, it depends on the project and the people. I feel like we just all know each other really well. We just are pretty comfortable with each other; there’s no weird infighting or anything, you know what I mean? Everybody really likes each other. There’s nobody we feel annoyed by, so everybody’s happy to see each other. [Laughs.]
AVC: The setting of the show and cast changed significantly before season four, when the Botwins moved. Did that affect how the cast gelled?
MLP: I certainly miss people. That was the direction they wanted to take it in; they can speak better than I can about where they wanted to take it. I still miss those guys. I felt really close to Romany [Malco]—I still miss them. I think certainly people were totally missed and can’t be replaced. I don’t want to say anything that’s gonna in any way diminish their not being there. People were really positive and wanting [the show] to still do well. I was talking to somebody about this yesterday: Sometimes I feel like I’m giving an interview when I talk about it, because there’s nobody that I don’t like. Like Justin and Elizabeth and Hunter [Parrish]—Hunter has been staying at my house every year. There’s not really a lemon in the bunch; there’s not anybody that other people are like, when we get together, “Oh, I had to work with so-and-so yesterday.” It’s to the point where I go “Oh God, I wish this job could go on forever.”
AVC: You don’t hear that too often.
MLP: Yeah. I have to say, I haven’t really worked with that many people in my career that I haven’t liked, which I think is really rare. Somebody was asking me the other day who, how many people, and I could only come up with two that I downright didn’t like—and some you don’t like working with, but there’s something about them that you like.
AVC: Coming into Weeds, did you have a feeling for how the cast was going to gel?
MLP: No, because you never know, and I didn’t know anybody except Justin, and Justin wasn’t there at the very beginning. But Elizabeth, she’s pretty major. She’s one of the two or three best actresses I’ve ever worked with, and certainly the best person.
AVC: You learned at the start of last season that Nancy was getting pregnant. Do you usually have that much notice on plot developments?
MLP: Generally, they tell me at the end of the season, like where it’s going. This year, it seems to be a little more gray, because generally they have something big in mind like that. So I did know throughout the year, and it was good for me to know—I think it would have been a weird thing not knowing.
AVC: So you prefer knowing where you’re headed?
MLP: I do. It’s good for me to have some kind of rough road map, in a way, to fill in the rest of it as you go along. It’s good to know where you’re gonna end up. I remember in the first season, they described to me a little bit more in detail where it was going, and I really felt like I was pointing my car toward these two scenes in the final episode. I knew how to modify what I was doing just because I knew these two scenes had been described to me, and they were like big stop signs when I got to them. I felt like I was trying to circumnavigate through the season to get to those scenes, because they represented something to me.
AVC: But this season, you don’t know.
MLP: Not as much, not as in depth as I might.
AVC: Does that make it more difficult?
MLP: In some ways, but also, we know each other really well now, so the writing seems to go smoothly. Everything seems to go more smoothly, so there’s advantages and disadvantages.
AVC: Do you think much about where you’d like to see Weeds go?
MLP: I like it when they take it to really extreme places, really high drama mixed in with the crazy humor. The two best moments I’ve seen this season is when I throw the banana bread and Justin says, “You ruin everything you touch!” That was so goddamn funny—I think about that and I still laugh. And Elizabeth, when she says “Oh honey, you can’t buy a beach house for $100,000.” She’s just so amazing. I watch her and I think, “God, there’s no way I could do what she does.” She’s just really something.
AVC: There’s one more season after this one?
MLP: That we know of, yeah.
AVC: It isn’t definitely over after that?
MLP: Well, I hope not. Maybe it could get a little tired. I’m not tired of doing it, but that might be the end of it.
AVC: Some websites have said Showtime wanted two more, but that was the end of it.
MLP: Yeah. It also said that I said I was tired of doing it. But you know, at this point, if anybody tells me anything I’ve said, I’m not that surprised. “Wow, really, I said that?” At this point, you end up hearing so many things that are attributed to you that you’ve said or done, or places you’ve been when you weren’t even in that city. At a certain point, you’re not so shocked anymore that people take those kinds of liberties.
AVC: Were people taking liberties when it was reported that you were “bitter” about the nude scene in the bathtub from last season?
MLP: Totally! I went on Craig Ferguson and talked about it. You can tell your readers that if they want to know what I really felt about it. I also thought there was something kind of destructive in that, because the way I was represented, it didn’t make anybody look good. It made it look like they were trying to manipulate me, and like I was bitter toward them. That made me really tired when I read that—like “Wow, I really wish I wouldn’t have been represented like that.” But it’s just not as exciting to them if they say the actual conversation, because it wasn’t as dynamic. It takes a really, really good writer to present a conversation that’s not filled with huge dynamics and fireworks and exclamations, and make it really interesting. You have to be a really good writer in order to do that, and you really have to want to take the time. It takes a lot of energy, and I understand you don’t want to spend six months writing a piece about Mary-Louise Parker, so I understand they have to make it interesting. Still, that one made me mad. Also, it’s just ludicrous when I’ve been in the middle of Times Square naked with a snake around my body [on a billboard to promote the series —ed.]. It’s not like I was bitter that I did a nude scene, you know? It’s ridiculous.
AVC: The bathtub was pretty tame compared to the sex scene with Demián Bichir.
MLP: Yeah, why didn’t they mention that scene? You see way more in that scene than you see in the other one! I was more naked, if that’s possible. To be honest, I felt embarrassed when I saw that, because I thought, “Well, people are gonna read that, and they’re gonna believe that, and they’re gonna think that I’m a total moron.” It makes me sound manipulative. I felt really embarrassed. I just thought, “Oh God, people are gonna read that, and they’re gonna believe that’s true, and there’s nothing I can do!” There’s nothing I can do. The next time I give an interview, everything I say will be positive. [Laughs.] There are some things that I am just relentlessly positive about, and maybe that’s a little boring. It’ll take a lot of energy.
I write for Esquire. I did this profile on Josh Ritter, and I felt like I had such a responsibility to him. I wanted to present him in a way that he felt comfortable and good and well-represented, and really made him shine. I was sweating when I sent it to him. I pushed “send” and sat holding my BlackBerry in my hand, waiting for him to text back and say that it was okay. Because you’re representing somebody in the public. In this day and age, that will never go away, because of the Internet. They take on their own life.
AVC: So being on the other side of that made you want to be extra-careful?
MLP: I would be anyway, because I put a lot of stock in the written word, and the power of it. That’s what I love about acting and reading scripts. Words are really powerful. I don’t believe that axiom at all—words can absolutely hurt you. Words can wound. They can do a lot of damage. I think they can do way more damage than sticks and stones. I’ll take sticks and stones. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is it hard for you to watch your performances?
MLP: I don’t watch [my] movies. I watch the TV show, because I feel like I have somewhat of a responsibility to everyone, because a lot of it is resting on me and my performance, and I do have a bit of input. I’m able to watch it with a bit of distance. I’m not in every scene, so it’s not like I have to sit there and watch loads and loads of me. Truthfully, I feel like maybe they cut to me too many times. If anything, that’s sometimes my comment. Because when they do scenes, they cut back to the other person, and sometimes I like it just to rest on someone’s face for a long time. I’d rather see Justin’s face for the entirety of his monologue rather than cutting back to me 20 times when I’m saying one word. You don’t really need to see me. I also like to see the back of someone’s head—I like to see that onstage too. My favorite scene in all of movies is Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird: You see him where he’s on the porch, and his face is almost completely obscured. I don’t want to see his face. I’m so glad that movie wasn’t made now, where you have 50 angles and close-ups. It’s so elegant and beautiful the way it is, and it’s not overpresented, if that’s a word.
AVC: Have you thought much about what you’d like to do next?
MLP: Well, I’ve been happy doing the series, because in some ways, it’s really good for my kids if I can do concentrated work, so the rest of the year, I can be with them. I like having regular hours. I’m kind of blue-collar in that sense, you know? I don’t like to sit around much, because I start to get really spacey. [Laughs.] I like to work a lot, keep working, keep doing stuff. If I’m inert for too long, I kind of wilt.