A Conversation with Emmy- and Tony-Winning Actress Mary-Louise Parker

You’re coming here soon to receive the 2023 Sandra Day O’Connor Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arizona Foundation for Women. What does that mean to you?
I grew up in Arizona, so it’s especially poignant. Sandra Day O’Connor affected our entire political landscape, not just Arizona. One of my brothers went to ASU, and the other went to the University of Arizona. My brother Jay was a political science teacher, so it made him so happy. I’m very honored.

You are being recognized for your humanitarian work, particularly on behalf of survivors of sex trafficking. Why did you decide to use your celebrity in that way?
I think a lot of people think it’s something that happens somewhere else. It’s important to show up and make people see that, because of the Internet, it’s everywhere. Every parent wants to think their child is innocent. But whether you’re manning their phone or not, they see it on other people’s phones, and people have access to them. It’s something we don’t have a solution for as a society.

Are you seeing that play out in your own life as a parent?
There are times when I think, hmmm, here’s a device where someone can contact, target and trail you. Where you can see the worst of society with one click. Where you can share information about yourself and other family members before you have the maturity to understand what you’re doing. We give them these things, and then we get annoyed when they are addicted to them. That’s massively troubling to me. Even though we don’t have social media, and I don’t, my daughter still sees other people’s. My son recently got Instagram at 18, and it’s not my favorite thing that’s ever happened. We give them poison and wonder why they’re sick. I don’t know what the solution is.

I read that you said your own childhood was pretty painful.
I think I was born overly sensitive. I’m not complimenting myself when I say that because I think sometimes, when people say they’re sensitive, people think that you’re paying yourself a compliment. Sometimes overly sensitive people are a drag to be around, and I can be a drag to be around. But I think part of it was that my dad was in three wars. He suffered a lot. There were no services for men coming back from World War II or Korea or Vietnam. But the flipside was my dad was the most magical person you could ever meet. I don’t think it was a super sunshiny childhood, but I spend enough time in Third World countries and much of my volunteer work, especially in the sex trade, happens in other countries. Spending time in Third World countries makes you very aware of how blessed your childhood is.

You graduated from Marcos de Niza High in Tempe, right?
I did. But I graduated early because I was not popular. I was an introvert and didn’t do well in high school. I think I watched too much of “The Brady Bunch.” I thought you got to high school and everybody was popular, and everybody had boyfriends, and nobody felt lonely. So I left, but I had a very different experience at college.

Did you know as soon as you got involved in theater that it was your place?
Yeah, I think I knew when I was little, before I even knew what the name for it was. I was very awkward and shy, but oddly comfortable performing. I don’t know how that happens.

You’ve had a remarkable career, both on stage and in film. Why do you continue to do both?
I love to act. And I feel like there’s not as much acting in any kind of film. I’ve gotten really lucky with “Angels in America” and “West Wing” and “Weeds,” where it was working with a company of people for an extended period of time. There were a lot of scenes that were very text-heavy. But I don’t like sitting in front of a mirror for two and a half hours with somebody who does my hair. Like, I really would rather do almost anything else.

Did you work to get those types of ensemble roles?
I’m not super ambitious. I’m ambitious about doing the best work, but I was never somebody who would campaign for a part. Even if I tried to do something, I would never have that ability. I am not a very good salesperson. Even in my charity work, I find it hard to call people and ask for money. I know somebody who is a very well-known actress, and she’s incredible. She picks up the phone, gets 15 grand and hangs up. I lack whatever it is.

Even though you’re not a careerist, you’ve managed to put together an impressive body of work and really meaningful roles over time. What’s your secret for finding the right parts if you’re not going out and campaigning for them?
I had my first child when I was 38. Before I had kids, every decision I made was creative. It wasn’t always like, I’m dying to do this. It would have an interesting element. Maybe it wasn’t a great script, but I liked the actor. When I started to work more frequently, I had been doing a lot of theater, and I was seen in a particular way. Many of the choices I made were things I really liked, like “Longtime Companion.” I remember my agent calling and saying, “We have this script.” I said, “Just say yes,” because I knew Norman René. I had just done a play with them. They were doing a play about AIDS, and I wanted to be in it. I love being able to say that I accepted that job without reading it. It makes me feel good about the other shittier choices I’ve made. I like knowing that and knowing that that was important to me and to other people who have been underrepresented and undersupported. Not that my involvement made a huge difference, but I wanted to be on that side.

How much of it is just wanting to ally yourself with the causes you care about?
With my life, it’s huge. My son and I were just doing that Myers-Briggs quiz. I do it every couple of years, thinking maybe I’ll get something different. I never do. I am INFJ-T, the advocate. I labor on behalf of other people, but I’m turbulent and introverted. So in my life, that’s important. Creatively, it usually comes down to the text. I was never in the top tier, so it wasn’t, “You can have this or this.” In the theater, I am. But in movies, there were times when I just had to work. So I’m going to do this because it has this element and doesn’t offend my soul.

Over the years, you’ve become an activist in many areas. Why have you decided to speak up and use your voice?
Most of the stuff I do in that vein, people don’t know. Because I have seen people do it for a photo op, and I don’t like that. I also don’t think it’s very efficient. It’s not a very good way to help. You can’t get a lot done if you’re waiting to get your picture taken while you’re doing it. I’m not a public person anyway. I don’t have social media, but I will always come out for people’s right to love whomever they love. That’s always going to run very strong in me and very deep. Most of my champions and heroes and many of the loves of my life have been lesbian or gay. That’s something I’m just always going to be there for.

And other causes?
There are so many — veterans, senior citizens. That’s when I wish I were a million times more famous, so I could get so many people to show up and write checks. But I really wouldn’t want to be.

You’re also a writer.
I wrote for Esquire for 15 years. Then I wrote for other publications. I never really talked about it, but I noticed this weird current of misogyny. I showed one article that I’d written and was proud of to a friend and he was like, “Who helped you with that?” I never really talked about it much after that. I’d written two things about my dad. And I really wanted to write an epistolary. I just liked the idea of it. I still write and love to write.

Are you working on anything now?
I’ve been working on another book for three years. It’s getting closer, but it’s not all the way there yet. It has some of the themes this award has running through it, and it takes place in Arizona. I just have to finish it and make it good enough. It’s like my 800th draft, but I’ll get there.

You’ve been a private activist. Are you surprised that Arizona Foundation for Women noticed and is honoring you in this way? How did it come about?
I don’t even remember, to be honest. Most of the humanitarian work I do is in Africa. I’ve never advertised it in any way. But I work with a company called Parker Clay. They have an incredible company in Ethiopia that hires women. There are so few options for women in Ethiopia, and East Africa in general. The biggest open-air market in East Africa is in Addis Ababa. Women get off the bus there from little villages and their virginity is auctioned in an hour. They have no idea what’s coming. It’s really brutal. My daughter is from Ethiopia, so I’ve been led to some of these causes. One of my best friends is Ugandan and he was a child soldier. So I was pulled in these directions. Sometimes I read an article in the paper and I’m like, there’s got to be some way I can help.

Were you doing your humanitarian work in Africa before you adopted your daughter, or did she inspire the work?
It’s entirely her. I’d never been to Africa. I worked with Heifer International for a while and that connected me to my Ugandan friend. I don’t remember how I met the people at Parker Clay, but they’ve built a huge new factory. Almost all the employees are women and a massive majority of them are straight out of the sex trade. I’ve been to the factory, and there’s going to be a nursery; there’s a cafeteria. It’s just incredible. They make beautiful products, and they’re reasonably priced. It’s taken a lot of women off the streets.

The issue is so heart-wrenching and important. How do you explain it to your kids?
I took my kids to the red light district in Ethiopia. We went through there in a van. And I was like, I want you to know when people say whore, slut or whatever, I want you to understand what they’re talking about and how horrendous it is to use that word lightly. I wanted them to know the reality, that a lot of women have no choice whatsoever. So when they were volunteering the next day, they would understand why they were doing it. It’s not like I was taking them to see things they hadn’t seen, but they saw women standing on the street. They saw a woman standing on the street holding a baby. They had a coffee ceremony with women sitting there. Even if they don’t speak Amharic, they see the women crying and they know that if you hold someone’s hand, it doesn’t matter if you know what they’re saying.

So your daughter expanded your world in a literal way.
Yeah. I wanted to adopt my whole life. I wanted to have a baby, and I wanted to adopt a baby. I wanted to do it multiple times, but I didn’t get to. But both my kids are pretty extraordinary.

Is there anything you’d like to communicate to our readers about you or your human trafficking work?
It’s happening all the time. If people see something, they should report it because many lives have been saved by people being at a gas station and saying, ‘This girl didn’t look right.’ Just say, “Can I help you?” or take a picture of a license plate if you’re not sure. It’s better that you’re wrong if there’s a chance to help someone.

The Arizona Foundation for Women 2023 AFW Soirée – A Moonlight Masquerade will take place on Feb. 24, 2023. To learn more, visit azfw.org/2023soiree.

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.
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