In her TV series “Weeds” and in the action flick “Red,” Mary-Louise Parker may portray characters who are running away from people trying to kill them, but these characters are far from being dim-witted damsels in distress. In “Red,” Parker plays Sarah Ross, a customer-service rep who develops a telephone relationship with retired CIA operative Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis). Frank starts to have romantic feelings for Sarah, so he pretends to lose his retirement checks so that he can continue to call Sarah.
When Sarah and Frank finally meet in person, it’s under less-than-ideal circumstances. Frank has discovered that government assassins are after him and some other former spies because of information that they know. Before she knows it, Sarah is swept up in Frank’s life-and-death intrigue, as she goes on the run with him. Here’s what Parker had to say about her “Red” experience at a New York City press conference for the movie. She also talked a little bit about “Weeds” and her favorite poets.
How do you balance your TV series “Weeds” with doing movies?
Well, this one [“Red”] was really about the actors. It was a bit of a longer shoot, which I don’t do so much anymore because I have two kids. It was really so much about the actors. I’ve worked with John [Malkovich] before and I really love him and admire him, and Helen [Mirren] is just somebody that I think every actor probably wants to work with. It was really attractive in that way. And Bruce [Willis] was so nice and so prepared and so invested in this movie.
What do you think about your “Red” character Sarah Ross? She seems smarter than the average “girlfriend of the hero.” How did you see this “Kansas City” girl?
Well, I think that’s what she is, really. She’s a small-town, Midwestern girl, and I think she’s really positive, and there’s not a whole lot of dark in there. I think she’s a really bright, positive person. And she reads romance novels and she kind of imagines herself in one of them. So when all of this happens, I think to her it’s like a dream come true — even the horrible parts of it, like getting her mouth duct-taped. To her, there’s some element of that that’s thrilling and wonderful.
You didn’t get to use guns like most of the stars of “Red.” How do you feel about that?
I don’t even want to be in the same room with one. I’m such a wuss when it comes to those kinds of weapons.
What weapon would you prefer?
I don’t know. A bow and arrow or something like that. I had to shoot a crossbow on my show, which was equally ridiculous to have me holding a crossbow … I think [in the “Red” movie poster], they did kind of Photoshop a gun into that picture of me. I didn’t want to hold one during the photo shoot, so the only thing they could do to make me look sort of tough was like that, but it looks like they put a gun in, right?
Did you know that the “Red” movie would turn out to have so much comedy?
I kind of approached it that way. For me the genre was kind of an Irene Dunne, sort of that kind of ‘30s-and-early-‘40s comedy with the male/female banter. I saw it like that, just sort of sweet and ingenuous.
Such as “Romancing the Stone”?
I’ve not seen that. I’ve not seen this movie [“Red”] either, but I’ve heard that it’s awesome … So I saw it kind of like that. Even like a Preston Sturges movie, just kind of the way that they related to each other and one-upped each other. Ad it was more verbal a relationship than physical.
Was the all-star cast part of the reward of doing a film like “Red”?
Yeah, I think so. There are so many actors who are really wonderful and wonderful to watch, but aren’t that much fun to act with. And these were actors who were really, especially Helen is completely 100 percent there. And she’s really wonderful to act with, she sort of feeds you. If you’re going to spend that amount of time with a cast, that’s really what you want. And someone like John. They’re both of the theater and they just have a different kind of work ethic.
In that “Red” scene with you and Helen Mirren hiding out in the snow, did you do you own stunts when your character fell down?
I have not seen what they used in the end. I would hope that they used my fall. Helen and I both said that we thought that as soon as they saw us run, we would both get fired. It takes a certain kind of commitment to run and look like there’s a lot of drama happening around you, and then to fall.
I don’t mind being pulled to the ground if something’s blowing up. But then to fall and roll down a hill — that’s challenging for me. I’d rather do a six page monologue really than rolling down a hill. It’s really not in my skill set so much. But it was fun to do that time, and it was really fun to do with her because she felt the same way. There were a couple times when we both were laughing because we were like, “OK, here’s our running scene.” And she’s like, “Not only am I running, but I’m running with a gun.” So she kind of had it all.
It may be just a coincidence, but your character in “Weeds” and your character in “Red” are each running from people who want to kill them. What clichés in “Red” and/or “Weeds” are you really proud of avoiding?
I think there are some clichés that we kind of embrace, and I think they’re kind of wonderful in a way. The man who kidnaps the woman against her will and in the end they end up falling in love. We just sort of embraced that, and went for it, and hopefully imbued it with something a little bit fresh.
As far as “Weeds” goes, I think that’s all about the unexpected. And ending up with unexpected people with situations you can’t really imagine. Towards the end of the season, it gets even stranger, which I really like. I like it when it gets really dark and perverse. So that I feel is not quite so much in danger of that being sort of brute. But this movie [“Red”] I think in a way it kind of was that a lot of times, but just kind of going for it and not shying away from it I think is maybe what made it a little bit fresh, I hope.
If you could pick any of the “Red” characters to protect you if you were running for your life, who would it be and why?
Oh, John Malkovich! I would want him the person and his character as well for the dangerous situations. But as far as just to be in an RV or something for several months at a time, I would be with Malkovich. Helen Mirren also is not a bad choice.
But Malkovich I could just talk to him for hours, right up until rolling, practically. Usually I don’t want anyone to talk to me. I don’t want anyone to stand near me. And John, because we have a lot of the same friends in common and we both worked in a lot of the same theaters.
And he’s just so strange and weird and wonderful. He has his own clothing line. He directs plays in other languages, some of which I’m not even sure he understands. He’s just really awesome, and women are just, “Oh, my God, you’re working with John Malkovich!” He’s really undeniably sexy and smart. He really has a lot. It sounds like I’m in love with him or something. Maybe I am.
Can you elaborate on your previous comment that “Red” embraced certain clichés?
I feel like it’s a tried conceit. It feel like it’s a construct we’ve seen many times before. I think Bruce kind of brought something to it because he does have this macho, indomitable male thing. And at the same time there’s something silly about him and sweet. You want to watch him, because he’s not all testosterone. There’s something about him that’s really sweet.
Did you have any female bonding with Helen Mirren in real life?
We did have tea, or was it cocktails? We had something like that. Maybe there was no tea involved. One night we were staying at some English country inn, and we did have some drinks. She’s just kind of immediately you feel like you’re hanging out with someone because there’s something kind of dark about her and she’s so sexy. There’s something about her to me that’s almost like an icon, in a way. And she just throws that, she just kind of deconstructs that the second you meet her, because she just wants to talk and to be friends and to be sweet.
And she’s really kind. She’s not that comfortable with certain kinds of confrontation. If things get tense or something she’s just like, “I just stare at the ground,” and she does. She doesn’t like it when things get ugly because that’s not her nature. She’s just sweet. We didn’t curl our hair together or listen to Beach Boys albums or anything like that, but we did have a good time. She’s really nice.
Romance novels are a guilty pleasure for Sarah Ross. What’s your guilty pleasure in real life?
I don’t feel guilty about pleasure. I feel really good about it. I don’t know. I eat a lot of candy. I don’t really have anything like that, per se, and I don’t think she feels sort of ashamed of it either. I think it’s just who she is. She pictures herself in one of those books, and she ends up in one of those books, ultimately. That’s where she’s sort of heading all along. And once she’s there, that’s a dream come true, really.
Do you have a favorite romance novel or book that inspired your character in “Red”?
I read mostly poetry, actually. I actually like quite a few of the poet laureates of late. I love W.S. Merwin, who is our new poet laureate. And I love Charles Simic, who was two ago I think. I love Mark Strand. I love Andrew Zawacki. I love John Ashbery. I think Denis Johnson has also written some really wonderful poetry. I love Sharon Olds, Marilyn Hacker … I’m really quite passionate about it. I love it. Yusef Komunyakaa, I like.
I get a lot out of reading it. It’s hard for me to finish a whole book. I’ve been reading “Infinite Jest” for like a year now, but I have two small children, so it’s hard to finish a big book. It’s such a good book, but every time I pick it up I have to go back 20 pages because I forgot what it’s about. So poems are easier for me.
How much creative input do you have on “Weeds”?
I’m really bossy, actually. I don’t know if I have [creative input], but I take it. I always want things to be better. And I think in some ways that is what is good about me, and I think it’s also probably what makes me a little tiresome sometimes, because I don’t ever really want to give up. They give me the first cuts, and I do have a lot of notes. The writing is hard. I write for Esquire sometimes and I do write, so it’s hard to not want to come at it that way.
But it’s hard to act something, to me, that you’ve kind of had a hand in writing. For me, I can’t separate them enough. But I do have a lot to say about the show. I want it to be good. Everybody spends a lot of energy on it, and I want it to be worth watching, which a lot of times it is and sometimes I don’t think it is.
Now that you have kids, how do you feel about doing work on stage?
I have a stage in my home actually, because I was tired of people using the coffee table and the dining room table. It’s certainly nothing I would have wished for, but all day long in my house it’s, “Ladies and gentlemen, turn off your cell phones.” People are putting on shows, people (my children) all day long. My daughter, not so much, but you can’t really direct that or predict it or even redirect it because I think it’s in some people.
How old are your kids? And are they interested in musicals?
My son is 6, and my daughter is 4. There was a musical the other day. “The Absent Spaceman,” or something like that. And my son wrote something — this sounds so pretentious; I guess it is a little pretentious — but he thought the song “Hello Dolly” was about Salvador Dali. I swear to God, my hand to God, he did. So he kind of rewrote that and made a paper moustache. It’s pretentious, but what are you going to do? I live in New York.
Did you know that “Red” co-star Ernest Borgnine is the voice of Mermaid Man in “SpongeBob Square Pants”?
I didn’t know that. They do like [“SpongeBob SquarePants”]. Wow, that’s cool.
You mentioned your love of poetry. What do you think of Maya Angelou and her books?
I’ve read all of them. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” One of her poems is actually one of my favorite poems. It’s called “New Face.” It’s a beautiful poem.
Have you done any poetry readings in public?
I’m friends with Mark Strand, actually. I did a reading of one of Mark’s poems called “Blind for Winter” for PBS. And I’ve done some other informal [poetry readings].
What’s next for you?
Nothing, I think. I really didn’t want to work at this time, because I really wanted to take my kids to school every day and be there as much as I could to bring them back. So I’ll probably end up doing a movie later in the fall [of 2010], but for now, I really want to be there for them [my kids]. No one will ever love me as much as they do. I don’t want anyone to.
For more info: “Red” website
RELATED LINKS ON echoflam.com:
Interview with Mary-Louise Parker for “Weeds”
Interview with Mary-Louise Parker for “Weeds” (Comic-Con 2010 panel)
“Red” Comic-Con panel
“Red” Comic-Con press conference
Interview with Bruce Willis and Karl Urban for “Red”
Interview with Morgan Freeman for “Red”
Interview with Helen Mirren for “Red”
Interview with John Malkovich for “Red”
Interview with Ernest Borgnine for “Red”