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Mary-Louise Parker is known for playing characters with a dry wit, but we had no idea she'd be exactly as deadpan and hilarious in person. We got to sit down one-on-one with the 48-year-old actress as she reprises her role of Sarah Ross in "RED 2," the sequel to 2010's retirees with ammunition flick that became a sleeper hit.
In the sequel, Sarah and Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) are going through a dry spell in their domesticated relationship but she's in for the ride of her life when Frank and the rest of the gang (including John Malkvich and Helen Mirren) have to save the world from a Cold War-era nuclear device.
Parker has had success in recent years with the TV show "Weeds" and will also take the female lead in this weekend's "R.I.P.D." She talked to us about stealing roles from younger women, returning to Broadway in "The Snow Geese," parenthood and Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.
It's really refreshing to see Bruce Willis acting opposite a woman who's not half his age. Same thing with Ryan Reynolds in "R.I.P.D." Is there a part of you that's gleefully laughing at this imaginary 25-year-old starlet you're taking roles from?
[laughs] I don't even know how I got the part. I don't know whose idea I was or what. I'm just always happy when someone wants to work with me, and they were so sweet and Bruce was really nice for the first movie. I just want to work with people who want to work and want to be there. It does get kinda creepy when you constantly see men with girls who could technically be their daughter, or at least their niece.
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Is there a part of you, like your character Sarah, who's secretly an adrenaline junkie?
No, I hate adrenaline. I have an active dislike for any sort of pulse quickening. Except for sex. I like to stay really flatlined, slow. I don't do drugs. I just went ziplining and it was a nightmare but I didn't want my son to think I was scared because I knew he would be scared, but I just hated it! I hate heights. I don't like loud noises, I don't like crowds. I like boredom.
Did you do time on the gun range to prepare for packing heat?
No, because she needed to be sort of bumbling. She needed to not be gun savvy.
You must have felt like Chuck Heston for a second, right?
No, I would probably avoid that feeling at all costs. [laughs]
Who among this cast would win in a fight to the death?
Probably John [Malkovich]. I'm sure he could somehow talk his way out of it. He could out-think the other person, or maybe Bruce, because Bruce just is one of those people where if there was a wasp he would just catch it. Not even an insect would mess with Bruce Willis, he just has that indomitable thing that makes women love him. Makes me love him, I love that about him.
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You've said before that John Malkovich was your hero. Was that for his time with Steppenwolf or more the film stuff?
It's all of it. When I got out of college my friends and I wanted to be Steppenwolf, we started a theatre company. We worked at a lot of the same theaters, John and I. He's just what I wanted to be as an actor, just constantly breaking rules but there always seemed to be a process behind it. A lot of thought went into it. He's just what I wanted to be, I never wanted to be America's sweetheart, I wanted to be him bashing typewriters with golf clubs.
What would you say is the single greatest moment in your career so far?
Opening night of "Proof," a play that I did on Broadway when my mother, a lady who's very reserved, like I've never heard her swear, she just flew out of her seat. She was clapping so hard. That was sweet, that and my father came backstage after "Hedda Gabbler" and he was so proud. They all involve my parents, honestly. My parents were with me at the Tony's when I won. It all involves making them proud and feeling like I got to do that in my lifetime.
Does that play into how you are with your kids? That feeling of pride?
Oh my God, they'll just do anything! My daughter read the poster for "RED" out loud. She said "The best never rest!" I was like, "That's so great!" I am sort of unabashedly proud of everything they do. I've known people in my life whose parents were competitive with them or who were reticent to praise them and I never understood that because I have parents who are so behind me.
They're your safety net.
Yeah, 'cause I didn't believe in myself really so much. As an actor I did, but they believed in me as a person.
What would you say is the most underrated movie of yours?
You know I have not seen most of my movies.
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No. I did a movie called "The Five Senses" that I really enjoyed. You know what I did see, I'm not in it very much but I still love it was with our dear James Gandolfini called "Romance & Cigarettes." I really loved him.
What's a choice Gandolfini memory from that experience?
He did something I've never seen anyone do, a very simple thing in Hollywood or anywhere, for that matter. I had a new baby, I came on set, and I didn't really want to let go of my son and I knew I had to go on set. I got a nanny finally. I'd never walked on set with a nanny before but I didn’t want my son to go away. She was just walking behind me and I was holding my son and then I turned to go act, handed her the son. He walked right over to her and went, "I'm Jim." No one was listening, he didn't have to impress anybody. He's the only person I've ever seen do that, introduce himself … when people come into your house you rarely see them acknowledge if someone's there cleaning your house … and sometimes it's not appropriate to distract someone or sometimes they're not open to it, but I never saw anyone do that like that. It was not about him, either, it was entirely about being welcoming and making her feel validated, 100%.
That seems to be a constant in a lot of the stories coming out about him, just the warmth and generosity.
And he was talented as hell.
What's your go-to karaoke song?
I don't do karaoke. My niece and I once rented a private karaoke room, you used to be able to do that in the East Village. We'd go do yoga, then get smoothies … but that was the only time I did it was with her, and we used to do the theme from "St. Elmo's Fire," which don't ask why.
Beer or wine?
If the world was ending I'd probably have a Red Stripe and some guacamole, probably.
Pacino or De Niro?
I could never pick an actor. It would feel rude, I would feel dismissive of the other one, and they're both so extraordinary, but I have a soft spot for Pacino 'cause I've worked with him a little bit. I just think he's such an actor, he works so hard. He didn't have to do "The Merchant of Venice." He could do a million movies. De Niro has one of my favorite moments in this movie "Sleepers," a close-up of his face, he does NOTHING.
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Is that the scene where they're telling him about all the abuse?
Yeah, and he does nothing. That had to be his choice, and most people would not make that choice, most people would feel obligated to convey something, you know? He conveyed it with how he did not express it, which is the more elegant choice I think, and the more moving.
Film or theatre?
Theatre. I don't even go to the movies.
You have "The Snow Geese" coming up this is the longest you've ever gone without doing a play. What was the reason behind the hiatus?
Your kids are only small once, and you miss bedtime when you're doing a play. If you're doing a movie it's three months or two weeks depending on the size of the part, but it's not every single night. If you're doing a play, even if you have a three-month run, that's almost every night. You can't put them to sleep or read them a story or say prayers with them or sing to them or anything. I didn't want to miss that. It's a big relationship for me when I do a play because I take it very seriously. It had to be worth it and couldn't really finagle it with my TV show. They're the only thing that's ever come before my work.
Are they gonna be there opening night?
My children are never photographed so I never take them to an opening night type of thing, and I think my daughter might be bored. I'm gonna have to wait and see how the play unfolds and see if its appropriate for her because she's only six.
No one gets slimed in the play?
No. [laughs] But my son I think will enjoy it, he'll definitely be there at some point, all he wants to do is act so he'll probably want to come to rehearsals.
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Boys as an appetizer, main course or on the side?
Boys or men, are they the same thing? I never understood that title, no one did. We were all like, "What does that mean?" She kind of explains it at some point, the one character, still never really understood it. I like to be one of the guys, I like to hang out with guys, a lot of my best friends are guys. I like being around men, like I LOVED hanging out with Malkovich in the car. I love talking to men, just love them in general, so I'd say maybe all courses. Yeah. Any time of the meal.
How about fried green tomatoes?
Didn't really like 'em. No, not delicious, and I would eat anything fried, basically, I love fried food. I would eat that napkin if you fried it.
What is your porn name?
I think it would be Serena Calle Bellavista. Not bad, right?
You're gonna get an AVN Award just for that name.
I know, I know. I'd much rather be doing porn anyway, I'm hoping to move to that. Some form of granny porn or something, I mean I'm gonna be 50.