'I'm A Purist': Mary-Louise Parker Returns To Broadway For A New Challenge

Nov 16, 2019
Originally published on November 19, 2019 11:12 am

Mary-Louise Parker is drawing rave reviews for her central role in Adam Rapp's new, two-character Broadway drama, The Sound Inside.

In the play, Parker stars as Bella Baird, a 53-year-old Yale English professor and fiction writer living with cancer, a role Parker herself describes as "arduous."

Night to night, under the direction of David Cromer, she's tasked with commanding a bare stage as she narrates her thoughts and actions during the better part of 90 minutes.

To achieve the appearance of effortlessness she musters great effort, she says.

"It requires a lot of technique," she said. "It most requires it because I don't want you to see the technique. I want you to feel like there's a person standing there talking — just talking."

But she prefers the challenge.

"I like seeing a mountain in front of me and knowing I have to climb it. Just sort of with the hunch that I believe I can," she said. "I even like getting halfway there and thinking I'm never going to be able to get to the top."

Outside of her television career, she's dominated the stage — and snagged major awards — with her dramatic roles in Prelude to a Kiss in 1990 and in Proof in 2000. Her 2016 Broadway role in Heisenberg might be seen as a warm-up for what would be another intimate, spare production in The Sound Inside.

Moving from her gray room to her gray office, lightened mostly by her passion for literature, Bella receives her fatal diagnosis just as Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman), a troubled freshman writing a novel, shows up at her door for guidance — and just as Bella feels she needs the most intimate form of assistance (not in the way you may think).

In an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition, Parker talks about her perfectionism when it comes to the acting craft, how working odd jobs equipped her with the empathy needed to step into her varied roles, and that selfish request Bella asks of Christopher.

Interview Highlights

On the previous jobs she's worked

I had all kinds of jobs. I did telemarketing surveys, I handed out perfume samples in the mall. I worked at a yogurt shop, I sold shoes, I was a temp, I was a coat check.

I think everyone should have to work a variety of different jobs. Sometimes people approach the person who delivers their groceries or the person who's taking their order as if they're some other phylum. Not to sound corny, but I think you're a little bit more understanding of someone else's narrative or you have a sense of possibility when you encounter somebody when you don't feel separate from them. And I don't.

On the selfish decision her character Bella makes

It's a very selfish thing that she asks. She's not considering [Christopher] really at all, I don't think. That's a deep flaw within her. But it's impossible to play a person without flaws, and it's a big one.

On what she owes to her theater audience

I really believe that if you approach it fresh each night, there's a way to find your way up there that's a little bit different. You know, theater is expensive. And I feel an immense responsibility to the audience to give them the best show that I can bring that night. I'm a purist in that way.

If you're giving last night's show, people undoubtedly, they'll be impressed but they won't be rearranged inside. They might feel moved but they won't be moved.

NPR's Hiba Ahmad and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Mary-Louise Parker is in our studios. She's drawing rave reviews for her central role in Adam Rapp's two-character drama, "The Sound Inside." She plays Bella, a mid-50s English prof at Yale who goes from her gray room to her gray office, lightened mostly by literature, and who gets a crisis of a medical diagnosis just as Christopher, played by Will Hochman, shows up at her door for guidance. He's a freshman writing a novel. She feels she needs the most intimate form of assistance. It's not what you may think. "The Sound Inside" is directed by David Cromer. Mary-Louise Parker, thanks so much for being with us.

MARY-LOUISE PARKER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This is a tough-but-rewarding night in the theater. Why did you want to play Bella?

PARKER: Well, I didn't at first. I wasn't sure I was the right person for it. But I thought it was just such a beautiful piece of writing. And I did a reading of it. I don't know. She was very available to me. I felt like she was there in a way that I wasn't really expecting.

SIMON: Does Bella, most enjoyably, live in her head?

PARKER: I think she does, yeah. My friend Eli (ph) is a writer. He says, you know, interesting writing is the product of interesting thinking. And I think that's where she lives in between, that space between her imagination and the page. And I think that's the strongest and most important relationship she has.

SIMON: At one point, Christopher, the young man, says, why don't you have any friends?


SIMON: Does she?

PARKER: I think it's a bit overstated in that moment. But I think what's more important is that he hits a nerve that has a kernel of truth in it. I don't think she feels terribly close to anyone, really.

SIMON: Well, that raises another question that I've written down. Are they lonely or are they merely alone?

PARKER: Alone? I think in this case, I think they are lonely. I feel like when they do find some sort of safe place in one another or some sort of free form of communication, there's an energy that is released from both of them, sort of like this need to pursue that. If they hadn't been in some form of self-isolation and then found someone they wanted, you know, as company, then they wouldn't necessarily be lonely. I think they would just be happy with their solitude.

SIMON: Real nuts-and-bolts question. You were on stage for the entire play, talking for - I don't know - 80% percent of it.


SIMON: How hard is that to pull off every night?

PARKER: It's quite arduous. But I really - I love a challenge like that. And I used to say I liked to be on stage the whole play because then I knew I would not miss an entrance.

SIMON: (Laughter).

PARKER: And I've spent - most of the plays that I've done have been like that. This part requires a lot of technique, and it most requires it because I don't want you to see the technique. I want you to feel like there's a person standing there talking, just just talking. And that's the hardest thing. And it is the challenge that I love, actually.

SIMON: Let me ask you a little more about Christopher. He - is it fair to say that Christopher is a little bit arrogant?

PARKER: Well, I think he's wildly insecure, which, usually, most arrogant people are. And I think he wants to impress her.

SIMON: You quickly get a sense that there's some kind of bond of communication between them. They both tell each other, now you're writing. They know the difference between talking and writing.

PARKER: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And both of them will say the wrong thing. And the other one, even if they have a reaction, they move past it. And he has an incredibly interesting way of expressing himself. And I think that's the first thing that she notices, and it's the thing that takes her in the most. He's writing as he's speaking, and she can hear that.

SIMON: Without giving anything away, Bella asked Christopher for an extraordinary favor.


SIMON: I'm not sure favor is the word, but I couldn't come up with anything better.

PARKER: Yeah, I know. It's a hard one.

SIMON: And for the first time, I found myself disliking Bella, thinking, my gosh, you're a teacher...

PARKER: Agreed.

SIMON: ...You shouldn't ask this.

PARKER: Agreed.

SIMON: Yeah.

PARKER: I understand where she's coming from and why. I still think it's the wrong choice. And I still think it's a flaw. But, you know, it's impossible to play a person without flaws.

SIMON: Yeah.

PARKER: I'm glad to hear you say that, though, because I haven't really heard people sort of acknowledge that.

SIMON: I'm going to lighten up the conversation briefly, though maybe not. Is there something you did on your way here that would surprise people, a job of some kind or a...

PARKER: Oh, yeah. I had all all kinds of jobs.

SIMON: Like?

PARKER: All kinds of jobs. I did telemarketing surveys. I handed out perfume samples in the mall, like a basket of cotton balls. I remember the name of the perfume, if you can believe it.

SIMON: Sure.

PARKER: It was called Flora Danica.

SIMON: Do you take something from each of those jobs and as you go forward as an actor? Each of those experiences, not the job.

PARKER: I don't know. I mean, I think everyone should have to work a variety of different jobs. I think, you know, people don't - sometimes people approach, you know, the person who delivers their groceries or the person who's taking their order as some - they're some other phylum.

SIMON: So the person handing you that perfume sample could win a Tony one day.

PARKER: Well, don't you think that?

SIMON: I do, yes, absolutely.

PARKER: I used to think that on the subway when I would look around at people. And I would think, that person is - might be a million times more talented than me at X, Y, Z. There's this wonderful book called "The Short And Tragic Life Of Robert Peace" by Jeff Hobbs. It's a really profound book. And for me, that's what I took away from that book is that you have no idea of someone's capacity when you encounter them.

SIMON: Yeah. Mary-Louise Parker stars in "The Sound Inside" with Will Hochman, Studio 54 theatre. Thanks so much for being with us.

PARKER: Thank you. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.