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Mary-Louise Parker Learns A Lot About The Spiderwick Chronicles

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

Mary-Louise Parker in "Weeds."

Mary-Louise Parker in “Weeds.”

Mary-Louise Parker

Learns A Lot About The Spiderwick Chronicles

by Brad Balfour

It may have required an intoxicant for actress Mary-Louise Parker to play the perplexed mom who learns about The Spiderwick Chronicles the hard way – through an attack from goblins – she eventually gets a handle on the fantastic situation behind this incredible tale. Parker is no stranger to playing a distraught mom who has to rise to the occasion; as the star of the TV hit Weeds she plays a mom who has to solve extraordinary problems in a decidedly different way as well.

In The Spiderwick Chronicles, mom Helen decides to move to her long-disappeared great-great-uncle’s run-down Spiderwick Estate with twin sons Jared and Simon, as well as older daughter Mallory. There they find themselves pulled into an alternate world full of faeries and other creatures. Uncle Arthur had made a catalogue of a parallel world’s inhabitants’ in doing so he unleashed the ogre Mulgarath and his ferociously evil goblins who want to use his guide to take over both the normal world and this other universe. When twin Jared finds the guide, he draws the attention of the evil ones and a great battle ensues.

Based on Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s wildly successful book series, the film moves breezily through the able direction of Mark Waters, better known for his work as the director of Freaky Friday and Just Like Heaven. Just as Waters is a vet with a varied history, so is Parker.

Born in South Carolina, the 43 year-old former Army brat grew up in places as diverse as Arizona, Tennessee, Texas, Thailand, Germany and France. After acting in high school and college, she moved on to many stage and screen productions. By 1990, she earned her first Tony Award nomination for her performance in Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss. She been in such films as Naked in New York, Grand Canyon, Mr. Wonderful, Bullets Over Broadway and Red Dragon. She has had a recurring role in the acclaimed series The West Wing and won a Golden Globe for her leading role in the Showtime’s series, Weeds.

Mary-Louise Parker, Freddie Highmore and Sarah Bolger in "The Spiderwick Chronicles."

Mary-Louise Parker, Freddie Highmore and Sarah Bolger in “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”

What was it like working with the youthful, remarkably talented leads and faux siblings Freddie Highmore (playing twins Jared and Simon Grace) and Sarah Bolger as sister Mallory? I think they’re really rare kids. I guess they aren’t really kids anymore. You just really keep your fingers crossed for them because it’s such a hard – the odds are so tricky in this business for kids. And they’re really uncommon, both of them. He has this bizarre kind of elegance for a young man. She’s sweet and it’s genuine. With both of them, it’s completely genuine.  They both also have this kind of lack of ego, which is shocking. It’s really shocking. I mean, they’re like little movie stars. They have great parents, so I’m sure that’s part of it. They’re amazing.

Does working with teenagers on this movie and on Weeds prepare you for raising your kids when they become teens?

I hope it won’t go like that. You just never know what’s going to happen with kids; they’re all so different. All you can count on is that they’re going to surprise you all the time, and they are their own people. You can’t control them really. You can’t control what they do or say, and that’s what makes them so wonderful and so frustrating, complicated and amazing.

When you’re working with teenagers who are so professional, does their age even register? Not really. I had to stop myself from saying stuff sometimes because you forget they’re kids and you think, “Oh, don’t say that.” But they’re like grownups in a way but also what’s so great about them is that they are kids. They’re not creepy little… because I’ve worked with those before and they’re really scary and you worry for them because it doesn’t always end up okay for them.

You have high hopes for them? I do, I do.

What was the mission statement for your character? Did the director Mark Waters or the writers need a more grounded force within all of the fantasy? Did they set it up for what they wanted out of you? Um, they didn’t really. I don’t think I ever got anything. I think he just said he wanted me to play it [laughs]. What do you think was her relevance to the story? I liked that she was just sort of wildly imperfect and struggling, and the kids were… well, everyone was kind of struggling, and she was part of the struggle. I think that when they unite at the end, it made that more poignant in a way, whereas if she had just been the mother standing by the stove in all of her perfection, I don’t know if that would’ve resonated quite as well. But I think because, in a way, they were almost disparate and they came together, that made it sweeter.

Would you have bought into the fantasy sooner as yourself instead of as the mother who is clueless of what’s happening until it hits her over the head? Yeah, I would’ve. I would have been like, let me see through that thing! Probably. Yeah.

Justin Kirk and Mary-Louise Parker in "Weeds."

Justin Kirk and Mary-Louise Parker in “Weeds.”

You have two distinctly different takes on suburban moms. You could have had your character on Weeds selling pot to this mom. Yeah, she could’ve used a big fat one, right?

As far as playing these two variations of suburban moms, did it ever resonate that you’re playing two different aspects or scenarios of suburban mom-dom? Were there any thoughts on how they are different? Not really, I try to wipe the Etch-a-Sketch clean, you know. I just try to start blank, because I feel like you only have so many tools and I just want to be as specific as I can. I’m not a magician, but I want to bring something to it that’s different and that feels true so that people can watch it and feel like they’re watching a person and not an actor, you know? So I don’t really compare to other characters.

How was working in front of the green screen? It’s really weird. Really, really strange. Not only is it a gnome [supposedly attacking you], but it’s a hypothetical gnome. It’s like an invisible gnome. You just have to tap into the esoteric feelings of fear instead of the literal, actual goblin itself.

They say that being a stage actor helps in working before a green screen. That’s true in some ways. You’re used to having to suspend the disbelief in a way, but there’s also a fourth wall on stage that you don’t have in film. You can see an electrician standing behind the camera. In theater you get to invest yourself fully and you can disappear into a world and no one can stop you for two hours.

In film, it’s just a little bit trickier. So in some ways, I think that’s true, absolutely. But other ways, I think it’s hard to invent a gnome in your head, like really hard! But it’s like with Shakespeare – anything you have to elevate, that you have to find, that you have to summon or you have to conjure, you have to rely on technique a little bit more that you can rely on just personalizing something.

Was there a lot of rehearsal? There was not much rehearsal. There was some, for sure. There was some of that in terms of blocking, but I don’t know if I would call that rehearsal necessarily, but there was more detailed blocking.

Good thing you have Spiderwick… coming out; did the writer’s strike affect Weeds? They made a deal with Lionsgate, so it was fine and we’ll be shooting, I guess, by the end of April. So it’s all right.

Were you able to do some stage work in the mean time? I’m doing a play right now at Playwrights Horizons. We go into previews on Friday, speaking of goblins. It’s called Dead Man’s Cell Phone.

And it was written by? Sarah Ruhl. It’s her new play directed by Anne Bogart. Two really, really interesting women – which is why I wanted to do the job. It’s a rather abstract piece…

How does that work with your schedule? Well, I knew that I had time to do a play, because I really needed to. It’s the longest I’ve gone since I was 17 without having done a play, and I [needed to] desperately. It’s been three years and I really needed to do a play so badly, so I knew had this little window to do one. I’m hoping to do one next year as well and not take so long in between because it’s hard.

Mary-Louise Parker in "Weeds."

Mary-Louise Parker in “Weeds.”

What is it about doing a play that reinvigorates and recharges you as an actor? It’s just great and it’s just fun. My girlfriend said once, she was playing Nina, and she said that it made her feel like an acting athlete. Made her feel in shape, and sharp, and smart, and capable and that’s what it does really, because when you’re honing a performance for the 25th time or the 100th time or the 400th time, which I’ve done. The 450th time I did a play, and then on to the 460th, and it’s really great.

You just feel really powerful. Your mental acuity – everything feels just really sharp. You just feel more in control of your performance, obviously. And creative. When you feel creative, you feel alive, right? It just gives you a certain kind of joy that, you’re going to work everyday and you’re just trying to do a good job. You feel like you just may be just achieving as best you can, but not really elevating it. But when you feel like you’re actually creating something, that’s a really great feeling. It just doesn’t happen.

It doesn’t sound like work when you’re doing a play. It’s arduous, but it doesn’t feel like labor.

Do you think of movies as labor? I have a blue-collar ethic towards my work anyway I think. I don’t think of “career.” Film to me feels more like punching a clock a little bit.

How does playing the same character on a TV show differ from playing the same character on stage? It’s funny because it’s harder with TV because there are different writers. Sometimes there are different writers every year. I come in and I go, “But she was home-schooled, how can you write that she doesn’t like…” Or “She hates tea!” Or “She doesn’t wear flip-flops, how can …” Or “She HAS slept with a woman, so how can I say…” I have this whole back-story going, so I have to go in and make it work in my head. Or I forget or I’m lazy and I get mad at myself, or I feel like I’m personalizing everything.

It’s hard, whereas if you’re doing a play, it’s there. There’s the frame. It’s like, you’re just going over the… It’s not like impressionism, you know – the brushstrokes are there. You go with what’s there.

Do you know where your character on Weeds is going? Sometimes they change their mind.

Do you get to have input at all? Hmmm, I have it anyway, even if I don’t get to.

Romany Malco and Mary-Louise Parker in "Weeds."

Romany Malco and Mary-Louise Parker in “Weeds.”

Where would you like her to go?

I just like it to be bold, perverse, ugly and hard. I like her to be in a hard situation. It’s just more interesting to me if she’s in some sort of emotional stasis instead of coping, like “I’m doing the dishes and going shopping.” She needs to be backed up against a wall. It’s just more interesting, more fun. And I like it to be new and fresh.

How does that affect your film choices? Well, I’m 43 so I don’t get, like, 600 choices of whatever film I want to do, but I think being on a TV show certainly does give me more opportunities than I had before. Because people recognize me a little bit more. I just try to do what will give me enough time to spend with my kids. So I have to turn things down sometimes.

Do you do this sort of film for your kids so they can see your work as opposed to your other, sometimes more racy or provocative, stuff? Yeah, exactly. I wanted to do a kid’s movie at some point, and I thought this one was different. And it’s just a little off so I liked that. I knew Freddie first, he was the first name that I heard of, and I thought he was amazing, and David Strathairn [who plays Uncle Arthur] we were friends. That just made it all really attractive to me.

So you don’t have another film project in the works? I don’t.

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved. Posted: February 12, 2008.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2007. Courtesy of Showtime. All rights reserved.#2 © 2008 Takashi Seida. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.#3 © 2007. Courtesy of Showtime. All rights reserved.#4 © 2007. Courtesy of Showtime. All rights reserved.#5 © 2007. Courtesy of Showtime. All rights reserved.

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