Mary-Louise Parker Reprises One of Her Most Challenging Roles in 'The Sound Inside'

The award-winning performer stars in Adam Rapp's Tony-nominated play as they translate it to an audio-only experience.

Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.

Michael Collina: Hi, this is your Audible editor, Michael Collina. I'm thrilled to be joined by Mary-Louise Parker, the Golden Globe-, Tony-, and Emmy-award winning actress, writer, and activist. Perhaps best known for her role in the hit television series Weeds, Parker's repertoire also includes TV appearances in Angels in America and West Wing, box office successes in films such as Red and The Spiderwick Chronicles, and, of course, onstage productions like Proof and The Sound Inside. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk today, Mary-Louise.

Mary-Louise Parker: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MC: So, to give a quick recap of its run, Adam Rapp's play The Sound Inside received six Tony nominations. There was the nomination for best play, and then you also received a nomination for best actress with your portrayal of Bella Baird. You debuted this role at the Williamstown Theatre Festival back in 2018, and then rejoined the same cast and crew in a Broadway run at Studio 54 in 2019 and 2020. And now more recently you've taken the role over to audio for Audible.

With all of that under your belt, what has it been like carrying the show and that character Bella Baird with you for the past few years and across so many different formats?

MLP: Well, I have a really hard time letting go of plays and the parts I play onstage. And so many plays I've done multiple productions of, this is one where I really, really feel like I'm not finished with it yet and I haven't accepted that it's over. So I think there's something in the back of my mind that I'm going to get another shot at it. So it still feels like a work in progress to me.

"I'm going to get into the cage with the lion again every night."

I'm hoping I'll get another chance at it, but having it stay with me for this long, and in particular having it be with me over the pandemic, has kind of kept it in this netherworld where the possibility of doing it again just kind of always looms for me, whether that's like denial or delusion, I don't know, but I think it has. I think it has a lot to do with the challenge of the part. It was in some ways one of the most challenging parts I've ever played, and I don't feel like that challenge is over.

MC: If you don't mind me asking, what did you find so challenging about this role in particular?

MLP: When I first read the play, I had already told myself the next play I did, I wanted it to really be an ensemble and I didn't want to play somebody who had that much text because I'd just done Heisenberg, and that character is extremely talkative. And it was a two-hander, which I loved so much doing with Denny, and I think I just wanted to have a different experience.

So then I got another two-hander, where the character has, like, four times as much dialogue, and something that I never felt I was all that adept at is direct address. I had done direct address in How I Learned to Drive and it was really, really challenging for me. It was the hardest part of that play. I took a very, very long time and I never felt like I was able to completely internalize it.

So then along comes this play, that's like direct address and it's all these things that I thought I didn't want. And also just, it's quite arduous to be onstage that long of a period of time when it's just you. And there are some actors who are just amazing at it. That's where they really excel. And I never felt like I was one of those actors.

So it was quite terrifying for me, especially to have such a very short rehearsal process in Williamstown. And I also usually feel like the stage is where I'm most comfortable in the world. So to feel like I was walking out there the first couple of times, unsure of whether or not I could actually complete it in any satisfying way, was kind of wild and kind of wonderful. I loved the pressure of it. And just feeling like, “You know, I'm going to get into the cage with the lion again every night.” It was daunting. It was daunting, but again, I enjoyed that part of it.

MC: Topically, it can get a little tricky to talk about the premise of this show without giving too much of it away. So for folks who haven't seen or listened to it yet, how would you describe it?

MLP: One of the things I loved about this play, which I consequently also loved about Heisenberg, was that a lot of people would come backstage after or discuss it later. And they would have just vastly different ideas of what they'd seen and what they took away from it. Some people thought it was taking place in someone's subconscious or, you know, that it was a process of writing sort of brought to life.

There were so many different ways that people interpreted it. But at the same time, I felt like people were delighted by their ideas of it. I didn't feel like people were frustrated as though they didn't understand it. Do you know what I mean? I felt like...the play gave them room to imagine their own experience of what might've happened before or after the play ended… I think one of the greatest things you can hope for is that somebody leaves the theater imagining the characters before and after whatever takes place within the play.

MC: How did the production of the audio version of this show go with all of the COVID restrictions that we have right now? I mean, the dialogue features a lot of intentional interruption and crosstalk when you and your castmate Will Hochman are both interacting in a scene. Did you and Will record your lines separately and then have them combined in post-production or were you recording them together even if it was virtually?

MLP: We were recording together, but he was in New York and I was in California because I had traveled to California with my kids temporarily to work. We did have each other, you know, to see on the screen. What I was worried about is that we would be completely separate from one another, but it was also just incredible to have David there, [the director] David Cromer.

He always comes in with the perfect encouragement or idea or inspiration. And he also has this manner that kind of creates an environment of people trying things and people feeling, feeling free to try stuff.

MC: We've mentioned that this was an adaption of that stage show that you also performed in, and adapting a stage show for audio obviously necessitates some adjustments. There are those stage directions and scene descriptions that need to be woven into the plot. But I also noticed there were some other minor differences between the script and the finished audio. One of the examples that comes to mind for me is the third time Christopher meets with your character, Bella, the two have dinner together.

They eventually transitioned from the setting in a restaurant back to Bella's apartment, but that happens slightly later in the audio version than it does in the script. Can you talk a little about why those changes came about and what that process was like?

MLP: Well, I think so much of a play is about keeping the tension, keeping the audience engaged with what's happening onstage and not allowing that to drift or to dissipate. And so those three scenes, they're really intertwined, but you can't lose the audience within them because when he exits, the play doesn't stop.

It goes on kind of this ride and it needs the velocity of those scenes in front of them, I think, to propel you into the rest of the play. So keeping the listener connected and hearing our connection and how it's growing is pretty tricky. I haven't heard the Audible version, but it seemed to me what David was doing was really just trying to keep that connection between the two of us and keep the audience engaged in our connection, and wanting to understand it.

Because there's something very mysterious about our connection. It's not that classifiable. You can't instantly say, “Oh, they have this relationship or their relationship is this.” It's pretty elastic and also open for interpretation. So you want to keep the audience wondering what it is, and the characters also have to be engaged in trying to figure each other out.

MC: Pivoting back to your character, Bella, she's a 53-year-old fiction writer and Ivy League professor, and you're actually a writer yourself. You've been a contributor to Esquire for over a decade. You've appeared in countless other publications, and you've also published your own book, Dear Mr. You, which is an epistolary collection of letters written to the real and hypothetical men of your life.

Since this play is so much about the craft of writing, and writing is such an integral part of your character's story in particular, does your own experience as a writer inform your portrayal of Bella at all?

MLP: I feel pretty removed from that character in so many ways. One thing that I do enjoy that I tried to invest her with was a sense of passion for words and for writing. We have very different tastes in writing. There are some books that I feel like I completely appreciate that she loves, but they wouldn't be the books that I would read or reread. I mean, I read them, but I wouldn't reread them necessarily. But just the fact that she loves it in the way in which she loves it, in the way that she devours it almost like it's dessert to her, it's like that's the ultimate reward. It's really how she feeds her soul. And that I relate to, because I think words are, have always been, what I was drawn to reading and poetry.

I think it's about a certain kind of passion that she has that I also have and I share. It's more of her attachment to it that I relate to.

MC: Back to you being a writer yourself. I would love to hear more about your own process as a writer, really just how that compares to maybe Bella's process. What's your process for writing look like?

MLP: Well, I guess so much of what I've written has been short form. And since I had kids, a lot of my book was written with Nickelodeon in the background or the Disney Channel because I didn't have the luxury of time to... I couldn't go away and write. When they were in school I would write if I didn't have other things to do.

But now the thing about me and writing that always kind of surprises me is how long I can do it without interruption, that I could write for five hours and forget to drink water, which is kind of the way I am in that theater as well, and it's hard for me to attach to other things in the same way. I always wished I had more hobbies or that I was sporty. I always wanted to be a sporty person or even just to be able to turn on the TV and just watch whatever. I love television, but it's very hard for me to get attached to something. It's about how my capacity for losing myself in it that really does always kind of surprise even me, because it's like I can go for a very, very long time.

MC: I think that's a great quality to have for a writer though. Probably makes it a lot easier.

MLP: The problem that I have as a writer is that I rewrite too much. I love to edit and I will sometimes, instead of going forward, I'll go back and I'll keep going back and rehashing the same thing so many times, which is fine if you're doing something that's more short form. 

"I think one of the greatest things you can hope for is that somebody leaves the theater imagining the characters before and after whatever takes place within the play."

I just wrote something for an anthology, and it was all right to do that because it was meant to be a short story. But when you're writing something more long form, that's when I just get really lost because it's kind of hard for me to go forward. I'm so amazed and in complete admiration for people who, you know, like Tony Doerr or people who can just write a big old fat crazy book and know where they're going. I don't know how people know how to do that. It's something I really wish I had that I could do.

MC: Yeah. I'm with you. I can't fathom it. It's just so beyond me.

MLP: Right? I mean, I feel like how do you know how to do that? Like, how do you know where you're going and with that amount of confidence? And I think there's a part of me that's always worried that I'm boring people. I think I do that. In person I'm not a great storyteller because I often get worried that I'm boring the other person. I either over-explain or leave out a bunch of details because I'm trying to go faster.

So that probably reflects in my writing that I try to make things really extra concise, but to just keep going and just assume people are still interested is really, that's a challenge.

MC: Well, for what it's worth, I think you're an incredibly fascinating and interesting human being.

MLP: Oh, thank you. Thanks.

MC: So you are not boring me by any means.

MLP: Well, Thanks. But I noticed that only as I grew older that I had such a discomfort sometimes when I was trying to recount a simple story or an anecdote and those people who are so good at it, like Mike Nichols, he could tell a story and you would be rapt waiting for the next word. I don't know how people do that. I do admire it though a lot.

MC: So we've talked a little bit about your writing, but you're obviously no stranger to performing either, and you're not new to performing your own work, because that's something you've done before. You were an Audie finalist for your performance of your work Dear Mr. You, and you've also narrated other titles with Audible before.

I'm thinking of Strong Ending, the Audible Original that follows three military veterans on a quest to turn some of their more painful memories and trauma into comedy onstage. What is it about audio in particular that engages you as a creative, whether that be as a writer or as a performer?

MLP: I just love the medium and I love the format. Strong Ending for me was so incredibly moving that I didn't even know if I could get through it without crying. I'm a daughter of a soldier and I found that just staggering. It was so moving and surprising and inspiring. And I don't know how people, how they find those kinds of stories and curate them and know how to put them together. I think that's the beauty of Audible.

I'm a big poetry lover and there are a lot of things I have thought about that I thought could be good formats for poetry, because I think a lot of people are intimidated by poetry because they feel like they have to understand it, and it's really something that can just be listened to and let it wash over you, like the way that you listen to music.

There's something really powerful about listening to one voice or voices. I listened recently to the Ear Hustle podcast and I just listened to the entire, just devoured it. It was so powerful. It's a medium I really love and there's something romantic about it too. There's something to me that hearkens back to a bunch of people sitting around the radio, you know.

"So much of it leads to more detachment, and detachment from one another. And I feel what Audible does is about the opposite. It's about connection. It's about connection to words and to literature and to people and to voices. And that, to me, can only be positive."

I think it’s a good direction for us to go in as people. There's so many things that really make me sad, that I don't understand that if I see my kids going through with it, they have so much input. My kids don't have social media, but still there's so much input through the computer, and they have to do their homework on the computer and with their phones.

I guess I'm super old fashioned in that I feel very disconnected from that and I don't like it. And there's something about Audible that I feel like is just visceral and it has actual content. You know it isn't the word content that's just thrown around, you know, the way people do nowadays—it has something that you can learn from or be entertained by.

I think it's one of the good directions that we've moved in as a people, when so many other things are kind of daunting about modern life that make me, frankly, quite sad and feel a bit lost. That's my little commercial for Audible, which I didn't intend to do, but I really do mean it. I genuinely mean that. I like to hear people say, like my sister-in-law says, "Oh, you know, I listened to this on the way to work." I was struggling with the middle of Middlemarch, so I was like, “Oh, I can listen to Juliet Stevenson do it.” So I think it's an excellent thing. 

MC: I feel like we need to make you an honorary Audible editor after hearing that.

MLP: No, but I mean it. There are so many things that I just feel, oh God, I am a little old lady now, which is, there's nothing wrong with being a little old lady. I'm okay with that. But I feel so old fashioned when I see so much of where we're going and I think, “Oh God, is there any turning back? Is there anywhere to go from here?” This is so disturbing to me.

So much of it leads to more detachment, and detachment from one another. And I feel what Audible does is about the opposite. It's about connection. It's about connection to words and to literature and to people and to voices. And that, to me, can only be positive.

MC: Can we expect to see you back on the other side of things as a writer anytime soon again? I think there's a definite appetite to hear more from you on that front.

MLP: That's so nice of you to say that. That's really nice of you to say that. I just wrote a piece for Elle magazine online, which I was really honored to do because a friend of mine died during COVID and she never got a funeral. I felt like in a way, I got to write her a little eulogy. So that was nice. And I have something coming out in an anthology, a short story that's coming out in an anthology next February. And then I'm trying very hard to write two other things. I'm getting a bit stuck, but I haven't given up yet, but thank you for asking.

MC: Of course. And if you don't mind my asking, what are you working on right now?

MLP: I was trying to write a book, but I got about halfway through and I just didn't really know where I was going. So I'm taking the advice of letting it kind of sit to the side and maybe I can go back to it and figure out what it is. And maybe it's just a series of short stories, but I'm trying to do that. I'm also trying to write a piece of theater, which I feel like, I always felt like, “Can I write a play? I don't know how to write a play.” And I thought, “Well, I’ve been in plays, maybe I can.”

MC: ...I feel like of all people, you would probably be really good at writing a play with how many you've been in.

MLP: I don't know. That's another thing that I go, "How do you do that?" Like, "How did you know how to do that?" It just blows my mind. Playwrights, like Adam, that this came out of his mind and it came out of so many different places, you know. Like a story that he actually overheard on a train, and the way that he doesn't discard things that he overhears or that he experiences, and he gives himself the freedom to knit this together with that.

And that's when I think things get really exciting and creative. It's like he doesn't put limits on himself and he loves to create real challenges for the audience and for the actor. And I love that he had the success and that people got to see him, then he got to go to Broadway. That made me really incredibly happy, and that he had someone like David, who's a genie basically and just gave it, you know, with these incredible designers. And Will... I feel honored that I was a part of that for him.

MC: You're no stranger to performing your own work, but if you did ever write a play, could you see yourself also acting in that play?

MLP: I can't really. But you know, so many things that I've said I couldn't or wouldn't or can't picture myself doing I seem to end up doing them. So maybe I will.

MC: It's a good challenge for yourself.

MLP: For sure.

MC: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Mary-Louise.

MLP: Thank you.

MC: It's been an absolute delight talking about your work and your performance in The Sound Inside, which is available now right here on Audible. Thank you so much. MLP: Yay! Thank you.


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