Seems there are two kinds of parenthood: The silly drivel we find on sitcoms, where the kid messes up, mom and dad hilariously intervene, and the Big Lesson is learned as the laugh track rises and falls. Then there's real-life parenting, which is much tougher to negotiate and leaves looser ends. In life, if there's a lesson in sight, it's often difficult to discern -- a truism rarely reflected in television shows.
Unless, of course, you happen to be Lauren Graham. The actor, 43, has twice struck TV ratings gold with her portrayal of a single mother grappling with the opposing pulls of love and discipline, first in the critically acclaimed Gilmore Girls on the CW network, and now in the equally well-received Ron Howard-Brian Grazer production Parenthood, an NBC series inspired by the 1989 feature film of the same name.
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Graham's current hit, whose second season premieres Sept. 14, centers on the dovetailing lives of four siblings, their collection of children, plus aging (and separated) parents. "My character's in survival mode," says Graham. "The father of her kids is not around; he had a drug problem. She's working as a bartender and has moved in with her parents … she's hit rock bottom and is asking for help from her family. It's powerful and relevant for the times, and reflects the struggles that interest me: If you're a single woman over 40, how do you start over if you didn't go to school, haven't been on a career path? What do you do?"
The first season of Parenthood also examines the trickiest subset of child-rearing, one that's fraught with tension: the mother-daughter dynamic. Graham's character, Sarah Braverman, is confronted with the growing pains of her oldest, Amber, who's both a rebel and a mirror image of Sarah as a teenager. After Amber has sex with her cousin's boyfriend, an act that ignites interfamilial warfare even as she's labeled a tramp by her schoolmates, she runs away. This forces Graham's character to examine every decision she's ever made, leading her to this moment -- courtesy of her feisty daughter.
Graham, who relishes being given the freedom to "improvise our lines in the moment" on Parenthood, plays Sarah with a realistic world-weariness coupled with a wry, defensive humor. Chatting with Graham on the phone, however, WebMD discovers a much sunnier personality. So how, exactly, does the actress nail a struggling single mother so perfectly? Especially given that she's not a mother herself, and spent her childhood without a mother in her home?
Growing Up Graham
Lauren Graham grew up in the shadow of the nation's capital, raised by a single father to whom she remains close.
"It was very unusual when I was growing up to have the single parent be the dad. I didn't know another person in that situation. In fact, my dad did a local radio talk show for single dads; it was so unusual he was, like, on the news!" recalls Graham, who moved at age 5 to the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, where her father worked as a congressional lobbyist. Her mother left the family at this time to pursue a singing career, eventually landing in England and starting a second family there.