Mary-Louise Parker on Momhood and Marijuana

The "Weeds" actress talks about blended families, acting, and legalizing pot.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 21, 2009
11 min read

Mary-Louise Parker is the most irresponsible mother since Ma Barker -- on TV. Her pot-dealing heroine, Nancy Botwin, runs riot on Showtime's hit series Weeds, which kicks off its fifth season June 8. When her husband dies and her comfortable suburban L.A. lifestyle is put at risk, Botwin responds by launching a marijuana-selling enterprise that eventually employs both her teenage sons -- at the same time sleeping with everyone from a DEA agent to a drug lord who may or may not try to have her killed.

But at home in New York City, Parker is just another busy working mom, toting her two kids to classes and play dates. Of course, when she rushes off to work, it's to the Weeds set or, earlier this spring when she spoke to WebMD, to a Broadway stage, where she was playing the lead role in the complex Ibsen classic, Hedda Gabler.

Equally nuanced is her portrayal of Weeds' fascinating Botwin, that dysfunctional, narcissistic mess of a mom. Parker says she's always a bit surprised when people gush over how much they love Nancy. "I guess it's because she’s charming. She’s so ingratiating, and she really uses that as a tool. She has a certain helpless, harmless look, and she’s not so crazy gorgeous that you feel removed from her -- because, you know, it's me,” she says.

Actually, that’s probably why a lot of us love Nancy Botwin -- because it's Mary-Louise Parker, an actor whose doe-eyed, quirky beauty, fierce intellect, and extraordinary ability to inhabit a character have earned her two Golden Globe awards, an Emmy, and a Tony.

Unlike Julia Roberts or Drew Barrymore, she has never opened big-name blockbuster movies. But Parker has more than two decades of extraordinary film, stage, and TV roles to her credit, from the abused Ruth in Fried Green Tomatoes, to the dauntless lobbyist Amy Gardner on The West Wing, to the troubled Catherine, the brilliant daughter of an equally brilliant -- and mentally ill -- mathematician in Broadway’s Proof.

And at 44, Parker is more sexy and appealing than actresses half her age (try asking your man what he thinks about her), and she’s got a lot more to say. Take for instance her comments about the business her character, Nancy, happens to be in. Parker has long been public about her stance in favor of legalizing marijuana. She doesn't smoke the stuff - "I'm not crazy about being around people who are high," she says. But she thinks it would be better for the economy and society if pot were legal (a view that’s been catching on in some political circles).

"Historically, being caught is not a deterrent. If you can control it, maybe marijuana is not as dangerous and not part of another world of harder narcotics," she says. "To have people in the park outside my house trying to sell me stuff when I'm pushing a stroller -- that’s not awesome. [But] anything that’s going to lessen crime in any small way is a good idea, and what they’re doing now just doesn’t work."

Of course, marijuana is not just a drug for substance abusers -- it has documented medical benefits as well. Still, "there will always have to be this balance between appropriate use in medicine and regulation," says Igor Grant, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the university’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research. "We're not banning the use of opioid medications, antianxiety agents, or sleeping pills -- I'm not clear why this particular set of compounds is in a special category other than that there was this view held by some that marijuana has absolutely no benefit. I think most medical people will tell you that's not true."

In the first season of Weeds, Nancy Botwin's sales dry up when some of her customers manage to get their goods from a medical marijuana store -- the show is set in California, one of eight states in addition to the District of Columbia that have passed compassionate-use medical marijuana laws.

Leaving aside the jokes about potheads feigning cancer or chronic pain, a fairly sizable body of legitimate medical research demonstrates the medical benefits of cannabis. In a 1999 report, the Institute of Medicine pointed to "impressive" evidence of its medical benefits in treating glaucoma, asthma, fibromyalgia, and the nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy and called for further research. Marijuana also appears to be effective in relieving neuropathic pain, a very uncomfortable burning, tingling pain and hypersensitivity to touch often reported by people who have diabetes and patients with HIV.

Doctors aren't sure how marijuana works to relieve pain, although one
theory holds that it may activate certain receptors in the brain that affect pain perception. Marijuana might also offer relief for people with certain kinds of multiple sclerosis symptoms.

"People with multiple sclerosis can develop something called spasticity, which is painful contractions in their muscles. They get very stiff, and it’s difficult for them to walk and perform ordinary activities," says Grant.

"As with neuropathic pain, our current treatments for that are OK, but not wonderful. A study we completed at UCSD found that smoked marijuana did provide added benefits in relief of spasticity.

"We're really parallel to where we've been with other drugs that started as botanicals," Grant explains. "Digitalis and aspirin were both refined from plant products as well."

Parker’s antiheroine Nancy doesn’t care if her customers are buying her product to relieve pain or just to get high, as long as they’re buying. “Nancy’s fairly ruthless. Charm is such an effective mask for so many other things that are not healthy or even humane," Parker says. "She's one of those people who thinks, 'OK, once my situation is better, I'll do some charity work and be a better parent.' She’s putting off being a good person until later."

In her own life, Parker puts her kids first. She became a mother for the first time at 39 -- her son, William Atticus Parker, is now 5. (Dad is actor Billy Crudup, who famously ended their relationship shortly before William was born.) Three years later, she went to Ethiopia to adopt daughter Aberash, who’s now two and a half.

"I think I hit both ends of the scale, from permissive to disciplinarian," she says of her real-life parenting. "Sometimes we’ll get up in the middle of dinner and have a dance party, just because there’s music on and everybody's happy. There's also one wall in my living room that the kids are allowed to paint on, and sometimes we’ll empty all the food that's gone bad out of the refrigerator, put it in a bucket, mash it around, and call it witches' brew. In that sense I’m free.

"But on the other hand, this is your bedtime, and no, we're not buying any more of that right now, and you can't have everything you want, and you have to say thank you and may I, please."

With such a clear sense of both fun and boundaries for her own children, does it trouble Parker to play a mother who’s so clearly damaging her kids? Not at all -- in fact, she revels in it.

"Anything that's polar from your own experience is sort of freeing. It allows you to use your imagination in a broader way than you might if it was something you felt you could relate to," she says. "I want to play people who are different from me in extreme ways, and who do things I can't quite conceive of."

Although she'd dreamed of adopting a child since she was young, bringing home a baby from Ethiopia was something Parker couldn't quite imagine -- until she did it. "I didn’t know a lot about adoption," she says. "I finally just decided, OK, I'm going to do this, and it's going to be really hard because I'm single, and I'm going to do it anyway. I had a couple of countries floating around in my mind -- I had thought of maybe Vietnam -- but it was all vague and blurry.

Then she met with Jane Aronson, the "orphan doctor" and renowned expert on international adoptions. "After an hour of talking to her, I was, like, Ethiopia. It had never occurred to me before, but she showed me some pictures of the kids and showed me the need level there, and I wanted to go somewhere where there was a need," she says. "It's not like I only wanted to enlarge my family. I really wanted to give a child a home."

Parker took William with her when she went to Ethiopia to bring Aberash (nicknamed Ash) home. "That and my son being born were the most life-changing experiences" she recalls. "It was such a rich, traumatic experience -- in good and bad ways. You think you understand certain things, but you don’t really have a comprehensive understanding of poverty until you're hit in the face with it," she says. "There aren’t shelters there. There's nothing. There are people dead on the side of the road. There are mothers amputating children’s limbs so they will be more effective as beggars. "

After she brought Ash home, Parker was surprised at some of the questions about her newly adopted daughter.

"Somebody asked what her name was, and I told them Aberash. They said, 'Did you make that up, or did she come with that?' Like she was a car!"

Parker cherishes the child's name as "the only thing I have to give her that her parents left her." Aberash means "giving off light" in Amharic, but Parker is particularly touched by the cultural significance of the name.

"There was a young girl in Ethiopia named Aberash Bekele, who was kidnapped and raped by a man when she was 14 and told she would have to be his wife," she explains. "She shot and killed him, and there was a big trial and she was acquitted, which is practically unheard of there. I don’t know if that story informed her mother naming her, but the name is something that's hers. I can’t give her a locket, a picture, a letter -- that's it. That's profound to me, and I don't want to rob her of it."

"The instinct of wanting to keep a child connected to his or her culture, roots, and biological origins is a wonderful thing and certainly considered best practice in adoptions today," says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national adoption policy organization. "Everybody wants and needs to know where they came from, and names are one of the ways we can do that."

It’s because of Aberash -- maybe because of both Aberashes -- that Parker was drawn to support the Brighter Futures Project (, an initiative of the Gladney Center for Adoption. The initiative employs orphaned girls in Ethiopia and China making hand-knotted, beaded bracelets. These girls have "aged out" of prospects for adoption, and are making the transition from orphanage life to living on their own.

"It gives them direction, purpose, a little bit of income. These are girls that are faced with prostitution at the age of 9 -- things we just can’t comprehend. If you want to give a present, their jewelry is meaningful -- and quite beautiful," Parker says.

Many families, like Mary-Louise Parker's, blend biological and adopted children. (Adoptive Families magazine estimates that about 25% of its readers also have biological children.) Are there unique challenges in bringing home a child who’s been adopted when you already have biological children at home?

Of course -- but it might be less complicated than you think, says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "Sometimes we think this is harder, or odder, than it really is. There are lots of complex kinds of families. What is it like when there are step-siblings, or half-siblings? What is it like when you live with a grandmother who takes care of the family? That doesn't mean you don't think it through, but I don't think we should be making it a bigger deal than it is, either."

The key, says Pertman, is "normalizing" your blended family. "It’s not unusual or weird or problematic. It's just another way to be a family. Talking about the issues involved in adoption is fine, but talking about them obsessively is not. You don't make a big deal out of normal things."

As you prepare to adopt, keep your older child or children involved in the process (in an age-appropriate way) -- show them pictures and talk about what will happen. If you're preparing a family profile, let your children tell you what they'd like their part of the profile to say.

To help you, your child, and the rest of your family prepare and adjust, Adoptive Families magazine recommends Brothers and Sisters in Adoption: Helping Children Navigate Relationships When New Kids Join the Family, by Arleta James, a clinical therapist at the renowned Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio.

Between getting ready for season five of Weeds, giving eight live performances a week as Hedda Gabler earlier this spring, and raising two active kids, how does Parker keep her own health and stress levels in check? She credits her older sister for a few wellness habits that have lasted a lifetime.

"She got me doing yoga and meditating when I was younger, and I still do that now," she says. "And when I was 11 or 12, she taught me how to take care of my skin. Use this in the morning, this at night, and sunscreen every day -- no exceptions! Those are the best things I do for myself."

Her worst health vice? Parker laughs. Unlike Nancy Botwin’s, hers is G-rated: candy. She runs through the list of her favorites with glee. "I like Tootsie Rolls, Smarties, really tacky candy like Bit-o-Honeys and Butterfingers. I have a bad sweet tooth. I’d rather have candy than a classic French pastry."

Beyond Weeds, what will she tackle next? Parker has two new movies in the works: Solitary Man, in which she appears as the girlfriend of a sex-addicted car magnate played by Michael Douglas, and Howl, based on the life of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, still in production. She'd just shot her single scene for Howl the day before talking to WebMD.

“I’ve never been in a movie for just one scene before. I came in for one day and didn’t even have a proper trailer, but it was great,” she says. "I love poetry. It was sentimental to me because when my son was born my brother came to the hospital and read him a bunch of poetry -- we’re literary geeks in my family -- and one thing he read to him was 'Howl.'"

With all the memorable roles she’s performed, is there anything Parker still dreams of conquering -- any movie she wants, any play she's yearning to take to Broadway? "I'm not such an ambitious person -- I don’t think that far into the future. But I'd really like to do an animated movie, like a Pixar, for my kids," Parker says. "I love those things."