Mary-Louise Parker is trying to pinpoint the proper way to describe her longtime connection to gay men. "What's the politically correct term?" she asks. Surely it isn't "fag hag," or "fruit fly," and "ally" seems too stiff. So no conclusion is reached, save an unspoken, mutually understood one. Parker is one of those women with whom gay men find an alternately supportive and hilarious symbiosis. Yet as she recalls the queer friends who have meant the most to her in life -- many of whom are subjects in Dear Mr. You, her new anthology of letters directed to anonymous, fact-based male characters -- she seems slightly less aware of just how much women like her mean to us.
The Weeds star, who was raised in Arizona and still reflects her roots in her style (she shows up at a Brooklyn cafe in a denim skirt and distressed suede ankle boots), says she was "not successful" in high school. When she graduated -- early -- she'd never been on a single date. Then she went to study drama at the North Carolina School of the Arts and was enamored of all the gay men with whom she bonded.
"I was like, 'Oh, what are you?' " Parker says, eyes wide. "I remember lying in bed, drinking tea, and understanding my problems in a totally different way. I felt something that a connection with a woman didn't do for me."
At least five of these types of relationships appear in Dear Mr. You, an evolution, of sorts, of the short-form pieces Parker has been writing for outlets like Esquire for the past few years. Bookended by chapters devoted to her father, the collection, she explains, is ultimately about him. "He loved anyone," she says. Parker's dad, a liberal veteran of three wars, passed away four years ago. His death and her physical distance from other family members helped inspire the chapter "Dear Emergency Contact," in which she addresses a fashion designer friend who came to her side in a medical crisis.
In "Dear Miss Girl," the most flamboyant of the letters, Parker writes to another friend, for whom she indulged the impulse to play with the feminine pronoun, not to mention about a dozen pet names. She remembers how she and "Miss Girl" would have giggle fits over homophobes, and how her response to one man's claim that Richard Simmons will burn in hell was, "At least he'll be sweatin' to the oldies!"
But for all the joy in Dear Mr. You, the gay-centric chapters of which are brimming with an insider's understanding, there are big questions and heartache, too, rendered in a way that would be remarkable even if it weren't written by a well-known artist mastering a new form. In "Dear Father Bob," a letter to Parker's childhood priest, whom she'd later discover was gay, she recalls her 9-year-old self asking about hell, and Father Bob praising her for questioning her beliefs. The early encounter had a lifelong effect on Parker, who, with her own two children, attends a church that marches in Pride parades. She says the exchange also left her with the ability to tackle tough questions from her kids like, "What happens when the condom gets stuck inside?"
The book's saddest, most beautiful letter might be "Dear Mentor," in which Parker pays tribute to the director who greatly influenced her craft, imparting three all-encompassing life lessons: "Let go of what happened last time," "Start with what you know," and "Don't expect a response." He eventually died of AIDS complications, and Parker's voice breaks as she reveals just how many men she knew in the '80s who met the same fate. It's a mix of destiny and design that Parker wound up in HBO's 2003 adaptation of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's six-hour AIDS epic. She says it was the last thing she auditioned for.
Parker admits that not having to vie for roles is a luxury for a working actor, but she also notes that it's all part of the self-protection she's built, much of which has been fostered with the help of gay men. As we leave the cafe, I point out to Parker that we're on Pineapple Street, where her character lived in Angels in America. Parker gets her bearings before replying, "Oh, fuck! You're right." She leans in for a hug, then lurches back, as if she might have crossed some professional line. "Sorry," she says. "It just felt right."