On “Weeds,” Nancy Botwin knows the everyday annoyances of modern life. Like, say, an anemic cell-phone signal when she needs to make a call.
But Nancy also faces challenges that aren’t so routine: She and her cell phone are sharing the same room with five scary gangsters, each armed with a gun he’s pointing at her head.
Worse: Nancy’s hefty stash of marijuana — the object of everyone’s concern — is mysteriously missing.
That was Nancy’s plight when “Weeds,” the offbeat Showtime comedy starring Mary-Louise Parker, ended its second season last fall. Now, with its return Monday at 10 p.m. EDT, Nancy is right where viewers left her: under the gun (five of them, actually) as she tries to place her all-important call.
“It was a little bit tricky to find the mood again,” says Parker when asked about picking up the same scene months after wrapping Season Two. “I had to work myself up into that same kind of froth.”
A remarkable thing about “Weeds” is how funny it makes a premise that could be a real buzzkill: What you have here is a newly widowed mother of two who starts selling marijuana to maintain her family’s comfortable suburban lifestyle. But increasingly that lifestyle is becoming Nancy’s cover for a life increasingly committed to crime.
The soccer mom from picture-perfect Agrestic, Calif., “is a crook,” says Parker, surveying the season ahead. “She’s a gangsta!”
Witty writing (and an unforgiving eye for middle-class hypocrisies) deliver plenty of laughs. So does the series’ primo supporting cast, which includes Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Nealon, Justin Kirk, Romany Malco and newcomer Matthew Modine.
But “Weeds” is rooted in Parker’s performance as Nancy, who, in her hands, is an anxious blend of boldness and delusion. Nancy stands up to the perils she has brought on herself, while going to great lengths to pretend they aren’t there.
“I think her narcissism is offset by her naivete, to make her more palatable than she might otherwise be,” Parker muses. “She’s kind of a less ruthless version of Scarlett O’Hara: She’s gonna survive no matter what, she’s gonna make it work, she’s gonna put on that red dress — you know, Scarlett puts it on and goes to the ball.”
Asked if she began “Weeds” uncertain how Nancy should be played, Parker answers, “I liked the idea of finding a woman who would do what she did. I want to know what it is about her that we don’t see.”
Was finding her easy?
“I’m still trying,” Parker says.
Nursing an iced coffee in a Greenwich Village cafe earlier this week, Parker is just a few days past her 43rd birthday. But she seems insistently a decade or two younger.
She has a youngster’s face — a precocious youngster’s, naturally — and she’s clad in a youthfully fancy-free ensemble (a lacy white blouse, military-camouflage-print Bermuda shorts, and retro ’60s leather sandals with chunky high heels), though, somehow, she looks very put-together.
She is just back from Los Angeles, having wrapped her four-month “Weeds” shoot. In her near future: Lots of time to spend with Will, her 3½-year-old son. And maybe a play, she keeps hoping.
She was last on Broadway in fall 2004, in a revival of “Reckless,” the dark comedy by Craig Lucas.
“It’s the longest I’ve gone without being onstage since I was 17,” she says, “which is very hard.”
Her richly varied career has included films such as “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Boys on the Side” and “The Client,” while among her TV credits are a shimmering portrayal of 1950s pop star Phyllis McGuire in the HBO biopic “Sugartime,” as well as “Angels in America” and a recurring role on “The West Wing.”
But the stage claims a special place in her heart.
“I miss those experiences more than I miss some relationships,” she says. “When I pass by the Century Theater my heart kind of aches, because I remember doing ‘How I Learned to Drive,’ and when I walk by what used to be the Circle Rep or go to the Walter Kerr (site of her Tony Award-winning performance in ‘Proof’), it’s like looking at pictures of old boyfriends — but much stronger.”
She describes herself as “a journeyman actor. I’m always looking for work.” Seeking roles, she says, “that I can do something with.”
She means something unencumbered by dialogue and stage directions printed on a page.
“I don’t necessarily even READ the stage directions,” she confesses with a saucy grin. “I black them out. Which can be bad. Sometimes, there’s something there that’s important.
“I’ll be doing a scene and someone will say, ‘Y’know, you hand the money to him now,’ and I’ll be like, ’I hand him the MONEY?’ And they look at me and then turn to the director: ‘She doesn’t read the directions.”’
Parker can’t help laughing.
“Sometimes there’s something vital,” she allows. “But sometimes it will say: ‘Nancy smiles. Pause. She’s certain he knows what she means. She turns.’ Like that. I’m not gonna do it, and I don’t want to see it.”
No pushover, huh?
“No-o-o-o,” Parker replies after thinking a moment. “I mean, I am in certain areas of life — absolutely. But not at work.
“I don’t want to just do what’s there,” she sums up. “I want to bring more to it. I don’t want to do what’s obvious. That makes me queasy.”