Parker ready for prime time

T.O. actress known for offbeat roles goes all John Grisham on us


Molly Parker has one of those names — people have heard it, but they “can't place the face,” as they say. Maybe because she’s been that indie queen starring in low-budget films from up-and-comers you’ve always wanted to check out, but there’s never a copy of their video at the local video store. She plays the roles that allow her to flex her considerable acting talents, but not in Hollywood films and definitely not, gasp, in television.

That was then, and a lot has changed. Movie work is dwindling, and the idiot box is the new indie film thanks to a major push for channels to offer up brave, progressive and well-written shows. And so we find Parker in her most mainstream role to date, as Abby McDeere, wife of Mitch McDeere, in the TV adaptation of John Grisham’s The Firm, now playing on NBC and Global. And suddenly people are rediscovering this talented Canadian actress.

Although The Firm is a whiz-bang mid-season show for NBC in the United States, it is a decidedly Canadian affair. Alongside American stars Josh Lucas and Juliette Lewis stand Parker and local boy Callum Keith Rennie as well as a slew of regular Canadian guest stars such as Shaun Majumder and Tricia Helfer. But it is the four stars that make the show work. The on-screen chemistry is obvious, and it’s what drew Parker to the role.

“I came to it a bit late,” says Parker, on set after a day of shooting in the furthest reaches of northwestern Toronto. “I had been doing another pilot for another show and was waiting to see if that would get picked up, and after many, many months, when that didn’t happen, these guys were still interested and I took the job. Callum, who is an old friend of mine, who I’ve know for 20 years, was already involved, and Josh and Juliette had been cast, so a lot of my interest in it had to do with the cast. And I thought, between the four of us, we could do something fun and interesting. And I was also interested in being a part of something that was entertaining that people would see.”

The plot picks up on the life of Mitch (Tom Cruise’s character from the 1993 movie version) following a decade-long stint in the witness protection program. He’s in Washington, D.C., operating his own law firm with his ex-con brother (Rennie) and his brother’s wife (Lewis), working as an investigator and secretary, respectively. Abby is a school teacher, and she and Mitch have a teenaged daughter.

Juliette Lewis and Josh Lucas star in The Firm

“They’ve been together forever and have a child together, who was born when they were in witness protection, so this is just the beginning of trying to have a new life,” explains Parker. “One of the things interesting to me coming into this was what happens to people who are in hiding, essentially, for 10 years. These people couldn’t use their names, they were moving from city to city. They were raising a little girl, but essentially they were an island and it’s sort of us versus them.”

It is an interesting and meaty prospect for an actor naturally used to being in the public eye to delve into a character that has spent a decade in hiding.

“I always like to play people who have secrets, you know?” she says. “I mean, even if I’m not playing a character with a secret, I often try to have a secret anyway. It’s interesting to watch somebody who is not all there on the surface.”

The show operates with three story lines. One, the people McDeere put in prison 10 years ago, the ones that sent him into hiding, have found him. So the threat of imminent retribution is there. In addition, there is an ongoing plot involving a murder investigation and the law firm that McDeere begins to work with in the premiere episode. And, each episode has its own self-contained court drama. That’s a lot of material to pack into an hour. As a result, the show moves along at a brisk and entertaining pace.

It has been described as old-fashioned and nostalgic — in both a good way and a bad way — and a lot of that, according to Parker, stems from the absence of other-worldly plot devices used in many current shows.

“I do think we live in a time when most of the shows are high concept,” says Parker, of the slew of crime-style shows featuring characters with enhanced, psychic or paranormal abilities such as The Listener or The Mentalist. “We have a lot of shows about, like, detectives who have [special] senses … really just out there.”

“Out there” is a place Molly Parker knows well when it comes to her acting roles. In her first film she played a necrophiliac. Kissed opened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1996, earning the film a special jury citation and Parker some much-needed buzz. And although all of her roles aren’t at quite the necrophiliac level, she has certainly been fearless in her choices, gravitating toward characters first and film second.

“Almost all along I have looked for interesting characters, you know, so I’ve done many movies that no one has ever seen because it was a great character that I wanted to play, knowing that it wouldn’t get distribution or that it was someone’s first film. I mean I did a lot of those,” says Parker with emphasis on “a lot.”

Parker, who is living in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood of Toronto while shooting for The Firm, grew up on a farm near Pitt Meadows, B.C., the child of back-to-the-land hippies who eventually moved to town when the family opened up a seafood shop.

Her childhood as a fishmonger’s daughter, travelling to the docks in Vancouver many an early morning to seek out product to supply the store, has made it impossible for her to eat seafood in Toronto. But with a five-year-old son at home, Parker says, it is “all about the grilled cheese” and heading to the playground.

That opportunity to have a somewhat regular life of grilled cheese and playgrounds with the family is another major draw to TV work, says Parker, who splits time between Toronto and her home in Los Angeles.

“I am a mom, and it’s good, you know?” she explains. “If it works ... it works well.”

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