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When Lauren Graham first headed west to try her luck in Hollywood, she crashed on an aunt's couch in a Los Angeles suburb. Often, she recalls, "I would have an audition at one o'clock and another at five. There wasn't enough time to drive home in between, so I'd sit in the food court at the Beverly Center mall doing crossword puzzles. I still can't smell Auntie Anne's pretzels without having a flashback," she adds with a laugh.
Nearly two decades later Graham, 44, is nestled in an armchair in the lounge of a Beverly Hills hotel. She is casually elegant, dressed in a gauzy gray sweater, skinny gray jeans, and ballet flats, her long dark hair gathered into a loose bun. These days she does her crosswords on the set of the hit NBC series Parenthood, where she stars as struggling single mother Sarah Braverman -- a more serious version of the role she played on Gilmore Girls, the show that first lifted her to fame. More and more she tries her best to avoid the paparazzi, which is why she chose this secluded venue for our talk. The pretzel stand may be only a couple miles away, but it's in another universe.
Still, Graham's career path has taken her to a place that's strangely close to her own childhood. In real life, TV's best-loved solo mom was raised mostly by a single dad. Graham's father, Lawrence, worked as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C., commuting from the Virginia suburbs where Graham grew up. Her mother, Donna, was restless and artistic. She tried painting and acting, but her true calling was music. When Graham was 5, Donna left her daughter to seek her fortune as an artist. Her parents eventually divorced, and Lawrence cared for their little girl on his own.
Even with the help of babysitters, Graham's father couldn't quite cover all the bases. Her curly hair was a challenge: "My teacher called him from school and said, 'You know, you can't just brush the top layer; you've got to brush underneath it,'" recalls Graham. "I had this giant knot!" Fashion baffled him as well. For years he dressed her in a uniform of Levi's and Adidas. Dinner was often late, the house seldom spotless. Mostly, though, he handled parenting with enthusiasm.
"My dad has an ease about him," Graham says. "He isn't super-demonstrative but he's very warm and has a great sense of humor. Thanks to him, my childhood seemed pretty normal." If Lawrence resented his wife's leaving, he didn't show it. Instead, he told Graham he admired her mother for pursuing her passion. He made sure his daughter got plenty of time with grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles so she'd feel like part of a family. As an avid reader, he passed on to her his passion for literature. "He'd say, 'There's nothing you want to know that you can't learn from a book,'" she says. He took her to the theater and to Woody Allen movies, even hauled her along on business trips. And when she was 11 he took her to visit her mother, who had moved to London, for the first time.
The two quickly forged a relationship. Donna's musical aspirations had not panned out, so she had reinvented herself as a fashion buyer. "She was incredibly beautiful and really smart, and she'd made all these independent choices," says Graham, who returned to London regularly to visit her mom. "All her friends were artists and musicians: exotic, bohemian, cool. She gave me a sense that there was a world beyond my town. Her impulse was to follow her dream, and that was an inspiration to me.
"I'm sure I went through hard times about her leaving," she says, "but philosophically speaking, I don't have things I carry around and feel crummy about. I just don't believe in that."
Graham soon discovered she had her mother's love of performing. "In school I played a Greek goddess who had the line, 'It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.' You know, like in that margarine commercial? And it got a huge laugh. I remember thinking, This is what I want to do all day. I felt a confidence onstage that I didn't in life sometimes."
She went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Barnard College and a master's in drama from Southern Methodist University. Like any struggling actor, she had moments of self-doubt. "I didn't have those looks. I wasn't that kind of girl," she says. "I knew I had to be smart. I always thought, I'm not prettier than other people, but maybe I can be funnier, or do a more interesting character." At 28 Graham made the pilgrimage to L.A. and soon began landing guest appearances on a slew of prime-time shows -- Caroline in the City (alongside her Parenthood costar and now boyfriend, Peter Krause) and Seinfeld. Then, in 2000, she snagged the role of Lorelai Gilmore.
Graham's character had a baby out of wedlock at 16; she was raising the girl, now a teenager (played by Alexis Bledel), while running a country inn. Lorelai was by turns shrewd and goofy, independent and insecure -- and she was her sweet, smart daughter's best friend. The show served as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for millions of young women and their mothers, and its rapid-fire writing earned critical acclaim. It was also the perfect vehicle for Graham, whose life experience had helped her turn Lorelai into a lovable -- and believable -- woman. "She's my mom, she's my dad -- I could draw on everyone I'd ever known," she says.
Gilmore Girls ran for seven seasons, with Graham in almost every scene, and it made her a household name. But it also required long workdays, five days a week. When the show ended (in 2007), Graham took a long break from TV, shooting small movies that didn't get noticed (Flash of Genius, The Answer Man) and starring in a Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, which earned tepid reviews. "Acting is a weird career, where you're always hovering between confidence and panic," she says. "At the far end of the spectrum is 'I'll never work again. I'll have to start selling shoes.'"
But then along came Parenthood. In it Graham plays a very different mother from Lorelai. Sarah Braverman is the ex-wife of a rock musician and is raising two troubled teens. After the divorce she moves in with her parents. On the cusp of middle age, "she's not where she wanted to be," says Graham, who taps memories of her own early struggles, and her mother's, to help her flesh out the strong but sometimes flailing character. "It's more of an emotional story than Gilmore Girls."
On the set the atmosphere is anything but dark. Parenthood's an ensemble drama following the lives of Sarah, her three adult siblings, and their spouses and kids. "We improvise a lot to get that family texture, that feeling of people who know each other and talk over each other," she says. Graham is particularly chummy with Mae Whitman, who plays her daughter on the show. Whitman often drops by Graham's house, a 1920s Spanish Colonial in a hip Los Angeles neighborhood, which she furnished with antiques and quirky modern pieces. ("I like to furniture shop," says Graham. "It was a sad day when my house was pretty much done, because I needed a new project.") "We go to exercise classes together, though she's in much better shape than I am," says Whitman, who's 22 years younger. "She's got such a good head on her shoulders, and I can talk to her about anything, from career things to personal issues. It really is like mother and daughter."
Graham also spends time off-set with Peter Krause. "He's awesome," she says. Still, marriage and motherhood have never been a top priority for her. "It's this beautiful vision to think you're going to be married by 30 or to think you're going to have how many kids. I really didn't have that. Now, is that why I'm not married and don't have kids? I don't know. I just believe that the only thing you can do is be happy about your choices. Or change them."
Graham fills her days off by reading, hiking, and watching cooking shows. ("Any minute now," she promises, "it's going to manifest itself in some amazing cooking skills.") She throws an annual Christmas party where guests play games like charades, and she calls her father as often as she can. Though her mother died six years ago, at 61, Graham is close to her British-born half sister, Shade, who works at a talent agency in L.A. The pair have a girls' night out once a week, usually involving Mexican food.
Shade shows up toward the end of our interview, a tall blonde in a fitted blue suit. The two hug, then spend a few minutes trading news about their grandmother. It reminds me of something Graham said earlier when asked for her definition of "family." "It's people who you feel good around, who don't tell you what to do," she said. "It's a place where you can be vulnerable and feel comfortable and relax." She smiles. "I'm happy where I am."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2011.