Lauren Graham: Independent Spirit

She plays a struggling single mom on the hit show Parenthood. But in real life Lauren Graham knows just where she's headed.
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Lauren's Road to Fame

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."

Continued on page 2:  Life and Parenthood

 

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