In just a handful of scenes as Eddie Murphy's ex-wife in Imagine That, Baltimore-bred Nicole Ari Parker creates a woman who sums up the aspirations of every parent in the movie. She's a caring mother who balances her inner child with her essential adult.
She doesn't hesitate to leave her fantasy-prone daughter (Yara Shahidi) in the care of her workaholic husband. When he fails her daughter, Parker's character picks up the pieces without freezing him out. Imagine That is a kids' movie that focuses on motherhood and fatherhood. But for once, you can recognize why its divorced characters got married in the first place.
Parker has been creating full characters from often wispy material for a decade and a half. She's best known for the long-running Showtime series Soul Food - she co-starred with Boris Kodjoe, her real-life husband. But she was garnering rave reviews 14 years ago, as one of the title characters in Maria Maggenti's self-explanatory The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.
Parker followed Soul Food with other mainstream roles, including Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, with Martin Lawrence. Yet at this plateau in her career, she's yearning for movies as adventurous and risky as the ones she appeared in through the 1990s, such as Boogie Nights (1997).
At the moment, though, she's exultant. On the phone from Gundelfingen, Germany, her husband's hometown, she says she's happy with Imagine That - seeing it for the first time at its premiere last week, she was surprised at how incisive it was about parenting. And she's ecstatic on her Black Forest family vacation with her husband and their two young children. (Kodjoe is the son of a white German-Jewish mother and an expatriate Ghanaian doctor.)
"I'm living in The Sound of Music - I'm Julie Andrews for 2 1/2 weeks," she says. "Do you want to put a stop to my twirling and yodeling? My kids just kicked off their shoes and are running through the grass."
It's a long way, in every way, from Baltimore, where Nicole moved when she was about 2. She lived on Madison Avenue, right near Bolton Hill, and briefly attended the Montessori School before entering Roland Park Country School and staying there through high school.
She always loved acting. "I had a brilliant drama teacher while I was at Roland Park: Ann Mainolfi. But the school was mostly rich in academics. It wasn't like I was prepping myself for a life in acting. There, you prepped yourself to have a stable future. The school's piece de resistance is college prep - it didn't teach you how to audition for a TV show."
She wasn't about to ask her dad to spend $20,000 a year so she could study something as unsteady as the theater. She went to New York University as an English major. But halfway through freshman year, she tried out for the acting conservatory at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Parker got in - and her father said, "Go for it." After graduating in 1993, she stayed in New York for eight years. "I did everything pretty cliche as an actor in New York. I read the trades, I sent out 'head shots.' "
Money was tight, but she kept busy at her trade. If there wasn't a short film in the offing, there'd be experimental theater or dance workshops. Then came The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. Again, the pay was slim (about $2,500), but the attention was enormous: "It was a sweet film, not really aggressive, but because of the theme it was 'talked-about.' " So was Boogie Nights. What she remembers vividly about that movie was how devoted director Paul Thomas Anderson was to capturing the details of 1970s porno filmmaking. Nina Hartley, a real-life porn star who played the wife of William H. Macy's character, "Little Bill," said that porn performers didn't have scientifically toned bodies back then - "they really were au naturel."
Parker moved to Toronto during the shooting of Soul Food. She and her husband have bopped around since then, from Los Angeles to Atlanta, and soon back to L.A., where they hope they can generate more personal projects. Parker feels as if "I'm kind of floating out there as an artist. I'm in a safe place where I can play a girlfriend or a best friend or a mommy or a lawyer, but a huge part of me is unused. I'm classically trained, historically inclined and somewhat revolutionary by nature, so I'm frustrated as an artist. There may be a limit to some of the narratives I can help tell because of my skin color. Deep inside, I think I'm Kate Winslet, running through forests in a corset, looking for a letter my beloved has left me in a tree. But there's a lot of history I can do - Angela Davis' story, that's something I can tell."
Parker still hears phrases like "we're not going that way"- code for the producers not wanting to cast black or minority actors. But she says her discontent doesn't come simply from the broken promise of color-blind casting. "If you made a movie like Boogie Nights today, you'd have to pack it with stars, instead of just people who were perfect for their roles. Even for a simple romantic comedy like He's Just Not That Into You - you can't just have Drew Barrymore, you must have Jennifer Aniston, too, and Cameron Diaz, so everyone up and down the line can feel they'll make some money.
"And maybe there's just not enough inspiration in the kind of material coming down the pike. There's something wonderful about touching the heart of humanity, and that often comes with a fresh theme [or a new subject]." She's looking forward to starring in Jasmine Guy's production of Ntozake Shange's play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which opens in Atlanta on July 12.
In the meantime, she takes pride in Imagine That, because "it's really a grown-up movie hiding inside of a kid's theme. Every parent knows this moment in a child's age when he or she needs your attention in a very specific way because it's the beginning and ending of the early life of imagination. It's such a responsibility. You have to think three paces ahead of them when you're walking in the street, and when they're in bed, you're planning their meals for the next day. Sometimes you need eight arms - but at the same time you need to submit to their imagination, and let your own fairy-tale inner child be in full effect, or else you hurt them, even crush them. You have to submit to that time in their lives, because it will seem like five minutes - and be gone."