“Parenthood’s” Mae Whitman: “All I do is talk about Tim Riggins and the Panthers”

The drama's prodigal daughter cops to an obsession with a bygone TV character — and to crying watching her own show

Topics: Television, TV, Interviews, Parenthood, mae whitman,

"Parenthood's" Mae Whitman: "All I do is talk about Tim Riggins and the Panthers" Mae Whitman as Amber in "Parenthood' (Credit: NBC/Vivian Zink)

Mae Whitman stars on “Parenthood,” NBC’s shaggy, tear-inducing family drama, as Amber, a spunky, increasingly together, emotionally astute free spirit. The 24-year-old Whitman has been acting for the last 18 years (nope, that’s not a typo). She appeared in everything from “Hope Floats” and “Independence Day,” to “Arrested Development” and “In Treatment” before arriving on “Parenthood,” which, to judge from Whitman’s words, is the loveliest, kindest workplace in all the world — exactly as it seems to be. Whitman spoke to me about the series, her interest in national parks, her obsession with “Friday Night Lights” — which was also overseen by “Parenthood’s” creator Jason Katims — and her dreams about Tim Riggins. And, yes, she also cries while watching “Parenthood.”

Are you liking Amber’s story line this year? She has a new romance, and you’ve gotten to work with some cast members you hadn’t yet, like Adam and Christina and Crosby.

This year has been one of my favorite years. I’ve loved Amber’s entire progression. You rarely see people grow from age 16 to age 21 or whatever on TV. It’s such a weird, specific time in somebody’s life that to be able to follow along with them and really see the huge differences is incredible. Amber went from being this petulant teen to being on her own and growing, maturing, having other issues that are very important to her now. For me, this season is sort of the first time that she really feels on track. She started to understand her place in the world last year when she got a job. She discovered she was good at something and smart. And she had another very cool guy show her, for the first time, that she’s really an incredible, smart, beautiful person and to be confident in that. I feel like she really thinks she’s in the right place. Plus, she’s doing music stuff. That’s what she really loves.

Was the music stuff always part of the character or is it something that they wrote in because you’re into it?

An amazing thing about this show is that they’re very aware and perceptive about what’s going on with the actual person. I think I mentioned early on to Jason, or somebody saw me playing, and they were like, “Oh, I didn’t know you did that.” And I was like, “Yeah, you know, kind of. I’m trying.” So then they incorporated it and I think it was a really powerful move. And it’s nice because it’s in the same vein of Amber’s father and what he loved to do. It’s a callback to Amber taking the good pieces of her dad and trying to keep growing from there. So, yeah, I think my personal influence has had a little bit to do with that as well, and that’s really cool.

Why doesn’t Amber ever lock her door?
[Laughing.] It was always so funny to me whenever Lauren [Graham, who plays Whitman's mother on the show] would come over to the house and be like, “What are you doing? This is the worst area in the world and this door is never locked!” So to me, keeping the door unlocked is almost like an homage to Amber’s irresponsibility and naïveté. That was her whole attitude in the beginning of the series, like “I don’t give a crap. I do whatever I want.” And this is the one area that attitude is still left lingering, like “Eh, I don’t care.” It’s always funny because some characters come over and comment on it. Some characters don’t care. Some characters are like, “Are you crazy?!” And even on the first date when Ryan [Amber's boyfriend] mentions it she’s like, “My mom always tells me to get a new lock, but I’m like, whatever.” It’s like an inside joke that people who know her can be annoyed about, but also look at it with love.

Do you think Amber will ever go to college?

I don’t know. It sort of directly reflects on my life, like, I didn’t go to college but, in my mind, the conversation is not closed at all. I still want to learn and if it felt like the right time and opportunity I would definitely go back. So I think that’s the attitude for her. But she’s on such a good path right now and on one where she is learning and she’s not just standing still and she’s growing. But it’s not out of the question forever.

You’ve been acting since you were very little. Was there any point where you thought maybe you didn’t want to do this?

There have been so many phases. You do have to continue, as you grow as a human, checking in and going is this what I want? Am I giving away things that I don’t want? Who am I and what do I want to keep doing?  But being on a set is just always where I want to be and is such a deep part of me, and I’m just so, so happy doing it and every project I’m involved in I love so much. I definitely keep checking in, and I went through a period where I was like, “Maybe I’ll move to Austin and go to college and have an apartment and be too hot in the summer. Maybe I’ll try it.” But it just sort of didn’t work out that way at that time. There are other things that I would want do, like working at a national park or as a museum tour guide. I just have to continue to check in with myself and make sure I feel like I’m on a good path.

Because of all your experience working, do you feel older than your age sometimes?

Yes. Definitely there’s that element, but it’s funny, there’s that weird old adage, the more you learn and do, the less you know. Every day is something so new. Everything that I do, every set and every environment and every character and every story is so different, that you sort of rebuild your whole idea of what it’s like. On something like “Parenthood” I’d never been on anything like that. Everybody is so respectful and loving and kind and it’s sort of all based on our love for each other. The whole reason the show is so amazing is the fact we all love each other so much and love the people that we created. I think that really shows. So I’ve never been on a show like that before, so that is something totally new for me. So it’s less like I’m tired, I’ve done this for a long time, and more like,  “Aaaah, I’m at home.”

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Do you watch it?

I do. I started out being like, “Oh, maybe I’ll watch it sometimes, I don’t know.” But now it’s like, I’m a weird avid fan of it as well. I don’t get to see the other story lines being shot, and there are so many other story lines, so it’s a treat for me to go and watch what’s happening with the rest of the characters. I have my Tuesday routine: I do yoga and then go to my family’s house with my boyfriend and his brother and we all watch it together.

Do you cry?

I definitely cry. I don’t know how you don’t cry. I get so lost in the story. Everyone takes real care on the show to make sure that everything that they’re doing and saying is really honest and feels really real, so there’s no way around it for me. After every huge crying scene there’s silence in the room and then we all look at each other and we’re all crying. And then we silently resume watching TV.

I saw on your Twitter account that you are really into “Friday Night Lights.” Like, you dressed up as Tim Riggins for Halloween. Did you just watch it relatively recently ?

Yeah! I’m still not even that far along. I just started it because I knew I would become seriously obsessed, and I just didn’t have myself to give away during that time period. But I took a deep breath and was like, “I’m ready.” So I started watching it and I’m literally more obsessed with it than I ever thought I could be. Like I dream all about “Friday Night Lights” every night. Everything I dream is Riggins-influenced. I can’t get enough. It’s really kind of unhealthy.

How much of it have you seen?
I’m just in the middle of Season 2. And it is unbelievable. I was on a serious kick of watching it every night and then I started working every day and I just couldn’t. It’s good, I guess, to stretch it out because I basically feel like when that show is over I’m going to have to go into rehab or something to kick the habit. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s really bad.

What do you dream about Riggins?
Oh my God it never ends. I’ve had the classic he sees me from across the room and we know that we are meant to be together forever. I’ve had just going on some fun friend adventures with him. I mean, it’s pretty sick, I don’t know what my problem is, but I just can’t stop. And luckily, actually, when I decided to be Riggins for Halloween, being on a show with Jason Katims is like the ultimate gift. First of all, I can like barely look at him now because I’m like so starstruck about “Friday Night Lights,” but I immediately asked, “Do you guys have any idea how I can make this costume good?” And they jumped right on it and I actually got a jersey custom made from the place where all the guys got their jerseys made for the show. It’s extreme to do something like that, but that’s how much I love it. I got to actually use all of their stuff and everyone from “Parenthood” chipped in. Our wardrobe girl, Diane, helped me find all the pants and stuff like that. It was very cool. It was a huge group effort. I felt like a princess dressed up as a male football player.

So this means you haven’t seen the episodes with Matt Lauria, who was on “Friday Night Lights” and now plays your boyfriend Ryan on “Parenthood”?

I haven’t even seen any of his episodes at all. Which is funny because he’s become a really good friend and I think it really burns him up inside that all I do is talk about Riggins and the Panthers. I’m sure that’s a blessing because I would probably not even be able to act with him at all after I saw him in “Friday Night Lights.” It would be very bad.

Do you fall in love with TV shows often, or is this a singular experience?

It’s funny, because I don’t have a very addictive personality in any way except for things like stories or books or movies or TV. I just get like completely enamored and lost in that world, especially when one really hits the right way. Like I just can’t do anything else. Even another Katims project “My So-Called Life,” I got completely obsessed. And “Breaking Bad” too. It’s hard because I don’t have too much time to watch TV, which is really annoying because it feels important. TV is so amazing right now, it’s kind of like a weird revolution we’re having where amazing movies are a little harder to find, but there are so many TV shows on that are really incredible. So it’s hard that I don’t get to watch as much as I would like to, but when I do, I just love it so much. I definitely have a tendency to get addicted to that kind of stuff.

Have you ever watched “Gilmore Girls,” which stars your mom on “Parenthood,” Lauren Graham?
I’ve only seen a few episodes of it because when I started watching it I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. This will consume my entire life if I let myself get into this.” Every time I watch it I have to rip myself away because I literally will spend the next eight years watching and rewatching every single episode of it, I know I will. Actually, I just said the other day to my boyfriend, “I think it’s time to get into the zone.” So I’m definitely orbiting around the idea of really committing myself. But then I’ll see Lauren on set and completely not be able to speak English anymore, so it’s a slippery slope.

Willa Paskin
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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