Get Some Kleenex

09.25.13

How ‘Parenthood’ Star Monica Potter Makes You Weep Uncontrollably

Despite a disappointing Emmys snub, Monica Potter took the underappreciated NBC drama to new heights in last season’s powerful cancer storyline. As ‘Parenthood’ returns, she tells Kevin Fallon what’s next.

“This is the year of celebration, I think.”

During our conversation about the upcoming season of Parenthood, the show’s resplendent star Monica Potter tells me this, and I breathe a heavy sigh of relief. As anyone who watches the critically acclaimed NBC drama won’t soon forget, Potter plays Kristina Braverman on the series, who last year delivered one of the TV season’s most gutting performances as a mother battling breast cancer.

Potter’s brittle, strong, and emotional performance not only could feasibly be attributed to a surge in the net worth of Kleenex (have your tear ducts recovered yet?), but won rave reviews from critics, many of whom are still sore that the actress was passed over for an Emmy nod for her brilliant, subtle work. Or, as Potter herself calls it, when she wasn’t “asked to the prom.”

Of course, being underrated has, over the course of the show’s first four seasons, been Parenthood’s badge of honor. So as the drama gears up for Thursday night’s fifth season premiere, we chatted with Potter about her devastating performance last season, the impact it’s had on her life, and what’s in store for Kristina this year, now that she’s cancer free.

Oh, and how it felt to be stood up for prom.

Let’s just put it all on the table. You gave the best performance on TV last season. This past year there’s been so much praise for you. Surely you’ve caught wind of it.

It’s been really nice to hear the stories from people that went through it with their family members. It takes you aback. I don't know how to explain it. Like, I’ll be at the grocery store and somebody will say something about their experience and, you know, I become instantly bonded with them in some weird way. So it’s nice to hear that but also to acknowledge what they’re going through.

So you actually pitched Kristina’s breast cancer storyline after having your own brief cancer scare—only to find out that the writers had already broken the same story. But when you pitched it, did you have any idea it would have this impact on your career?

No. Not at all. Like I really didn’t. I just came home you know from the doctor’s office after having that very weird thing happen. And I emailed Jason [Katims] and I told him. And I said, “What if we just explore that for Kristina?” And he said, “That’s just so weird because we just broke the story in the writers’ room.” So it was kismet. The one thing I was sort of worried about that it was done before, you know, on television. And I did not want to exploit anybody.

I think that’s why everyone responded to this. Like you said, this storyline has been done so often on TV, but there’s something about the way Parenthood handled it that was just so different. What do you think that was?

Well I think part of it was that the whole family was involved. You know what I mean? It affected everybody. And I feel like they used humor through it. And then everybody just sort of pulled from their own experiences. It was a collaborative effort on everyone’s part so it just…did something kind of magical. I just lost a friend a couple weeks ago to breast cancer. I grew up with her. This disease takes people so young. She was 40. And it just sort of—I was like, “Oh the season ended, now onto newer, different thing in Kristina’s storyline.” But this is a reminder to me how horrible this is and how it’s real.

When you had your own scare, everything turned out OK. So what it was like for you to act out the other outcome, when everything didn’t turn out alright?

It was sort of—and I said this to someone else—I felt guilty, you know, like I was sort of able to leave it at the door at the end of the day. I just felt like it was unfair, for people to have to go through that. Like, why couldn’t they do a take two? It’s made me a little nutty. I sort of wrestled with myself and wished everybody could just leave it at the door and not have to deal with it. I will say it felt like it was really happening last year. People would come up to me at school and say, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, “I’m just acting.” It was a weird year. It was a good year. But it was just a strange year.

The reviews of your performance speak for themselves. Did you have a sense when you were going through of all this that you were doing such good work?

No I didn’t. I really didn’t. We would do our stuff and go home at the end of the day. I didn’t really reflect too much on it at all. But you know all the accolades and all the stuff and all the great praise we’re getting is shared for all the people that have gone through it. I mean that, which I was kind of bummed because we were talking about the Emmy stuff the other day with someone, and I just felt like it would’ve been so great to go because we could have shared that experience together. I felt like it was team. Like there was a team of women. I just felt like they were slighted. You know what I mean?

To tell you the truth, I was in a bad mood for days after the Emmy nominations came out and you were snubbed.

That’s really sweet. I felt like all of my friends were calling me saying, “Oh, Johnny’s going to ask you to prom,” you know? And Johnny never asked me to the prom. So it’s like, you know, “Fuck Johnny.” You know what I mean? I really felt like that. I was like, “Dammit, I thought I was gonna go to the prom.” I’ll make my own prom at home. Yeah, it sort of felt like high school. Like, “Oh, you didn’t get asked. Sorry.”

At least the anticipation and the idea of the nomination must’ve been fun.

Oh it was great! Every single thing we’ve done has been so much fun. The Critics Choice Awards, they were the best night of my life, careerwise. So no, I’m kind of joking about the Emmy thing. But every single thing we’ve done—I’ve met so many great people this past year. So being able to do this storyline has created such a great experience workwise and in my personal life.

Are you guys at Parenthood noticing how much this show’s popularity has grown each season? It’s a pretty rare thing.

We are. We really are. Every single year we get more and more fans. And I think that the fans are the ones keeping us on the air, honestly. I just feel like it's a show that you haven’t seen on television in a long time. People look forward to watching this.

And they look forward to crying while watching it.

I feel like its just therapy for some people. Like they want to cry so they watch our show just to get out a cleansing. A weekly cleansing of their soul and their emotions. It’s true!

Honestly, if there’s an episode that I don’t cry during, I feel robbed.

Right! And you know all of us—I don’t think we try to do that. It just sort of happens within the writing sometimes. So it’s kind of cool when it’s sort of like everyone cries together.

Is there a scene from Kristina’s cancer arc that sticks out in your mind?

My favorite scene was the scene where I was dancing with Max. We were able to add little things along the way. Like before he comes down the stairs and I looked at him in his shirt about to go to the dance. I might start crying right now thinking about it. It was so sweet the way it was written. As it was originally, I was sitting just reading a book and I said to the props guys, “Why don’t we get photo albums that I can be putting photos into.” I feel like that was my favorite scene. It was bittersweet. The toughest scene was probably the video to the kids. That one sucked. I was crying.

Let’s talk about the season premiere. I can’t believe Kristina is running for mayor.

I know. I was like you guys are you freaking kidding me? Running for mayor? She just had cancer. They were laughing. They were like that’s why she’s running for mayor. I didn’t get it at first. Now it makes sense. She’s seizing the day and wanting to go after her dreams. That’s where it comes from. Not from believing that she’ll be the best mayor. But that she can effect change and help people and all that. So it’s sort of—it’s sort of one of those things where she feels empowered because she was able to beat cancer and this is something that she’s always wanted to do.

How much of the cancer storyline from last year will bleed into this season?

That’s a good question. I feel like it’s always there. It’s the elephant in the room. It’s never—it’s referred to, but this is the year of celebration, I think. But also being a little introspective and finding her true voice and what she wants to do. So I don’t think there’s that heaviness anymore. I feel like she feels free and that she’s able to become who she’s always wanted to become now. Whether it’s running for mayor or doing things differently. She used to be so uptight the first few seasons. Oh my God. I’m like, You need to take a valium, or something. She’s such a Type A personality. I would get annoyed with her—like, oh my God, stop it. But I think now, she’s still Type A but she’s a lot more relaxed.