Parenthood will come to a tearful end on Jan. 29 after six emotional seasons on NBC. The show has been the work of a large ensemble, but it’s hard not to pinpoint Lauren Graham’s efforts as a standout. Graham joined the cast as single mom Sarah Braverman in 2010 after the show had already been picked up by the network and found a way to bring a positive spin to the character’s ongoing trials and tribulations. The actress wrapped Gilmore Girls in 2007, a series that remains her most iconic work, and appeared in movies like Evan Almighty and Because I Said So in the interim.
As Parenthood draws to a close, with its final episodes kicking off Jan. 8, Graham is looking forward to taking time off before beginning a new series. She co-wrote the new endeavor, Kate On Later, with Liz Tuccillo, a comedy that will center on the world of late-night network television talk shows. We visited Graham on the set of Parenthood during one of its final episodes to discuss what it means for this show to find its ending and what it’s meant for Graham as an actress, as well as what she thinks of Gilmore Girls all these years later.
TIME: How do you feel about Parenthood coming to an end?
Lauren Graham: It’s very strange. It’s like any big life moment – it’s hard to feel it all. We had our celebration for the 100th episode recently and Ron Howard was there, which is the second time I’ve ever seen him so you know it was a big day. That felt like something. It’s nice that we know it’s the end so we can treasure these last days. Gilmore Girls was just yanked away. I got a phone call when I was sitting in a restaurant. The guy came over and was like, “Excuse me, are you Lauren Graham? Your agent is on the phone.” My agent said, “It’s over.” I didn’t get to say goodbye to anybody. It was a very abrupt end, so this is preferable.
You get to actually wrap up the story.
Yeah, exactly. With Gilmore Girls we did an episode that could be the end, but that’s not how you want to say goodbye to characters you’ve lived with for such a long time. Hopefully this will be satisfying for people.
This show has now been an integral part of your daily life for six seasons. What is it like to not have that anymore?
That’s the life of an actor. You have these connections and then it’s goodbye. It’s unrealistic to take all of them with you. This is unique in that there are a number of people who I don’t even think of as part of the show. They’re just part of my life. It eases the transition, I guess. There are people I know I will see. But it’s also exciting. Part of the actor thing too is that you play pretend at something for a while and then you get to tell a new story. Beside the panic of never working again, the excitement of the possibilities is great, too.
Maura Tierney was originally cast as Sarah Braverman, but had to drop out of the role to focus on treatment for breast cancer. You’re now very strongly identified with the character, but is it strange that you were never meant to be her?
It was painful. It was a hard thing to be excited about a new job but also be asked about someone’s personal life, which I never comment on. It was unusual. But I just felt fortunate to have an opportunity to play this character. I didn’t know what I wanted to do [after Gilmore Girls] and some of the stuff I tried didn’t work. Honestly, Parenthood was not what I planned. I didn’t plan to do another drama. I didn’t plan to play a single mom. I didn’t plan, even, to do an ensemble show. But I hadn’t found anything I liked as much. I just connected to the show. But that’s the funny thing about this business, you have to make a plan and then be open to it not working out.
What do you like about Sarah as a character?
At times, it’s been frustrating. I was drawn to her because she’s an opposite to what I’d done on TV before. It appealed to my dramatic actor part of me. Where Lorelei Gilmore had a positive spin on everything, this was someone who felt tired and had really struggled. That was appealing to me having done something that was peppy and heroic. But I would rail against that. I didn’t want her to struggle anymore. I would get frustrated on the character’s behalf. Over the years, I tried to bring her into a more positive place and really develop the relationships with the kids.
She’s doing better this season, especially in her romantic relationships, which have been frustrating to watch her struggle with over the past seasons.
Yeah. That’s something I’ve railed against, too. In a way, of course, everyone is looking for love, but I didn’t want her to be defined by whether she’s happy with a man. I did have quite a parade of different guest actors I got to play with on the show. I think there will be resolution in that, finally.
Do you feel satisfied with the ending Sarah gets on the show?
I think it’s satisfying, but I think it’s a little polarizing. There are people who have liked her with different guys. But this makes sense. The other side of getting to do an ending is that everyone has an opinion about what it should be, including myself and the writers and the other actors. It’s raised the anxiety. As nice as it will be to have an ending, it’s also very personal.
Is there one scene over the course of the series that was the most memorable to shoot?
They sort of all blur. I love the dynamic with the kids. We were all talking about a scene the other day where I’m trying to tell them about drugs and alcohol and the evils and they’re making fun of me behind my back. We had a great time in the car doing that. In another, partially because Peter [Krause] directed the episode, we’re looking through Jason Ritter’s yearbook and Peter had the idea to put him in a dorky wrestling outfit. We laughed and laughed. Everybody contributes on this show and some of those little innovations have made things special. I always like all the family scenes, too, which is every director’s nightmare because you can’t get anybody to shut up.
Parenthood is notorious for making everyone cry every week, often because the actors are put in such emotional circumstances. How difficult is it to channel that?
It’s completely unbelievable to me that the show – or myself – is known for that because I went through most of drama school never crying. I always saw myself as a comedic actor and wacky best friend. I never imagined I would be in this situation. Part of it is the show does it to you. In the beginning I worried it was too much, like, “Do people cry this much in their real lives?” But the emotional charge of these scenes is actually so high that I’m not trying to cry. In fact this season and last season, I’m trying not to be emotional because I don’t want to be manipulative if it’s not truthful and doesn’t belong. But I do appreciate that it’s something to look forward. I feel the fans have embraced that as “Here’s my hour where I can identify with these people, but it’s not me so I can enjoy crying or enjoy having an emotional release.” That’s our jobs as storytellers, to make a connection. I’m proud of that. It’s become like a club.
Do you still see yourself as a comedic actress?
I do, yeah. That’s just the way I come in to most things, with “What’s funny about this?” If I make additions or changes to scenes, that’s what it is. I’m trying to lighten it. That's why I think Lorelei was such a fun character for me, because that athletic language and take on things is what I like. But now I will do a half-hour comedy show.
What do you hope Parenthood’s legacy will be in television and pop culture?
This show is about all the iconic moments of life – birth, death, marriage, conflict, loss, hope, joy. In each of these characters we have some moments that most people – or many people – go through in life. Here are all the things that life might bring and here are some people either succeeding or failing. I don’t know why shows about that are so few and far between. It takes a unique combination to just make stories about people interesting enough, with no crimes to solve or law cases. It’s relatable. It’s a show about family.
There truly are not a lot of shows on TV right now that are this sincere.
There’s so much more out there so how do you get someone’s attention? You can do it by plot twists and turns, or elements of magic, or giant worlds like Game of Thrones. So the competition for attention is huge. Everybody wants noisy. And that’s not what I want. Shows like this are hard to sell. They trusted [creator] Jason [Katims] because he had done that on a successful, popular show like Friday Night Lights, which was basically about people’s lives.
Gilmore Girls, which was also notably sincere, recently came out on Netflix. Have you paid attention to the massive response that’s gotten?
Yeah! It’s so gratifying. We didn’t have that streaming then. I knew things live on in reruns, but even that was sort of a shock when younger girls would talk about it and had found it. It’s like 150 episodes of a show that’s basically happy, warm-hearted and a fun world, in this world of zombies and vampires and really gruesome shows, to binge-watch. There’s a nostalgia for spending time in a happier, kinder land.
Do you look back on Gilmore Girls as something that defined you as an actress?
Yeah and happily so. I didn’t realize then how perfect a fit that was for me in terms of material and sensibility. As much as I have loved this job and this character [on Parenthood], I feel like Gilmore Girls was just a special match. It’s hard to find a writer with that specific of a voice. I’m super thankful to have had it.
How much are you like Lorelei as a person?
No one talks that much or that long, but it’s that thing where you read something and it just clicks. It’s like music. I could hear what [creator] Amy [Sherman-Palladino] intended and it made complete sense to me. I remember an interview with Christopher Reeve where he said, “I choose my jobs based on the feeling that I can’t stand the thought of anyone else doing it.” And that’s how I felt with that. It’s a rare chemistry.
There’s still a debate over which boyfriend Rory should have ended up with. Do you have a favorite Rory boyfriend?
Well, no, of course not because my career would end. I always loved Jared Padalecki as Dean because it was those early years and they were so sweet together and it was first love. But I loved Milo [Ventimiglia] and Matt [Czuchry], too. Both as people and as good matches in their characters for her. But I can’t pick one or it would be every headline on the Internet.
You published a novel, Someday, Someday, Maybe, last year. Are you continuing to write fiction?
I’m working on a second book, that’s like a sequel that takes place in LA. The character has her first TV series. What I’m going for in that book is everything that happens before you’re truly famous. I’m so much more interested in those steps and missteps that go into that. I like the idea of her being in her first series, but still nobody knows who she is. What I remember about coming to LA is that suddenly work was as big a presence in my life as my life itself. My work took up all this time and space and it shifts your relationship. I always think, “How did I have the guts to keep going and have this job?”
How soon will that book come out?
Well, it supposed to be out late spring or early summer. I’m not finished. My editor is having heart attacks.
What do you think has given you the confidence and the courage to continue to pursue acting no matter what?
I love doing it so much that I was fighting for the chance to do it for the living. There’s a voice that overpowers the one that says “You can’t do this.” If something didn’t work, I would get a new teacher or take another class or take another turn. Every roadblock I would try to find a way around. But it was hard. Things just came together in the way they sometimes do when I came out to LA. It started being easier. I got enough practice and confidence that it became easier. I don’t know how people do it now. We didn’t have all these things, like American Idol, that make fame look like the prize. I didn’t ever think about becoming known. I’m so thankful not to have had because it kept me focused on “What am working at?” not the exterior of “How does it look and what am I getting?”
Do you feel good about where you are now?
The nature of this work is that there’s always something new to learn and more to grow. I think there’s a fear of being satisfied. And I am satisfied, but I have so much more I want to do.