EXCLUSIVE: Why Kate Walsh Turned to the Stage to Escape Reality

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Kate Walsh
is no stranger to TV, but she is new to the canon of memorable parents on popular teen series, a group that includes Jim and Cindy Walsh on Beverly Hills, 90210, Lily van der Woodsen and Rufus Humphrey on Gossip Girl and Sandy and Kirsten Cohen on The O.C. Following her tenure as Dr. Addison Montgomery on Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, as well as roles on Fargo and Bad Judge, the actress is playing Mrs. Baker, mother to Hannah, who has committed suicide, on Netflix’s highly anticipated adaptation of 13 Reasons Why.

Based on the YA novel by Jay Asher, the series tells the story of Clay Jensen, who returns home after school one day to find 13 cassette tapes recorded by Hannah, setting off a revealing journey about her and her former classmates. Directed by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and written by Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), the show deals not only with suicide but with issues surrounding teen bullying and sexual assault. “Socially and culturally, it was important,” Walsh tells ET, adding that the themes, while relevant to any teenage experience, resonate even more in today’s political climate. “The material is hugely important in this time.”

The significance of the story attracted Walsh to the series, but she did have reservations about playing a parent who gets cast aside in a teen-driven drama. Having played the main character’s mother in the film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the actress was disappointed to find her and the family’s role significantly cut in the editing room. “Initially, the story had more to do with the mother-son relationship,” Walsh says of her role, which was reduced to a handful of scenes. “That was the biggest question when I was talking with Brian and Tom. I was like, ‘Is this going to be that? Because I can’t do that again.’”

Ultimately, Walsh wanted the space to honor the experience shared by real-life parents, who have lost a child to suicide. “And to get it right, if you will,” she says.

While Clay and Hannah are central to the story, Walsh was assured that Hannah’s parents -- Mr. Baker is played by Broadway star Brian d’Arcy James -- would be relevant to the series. And indeed, the Bakers’ story does get more prevalent as the 13 episodes unfold, as will be revealed when the show starts streaming on Friday, March 31.

But these days, Walsh isn’t just confined to TV screens. After wrapping the Netflix series in November and feeling despondent after Election Day, the actress found herself itching to return to the stage, where she’s worked off and on for most of her acting career. “If I’m being honest, after everything that was happening politically, I was like, ‘I need to go to space,’” Walsh jokes. But she reasoned with herself and channeled her energy into the Off-Broadway play If I Forget, which is currently playing at the Laura Pels Theatre in New York City.

Joan Marcus

The play, written by Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen), tells the story of a liberal Jewish studies professor who reunites with his two sisters for their father’s 75th birthday. The reunion resurfaces buried resentments, secrets and unexpected emotion as they reconcile their family’s deep history with the present. “I felt like I had to do something that I feel is important and sort of bury myself,” Walsh says of being attracted to the dramedy, in which she plays one of the sisters whose ambitions clash with certain family members’ intentions. “I’ve been looking for years and it’s hard to find something that you feel is so powerful and a role that is so good that warrants moving my whole life to New York for four months in the dead of winter.”

If I Forget
is very much that show, and Holly is very much that role. “I love the humor of Holly,” Walsh says of the character who earns a lot of laughs for her prodding nature and deadpan one-liners. “It’s so beautiful to be able to show up and say a line that you know everybody’s going to laugh at.” While it’s easy to turn a role such as hers into a caricature, the actress credits director Daniel Sullivan with keeping her true to her instincts. “That’s one of the things I love about theater that you just don’t get with TV or film: the time to explore, time to make mistakes, time to push the characters this way or that. That’s the beauty of rehearsal.

MORE: Kate Walsh Talks 'Bittersweet' End to 'Private Practice'

“That’s why I wanted to get back to it,” Walsh adds. “There’s nothing like it.”

She also felt the impulse to return to comedy, which continues to be Walsh’s hidden talent, despite years of improv and standup and even recently starring on the short-lived sitcom Bad Judge. “When you play the mother of a dead girl on a Netflix show, it’s like, ‘It can’t get any darker than this,’” she jokes of taking on 13 Reasons Why, which will be followed by the R-rated comedy Girls’ Trip with Queen Latifah and Regina Hall and the John Hughes-inspired Netflix film #REALITYHIGH.

She also credits her upbringing with sharpening her funny bone -- “You have to have a sense of humor or you’ll die” -- and writers like Levenson and Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes for giving her material that makes you cry one minute but laugh the next. “It’s such a jackpot if you can find a piece that has pathos and comedy in it,” Walsh says, adding: “For me, to be able to show audiences that [range] and to be able to play in that area is really fun.”