Under the radar actress checks in with EW about her new TV show ''Weeds''

”I had a very drunk guy come up to me once in New Orleans and say, ‘Do you know who you are?’ And I said something like, ‘Do you know who you are? Does anyone know who they are?”’

Despite the seeming existential crisis, Elizabeth Perkins knows exactly who she is — and how she got there. ”I probably could have been more famous, if that’s what I wanted to do,” she says, without a hint of wistfulness. Instead of following up 1991’s He Said, She Said with more leading roles (”I was above the title on my first movie [1986’s About Last Night…]”), Perkins opted to spend time raising her daughter, Hannah, now 14. ”They grow up really fast and then they’re gone,” she explains. ”If you miss it, you miss it. You don’t get a second chance.”

This is the part of the story where we’re supposed to say that Elizabeth Perkins is getting a second chance, thanks to her surprisingly dark turn as a very desperate housewife in Showtime’s new pot dramedy, Weeds (Mondays, 10 p.m.). Her character, Celia Hodes, is one twisted mother. To the outside world of fictional Agrestic, Calif., she’s the perfect PTA head and devoted soccer mom. Inside the walls of her manicured home, however, she’s a parent who replaces her slightly chunky daughter’s secret stash of chocolate with laxatives. When the poor girl has an explosive episode in class, Celia isn’t the least bit repentant. Upon hearing that the kids now call her daughter ”S— Girl,” Celia responds: ”It’s better than them calling her fat.”

That ability to twist and hone a line so sharp that it stabs you through the TV set is just one reason why we’re having an Elizabeth Perkins moment. ”You look at her on the screen and she steals the show half the time,” says Jenji Kohan, the Will & Grace veteran who created Weeds. More thievery is occurring everywhere you turn: In Must Love Dogs, Perkins stars as Diane Lane’s sister; and in Speak, she plays the self-involved mom of a troubled teen (premieres on Lifetime and Showtime at 9 p.m., Sept. 5). Next up: Paul Reiser’s The Thing About My Folks (opening Sept. 16) and a cameo in the teen film Kids in America (opening in October).

But it’s not as if the woman who let a young Tom Hanks (okay, technically it was a young David Moscow) cop his first feel in Big had been MIA until Weeds. ”I’ve worked consistently for 20 years and I’ve been able to fly below the radar and make a terrific living for my kids,” mostly by playing charming, levelheaded, middle-of-the-road characters in such films as Miracle on 34th Street, 28 Days, and Finding Nemo — she voiced Coral, Nemo’s mom, who dies at the movie’s start. (Though there was 1994’s The Flintstones. But we’ll forgive that one.)

That’s why the Weeds role is such a departure for Perkins, who says Celia is ”one of the angriest people I’ve ever met.” The Aug. 29 episode gives her more cause for anger: Her character is confronted with a potentially life-altering crisis. ”There’s this clean human being on the outside, but on the inside there’s almost this rotten person, and it’s very much a metaphor for the suburbs she lives in,” she explains.

Not that Perkins hasn’t considered moving to the burbs. A Los Angeles resident, she has been married to cinematographer Julio Macat (Wedding Crashers) since 2000; Macat has three children from a previous marriage. ”I actually thought about it,” she says, incredulous at the notion. ”Every time we go out there, we’re like, We can do this, and then we’re there for a couple of hours, and it’s like, You have to get me out of here. I’d become an alcoholic.”

Even though she always returns to the city, that doesn’t mean she’ll ever go Hollywood. ”I’m gonna be 45 in November, and I’m not lying,” Perkins declares. ”And I’ve had no plastic surgery!” Now that’s an accomplishment.