Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: Sarah Jessica Parker has had a tremendous career, starting out on Broadway in the title role of Annie, then working her way up in movies like Footloose, L.A. Story, and Honeymoon In Vegas before landing her iconic role as Carrie Bradshaw in the landmark HBO comedy Sex And The City. Now Parker is a mogul in fragrance and fashion (including shoes, naturally), and recently became editorial director of the new publishing imprint SJP For Hogarth, while still maintaining a strong acting career. The third season of her thoughtful HBO sitcom Divorce was just announced. Her most recent film is Here And Now, a subdued drama in which Parker plays a successful chanteuse who gets some bleak news. While promoting that movie, Parker took some time to talk with The A.V. Club about her decades’ worth of TV and movies.
Square Pegs (1982-1983)—“Patty Greene”
Sarah Jessica Parker: I knew at the time that it was unusual and special, and even though I wasn’t really well-versed in television—because we didn’t get to watch a huge amount of television—I knew from the pilot script that it was special. And I understood over the course of making the show that CBS may or may not have had questions about what was happening on our set. But I wasn’t privy to any of that until long after the show was finished. I think I read a story, or maybe somebody told me about a story, or maybe I had participated in a story in TV Guide, but I was learning information from them about alleged incidents. What I mostly remember is that I loved the creator [Anne Beatts]. She was hugely gifted—brilliant, really—really unusual and smart and especially interesting about young women and their stories. And it was a really, really happy place that we were all kind of delighted to be there. It was really fun.
The A.V. Club: You went from there to being in Footloose, which was a blockbuster for the time period.
SJP: I was offered the part, and then they said, “Okay”—you know, my character’s name was Rusty—and they said, “will you cut your hair and dye it red?” And my hair had all grown back after Annie, and I just was like, “Oh god, I can’t do that again.” And so they said, “Okay, well, we’re going to cast somebody else,” and they did cast somebody else. And then I was home shooting another movie, but anyway, I got a call, and they said, “Would you fly to Utah and do this?” And I said, “Well, I’m not going to cut my hair.” They were like, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it.” They never changed my character’s name. She continued to be called Rusty, inexplicably.
AVC: That’s right! That’s funny.
SJP: So I flew to Utah. They were already shooting. They were already well into at least, I think, the first week. And I just jumped in, and it was—I was really happy. It was the first time I was going to be on my own, because child labor laws in California stipulated that I had to be with my mother, that a grown-up had to be with you. Growing up in New York, there were no child labor laws, or at least no one paid any attention to them. But there I was, finally alone again, which was—I felt very independent. And it was—once again, not to sound boring—but it was a really great experience, and I was on my own and living in a hotel—a motel—a Rodeway Inn on the side of the road in Provo, Utah.
But happily, really happily. And learning how to be a grown-up and be responsible. Herb Ross directed it and Lynne Taylor-Corbett choreographed. I had seen Diner, I don’t know, six or eight times. I had the full-page ad from Diner on my bedroom wall. So I was absolutely mad for Kevin Bacon. So, it was a real treat. And then I met and fell in love with Chris Penn, who played opposite me, who was so spectacular. It was a great experience.
AVC: What drew you to Flight Of The Navigator after that?
SJP: What drew me to Flight Of The… Are you seriously asking me what drew me to Flight Of The Navigator? It was a part. Like, literally, I just got a part. I went and did it. That’s what I did for most of my career. Nothing drew me to it. I can’t—it was a job. That’s exactly a paycheck. That’s exactly what drew me to it. I can’t even tell you what it was about or who I played. You know, all you want is a job. You’re auditioning, you want to have as much experience as possible. You know, it was great.
AVC: It seems like the turning point for you was when you were in Steve Martin’s L.A. Story. How did that come about?
SJP: I auditioned, and I just kept auditioning, and eventually I was asked for screen tests with Steve Martin and screen tested with him I think once, but maybe twice. I’m not positive. And then eventually, I got the part, and I was so happy.
AVC: Was there any kind of improvisation going on between you and Steve Martin? Like SanDeE*’s signature or just the way she moved, since you have so much dance experience. Anything like that you brought to it?
SJP: A lot of the movement I brought to it, I think. There was some mention in the script, in the stage directions, but not a huge amount, to my recollection. But “SanDeE*” was in there. That’s verbatim from the script. But I think I kind of just started doing that in the audition and then I kept doing it. And eventually Mick Jackson, the director, was just like before, when he’d call action, he’d say, he’d be like, “Action!” Oh no, he’d be like, “Bounce, and… action!” It made sense to me for her, because she operated from the point of view of her body.
AVC: Your career shifted after that. After L.A. Story, you got the lead in some rom-coms, like Honeymoon In Vegas.
SJP: It was definitely the first time I got to play the part, the object of a man’s affection versus the best friend of the object. Or of anybody’s affection. I didn’t even audition for Honeymoon In Vegas. Andy Bergman said—he saw L.A. Story and just offered me the part. It was enormously influential and impactful and meaningful for me. I had always happily assumed I would just, you know, be a journeyman. And I was perfectly satisfied—I had no complaints about the quality of my career. I mean, you always want to work more, and you want to have jobs that are exciting and different and parts that are interesting, but I didn’t feel I was in a position to complain. I was pretty pleased. So, when it changed, it was nothing I had expected, and it was wonderful. Especially because then I auditioned the guys for Honeymoon. They all came in, and I read with all of them, and it was nice to be in that position. I had never been there before.
AVC: You were the first one cast, and Nicolas Cage, James Caan, those guys all had to audition?
SJP: Mm-hm. Nicolas Cage auditioned.
AVC: At the time, a lot of people described Miami Rhapsody as a Woody Allen movie that wasn’t a Woody Allen movie, with you in the Woody Allen part. The script was very chatty, super funny, and smart.
SJP: Obviously, David Frankel was so influenced by Woody Allen. He loved him, and the score—and of course, having Mia Farrow in it also. But I think that was—he’s of a generation of men and women both that were influenced a huge amount by an audience to Woody Allen movies. A lot of us grew up watching those movies.
AVC: Did you feel a lot of pressure on that set? The whole movie is basically wrapped around your shoulders. You’re in just about every scene, except for flashbacks.
SJP: No. It was—I don’t want to be boring, but yeah, it was really happy. I was completely, madly in love with David Frankel—I mean, appropriately, not like weird—but I loved working for him. He’s a really good director. He knows exactly what he wants. He’s super, super easy. He’s calm. So I never felt pressure. And you have to remember I had been working by that point, because I was 8 years old, so to have a part that requires you to be on set a lot is everything you’d been working toward. You don’t care about being tired. Being tired is nothing, especially at that age. You shouldn’t have any... [Laughs.] You should only be grateful. It felt like a big responsibility, and a great big part, but I had felt perfectly equipped to handle it, no problem.
Sex And The City (1998-2004)—“Carrie Bradshaw”
AVC: That was the first time you met costume designer and stylist Patricia Field. Some of Sex And The City just seems like a natural offshoot from Miami Rhapsody, even though you did some movies in the middle. Was that the kind of thing that you walked into having any idea that it was going to become the cultural explosion that it did?
SJP: Anyone that tells you they knew is completely… no. None of us knew any—of course not. We finished a whole season before we were even on the air. It wasn’t like the first season was this massive success. It was a nice, slow burn. And I don’t think even as you’re in the midst of having an experience which is having a cultural impact—well, at least I wasn’t paying attention to that. We were so wrapped up in the work. It was a huge amount of work to act and produce and get it. We were doing huge amounts of work, so we weren’t paying attention to that.
It’s really only later when people ask you and you’re forced to contemplate its place in history, which I’m just not comfortable doing. I’ll leave that to other people. I see all that it brought and the conversation it provoked. I see all of its value, and I feel really lucky to be part of it.
AVC: Was it odd working on a special-effects sci-fi film like Mars Attacks! after your other, more straightforward movies?
SJP: That’s working for Tim Burton, so nothin’ weird about that. You just say yes.
AVC: And the same with Ed Wood?
SJP: That didn’t even feel like a weird movie. That felt like a huge budget… Warner Bros.? I feel like that was a big movie. It didn’t feel like we were doing anything fringe-y or weird. The movie felt purposefully smaller and intimate, but you’re working for Tim Burton, so it’s just such a treat to try to get it right and fit in to what you imagine he’s feeling or seeing.
The Family Stone (2005)—“Meredith Morton”
AVC: I think that The Family Stone is the unofficial holiday movie of The A.V. Club.
SJP: That’s so funny. For a bunch of years now I’ve been hearing from people that they’d watch it every Christmas. It’s their family Christmas movie. I’ve been hearing it for the last four or five years, maybe? More and more so on Instagram, people will tell me that it’s a holiday movie they watch and enjoy as a family.
AVC: Because we’ve all been there—we’ve all been with the boyfriend’s family and feeling them out, and maybe they’re not the most welcoming. There’s a ton of different personalities all thrown together in a pretty small space.
SJP: It was a really good set. Once again, that director-writer [Thomas Bezucha] was really good at what he does. I think I was nervous, because I was really trying to physically be somebody very different, and Tom had great ideas, and I was listening to the ways in which he imagined that character would live physically. He was asking me to make some choices that I was really excited to try to fulfill, and it was a great part. I mean, that was a great frickin’ part. Everybody was very dedicated to that movie. We all loved it. The production designer... everybody. I look back and think how we all wanted to be there. None of it was a chore.
AVC: Divorce has been such an underrated gem on HBO. I’m really glad it got renewed.
SJP: We developed the show—my company first developed it. I came to my partner, and was like, “I’m really interested in exploring marriage and this particular marriage and infidelity,” and HBO was really enthusiastic about it. And then we eventually found [showrunner] Sharon [Horgan], and she was excited about it, and she was also interested in talking about divorce. And that was really exciting to both myself and [executive producer] Alison [Benson]. And that’s how it grew. We weren’t initially producing it for me—I was just interested in the subject matter. Then it became clear to me that HBO was wondering if I would play a part, and eventually I decided that that was something I could do, and it would work for my family and my professional life.
And it was such a different part. She’s very, vey different from any other part I’ve ever played, and Thomas [Haden Church] was definitely my first choice, and we were all very excited about the idea that he—no one thought he would say yes, because he hadn’t done television in a really long time. But I said we should let him turn it down. Let’s not turn it down for him.
We didn’t know what it would be, but we were definitely interested in marriage, and also what an attempt at having a really middle-class marriage—like, what does it look like to be successfully middle-class and have sacrificed together, and then disappointed each other, and what does it mean to this particular person, and how does she see it as being really liberating? All of it was really interesting to me, and I think it’s a lot of people’s stories. So I was really happy we got to do it.
AVC: Here And Now seems like such a departure for you, because it’s so dramatic.
SJP: Carrie Bradshaw wasn’t very comedy. Carrie? There was a lot of drama. She was dramatic. I think people forget how complicated a character that was. She had a hugely complex emotional life. She went through a huge amount, she fought for things, she struggled, she had success, she had failures. She had huge disappointments, she made bad decisions, she lost love, she found love. Drama is not at all a departure for me. It’s so curious to me that people experience it that way. But the role is—whether or not it’s the genre—the story that we get to tell feels definitely very different than anything I’ve ever done.
AVC: And again, the whole movie is on you. There’s a lot of silence, a lot of your character walking or thinking, but you’re so great at translating what that character is going through.
SJP: I think it’s one of the many very satisfying experiences of working with this director is that he’s not afraid of silence. He’s not afraid of what humans do, which is internalize a huge amount. We don’t walk around sharing everything that happens with us, especially when we don’t even—especially when we don’t understand it ourselves, can’t make sense of the reality of news we have or have learned or how we feel about it or how we want to frame it. We are protecting people we love. We are hiding it from people we have issues with. There’s a huge amount that goes on that’s real human nature. First of all, there was a script that allowed for it and was in there, but also it was a film director who wasn’t like, “Yeah, let’s hurry up and get more plot out,” and, “Move along.” We took all the time we wanted to, and I think it allows it to be an entirely different experience of an actor making it, but also for the audience.
AVC: It’s a very intimate movie. You feel really close to the character and everything she’s going through.
SJP: Thank you. Yeah, I love it. I love it, and I love the intimacy that’s in it. I’m really glad we got to maintain that.
AVC: So, Divorce season three, and anything else on the horizon that you’d care to discuss?
SJP: [Laughs.] No, acting-wise, I haven’t made any decisions yet. I have some ideas, but I’m not sure yet. But I have a new print—we have our second book coming out in January, which is really exciting, and we’ll start shooting Divorce January 14. I’ve got a nice amount that keeps me pretty busy, and the shoe business is growing all the time, and I try to spend as much time as I can on the floor. So, there’s lots going on, and hopefully more that will be interesting as well.