In real life, she is happily married to the actor Matthew Broderick. On screen she has raised eyebrows and ratings in the smash hit TV show Sex And The City. Can life get any sweeter for Sarah Jessica Parker?
31 January 1999
Interview John Lyttle
Sarah Jessica Parker is the new queen of TV comedy. So move over, Ally Mc Beal!
She adores cooking and consuming food with equal gusto. But, nearing 33 and now a fully fledged television pin-up, Sarah Jessica Parker has chosen of late to eat more healthily. This despite being so lean and yet so curvy that she could pose in the raw for her country. So she orders an omelette -no tea, no toast and definitely "no parsley" -and we settle down to swoon over Matthew Broderick, her actor husband of one year and counting. Agreement is swiftly reached: Matthew is too cute to live.
"Tell me about it," Sarah Jessica sighs. Dressed down and free of makeup, she could be a lovestruck teenager as she talks about the man who waited six years before finally popping the question. "He's so handsome," she swoons. "When I turn around in bed 30 years from now, the face I expect to see is Matthew's. Please God, as the Irish say."
We're tucked away in a corner of her local - faintly run-down - cafe in New York's Greenwich Village, but she still steals a quick look around before asking, "Want to see something?”
Sarah Jessica smiles a shy, blindingly white smile, rifles through a handbag, opens a bulging wallet and tugs free a strip of photo booth snapshots. All four pictures are of her and Matthew beaming at each other, blissed out. Amused friends say she's been this way since 1991, when Sarah Jessica first met her soul mate when he was directing her younger brother Toby in a play- even though it did take Matthew a full year before he asked her out. It's impossible not to be touched. And disconcerted. How often do you get to see two famous people in poses favoured by us ordinary folk?
At first glance, a happily married, universally liked actress with a fabled gift for comic timing -did you catch her in Honeymoon In Vegas? Mars Attacks!? The First Wives Club? Ed Wood?- might seem an insane choice to play Carrie Bradshaw, a hard-nosed, steel-hearted, Big Apple newspaper columnist and babe-on-the-make in the moody, surprise television hit, Sex And The City. Still, Darren Star, the show's producer, is right when he says: "Sarah Jessica Parker is perfect casting as Carrie Bradshaw." In other hands, the character might have been a standard-issue bitch on heels –the type Star usually led to the slaughter on his last big television hit, the soap Melrose Place.
But Sarah Jessica makes Carrie something else –the best reason yet not to watch the “gee, gosh, wow” convulsions of legal beanpole and biological watcher Ally McBeal.
When Ally mumbles, Carrie speaks out loud to a generation of single women amused yet wearied by the sex wars –as you might expect from a character modeled on the real-life newspaper columnist Candace Bushnell. Sex And The City is based, in fact, on Bushnell’s weekly bulletins from the front line battles fought by New York career girls –snappy motormouths with healthy bank accounts and imaginatively dirty minds. Carrie and her three bosom buddies, man-eating PR girl Samantha, corporate lawyer Miranda and uptown gallery owner Charlotte, travel in a pack. No nightclub, restaurant and gallery opening is complete without their presence. They are a precise social type, less concerned with discovering Mr Right than with finding the right pair of Manolo Blahnik kitten heels.
The show has raised ire, eyebrows and ratings in the United States by retaining the casual shock value of Bushnell’s columns for The New York Observer. (Anyone for full, frank and acidly funny discussions on threesomes and the sexual staying power of teenage boys?) And that’s why Sex And The City also needs what Sarah Jessica Parker brings to it –a point of identification.
For Carrie has doubts about living in a demi-monde where, as Candace Bushnell says, “Women pride themselves on having sex like men.” And so does Sarah Jessica. “No one (in the series) has any idea about, you know, love,” she says.
The irony of playing a rueful cynic more interested in next season’s business suit than in a fulfilling relationship isn’t lost on Sarah Jessica. The contrast between fiction and reality couldn’t be more pronounced. Here’s a woman who admits she can’t bear to be separated from her own beloved for more than two weeks at a stretch. A woman who’s never had a bad word to say about any of her exes, a remarkable feat considering the list includes one-time serial seducer John Kennedy Jr., Nicolas Cage during his make-mine-a-double phase and Robert Downey Jr., he of booze, cocaine and bisexuality fame.
“Am I always comfortable with the dialogue I speak or with the attitudes expressed in the series?” Sarah Jessica muses. “No, I’m not. It’s not the way I and my women friends talk. But it is accurate. It is exact. These women are forthright, confrontational and candid. They aren’t apologists.
“That doesn't make them happy all the time, but it is an admirable quality. And they're not judgemental about each other or their friends. Women talking this way should be heard."
On the other hand: "Carrie is a lot more open than I am about how people behave. Personally, I would question whether that was the right way to live. Not that everyone who lives like that is profoundly sad or anything. But I do think there can be an emptiness to it. It's just… it's the looking, always looking. Looking for what? The second series is 22 weeks long, as opposed to the first season's 12, so I guess those issues will be aired - and deepened. Nuance is the show's strength."
As it is Sarah Jessica's. She has the ability to appear extraordinary, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty, and utterly everyday in the same second. And, in that same second, to exude exquisitely pitched emotion. Yet despite that gift and despite that critics have been falling at her feet for years so far she has inexplicably failed to make Hollywood A list.
But suggest to her that she is a sex symbol and she starts to giggle. Her, a sex symbol? Get a life! “I hate having my photo taken. I hate it. I’m not just saying that to be… I don’t see a lot of the movies I star in… I just don’t look. I have no ability to judge anything objectively, unless it’s something I have no involvement in.” She pauses: “You think I don’t look at photo spreads of actresses and think, ‘I wonder what it’s like to be them… to be that perfect?’ Sure I do.”
Still, she clearly means it when she says she loves Sex And The City, in particular the feeling of closeness she has missed since she left the teen comedy Square Pegs - and television - back in 1983. After all, the new show has finally made her into the kind of name insiders have been predicting she'd become ever since she stole LA Story from under Steve Martin's nose in 1991.
Theatrical types have been waiting even longer - since Sarah Jessica hit Broadway at 11 as the third of 20 or so Annies in the hit little-orphan musical. The Ohio-born actress is one of eight siblings. Several became precocious performers, though her parents (now amicably divorced) were the exact opposites of the pushy showbusiness stereotype. Sarah Jessica had the kind of liberal upbringing that might give her good cause for impatience with the likes of Carrie. 'Oh, my parents are the spirit of the Sixties incarnate. They're big on workers and unions. Me, too. A fact neither the industry nor the public has ever seemed to mind, though I've had trouble from Pro-Lifers for my stance on a woman's right to choose."
She shrugs: "I was political from the time I was a little girl. I mean, there are pictures of me as a child protesting about the Vietnam war."
When she was young her parents set rules and defined limits about her work. 'Funnily enough, they were dead set against me doing television for any length of time," says Sarah Jessica. 'If I was offered a role in a series, they would go, 'Nope'. They didn't want me to become a cute commodity with all the financial pressure and everyone wanting a piece of you.
"I've seen that and it's terrible. I've known actors who have grown up in public and even I, who should know better, still look at them and think, 'Wait a second - you're not supposed to be an adult. You're supposed to be a little girl, a little boy' That's why I did mostly theatre… The Innocents, The Sound Of Music. You don't have the same level of exposure. If you do… I don't know how a kid comes out of it not robbing a gas station. I might have held up a few stores to get a little attention, too."
She never went into showbusiness out of ambition. Insecurity was the spur: "The worse I was at school, the more I felt that acting was more me. I was a very bad student who wanted to be good. I simply didn't have the academic or intellectual fortitude. I had no study skills. I think I might have Attention Deficit Disorder. Any sort of stimulation is a distraction to me."
Acting was another way of learning and Sarah Jessica pursued roles in whatever medium offered the most challenging parts. But, although her many film appearances have been well received, they have yet to lead to anything bigger.
The 1993 Hallowe'en comedy Hocus Pocus should have provided the breakthrough. Sarah Jessica, acting alongside Bette Midler, is at her most literally bewitching, but the picture quickly rolled over and died. "I'll never forget Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg calling me the weekend we opened and shouting, We've made nine million dollars -we're a smash!'" she laughs. "He was so excited and I was so excited and… and, well, the movie flopped."
Two years later, the glorious romantic comedy Miami Rhapsody came close to making stars of both her and the then virtually unknown Antonio Banderas. Then the producer disappeared, and a new regime at Disney mishandled its release.
Not that it matters now. The appeal of Carrie Bradshaw is that she's unsure about the exact stuff of life. But Sarah Jessica Parker is more certain. After all, she's a producer on Sex And The City - "I like that. You don't feel you're a hired hand" – but she's not tempted to establish her own company as, say, Sandra Bullock and Jodie Foster have done. "Occasionally I fantasise about it. But I guess I'm not as ambitious as Sandra and Jodie. I really admire them. They're go-getters. I just want to be an actress, to do the things that appeal to me, and not worry about the rest. It isn't for me."
The women in Sex And The City are forthright, confrontational and candid. They should be heard.
What is for her is children. "It’s on the agenda, but not in any specific way. I come from a big family and I know what it involves." Which is? "Sacrifice. I respect Blythe Danner, Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother. When I told her that 1 wanted to have children, she said, 'It's tough. You think you can have it all, but it doesn't work like that. If you're going to be the type of mother you say you want to be, then you're not going to have a certain sort of career.'
"Blythe made a sacrifice and she's glad she did because she raised two beautiful, talented children. She's had the sort of career I admire. She's made intelligent, satisfying choices and she's respected by her peers."
Not a very Sex And The City sentiment. But Sarah Jessica knows the show has other uses: "I planned television as my trump card when I had kids. I swore I wouldn't do a series until I had kids and I'd just go in, nine to five, make a nice income and be home to make dinner.
"Besides, if this ever becomes painful or I stop enjoying it, I'll get out. I always keep that option open. I know my husband and family will love me no matter what I do."
Sex And The City is on Channel 4 at 10pm, starting on 3 February.
Men. Who needs 'em?
Comedy-heroines have gone from doormats to demolition experts in TV's battle of the sexes
THE LIVER BIRDS 1969 Working-class Scousers unite! You have nothing to lose but your Carla Lane jokes. Flat-sharers Beryl and Sandra slaved to make ends meet but never gave up hope or polyester slacks as they ignored their mothers' warnings and dated John Nettles and other actors who struggled to put themselves through RADA. And, oh yes- they danced if you asked.
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW 1970 Mary was previously welded to Dick Van Dyke and an apple pie recipe, then she became Mary Richards and decamped to Minneapolis and a full-time job in a TV newsroom. There was something about Mary, as any Cosmo reader could tell you: she had her own place, her own friends- remember best buddy Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper)? - and turned men down. Inspirational was her impact, pastel was her wardrobe.
SOLO 1981 Carla Lane again. With Felicity Kendal dumping her unfaithful boyfriend and buying a bike. Unluckily for her it was all downhill from there.
THE GOLDEN GIRLS 1985 Who would have believed it? Three middle-aged women, the smallest mother of them all, and lots of one-liners about rumpy pumpy. US sitcom's first all-woman cast -Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty - made short work of the idea that women with wrinkles couldn't be attractive, sexy and smart". And did you know that Blanche's full name was Blanche Elizabeth Devereaux initials that sped BED?
SURGICAL SPIRIT 1989 Bye bye white gloves, hello rubber snap on. Surgeon Sheila Sabatini (Nichola McAuliffe) didn't need a knife to castrate colleagues. The viper-tongued lady laid waste to any man foolish enough to look at her the wrong way. And they always looked at her the wrong way…
ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS 1992 Farewell forever lady-like behaviour. Patsy and Edina cared not for convention and even less for Edina’s daughter Saffy. Selfishly, they had places to go and people to do and drugs to take. Single girls just wanna have fun, okay?
CAROLINE IN THE CITY 1995 Lea Thompson draws her own cartoon strip and is the idol of New York's single girls - though not, one suspects, the single girls who inhabit Sex And The City. Still, she did get to dump her first.