Though Sarah Jessica Parker’s new series, Divorce, sees her returning to both HBO and the New York metropolitan area (Westchester County, to be exact), it’s about as far from Sex and the City as is existentially possible. Parker plays Frances, a disenchanted, fiftysomething executive recruiter who, in the very first episode, cheats on and decides to leave her dumbfounded husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church). Subsequent episodes follow the two as they navigate the choppy but familiar waters of conscious uncoupling: breaking the news to their kids and close friends, hiring and firing lawyers of varying pedigree, putting on a good face for Christmas with the extended family, tossing each other’s belongings into grocery bags and garbage dumps. Sex and the Suburbs, this is not.
Created by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan and co-executive-produced by Parker, Divorce is decidedly darker than most of Parker’s past work (save for The Family Stone, the bleakest Christmas movie ever conceived — [points to black-and-white photo] “That’s me and you, kid.” [Sobs.]). But what saves the show from drowning in its own deep end is Horgan’s trademark British wit and wry take on human relationships — and, of course, Parker, whose effervescent charm could endear us all to a cold-blooded serial killer. MTV News chatted with Parker prior to the series’s October 9 premiere to talk “unlikable” female characters, being constantly conflated with Carrie Bradshaw, her own husband’s reaction to Divorce, and the 20th anniversary of The First Wives Club.
You and Sharon Horgan conceived of Divorce together on a “date” in New York — what was that conversation like? How’d you land on this particular premise?
Sarah Jessica Parker: Well, it was obviously a pretty inspired conversation, because here we are, and I get to talk to you about our first season. So I had been working on this show for about four years, developing a show about marriage and an extramarital affair, and it had gone through various stages and various stories, in fact. And though we weren’t feeling like we were landing where we wanted to, HBO remained very enthusiastic. They were always really hospitable to this idea, from the first time that my partner [Alison Benson] and I brought it to them. They understood that this was landscape that deserved mining, that it was rich with potential and story, and that it was a lot of people’s stories. Before we met Sharon, it became clear to me that HBO assumed I was going to play the part of the wife, which I had not been developing for me, by the way.
We found ourselves sort of hitting doubles and not home runs, but HBO was so keen on this idea, and they put together some writers’ meetings, among them Sharon. What was immediately apparent was that she was very interested in the things that were interesting to me — in particular, she had an interest in divorce. She gave it shape. We hired her, and she went off, and she put together an outline, which I was so thrilled with, and we brought on Paul Simms [NewsRadio] to be our showrunner, who I’ve admired for years and years. I think when you meet somebody — and I had a long relationship with [Sex and the City] Michael Patrick King — you’re looking for a collaborator. And it’s hard to determine in a meeting, right? But we were certainly excited about what excited her. Does that make sense?
How’d HBO convince you to play Frances?
Parker: It was sort of inferred. I remember talking to my partner Alison, and I was like, “Wait, are you, are they, am I ...?” She was like, “Yes, yes!” HBO has played a very significant role in my life, and they make a persuasive argument [laughs]. I’m inclined to listen to them, and I think the closer we got to the series — by the time we met Sharon — I wanted to tell this story. I wanted to be the person that got to develop it and produce it, but also that got to portray her. We didn’t have a name for her yet.
What I thought was so interesting about the first few episodes — especially considering you’re the executive producer and the show is written primarily by a woman — is that Frances is not really the show’s quote-unquote “sympathetic” character. There’s a little more sympathy and lightness given to Thomas’s character. What was behind that choice?
Parker: I don’t know, I think when somebody says, “I want to save my life while I still care about it,” that’s a very relatable line. It speaks volumes about choices. You can disagree with choices and you can say that’s a smart person making a very not smart choice. But I don’t know if she’s not sympathetic. I think she’s brave, and I think she’s candid, and I think she’s prickly and she’s not always kind. But I also think she’s very real, and really struggling to do right by her children and by her life, and she has a responsibility to both. What you discover about her is that she has committed to this marriage. She has gone back time and time to try to salvage it. She’s gone to counseling, invested time and money, sacrificed career satisfaction. Is she duplicitous in the first offering? Absolutely. Is Tony Soprano a murderer? Yeah. Do we love him? Yeah. Do we forgive him? Yeah. Because he is a complex person. So he reveals his humanity in a surprising way. Frances has an affair; I think we can forgive her that shortcoming [laughs].
You’re eternally conflated with Carrie Bradshaw. Are you sick of this? Are you sick of being asked about it, like I’m doing right now?
Parker: No no no, no no no. If I was — that would be a very foolish sentiment to attach to something that altered your professional and personal life. I think what I have to remind people is that, first of all, the association is a privilege, it’s not a burden. But I was acting! I think it’s my responsibility to remind people that, while Carrie and I look alike, we are very different people. And I think it is — I’m gonna be bold and finally say, once for all — a tribute to my acting. I’m actually not even being funny. I worked very hard. And though there was sometimes a sensibility that was soufflé-like, there was also deep and painful and complicated and hard scenes, both on the series and in the movies, that required an enormous amount of skill. I think the familiarity and the ease with which it might have come across would suggest that I wasn’t acting. But I was! And it was a character I loved. It was a completely different life. So for 7, 10, 11, 12 years, I spent more time playing a person I was not than the person I am. That’s an enormous opportunity. And I loved it. Because of all the colors, because of the lifespan.
But it’s my job as an actor to go on and do other things. And I think Frances is a very different person than Carrie Bradshaw. She’s wonderfully different than me. I don’t look to play people that are familiar. I look to play people that are different, challenge, unknown, foreign, and therefore scary. I feel like I found another one of those people to play. And once again, the similarity is that we both look alike. I look like Frances and Frances looks like me, and as it turns out, maybe Frances looks a little like Carrie Bradshaw. But other than that, we’re all separate and individual people. And it’s exciting, therefore.
You told Variety that you’ve used your own life and stories often in your career. Can you give me an example?
Parker: I mean, I think you’re curious about things that you witness. It’s not that I use my own life stories, but I’m in relationships with people, which is why I was so interested in Divorce. I’m a person who's been in a long-term relationship. It’s not surprising that a lot of my friends — whether they’re in same-sex relationships or not, whether they’re married officially or just in a long-term relationship — have really interesting and various stages in their relationship. My life is looking at these friendships and saying, “Wait a minute, isn’t this something really interesting? How can I explore this?” It’s not that I’m using my life to put on screen or in my acting, it’s that, when you're living in the world, you’re exposed to stories, to people, to things that feel foreign and unfamiliar. And I’m curious about those things, me personally.
Have your kids and husband [Matthew Broderick] seen the show? What’d they say to you after they watched it?
Parker: My daughters are 7, so they’ve not seen it, but my son is soon to be 14, and I’d feel totally comfortable showing it to him, but he didn’t [watch yet]. My husband has seen a completed pilot. He saw it in a rough cut and then he’s watched the locked version. He loves it. He thinks it’s kind of amazing. He’s not surprised — I talked to him about what I was doing, and he knew I’d been working on it for a long time, and he knows how much I care about it, so it was important that I show it to him and I was very thoughtful about when I did. I wanted it to be in decent shape, the first cut that I showed him.
I wasn’t actually home [when he watched]. I missed him watching it, I had to go to work, and then he emailed me. He was actually at somebody else’s house for dinner, and [I called him] and I was like, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were eating,” and he was like, “No no no, I want to talk to you, hold on, let me go outside.” He was incredibly complimentary and excited about the whole show, really excited about it as an audience, which is really the most meaningful of all.
Your social media presence — which is really just your great Instagram account — feels very curated, but also extremely personal and specific to you. How do you decide what to share about your life and what to keep to yourself?
Parker: I have a very — I talked to a few people about this last night. What’s your relationship to social media? I feel conflicted about my relationship with social media. I don’t put pictures of my children on, rarely, I think I’ve done it twice? I’m thoughtful about that, because I don’t think you can get it back, and I don’t think it’s fair to people to try to convey a desire to maintain some privacy and then share pictures and expect that somebody else won’t want the same ability. Do you know what I mean by that? How can I expect people not to take pictures of my children when we’re out, or say that it’s not a good time, or hope that the paparazzi don’t focus too much of my children, if I’m sharing photos of them, even if it’s in my control?
I’m not sure if I’m making a good argument. It’s just that I feel honor-bound to have a private relationship with my children. And that’s not a judgment about anybody else and what they choose. And that’s the beauty of living in a democracy, right? I’m not on Twitter. In theory, I really like Instagram. I think it’s a warmer environment. I think, though conversations can erupt that aren’t always friendly, you have an opportunity to jump in and redirect and even caution people against language and behavior that I personally object to. I think people can find a breath and listen sometimes. But I don’t feel that my life, my professional life, is married to a reliance upon Instagram. How does that sound?
Sounds good to me.
Parker: Are you on Instagram?
Parker: And how do you feel about social media? What’s your thing? How long have you been part of it?
A long time. But I’ve had to make my Instagram private lately, because I write a lot about women and some dude trolls have started to come after me on Instagram.
Parker: Interesting, interesting. Are you still on Twitter? Do you like Twitter?
Yeah, I like Twitter, but I still get a lot of shit there, too.
Parker: See, I just don’t have the stomach. I don’t think I have the constitution for it.
You kind of become inured to it after a while, which I guess is kind of sad, too.
Moving on — today is the 20th anniversary of The First Wives Club, which is one of my favorite performances of yours.
Parker: Someone else just told me that! I didn’t know.
What’s your favorite memory from filming that movie?
Parker: Maggie Smith. Bette Midler. When I was filming that movie, I was doing so many things at the same time. It kind of was a particularly joyful point in my career. I was doing a play at the same time, I was shooting another movie on my days off from First Wives Club, and rushing to the theater at night. It was really everything an actor could hope to be doing. And to be doing it with people you really admire — Dan Hedaya, Victor Garber. I loved the director [Hugh Wilson] on that movie. Do you remember David Rakoff? A great writer? He was originally in that movie. He played the Bronson Pinchot role. He was let go. But I loved him. It was a very great time. I had a tiny part in it, teeny, and she was just awful — a horrible, horrible person. I delighted in playing her. She’s really, yeah, the definition of the kind of person that I find most objectionable in the world. I played a few of those. And it’s very enjoyable.
Because it’s so different from you.
Parker: Yes, hopefully!