New York City’s frigid chill—with wind chill bottoming at -11 degrees, we witnessed Times Square tourists in literal tears over the cold—had finally thawed on this Tuesday to a comparatively balmy 35 degrees. Sarah Jessica Parker and Molly Shannon were giggling in a room together. Suddenly it all made sense.
The co-stars of the HBO comedy Divorce are practically human space heaters, radiating a warmth apparently too powerful to be contained in the room. They’ve made bearable once again the shivering city that is indelibly tied to each of their careers. Both Parker and Shannon are iconically New York: the former having played Carrie Bradshaw across 94 episodes and two movie versions of Sex and the City, the latter one of the funniest women to ever have gone live from New York on Saturday nights, with her six seasons on Saturday Night Live.
We thought getting them together in advance of Sunday night’s season two premiere of Divorce, on which Parker plays newly single Frances and Shannon her outrageous best friend Diane, would be a kick because, as their work together on the show hints, they have spark-plug chemistry.
But also because we suspected the two industry veterans would have something vital to say at this particular moment in their business: about #MeToo, about finding their voices, about female friendship on TV, and the toll a relentless, vicious, increasingly less discerning news cycle can take.
(On the Sex and the City 3 rumor mill and she-said/she-said fallout, Parker, who discusses the experience with surprising candor, says, “The thing I continue to learn is how painful it can still be after all these years.”)
The women are certainly best known for different brands of comedic talents. Yet both were, albeit on very different shows and in distinct ways, breaking ground for women in television at the same time, as Sex and the City and Shannon’s star-making run on SNL unfolded nearly in parallel. Essentially in tandem, their characters granted permission for a certain kind of behavior, on TV and off: a freedom to explore what it means to be feminine, sexual, bold, independent, loud, cute, unapologetic, messy, opinionated, brash, and funny.
So it was no surprise how eager both were to engage in the conversation about how an industry having a long-overdue crisis of conscience when it comes to its treatment of women moves forward. “This kind of bedlam, in a way, it must happen, I think, in order to then settle,” Parker says near the top of our conversation, a sentiment that Shannon echoes as we’re wrapping up: “We have to have room for that messiness, I think, before it gets leveled back out.”
Below is more from our chat, covering Parker’s confronting Ryan Seacrest about E! host Catt Sadler’s pay gap, the burden of the necessity to always say the perfect thing in today’s heated industry conversations, freeing Divorce from Sex and the City comparisons, and why Parker decided to finally speak up for herself in the midst of the Sex and the City 3 movie controversy.
Sarah Jessica, you literally just got back to New York from the Golden Globes. Did it feel different this year?
Parker: It felt, it felt… different. Obviously Seth [Meyers] was focused on this conversation in a way that he chose to be, which I was thought was clever and good and just appropriately dangerous and salty enough. I think really where it felt different was outside the room. Outside of the speeches, the tone in the room remains the same. It’s the same mix of television and cinema and there’s a lot of good feelings and collegiality. What was interesting I thought was the red carpet. I thought talking to interviewers was hard. For them.
You were one of the actresses who held E! accountable for failing to pay its female hosts the same as the men, while being interviewed by Ryan Seacrest on the E! network.
Parker: I hope I didn’t do it in a way that was punitive.
It came off as compassionate to the position Seacrest was in, but also necessary and firm.
Parker: I hope so. Because it’s not Ryan Seacrest’s—I’m assuming he doesn’t hold the purse strings. I hope I wasn’t finger-wagging, because nothing good is going to come from women [doing that]. That’s never gotten anybody anywhere, of any gender. His face was—I’m not sure how prepared everybody really was to have the conversation. But I think it’s OK. I think everybody survived. And ultimately it’s going to get much more complicated than that. A lot of people worked hard very to launch this campaign. I think it was impactful in ways that were meaningful. I hope now comes the real good work, and the important work.
Molly, what was your reaction to it?
Shannon: I missed it. I love normally watching the live show, but I was at JFK because my bags got messed up. But Catt Sadler is my neighbor and friend. Our sons play together. I really did know a lot about that. I understand her position, and the choice that she made.
Oh, so you definitely have perspective on that whole conversation.
Shannon: It’s interesting what you’re saying. It’s a tricky time because people are going after the wrong people, too. There’s a misplaced rage and aggression, that as a person in a public position you almost feel like you have to be perfect now when you express yourself. It feels almost unfortunate. You know what I’m saying?
Parker: I do.
Shannon: I feel like you have to be so precise in what you are going to say, or you can be hammered if you say it the wrong way. That part makes feel bummed out because sometimes these things can take a while to figure out. Different people formulate things in different ways and have different processes. I feel like let’s just take a deep breath and not be so perfectionistic about it all. You know what I mean?
Parker: Yeah, and I think people are struggling. It’s not just—my god—it’s not just this industry. It is across industries. And that’s the most important work ahead, by the way. But it is hard. I think that there is a part of the conversation that is gray. I think, in a way, a moment of time is going to be when we can all decide that is a good place to be. Right now, people have very strong feelings. They have their personal experiences. It’s all very strong.
Shannon: It’s all black or white.
Parker: This is the beginning of a conversation, so everybody needs to be heard. Everybody needs to validated. Eventually we have to find a way of talking about this. How are we ever going to create uniform codes of conduct, as it were, if we can’t get to the gray? Right? This probably happens in the beginning of moments. This sort-of chaos. You say, “Conversation is welcome. There is no right. There is no wrong.” This kind of bedlam, in a way, it must happen, I think, in order to then settle.
It must feel good to, amidst these conversations, be premiering a new season of a television show with three female leads, created by Sharon Horgan, with a large bench of female producers, directors, and writers.
Parker: I hope so. We have a lot of women directors. We would have had more, but when we pushed back production we lost a couple. I said to a colleague before, really the only regret is that I don’t have more time with Molly and Talia [Balsam]. That was one of the hardest parts of this season. I thought we were going to be together a lot more, and I’m sorry about that. Because I do think there aren’t actually shows that have those friendships that this particular group of women have with their friendship. Being good to each other, and not being good to each other. It’s such a privilege to see how these women create their characters and their stories.
It must be refreshing to have Divorce’s first season as proof while engaging in conversations about how much like Carrie Bradshaw your character Frances is, or if this is just Sex and the City, 15 years later. Were you expecting that to be such a dominant conversation surrounding the first season?
Parker: I think I thought that we had remedied, had taken care of that. I think the conversation was revisited when Jenny [Bicks] came on as showrunner. [Bicks is a former Sex and the City producer.] I think some people assumed that there was some subversive attempt to find our way back to Sex and the City, which was something none of us wanted to do. We think there’s lots of ways that women can have relationships on television. There can be multiple friends, and the shows can still be different. It’s dangerous to try to do something familiar because it was successful.
When we first started talking you mentioned the necessity to be precise with what you’re saying because people tend to jump on things. And I think that’s a down side to my industry, in that things spread so quickly on social media and the blogosphere and are taken out of context.
Parker: I’m curious what you think we’ve said today that’s going to end up being controversial, and here’s my guess: me saying that the gray area is a place that I’m not afraid to be. Right there I feel like.
Shannon: I actually think the same thing. And I said it this morning. I think that is true.
Parker: I think that is going to be the best place to be.
Shannon: One thing that I think can be addictive for that instant hit is that, when you’re negative, you can get a lot of attention. I do think it’s important to try to be careful and not just do that. I think it’s a dangerous thing. There is anger and I think it’s important not to misdirect that anger and take a beat. And think maybe before you just kind of blurt something or send something out. You don’t want to send every single thought out. But people are trying, and I see that people are really trying to formulate how they think. Everybody has their own way. But I hate seeing misdirected anger at the wrong people. That bums me out.
When the press is insatiable about covering something like the comments that were made about the Sex and the City 3 movie and why it was canceled, and things are spreading so wildly and being scandalized, how do you adapt to responding to things like that as media evolves?
Parker: The thing I continue to learn is how painful it can still be, after all these years. When things aren’t true, especially when it is a personal attack about your character, the way you’ve chosen to conduct yourself specifically. I’m stunned by how deeply it still cuts. When all that stuff was happening with Sex and the City, which I know is meaningless in the world, but when it’s happening and you’re caught up in any of the muscle of that stuff, it’s so painful because all you want to do is respond. All you want to do is say, “Are you kidding me!? This is everything I know. This is everything that happened over the last six months. These are the conversations. These are the emails. These are the conversations with lawyers and agents and studio heads.” But you’re counseled time and time again, “Don’t do it. You’re going to get in the weeds. It’s a nowhere road.”
You’re coached to keep your mouth shut, or else you’ll make the matter worse.
Parker: But what happened, that was enormously painful for me. I just kept saying, “This was an experience I loved. I love those women. We shared this experience. It was a privilege. If that’s what we’re left with, those memories, there are only four of us who…” You know? But then all of a sudden the world shifted, right? I was like, oh this is ridiculous. I was afraid to talk about these allegations, and now there are real allegations [relating to abuse and sexual misconduct] in the world that are real? And all of a sudden I was like, “I think I’m going to answer the question about the Sex and the City movie.” For so long I was told to be quiet about all of that stuff. And all of a sudden I’m like, “If people are being encouraged to come forward and talk about really difficult, painful, potentially criminal things that they were part of or witnessed, I think I can talk about the Sex and the City 3 movie.” [Laughs] I think it’s OK! I’m a grown freaking woman.
Shannon: Amazing! It’s wild hearing somebody like Sarah Jessica who is like a powerhouse and an amazing communicator, that somebody like that would be afraid. You know what I mean?
Parker: Because you’re told to!
Shannon: Or that it’s bad business.
Parker: That it hurts the franchise. And it does. It changes the way people experience the show. It changes my own experience to have to talk about it like that. It opens the conversation up time and again. You put the white-hot spotlight back on it again. But then you realize it’s just silliness. Of course I can answer honestly about my experience. Of course I can say what happened. It’s so silly.
Shannon: It can be tricky in the press because if you’re appearing to say the wrong thing it can make you feel ashamed. We have feelings. And I do want to say the right thing. And secondly, I think that when people have been protected for a long time, sometimes when they first come out and aren’t protected anymore it can be really messy. Because you’re letting it all out for the first time. We have to room for that messiness, I think, before it gets leveled back out.