Sarah Jessica Parker on the Beauty of Playing Unruly Women
‘Tony Soprano was a murderer and people didn’t say he was unlikable, but a woman can’t have an affair without being called unlikable?’ the ‘Here and Now’ star tells Amy Zimmerman.
Sarah Jessica Parker is doing interviews in the Watch What Happens Live green room. This logistical detail is only notable because, about 30 minutes before the show, the Watch What Happens Live reception area is abruptly transformed into a raucous club, complete with drinks and pounding bass. So the silent room where Sarah Jessica Parker awaits is really more like an oasis, magically insulated from the pre-show party and its unrelenting Top 20 playlist.
Walk inside and you’re greeted, not by tequila and chasers, but by enough water bottles and snacks to satiate an entire press corps. The first thing Sarah Jessica Parker does is ask you if you want anything, gesturing at the spread with an outstretched arm. With that gesture, she circulates such a sweetly-perfumed scent that you immediately blurt out something stupid about how good the room smells. An almost-apologetic look comes over Sarah Jessica Parker’s face at the exact moment when she realizes that it’s not really the room—she just smells that good.
In person, celebrities rarely live up to our expectations, proving themselves to be imperfect human beings just like the rest of us. Parker poses a different problem—she’s as kind, charismatic, and effortlessly chic as everyone says she is. The most remarkable aspects of her presence have already been remarked upon. If Sarah Jessica Parker did not possess the ability to charm audiences and defenseless reporters, her latest film, Fabien Constant’s Here and Now (in theaters and on demand Nov. 9) would be a total slog; instead, it’s a testament to Parker’s abilities, as she lends much-needed weight and nuance to an often maddening character.
The film opens on Parker’s Vivienne receiving a terminal diagnosis. With 14 months left to live, the talented singer spends a day and a night in seeming denial, resisting the “responsible” course of action in favor of a series of difficult-to-defend decisions and evasions. The film’s supporting players include Renée Zellweger, Common, and Jacqueline Bisset, and one of its defining scenes finds Vivienne performing a Rufus Wainwright original.
“Everybody just kept saying yes!” Parker explained. “Rufus said yes, I want to write this song, and everybody else we went to—Common said yes in like, two hours.” In addition to her desire to work with Constant and writer Laura Eason, Parker was drawn to Vivienne, describing her as “someone I’ve never played.”
As a “ghost in her own life,” Parker explained, Vivienne presented a particular acting challenge. “I was very nervous about figuring out how to tell her story, because there’s so much that is internalized, and as an actor you’re typically really reliant upon human beings to invoke emotion and to incite emotion that is seen and felt by an audience.” Thankfully, Parker laughed, “I also enjoy being scared and nervous, and I spend a huge amount of my time being nervous at the beginning of projects.”
In addition to this complicated emotional terrain, Vivienne navigates a city that’s increasingly strange to her. New York City, unsympathetic and cruel, has come to symbolize the dreams that she had for herself, the venues she’ll never headline, and the apartments, restaurants, and fiancés she’s lost. “What I love about the way we got to shoot the city in this movie is, you know, this isn’t a city that’s filled with promise and aspirational sparkle,” Parker began. “It’s a city that Vivienne feels has really disappointed her. It’s betrayed her. It’s taken more than it’s given, and it’s asked from her more than she ever thought she could give. But there’s still this success that eludes her: Carnegie Hall. She keeps talking about Carnegie Hall.”
Parker’s own New York story began on January 1st, 1977—a date she offers up easily, like it was just yesterday. “When I came to New York, I was a really little girl. I was a ballet dancer and an actor. And back then, you know, people came to Manhattan to live, two and three to an apartment and they really became artists, they really did make it.” It’s that dream that Vivienne still seems to cling to, despite the relative success she’s already achieved, and the limited time she has left.
A character who lives and presumably dies in this city is a natural fit for Parker, who’s best known for playing the quintessential New Yorker. Over the course of Sex and the City’s six seasons, Carrie Bradshaw and her friends inhabited a specific moment in the metropolis; now, the series is a time capsule. Here and Now attempts to capture New York over a decade later—a city of Lyft drivers, rising rents and restaurant closures. Parker is well aware that Carrie Bradshaw’s New York is long gone; she feels increasingly worried that fans who aspire to be like Bradshaw and chase their dreams will be priced out and become quickly disillusioned.
Speaking on the “huge responsibility” of being forever associated with Carrie Bradshaw, Parker said, “Women stop me all the time and they tell me they came to New York, more often than not to be a writer.” Hardly a burden, Parker describes these interactions as deeply touching. “I’m touched that the city still has some promise to it, because I think it’s important that we are a beacon of—that this is still the place where ideas can be birthed, and that you can leave someplace else that feels limiting and confining… The fact that people can still come here with a dream.”
“And I just want it to happen for them!” Parker exclaimed, urgent and sincere. “Because the reality is that once the honeymoon is over, it’s really hard.”
Carrie Bradshaw may have inspired a generation of itinerant female creatives, but Parker’s chain-smoking, tulle-clad avatar wasn’t always taken seriously. As the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2013, Bradshaw was “the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television.” Nussbaum posited, “High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, ‘Sex and the City’ was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show.” But (male) critics at the time didn’t consider the now-iconic HBO series in such a positive light. In celebration of Sex and the City’s 20th anniversary this year, The Cut put together a list of “the absolute worst ways that men covered Sex and the City,” which included accusations of shallowness and frivolity. A representative 1999 write-up, from the Washington Post, whined, “Carrie has three friends who are all more engaging than she is: Kim Cattrall as Samantha, Kristin Davis as Charlotte and Cynthia Nixon as Miranda. Unfortunately, they are all fatuous to some degree, spending their time eating, gabbing, shopping, gabbing, having sex and then gabbing again.”
Instead of engaging with Carrie Bradshaw in all of her complexity, men balked at the off-putting women occupying their television sets. The question of the unlikable female character has long plagued Sarah Jessica Parker, an actress who has the gall to portray women who makes mistakes. Parker says that she often hears Frances, her character on HBO’s Divorce, described as “unlikable”—“I guess because she had an affair,” she laughed. She conceded that Frances is “exacting and maybe chilly,” but added, “I dig that. I mean, there are millions of different kinds of women and I feel like they all have a story that is worthy of our time—if we are decent storytellers. I always say, well, you know, Tony Soprano was a murderer and people didn’t say he was unlikable, but a woman can’t have an affair without being called unlikable?”
Parker says that the kinds of questions she’s had to field haven’t changed much, whether interviewers are asking about Carrie or Frances: “They’re like, how do you feel about playing someone who’s not very likable?” Parker contrasted these conversations with the interviews she’s taken for her publishing imprint, SJP for Hogarth. “When I have interviews with people about books, I’m stunned at the sort of conversation that we’re having. It’s immediately smart, it’s inquisitive, it’s curious, it’s an attempt at an intellectual exercise.”
“I think the other part of it too is I’m not sure how seriously women are taken, period,” Parker continued. “It’s not just the characters, it’s—how mature are the conversations people want to have with an actor? There is an assumption not just about what you endow a male character to possess as a person or personality or traits or shortcomings that we can call and color all sorts of different ways, but also an assumption about the person playing the part.” For example, people often ask Parker if it was “fun” to play Carrie Bradshaw. “I’m like, yeah, it was fun…but it’s also really hard! Like, that was an acting job.”
“She was a deeply emotional person. She made tons of mistakes. She was raw and exposed. She was flawed. She was ridiculous. She was silly. She was funny, she was smart. She sobbed and you know, pulled herself across a threshold countless times to try to find home. But people thought, you know, they didn’t think it was work for me. I’m like, no, actually, look at all of it. Take your time and look at all of it! And then ask me if it was fun—or do you want to have a serious conversation about the fact that I’m an actor?”
Being Sarah Jessica Parker, she’s eager to end on a positive note, pointing out that, “There’s a whole generation that are going to ask and pose and probe differently.” Ideally in another twenty years, Parker won’t still be in a green room somewhere, politely warning against reductive labels. But with any luck, she’ll be promoting her latest unforgettable, unruly woman.