Thursday 25 May 2017

Sarah Jessica Parker: 'It sounds dreary and not sexy, but for me it's about asking myself: who do I want to sit with in Ireland?'

Far from the sex columnist character who made her name, Sarah Jessica Parker is sweetly old-fashioned. As she stars in Sharon Horgan's new series, Divorce, she talks to our reporter about infidelity and how she's made her 20-year marriage work

Sarah Jessica Parker seen on the streets of Manhattan on September 20, 2016 in New York City. Photo: James Devaney/GC Images
Sarah Jessica Parker seen on the streets of Manhattan on September 20, 2016 in New York City. Photo: James Devaney/GC Images
Golden couple: Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick are together nearly 25 years
Best foot forward: Sarah Jessica with some of her shoe range, SJP
Hollywood star Sarah Jessica Parker and their son James Wilkie walking near their cottage home in Kilybegs, Co Donegal
Sarah Jessica Parker attends the "Divorce" New York Premiere at SVA Theater on October 4, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Sharon Horgan on The Johnathan Ross Show. Picture: ITV
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie, with her fellow SATC cast members
Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon attend the "Divorce" New York Premiere at SVA Theater on October 4, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Actress Sarah Jessica Parker stops for a Guinness in Foley's Pub in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by ShowBizIreland/Getty Images)

Jane Mulkerrins

Sarah Jessica Parker is explaining the complexities of contemporary teenage peacocking. "Girls post really suggestive pictures of themselves on social media and say, 'I'm slut-shaming myself first, so you can't.' It's just unbelievable," she tells me, horrified.

As the mother of a teenage boy, James Wilkie, who turns 14 this month, as well as seven-year-old twin girls, Marion and Tabitha, the actress has a particular parental window into young people's lives in 2016.

She's impressed by her son's maturity of response to such provocative posts. "He has really good, smart questions and thoughts about young women's freedom, and how they choose to express themselves," says Sarah Jessica.

And she encourages him to further rise above the ribaldry she overhears among his peers. "I tell him, don't get into that with them; you be the guy who refrains," she says. "I know that it's hard to be the old-fashioned one, but you be that guy."

Golden couple: Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick are together nearly 25 years
Golden couple: Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick are together nearly 25 years

This might sound a little sanctimonious coming from the woman best known for her starring role in Sex and the City, the show that broke new ground in the late 1990s with its honest and frequently explicit depiction and discussion of female sexual appetites.

But, unlike her most recognisable alter ego, sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, the 51-year-old actress herself is delightfully and disarmingly old-fashioned and wholesome.

She doesn't like, or use, bad language; she borrows books from her local library; she still doesn't own an iPhone, favouring her old BlackBerry instead; and she laments myriad elements of modern life, such as the culture of instant gratification and constant connectivity.

We are meeting for lunch at a restaurant close to her Hamptons beach house, where she, her husband, the actor Matthew Broderick, and their three children have spent the summer. It's early September, a few days before the family will decamp back home to Manhattan's West Village.

SATC's Carrie Bradshaw was, famously, permanently clad in a cutting-edge designer wardrobe, turning Sarah Jessica into a style icon in the process; and two years ago, she launched her own shoe company, the SJP Collection.

Today, she is groomed - her long browny-blonde hair in soft waves over her shoulders - but casually dressed, in a tank top, cropped jeans, low wedge sandals and giant sunglasses.

Best foot forward: Sarah Jessica with some of her shoe range, SJP
Best foot forward: Sarah Jessica with some of her shoe range, SJP

We are here because 12 years after Carrie last sashayed across TV screens in her vertiginous Manolos, Sarah Jessica is returning to HBO, the cable channel that produced SATC, with another, infinitely darker comedy.

Co-written by Sharon Horgan, the Irish creator of Pulling and Catastrophe, and Paul Simms, Divorce is a bleak, witty and acutely observed picture of a relationship's unravelling, and its rapid decent into devastating brutality.

The concept for the show - in which she plays Frances, one half of a now-unhappy couple, opposite Robert, played by Thomas Haden Church - was Sarah Jessica's own, and she cites the writer John Cheever as a major influence.

"I wanted to tell the story of an ordinary middle-class marriage today," she says.

"I don't think this marriage is uniquely American, but I think it does speak to a time and a place, and the hopes and dreams - and disappointments - of a particular generation."

The US economic crash of 2008 is a factor. "Robert suffers a professional demise, and Frances, like so many women, is the one who ends up supporting the family and giving up her own dreams."

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie, with her fellow SATC cast members
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie, with her fellow SATC cast members

Frustrated and unfulfilled, Frances then has an affair - with a character played by Jemaine Clement (of the offbeat Kiwi comedy Flight of the Conchords).

Divorce is set in Westchester, a suburban commuter belt beside the Hudson River. There's a tangible sense of isolation and suburban angst that emanates from the screen.

"I don't think anything is more interesting than the ordinary," enthuses Sarah Jessica.

"How people brush their teeth at night and look in the mirror, or touch each other, or parent, or are alone in a room - that's what I always want to know about."

She is a lifelong people-watcher.

"When I was little, my dad used to tell me off because I was always just staring," she admits.

Actress Sarah Jessica Parker stops for a Guinness in Foley's Pub in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by ShowBizIreland/Getty Images)
Actress Sarah Jessica Parker stops for a Guinness in Foley's Pub in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by ShowBizIreland/Getty Images)

Smart, funny, self-effacing and studiously polite, while she may have trained herself out of the obvious ogling, Sarah Jessica remains compulsively curious.

She has many questions of her own for me, about my job, my life as an expat in New York, my feelings about Brexit.

When I mention a book that relates to the themes of her show - Mating in Captivity, by the relationship psychologist Esther Perel - she makes a note to find it at the library and discuss it with the writing team.

In spite of the comfortable trappings of success that she displays today, Sarah Jessica's own beginnings fall firmly into the category of the ordinary. Born in Nelsonville, a mining town in Ohio, she is the youngest of four children.

Her own parents divorced when she was a toddler, and her mother, Barbara, remarried to Paul Forste, a student and lorry driver, when she was three, going on to have four more children with him; making Sarah Jessica number four of eight. She remained close to her father, Stephen, a journalist and entrepreneur.

Though the family had very little money, Barbara instilled a passion for the arts in her children (Pippin - named after Pip in Dickens' Great Expectations - is a writer, Toby is an actor, Aaron works in film, Andrew in theatre, and Megan is a camerawoman) and Sarah Jessica was a keen dancer and actress from a young age.

Sharon Horgan on The Johnathan Ross Show. Picture: ITV
Sharon Horgan on The Johnathan Ross Show. Picture: ITV

The family relocated to Cincinnati, and then to New York City, where she started working as a child actress, appearing in the lead role of Annie on Broadway at 14.

She had roles as a teenager in Footloose and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and as an adult in LA Story and Honeymoon in Vegas. But it was her six years on the small screen as Manhattan singleton Carrie that made her a household name.

She has tremendous fondness for the character, who won her four Golden Globes and two Emmys, and who remains an enduring obsession for millions of women.

"I'm touched that people connected and identified with her, for whatever insane reason they did, because Carrie is the least identifiable person I have ever played," she laughs.

That Sex and the City's content was considered racy and risqué at the time is "unbelievable" to Sarah Jessica today. "It was really very innocent," she says. And its messages were ultimately positive.

"Those women were so good to each other. And when they weren't, it's because they were saying: you're not being a good friend, you're not being your best self, you're not being kind or principled."

Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.

James Wilkie was just two when Sex and the City ended in 2004, and the twins were born by surrogate in June 2009 (the surrogate mother faced fierce attention from the paparazzi when her identity was discovered; her home was broken into and her ultrasound pictures stolen).

Sarah Jessica's decision to return to television - which she says is "all or nothing", involving up to 20-hour days on set for months at a time - was not one that she made lightly. "I had to really ask my family how they felt about it," she says. "And James Wilkie was adamant that I must do it.

"And I'm in a very different situation to most working mothers," she is quick to add. "If I need to be at a teacher-parent conference, or go to a particular doctor's appointment, I can be there - it's a total privilege."

There are things she has missed, however; she was in Los Angeles this summer, doing press for the new show, when Matthew taught the twins to ride a bike. She pauses, mid-story.

"I don't know if I should be telling you this, because maybe people will read it and think, 'What? They're seven? And they're only just learning to ride a bike?' But they're New York kids, so they don't really have the same free space…"

Either way, this afternoon, she will be working further on their cycling skills with them.

Sarah Jessica's marriage to Broderick is something of a showbiz anomaly. Next year, the couple will have been together for 25 years, and married for 20 of those.

Asked about their relationship, she says, "There is an enormous amount of discussion and dissection and introspection about it. We have common interests and we still really enjoy each other's company. We are suited to each other..." She shrugs. "At least for the time being.

"I know it sounds dreary and not sexy, but I think the most important part of it is companionship," she continues. "For me, it's about asking myself: who do I want to sit with, in Ireland? [The couple have a house in Kilcar, Co Donegal - the village where Broderick spent summers as a child.]

"Who do I want to see those ruins with? Who is still the most challenging to me? Who do I like best?"

None of which is to say she doesn't understand the itch. "It's very normal to be interested in other people," she believes. "But it doesn't mean you have to follow through."

But she also believes that men and women stray for quite different reasons. "My experience of talking to women is that they have affairs when they're not happy, when they are feeling diminished or ignored or not heard," she says.

"It's not about sex - it's about someone hearing them and seeing them and connecting. Whereas men seem to have affairs when they are feeling good about themselves; like they think it would be selfish of them not to share themselves with others."

Aside from publicising Divorce, Sarah Jessica recently launched her latest fragrance, Stash SJP, and a dress collection on Instagram.

As someone who has claimed never to have Googled herself ("I just don't have the constitution for it"), it is a radical departure into the world of social media for the actress.

"It's a direct connection, which means, on one hand, it's really amazing because you're in a position to constantly check in with the consumer," she says.

"But, by the same token, you get back a lot of negativity and unkindness, people saying unfriendly things.

"I'm always saying it's OK to disagree," she continues. "Hear each other, listen to each other, be furious, but can we just watch the language, please? I don't want to be a finger-wagger, but I just don't think it's good for us, as a society, to speak that way to one another."

She politely excuses herself to check her email, and, realising the time - she needs to get back to the twins for their bike practice - offers to drive me to the train station.

Even her car is from another era - a long, elegant 1973 Ford Country Squire station wagon, burgundy inside and out, with original leather banquette seating and a gearstick on the side of the dashboard.

Behind the wheel of the enormous vintage beast, Sarah Jessica looks like a tiny, stylish Penelope Pitstop. "It's the most glamorous thing I've ever bought myself," she admits.

At the station, we sit in the car park for a while, discussing the election. Sarah Jessica is a long-standing Democrat, and, in 2012, hosted a fundraising dinner for Obama at her home (attended by Meryl Streep, Aretha Franklin and Anna Wintour).

"I'm terrified," she says of the possibility of Trump in the White House. "He's allowing people to voice their quiet, secretive, subversive racism, misogyny, anti-semitism.

"I thought it was bad in 2008, when Obama was running, the things that were being said about people of colour, about women…" She sighs. "I thought that was the lowest we could go, but apparently we were just getting started."

She checks I have a book to read on the train, and a cardigan in case it gets cold, before waving me off with a toot goodbye.

As she says, it must sometimes be hard to be the old-fashioned one.

'Divorce' is on Tuesdays at 10.10pm on Sky Atlantic

Sarah Jessica Parker attends the
Sarah Jessica Parker attends the "Divorce" New York Premiere at SVA Theater on October 4, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

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