The 10-episode HBO comedy series Divorce tells the story of Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) who, after more than a decade of marriage and two children, has suddenly begun to reassess her life and her strained relationship with her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church). As he struggles to come to terms with their marriage falling apart, she discovers that making a fresh start is not an easy task, especially with so much history between them.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Sarah Jessica Parker (who is quite possibly one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I’ve ever spoken to in this business, and I’ve been interviewing folks since 1994) talked about how this series evolved, making the decision to sign on to be in it, wanting to make sure the characters and their story is real and honest, why she loves playing Frances, and being excited about where Season 2 could go. She also talked about what Sex and the City and playing Carrie Bradshaw has meant to her, and humored me by talking about one of my favorite films growing up, Girls Just Want To Have Fun.
SARAH JESSICA PARKER: This was among many things that we had been working on and developing at Pretty Matches Productions, which is my little company at HBO. It was something that I had brought to my partner as an idea. The landscape seemed fertile for a story and HBO was excited about that idea, unrelated to me being in it, I think. For a long time, we were just developing it, but not for me necessarily, at all. Eventually, it became clear to me that HBO was thinking that I might play the female character. That’s how it came to be.
If you were planning on not being in this show, did that take some convincing?
PARKER: It did because I knew what television demands, and I knew how I commit myself to television and what it takes to produce a show to the best of your abilities. You’re basically walking away from a lot of people you love, and my children are at an age where my absence still matters. Even my husbands still matters. He wants to be a part of those conversations. So, we all talked about it. I knew the time period and I knew when they were in school and what that would mean. Also, I knew that I’d have to start figuring out a new character. Ultimately, I was really excited by the idea and it was like coming home, in many ways. So, the concerns about my absence were eclipsed by the wonderful opportunity.
Because you had been developing this before you decided to do it, when you signed on for it, did you make any changes specific to you, that you wanted to have in the character?
PARKER: No, I let the wonderful skilled writers that we hired, do what they do without thinking about me, at all. I want no part of influencing them. I certainly knew the kinds of stories I was wanting to tell, and I knew the tone that I was hoping to achieve, but I think they wrote the part based on the way they wanted to tell this first season. I don’t think it changed, really at all, from conception to when I got involved.
This is such an interesting show because this couple really tugs you back and forth with your emotions. At first, you think Frances is a horrible person, but then you learn that she’s just unhappy and doesn’t know how to properly express that and isn’t horrible, at all.
PARKER: I hope she’s more complex than just horrible. I don’t think she’s horrible. I think she’s real. She’s someone who’s made a real commitment, for many years, and went back to the well and recommitted and tried to salvage, and is making the best choice she can make for her family. I think she is somebody who’s made some foolish choices, in the recent past, and she’s probably someone a lot of people can relate to, in terms of bad council.
This is a show about people that aren’t good or bad, but who just are. Was it important to you that there not be an obvious bad guy, in all of this?
PARKER: We weren’t so concerned about the clarity of villain or not. I’ve been working on this show for about four years, and I was really simply interested in marriage, a portrait of an American marriage and an attempt at divorce, and that it be a truthful illustration. In truth, smart people make bad choices, and smart people do stupid things. People feel victimized and at war, and they behave badly. I think it was easy for neither party to be a bad guy, but to be real, be ashamed, be disappointed in themselves, feel like failures, and feel like the victories that were small were important. We wanted all of it, therefore you would feel conflicted about them, at different times, like we do with our friends and people we love.
You’ve used the words honest, heartbreaking and amusing to describe this show, and from what I’ve seen, it seems that each episode contains those things. Do you ever worry that this is too honest, or do you think it’s necessary, if you’re exploring a subject like this, to have it be so honest?
PARKER: I feel like it’s necessary. Paul Simms, who’s our showrunner, Sharon [Horgan],and the writing staff have found ways to find humor in a real, organic way, given the circumstances. But I’m not afraid of it being real and being sad sometimes, and having both pathos and humor. Sometimes the pathos is the lead story, and sometimes the humor is the lead story. I think that’s the reality of where people find themselves. I think there are things that are ridiculous, funny and awful, and you laugh at them because they’re awful, and you cry and worry because they’re awful. HBO wanted to tell a truthful story about this American marriage. If we are afraid of that, then we’re really not having the courage of our convictions. There are lots of funny shows about marriage on television, in the past and currently, and they’re really delightful and silly and so good at what they do. So, we wanted to look at marriage differently and see what this portrait would look like, and we need to not betray our original notions.
How would you describe the relationship between Frances and Robert, up until the point we meet them in this show?
PARKER: As she’ll talk about later, she’s felt unhappy for a long time. She’ll describe it better than I can, but in the recent past, she wasn’t happy and maybe he wasn’t aware of it. Maybe it’s not in his nature to be really introspective. Maybe it’s scary for him to recognize that in his wife. But I think there was a time they were really good together and very happy, and they were excited about their future and believed in it. I think lots of things happened, like job choices, an economic downturn that really affected them, giving up dreams, struggling, children, and people changing and maturing. Often, when people get married right out of college or at a fairly young age, people change. They should. Everybody should change and keep growing and evolving. And sometimes you discover, much to your disappointment, that maybe you’re not so suitable a pair anymore.
What do you like about Frances, and are there things that make you cringe when it comes to her?
PARKER: I never cringe when it comes to her. I sometimes find her honesty sobering and surprising, but I admire it. I admire her transparency. But, I love playing her. I love that she’s someone who has worked really hard and taken on huge responsibilities, and she understands what it means to be a mother. She’s like a lot of women that have taken on a lot and feel lost. I like that she can be chilly and withholding, in some ways, and tough on people. I think she’s an interesting, real person.
Obviously, people know what you are capable of, as an actor, and what Thomas Haden Church is capable of, but the young actors playing your kids (Sterling Jerins and Charlie Kilgore) are really terrific and so believable.
PARKER: I feel like we found such wonderful children, who are actors, but it’s not apparent that they’re acting. I’m so fond of them. I think they’re just fantastic young people, and I expect they will only become more so, as they mature and as we’re around them while they mature. That has a lot to do with their parents. They have really wonderful parents who care about the important things in their life. We’re very fortunate to have them.
You seem to be one of those rare unicorns in this business who people not only love, personally, but also really enjoy working with. Anybody that talks about you doesn’t have a single bad or mean thing to say about you. Is that just who you are, or does that come from your love and passion for what you do for a living?
PARKER: Well, that’s nice to hear. I don’t see any reason to be any other way but gracious. I care a lot about the work, I’m exacting, and I have high standards, but I think everybody that I’ve ever worked with is reaching for the same thing. I always consider it such a privilege to do the work that I get to do and to have the opportunity to work with people that I admire, who inspire me and who are inspiring. I continue to learn and grow from those experiences, and that means every crew member that I watch and learn from, as I learn more about what they do and how vital their work is to our work. I think I’m kind to people because they’re kind to me. Anybody who gets to do what they want to do and work in the way that they want to work is really fortunate, especially right now, in this country, when so many people are working two and three jobs that they don’t want to do, with very little reward for them. I feel fortunate and I try to convey my gratitude in the work ethic that I also see mirrored right back at me.
Have you had conversations about the future of this series and how long it could go on?
PARKER: We’ve finished the writers’ room for Season 2, and we’re deep into the story. We’ve had lots of really great discussions and we know where they are because of the end of where we left Season 1. I’m excited. It will be easier, in some ways, just simply because we have the language now, and Paul and I have had a season of really working closely together. I’m excited. I think they are very much telling the right story. For this moment, it feels right for these characters.
I have to admit that the first thing I remember seeing you in was Girls Just Want To Have Fun.
PARKER: Oh, my gosh!
I was kind of obsessed with that movie because I’d been working and training, as a dancer, since I was a kid, so that movie was everything to me. What made you want to be a part of that movie, at the time, and what do you remember about making it?
PARKER: I continue to be a journeyman. You read scripts and you pick among the best of them and make the best choices that you can. It was something that I was offered and, of what was available to me, it was the best choice I could make, at the time. I liked that director (Alan Metter). He was nice. I loved Helen Hunt. I’d never played a role like that. I had been a dancer, previously. I was a classical ballet dancer, but I didn’t know how to dance like that, so it was fun. What I mostly remember is working with Helen. And I thought Otis Sallid, the choreographer, was fantastic and really challenging.
When you think back about everything that Sex and the City turned out to be, and what it did for you and your career, are you surprised that you ever hesitated and needed a bit of convincing to do that show?
PARKER: No. Circumstances were so different than. It’s so easy to think now, “Why would you think twice?” It wasn’t as if I was being an ingrate about it, at all. I was definitely completely aware of how good the role was and how exciting the opportunity was. But at that point in my life, I was doing a play, doing a movie, and then going to do another play, and I thought that movement was important for me. You have to remember that New York City actors were like, “Never get stuck on a television show!,” back then because there was some stagnation. But I’m thrilled that people who were important to me, like my agent, my brother and my husband, who was my boyfriend, at the time, were like, “No, do this!” And HBO was a very small network then. There were very few scripted shows, and the scripted shows were mostly male-dominated. It was an interesting place to be. We were pioneers. I just wanted to make sure that I kept growing. I didn’t know. But I am enormously thrilled that people whose counsel was important to me, I took their advice.
After having played a character like Carrie Bradshaw, who was so identified with her fashion and sense of style, is it freeing and refreshing to play a character for whom that really doesn’t seem to fact into?
PARKER: I never felt the need to free myself of Carrie. I’m an actor, so I understand the association, but it doesn’t make me feel hamstrung, in any way. But, the choices don’t remain any less important. It’s interesting, every choice we make about Frances is very specific. Every woolen stocking, every used pair of shoes, every sock, every bra, every overcoat and every tote bag is really important. All of that stuff, for me, has always been the details that complete and finish the sentence. The role of fashion is not critical in her life. She doesn’t have a relationship with fashion, in a fevered way, the way Carrie did, but she makes choices. She is somebody who is an executive in a very old-fashioned firm, she is an art history major, and she lives in Hastings and has to travel on the Metro North. There are all sorts of things that go into her decision-making. So, it’s not that those things are less important, it’s just that fashion plays a less important role in her life.
There are so many people who are envious of your style and the fearlessness you have with fashion. Is there anyone you look at and wish you could pull off the style of, but know that it’s just totally not you?
PARKER: I’ve never felt that need. I always just admire people. I’m often inspired, but I feel like I know what feels good and real and natural on me. But I’m certainly always conscious of what I’m seeing around me, and I think about that. I’ve never felt the need to try to dress like somebody else, or wish I could look like somebody else, or have a different aesthetic. I’ve always felt like I’m probably best off just being me. I’ve tried things, as a teenager and as a young person, which is the stage at which you do those things. You try on outfits that aren’t really you because you want to fit in. But ultimately, I think what you discover is that you’re at your best when you’re yourself.
Divorce airs on Sunday nights on HBO.