The Art of Being SJP

Above Image | Dress, price upon request, Valentino; cameo ring, $2,000, Amedeo; diamond ring, Parker’s Own. On body: Jurlique Sun Specialist Sunless Tanner.

Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie Bradshaw was a totem for a generation of single girls. Now the actress and producer tackles an entirely different relationship drama in HBO's Divorce. (And to be clear, this isn't "Sex and the City moves to the suburbs".)

By Anne Fulenwider
Photos by Michelangelo Di Battista Fashion Editor: Alison Edmond

My first job in New York was as a P.A. on Sarah Jessica Parker's 1996 movie If Lucy Fell. Tasked with guarding a stack of equipment underneath the Brooklyn Bridge overnight, I was promoted to Sarah Jessica's stand-in when her own didn't show up. This required me to ride a bike back and forth across the bridge until the crew got the lighting for the scene right so filming could begin. If you had told me then that in 20 years I would be interviewing Parker for a magazine I would edit, I might have fallen off that bike. But here I am, at her office in Manhattan's Flatiron District, which is lined with dozens and dozens of shoes (from her SJP collection and others). People like to talk to her about shoes, but as she says, "I love shoes, but I also love books and architecture and politics and other people and travel and conflict." So we talked at length about all those things and more, including her latest project: starring in and executive-producing Divorce, which premieres on HBO in October.


So tell me about the genesis of this show. When did you come up with the idea?


About four years ago, I started thinking about marriages. Friends were at various points of their own marriages, and people were contemplating affairs, having just survived affairs, affairs having destroyed marriages, marriages having survived. And I recognized that there was a lot happening in American marriages and that there were so many versions of marriage, none of which I thought had been told on television or on film in a really long time in a real way. There is something unique about a middle-class marriage. And I say that with no judgment, but rather like someone studying it. There can be revelations about your finances, which happens to a lot of people when they start pursuing divorce. The socioeconomic portrait is not the focus of the show, but it plays a role in the reality. But more important, how does a divorce affect your life? How do your friends chime in? Who's there to feed off the divorce? Who supports you? And how it changes perceptions and how you manage a family—how do you talk to your children about it? What does it do to you? What were your own expectations? How disappointed are you in yourself, in the marriage, in the other person? How complicit were you in it? There is such a rich landscape, and I hadn't seen it told this way.

Is it a comedy or a tragedy? What's the overall feel of the show?

Honest, but we're going to have things in it that are ridiculous, because divorce is ridiculous. Sometimes it's painful, it's funny, it's awful, it's silly. People do ridiculous things to each other, and they are childish.

How did you find the experience of playing Frances? Have you played anyone like this before? Did you find her familiar?

No, never. I am familiar with her in the way that [Sex and the City's] Carrie Bradshaw was for me—I mean, it's my body playing her. But she is very different from a lot of characters I've played. I wouldn't say that her outlook is wonderfully spirited in optimism. She is slightly weary. She is somebody who hasn't thought a lot about herself for a very long time. She's been holding her family together, providing income to pay for the mortgage, insurance, health care, groceries. She has put her own creative ambitions to the side, which we will talk about a lot more as the season unfolds. She is also a revelation in many ways. Without giving too much away, the fact that she has been having an affair with a man who challenges her intellectually is surprising. I love the way the pilot episode opens because everyone's asking, "Oh, is this a spin-off of Sex and the City?" And the moment that the opening scene ends, and you see her give him the finger, you know it's very different.

Is everyone going to think, Carrie Bradshaw's moved to the suburbs?

I feel like once they see it, they'll know it is not Carrie Bradshaw. Frances is not the person who is in a position to think about her shoes. She can't afford to have those relationships. That is a person who has made completely different choices.

Do you think it's possible to have a happy divorce?

I see it all the time. There are so many people I know who are happily divorced and still a really tight, highly functioning, very happy family. Some even go on vacation together. There is lots of coming together with new wives, new husbands, new partners. That takes a very specific approach, and maybe Frances and [her husband, played by Thomas Haden Church] Robert will get there, but their divorce doesn't really happen the way that either one of them would have imagined had they had the time to think about it. She witnesses an event, and it's like a clock went off inside. For him, he never wanted a divorce and is only complying in complete agony. None of it was thoughtful, and my friends who are divorced happily were much more thoughtful and careful and strategic about the way they went about everything.

Do you have any advice on the key to a good marriage?

I'm always afraid to talk about that because other people relate it as if I'm talking about my own. But I will just say from observation—not in my own relationship, but in others that are inspiring, helpful, and meaningful to me—first of all, the other person's experiences and triumphs and disappointments have to be your own. The more I see that in other people, the more I experience that myself, the more invested I am. It's a funny thing; the more time you spend together, I think the natural thought process is that you sort of exist together. But actually, with more time, the more you become connected—the marriages that I've seen that really flower are the ones where there is a desire to be together. For me, it's really the investment in the other person. And it's the expectations you have. They change and you get smarter, and maybe you think those expectations aren't worth striving for with this person, and that's when people bail.

You said something once about not splitting the last atom of every issue in a marriage. I thought that was one of the wisest things I'd ever read.

I learned it from Catherine Walsh, who ran Coty forever. She was talking about work, and she said, "You always split the atom. You push and push and push and push. And, by the way, everybody wants to push with you, and anybody who doesn't want to push with you doesn't care about what you're doing." But I think it's different in a marriage, because a marriage is not this finite thing. You would have to concede that you're a different person today than you were when you married a year ago, seven years ago, 13 years ago, 19 years ago, as is your partner. You would have to be. Maybe not fundamentally, but your desires, how you relate to each other, what you now want—what did children do to it, what did not having children do to it, what did your financial circumstances do, are you happy in work, are you not? There's no arrival point to me. There's no ending.

When was that moment when you thought, I want to be a producer? Was it the first time you acted?

It was really [Sex and the City creator] Darren Star. In our first meeting, he said to me, "You can produce a show." And I was like, "I don't know how to produce a television show." He said, "Then learn." It was the most generous act, because it gave me another career.

Many actresses like to produce their work because they have more control over their own destiny. Many have come out and said, "I didn't get paid as much as that man on my show or in my movie."

I would like all of that nonsense to end. I would like women to get paid for the value of their contributions, not by old-fashioned ideas about gender. I don't want to talk about myself and pay—not because I'm hiding anything, but because it's outrageous for me to. What concerns me are the millions of single mothers and married mothers who find themselves in that gap. Especially if we're not going to provide universal pre-K, good schools, family leave, a better maternity [leave] situation, paid sick leave—if we're not going to find a way to support Americans who are working hard, then it matters. Listen, Jennifer Lawrence deserves every bit as much as her male counterpart. It's indisputable. Emma Watson is an amazing young woman, and it's important for her to talk about women's issues. She isn't concerned about herself. Women are paying the bills, getting it done, getting the kids here and there. The more we address that, we are all going to be better. Everybody wants to contribute. I want someone to find me one person in this country who doesn't want to wake up and feel good about themselves and have dignity and know that they're taking care of themselves. No one wants to ask for help. Nobody. That's the part of the gender gap that really flips me out.

You're passionate about politics. The tenor of presidential elections is always heated, but this year we have quite a race. What do you make of the way Hillary Clinton's being treated in the press? Many people have said she's being treated unfairly.

I'm convinced it's because she's a woman, and I am not a feminist. I don't think I qualify. I believe in women and I believe in equality, but I think there is so much that needs to be done that I don't even want to separate it anymore. I'm so tired of separation. I just want people to be treated fairly.

Have you said that you're not a feminist before?

I don't know. It's not that I'm not a feminist. I just never thought I had to identify that way. I always thought, Well, we won't have to do that for much longer, will we? We're not going to have to say that; we're all going to think it. I've just thought it for so long. My mom was a feminist; she did all the work, and I reaped the benefits of the movement. I was like, I'm just going to go out and do what I want to do. It will happen or it won't, but it won't be because I'm a woman. It will be because I had good fortune or said the right thing or I presented the right case to this person. For a long time, everybody was talking about why this generation is not supportive of Hillary Clinton. And I was like, It's so obvious to me. From the beginning, I was like, Because they don't think of Hillary as a woman. She's already equal. She is being thought of as a candidate. It's my generation. You're asking the 20-somethings to the 34-year-olds why they're not supporting Hillary? They're saying, "I want this, and she's not saying that." I just want a level playing field for everybody. I want it for immigrants who have come here and paid taxes. I want it for working women. [Playwright] Wendy Wasserstein used to say she was a humanist, not a feminist. That's what I would say instead of saying I'm a feminist.

I don't know about you, but it's just amazing to me that for my young children, their first memory of the president of the United States is an African-American man, and the first election they will remember will be one in which one of the two candidates is a woman.

I know! I kept saying to [son] James [as we were listening to Clinton's Democratic Party presumptive nominee speech], "This is so meaningful. I can't believe this." Because I actually didn't believe this was going to happen. The other thing was to see her finally enjoy it. When she kept putting her hand to her heart before she started speaking, I thought, This is who we know she is. We know she is a great, complex thinker and a policy wonk, but she is also a sentimental person who reached a moment yesterday. To see her be so touched was a very important moment. I thought she balanced expressing gratitude and almost disbelief, but also putting it into context. It was a huge triumph, and I hope she can remember this feeling as she puts her head down in the battle ahead.

You gave a great Class Day speech at Harvard Law School this spring, and you said something wonderful about curiosity.

I said, "In curiosity is surprise and youth and motion and wonderment." And "Curiosity is the gateway to everything you know you want, and comfort is like a beautiful prison." It's good, but it's hard because it's exhausting to be curious all the time and constantly force yourself into the unknown.

Where do you think you get your curiosity from? From your parents? Was your mom working while she was raising eight kids?

She was a schoolteacher in Appalachia until I was like 3, or 2, and then she didn't work. I mean, she worked at home. I think she is a deeply curious person who didn't get to follow through. She wasn't in a position to scratch the itch, so I feel like so much of what I get to do, I feel like, Cool, I'll do this for her. I'm so desperate for my children to be curious people. I just want them to be happy and curious.


What song do you sing to yourself in the shower or in the car?

I love any Billy Joel from Cold Spring Harbor or Turnstiles.

Last thing you binge-watched?

30 for 30, the ESPN series of all these sports documentaries.

Not what I was expecting! Song that always makes you cry?

"Here Comes the Sun" by The Beatles.

Movie with the greatest ending?

The Way We Were.

First album you bought?


Of course, such a Broadway baby! If you could compete in an Olympic sport, winter or summer, what would it be?

The balance beam, track and field, and diving, and that's just summer. In winter: figure skating, of course, and to be a great skier would be a dream—to be great and have no fear. Or at least to know how to capture your fear and direct it down a terrifying hill would be incredible.

What's one thing you are epically good at, like a hidden talent?

I actually whistle extremely well. I am always whistling on set, and people are like, "Wow, you are like an 85-year-old man." Because no one whistles like that anymore—like true vibrato whistling, that's what I do.

What's one thing you are epically bad at?

Where do I begin? I am an excellent wrapper of presents, and I only say I'm excellent at it because I can't stand it. I am all alone every holiday season in our basement for two days, wrapping, wrapping, wrapping. I can't let anyone else do it.

So you are epically bad at letting go of the ritual of wrapping.*

Correct. But they look beautiful!

* See our Celebritorials video of SJP teaching us to wrap at

On eyes: Neutrogena Healthy Volume Mascara Regular. Hair: Serge Normant for Serge Normant Hair Care. Makeup: Leslie Lopez for Sephora Collection Beauty Amplifier. Manicure: Gina Eppolito at Set Design: Bette Adams at Mary Howard Studio.