Sarah Jessica Parker Compares Her New Leading Man To Mr. Big

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
It's understandable why viewers tend to blur the line between characters and the actors who play them. Especially when the character is a pop cultural touchstone whose legacy has lasted 12 years after the show's end, a fictional woman whose bubbly laugh and outlandish but admirable wardrobe feel as real to viewers as their own friends.

But with HBO's Divorce, Sarah Jessica Parker has finally — and successfully — parted ways with Carrie Bradshaw. Frances is no Carrie: Her problems are much more serious, her clothes more muted and vintage, her voice flatter and deeper. And the subject matter of Divorce, of course, is quite different than Sex and the City's wide-eyed searches for romance, and that's okay with Parker.

"Frankly, for me right now, it's more realistic," the actress told Refinery29. "I'm living in a world where I have friendships with people who are at various important stages of their relationships. When it comes to marriage, I've witnessed a lot of different colors, so I've been interested in exploring infidelity and what American marriage looks like today."

In our chat with Parker, who executive produces and stars in the series premiering October 9, she compares Mr. Big to her latest male co-star, posits the impact of friendships on romantic relationships — and explains why she still won't call herself a feminist.

One of the first things I noticed from the opening scene is that the aesthetic and wardrobe in Divorce feels very '70s, which is obviously very different than Sex and the City. How did you settle on that vibe?
“'70s cinema played a role in how I wanted the show to look, in terms of costumes and sensibility. I even wanted the music to be from the 70's, because that's the music this couple fell in love to, so I also wanted it to narrate their demise. As for the wardrobe, I talked a lot about it with Arjun [Bhasin, the show's costume designer]. I wasn’t quite sure how to capture this feeling without it feeling like costumes or a period piece, so he just started combing thrift shops. Every single thing I wear in the show is from a thrift store. I think I have two new pairs of shoes, and the rest are all used... He managed so beautifully to marry an aesthetic idea to contemporary times. And Joseph La Corte, who is his assistant designer, was my dresser on Sex and the City for years. It was a total coincidence that Arjun had met and hired Joseph! So it was a really incredibly inspired process.”

That’s what’s happening in a lot of long-term relationships: People are contemplating whether or not to cheat.

Sarah Jessica Parker
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It definitely shows on screen. So [spoiler alert, readers!] in the first episode, we learn pretty quickly that Frances is having an affair. On TV we often see married men depicted as the ones having affairs; how did you decide it should be the woman in this case?
“Our creator Sharon just offered the idea up, and I was completely in support of it. I think it’s real. That’s what’s happening in a lot of long-term relationships: People are contemplating whether or not to cheat. Smart people make choices that many would argue are not smart, for lots of reasons. I am aware of women I know who have either had affairs or certainly thought about it, so I was happy to explore it and not be terribly concerned about what people thought of it. Any time anyone would say they were worried Frances is just not likeable, I'd remind them that Tony Soprano was a murderer, and we loved him. And I do think we are more forgiving toward men. I love Tony Soprano, but it's interesting that we were able to easily like Tony Soprano yet worry about whether or not a woman is likeable. If we could forgive murder, than I think we could forgive Frances."

Thomas Haden Church is hilarious as Frances' estranged husband, Robert. He cracks me up in every episode. Did he make you laugh just as much off camera?
“Oh my god, I love him. He was my first choice for this part, we did a movie together called Smart People [in 2008] and we didn’t get to work together a lot in that movie, but I worked with him enough to know that I wanted to work with him again. We’d have to cut and start over, and I’d get incredibly nervous about laughing and worried that I was going to look unprofessional. The only problem with the show being about divorce is that they want me to separate from that guy, and I don’t want to. He reminds me a great deal of Chris Noth [who played Mr. Big on Sex and the City]; he's a very similar mate. Like I loved Chris, I loved playing opposite him, I loved working with him, I loved loving him, I loved fighting with him. It’s the same with Tom, so it’s like a familiar kind of affection. It’s a huge treat.”
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
It’s always good to have coworkers you actually enjoy working with.
“And the same with Talia [Balsam] and Molly [Shannon], who play my girlfriends. It’s just amazing. It’s like being on the Masters golf tour, you know?”

I love the way your friendships with them are portrayed on the show. The dynamics and their opinions feel very different from the friendships on Sex and the City. How do you think our friends affect our romantic relationships?
“I think friends are counsel, and sometimes you keep that counsel and sometimes you don’t. Something we try to portray on the show is that so many people beyond the couple are invested in a marriage, and they start to project their own experiences onto other people's relationships. We wanted to show that when divorce happens, you may see your friends' real feelings about your partner, their real feelings about your own behavior in the marriage...they often feel at liberty. It’s as if with divorce, the idea of civility has been removed and everyone can speak very honestly. So a lot of it is really funny, but a lot of it is painful, and a lot of it is surprising for Frances to hear from her friends. The strange thing is in splitting up, you often end up defending the person you’re divorcing, because it’s a sort of cloak of shame on yourself. There’s so much about it...but I love those friendships, and I think they’re going to play a more crucial role in the second season because she’ll have more time, and her friends will be taking the place of her companion in some ways.”

This is a show about divorce. Were there ever any moments when you drew from your own —
“Nope, nope I didn’t. The only thing that connects me is that I’m married 20 years. The battle, the acrimony of Frances and Robert's marriage, that’s just not something I’ve experienced in my relationship, so I can’t draw on it. I think the thing that really felt most familiar to me was the parenting part and how devastating this must be. I thought about how much we care about our children and how our actions affect them and how everything that comes out of our mouth is so important and how careful we need to be. And that what one child is capable of hearing is what another child isn’t, and those are the areas I could dive into. The marriage stuff feels very different for me, it’s just a completely different marriage from my own.”
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
I'm very happy to see another show on television led by a woman, but I think it's important, now more than ever, to get both more women and people of diverse backgrounds on screen. How do you think Divorce is doing on that front, as well as the entertainment industry as a whole?
“I feel like I’m not equipped to talk about the current state of TV — I still haven’t seen The Sopranos finale! — and the shows that I have seen, like Downton Abbey and Broadchurch, are led by all women, and maybe that's by choice. I know we wanted very much to add more female directors to our second season, we had two in the first, so in season 2 we’ll have 50% women directors. That’s very important to us as well as finding women department heads, our sound mixer was a woman, our post supervisor was a woman, a bunch of our post producer supervisors were women. But it’s not arbitrary, we’re not just saying we want diversity and plucking people and putting them in place. You have to dig deeper and do the due diligence that’s required to broaden points of view and perspective, so next season I also want to see more diversity in front of our camera as well."

You've always been an advocate for women, but in recent interviews, you've said you're not a feminist.
Can you expand on why, exactly, you feel that way?
“I will simply say this: I was born in a generation where I reaped all the benefits of the women’s movement and the great and important work that my mother and her friends and women she never met across the country did. I was born a feminist. I never considered that I wasn’t capable, that I wasn’t entitled to try and achieve anything. It never occurred to me to consider my gender — never. What I was trying to suggest is that there is a larger conversation which should not exclude others' voices. When we talk about equality, there are so many other groups that have been marginalized and diminished that I no longer feel that I can stand alone and just say, ‘I am a feminist.’ I am somebody that is interested in equality for a lot of groups, so I am a humanist, because I have concerns that I want to see addressed and I want to make a more impactful voice. Being a feminist and a humanist are not mutually exclusive, and I think that the more we can connect with each other and not separate, the more that we can use our voices for a productive conversation."

My last question for you is, because so many people feel like they know you — you were in their living rooms as Carrie for years and you're very candid on social media — what do you think people would be surprised to know about Sarah Jessica Parker?
“That I actually spend time on things other than shoes! I grew up loving them and not having them and feeling special when I was given a new pair and not a hand-me-down, and I don’t diminish the importance of the world of fashion and the fashion industry. But I’m also very interested in books and learning and the arts, and education and politics and culture. I spend a great deal of my time working in those areas quietly. I don’t scream it from the rooftops, but I’m vice chair of the board at the New York City Ballet — which is not a small title! I’m a successful business person, I served with President {Obama] for almost eight years in an important role on the Presidential Committee of Arts and Humanities. There’s a huge amount of work that I do, but I think maybe people just don’t know because I’m not very good at talking about it. But yes, I do love shoes. That's no secret!"
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