Few actresses carve a permanent place in our hearts, but SARAH JESSICA PARKER is one of them. From Sex And The City to Divorce, she can do no wrong, says Annabel Meggeson
Sarah Jessica Parker is trying to resist sending an e-mail. It’s a reminder to her husband, Matthew Broderick, to make sure a school form has been signed and returned, and that their son, James Wilkie, 14, needs to clear out his backpack tomorrow, as he does every Wednesday. ‘There’s a file under his desk and all his papers from the week – whether it’s Latin or history – have to go in.’ Despite being 5 600km away from her Manhattan home (Sarah is in London to promote her unisex perfume Stash SJP. ‘Now I can say I’ve made a fragrance for humans!’ she says of the black-pepper-and-patchouli-laced perfume, which I happen to think is her best to date), she’s struggling to loosen her grip on the details of daily life chez Parker-Broderick.
‘I do a lot, because I’m controlling,’ she says, when I ask if she and Matthew share domestic duties. ‘I’m a person who’s fastidious and exacting, and so I do a huge amount. What is surprising is how much [my husband] can do and does in my absence. Everybody gets where they need to be. But still, he’s not going to put everything away at night. When I come home, I can see the path.’
‘I’m a person who’s fastidious and e a ting’ arah essi a Parker on her home life
Ah, yes, the notorious man trail. In our house we have ‘Annabel clean’ and ‘Jason clean’, I tell her. ‘Oh, that’s so great! I’m going to use that from now on. Is it SJ clean or Matthew clean?!’
In the end, she doesn’t send the e-mail. ‘They really must do it their way,’ she concedes. But which working mother doesn’t understand the conflict between wanting a man to share in the duties, then immediately jumping in to make sure it’s done a certain way?
Having been with Matthew for 25 years, and with three children – James Wilkie, and the twins, Tabitha Hodge and Marion (known as Loretta), who turned 8 in June – Sarah is no stranger to the complexities of long-term relationships. It was her idea to do a show addressing them. HBO’s wonderful Divorce, created by Sharon Horgan, aired on DStv last year (if you missed it, that’s this month’s box set sorted), and season two is due to be released soon.
‘The study of the landscape of relationships is endlessly interesting,’ she says. ‘ A marriage is not baked, especially when you include children. There is no full stop at the end of the sentence; it’s just a run-on sentence. And there is so much good that comes from it and there’s so much complexity, and people survive it and they don’t; and they contemplate affairs and they don’t have them; they have affairs and it doesn’t hurt the marriage; they contemplate divorce and they survive, or a divorce blows up a family to the degree it feels almost irreparable.’
In the case of Divorce, the couple do separate, but it’s still ‘millions of people’s story. Even if it’s not exactly yours, you know someone who’s going through it.’ Sarah cites American writer John Cheever as an influence. Known as the Chekhov of suburbia, he wrote short stories that perfectly capture the dullness and disappointments of places like Westchester in New York, where Divorce is set.
The show is like the flip side to Sex And The City, the series that defined a generation and made thousands of women fall in love with Sarah’s iconic Carrie. Divorce is world-weary rather than optimistic, though it contains humour and female friendship and fabulous clothes, all of which I suspect Sarah has identified as necessary agents of joy for anyone surfing the highs and lows of love and life post 40.
If Sarah had the idea for a show about ‘a broken relationship’ because she wanted to explore the problems of adult partnership, the process has come full circle. ‘I learnt something really important, which is: be smart enough to recognise that the things that annoy you about a long-term partner don’t actually matter. Like anything that annoys me about Matthew – and trust me, there is a laundry list twice as long about things I do that annoy him, I’m sure of it – fundamentally it doesn’t matter. So if you’re still talking about the minutiae that annoy you, then the stuff that really matters must still be in place.’
We agree that however much your partner drives you mad, there are moments when you realise how well suited you are, after all. ‘Generally speaking, you have to push men to have [meaningful] conversations, but then there are those men who want to talk too much and I’m like, “Ooh, that’s weird!” Or much as you want your partner to be more loving, I’ll be at the school gates and some guy is always rubbing his wife’s back and I’m like, “Eurgh.” I don’t know why that bothers me!’
Still, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that in Divorce, Sarah’s character, Frances, is in the driving seat. (She’s the main breadwinner, she has the affair and asks for a divorce.) I have a hunch that some of this dynamic plays out in the Parker-Broderick household too, where Sarah doesn’t just manage the domestic affairs, but is a breadwinner and working parent par excellence.
At 52, her career is on an enviable roll. Besides the fragrance, Sarah has projects as varied as a stand-alone SJP store in Wash-
ington, DC (which stocks her range of shoes and little black dresses), to working on a musical about a woman waiting to hear if a recent diagnosis could spell something very serious. She’s on the board of the New York City Ballet, helping to raise US$10million (about R130-million) over the past five years, and is a consummate philanthropist. There’s also the business side of her movie/TV career – the producer credits on many of the projects she has worked on since (and including) SATC. Is it important to have that extra control? ‘I love producing because I love the collaboration with incredibly gifted people and seeing the process through from beginning to end. It’s about the part of me that’s transparent, that part of me that loves working creatively and fighting till the end for the piece as a whole.’
Despite her subsequent achievements, Sarah is the first to acknowledge the importance of Carrie as the enduring character who won so many hearts and a primary reason we’re all so invested in SJP. (She even named a shoe after her.) ‘I don’t mind talking about it at all,’ she says, when I can’t help but bring up my beloved SATC. And while in the past she has said she didn’t identify with Carrie because they were at such different places in their lives (Sarah was married and having a baby at the time her character was running round Manhattan from one romantic liaison to another), there are striking similarities. Carrie is smart, engaging, stylish, self-deprecating and kind. Ditto Sarah. As a journalist, Carrie was inherently curious; likewise I can tell Sarah is hugely interested in other people and what’s going on around her. She asks me as many questions as I do her and when I express concern about the clock ticking on our chat, she requests an extra 12 minutes. Her ears really prick up when she finds out I have four kids, including triplets. ‘You have triplets?’ ‘Yes, but you have twins….’ ‘I know, but….’ It doesn’t seem to matter how many kids, how hard we work, how stylishly we’re navigating our lives (Sarah, by the way, gets up at 5am to get on top of e-mails: ‘In the mornings, I seem to finish things more.’), women still seem to believe that someone else is doing it better, and Sarah is not exempt from this particular vulnerability. The difference is she totally owns her imperfections. The word ‘authentic’ is overused in profiles, as if the reader needs to feel vindicated by discovering the person is a little more like them than they seemed, but in Sarah’s case, it’s axiomatic.
Consider how open she was about her twins being born via surrogate; many people in the public eye go to great lengths to conceal secondary infertility for fear of undermining their perfect image. Sarah’s self-image is healthy and grounded, she doesn’t require the protection of a one-dimensional façade. Instead, she’s invested in understanding how she and the world work and how she can do her best by what she learns. (I suppose the point I’m really trying to make is if someone as amazing as Sarah suffers self-doubt, then there’s hope for us all.)
Then there’s Sarah’s quintessential New Yorkness. ‘I love all the possibilities,’ she says of the city that seems to run through her veins and firmly differentiates her from her Hollywood counter- parts. Though she always has paparazzi outside her West Village home. ‘There are so many people who are cogs in the great wheel of this city that a less bright light is shone on our lives. If I can get a few yards from my front door, I can get lost in a crowd.’ And while she’s less keen on this exposure for her kids, ‘I tell them, there are children with far worse problems than theirs.’
Talk turns to kids and the Internet – SJP is well versed in this, with her son James Wilkie’s recent emergence on social media. And it turns out she’s as conflicted as I am about the whole thing. ‘ I don’t know what to do…. [James Wilkie] has a phone for travelling to school, even though I travelled to school forever [without a phone], but we held off longer than most parents.’
I remark it seems obvious that smartphones don’t benefit children. No mother ever said, ‘Little George is doing so well since I got him that iPhone. He’s grade-A all the way now.’
‘I know, but also Little George might get hurt,’ replies Sarah. ‘He might end up saying something that might not be kind and would hurt someone else. Maybe Little George will say something that he isn’t inclined to say, but he learns the language quickly and, like with other things, wants to be like his peers.’
As for her own relationship with technology: ‘ I’m not easy with it and I’m unclear of my own boundaries. I’m unclear of how much I want to engage and how to have it not be a personal experience and how to have conversations that I think are productive with people when they’re feeling anxious or angry, or they’re wanting to say really unfriendly things.’
Her platform of choice is Instagram and she deploys it with relish, using it really for business, but inadvertently showcasing her personality and view of the world at large. Like her, the account is celebratory, quirky and open-hearted. Sure, she wants to show you the pretty bits, but it’s not in the least bit self-conscious – take a look at her grid and you’ll see it’s wonderfully spontaneous and unpolished; zoom in and there’s humour, curiosity, style and a quiet appreciation of herself and what she has achieved. It’s a lesson in mastering social media – and life. We loved Carrie and it’s with very good reason we love Sarah Jessica Parker too.
‘Be smart enough to recognise that the things that annoy you about a long-term partner don’t actually matter’
Sarah with Thomas Haden Church in a scene from With husband Matthew and their children (from left) James Wilkie, Tabitha Hodge and Marion Loretta at the opening night of the new musical on Broadway in New York City earlier this year Divorce Charlie And The Chocolate