Getting Along Famously

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - Stick Sarah Jessica Parker in a room filled with reporters, all men, and the first question they ask isn't about co-starring alongside Matthew McConaughey in her new film, or her marriage to actor Matthew Broderick, or her six years starring in HBO's Sex and the City, or the Golden Globes and Emmys she's won, or even her three decades in showbiz.

No, what these guys want to know is: "Who designed your outfit?"

"Oh, thank you," gushes Parker, either grateful for the attention or -- more likely -- glad to get the obvious question out of the way first. "It's Giambattista Valli," she offers, then helpfully spells out the name. "Oh yes, it's gorgeous."

Later, during a brief conversation at The Essex House on Central Park South (just the sort of posh locale S&TC;'s Carrie Bradshaw would adore), it's clear why American movie and television audiences have embraced this 40-year-old Ohio native.

She's warm and quick to laugh. With her pencil-thin figure and locks of flowing blond hair, she's pretty in a way that seems to attract men without intimidating women.

And if nothing else, Sarah Jessica Parker, whose latest film, Failure to Launch, opens March 10, knows how to warm up an audience.

Speaking with a Sun reporter, she takes a moment to praise Baltimore, Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, where parts of Failure to Launch were shot last summer. "If I could eat crabs every day," she says, "if I could be on a sailboat in the water in that part of the country, I would be thrilled."

While that fantasy has yet to come true, Parker knows how lucky she is: embraced by the public, married for eight years to Broderick (The Producers), living in New York City with him and their almost-3-year-old son, James. Asked if it's ever tough being Sarah Jessica Parker, she laughs, shakes her head and lets out a prolonged "Nooooo."

But, of course, that's not a complete answer. Being in the public eye, she acknowledges, isn't always comfortable.

"There are things about it that are challenging, that you don't expect," she says, carefully measuring her words. "There are times that are very disappointing, and there are times that you feel your life is being invaded. And there are times that you feel things are too public -- inappropriately so, to the point of being vulgar.

"But for the most part, it's a wonderful life. We live in a great city, are able to afford to raise our son here. We have lots of great opportunities, lots of interesting work opportunities. We have disappointments, we have failures, we have some triumphs. But a rich life -- I don't mean financially -- is not a hardship."

Parker has had plenty of time to make peace with fame. She was 8 years old and living near Cincinnati when her mother took her to audition for a television production of The Little Match Girl; she won the part. Three years later, the family moved to the New York area, where Parker and her siblings began making the rounds of local tryouts. She made her Broadway debut that year, playing a possessed girl in William Archibald's The Innocents. She's rarely been out of the public eye since, and has never been one to shun the performance spotlight.

"Since she was two," her brother, Pippin, once told the Los Angeles Times, "she was making up songs, and we'd hear her off in her room singing -- about taking a bath, or what was for dinner -- anything."

All that singing paid off in 1977, when she auditioned for the title role in the Broadway production of Annie. She became the third actress cast in the part (after Andrea McArdle, who originated the role, and Shelley Bruce), and spent two years belting out Tomorrow for New York audiences.

Things quieted down for a bit after that, perhaps because teens often have trouble getting cast when, as adolescents, they cease being conventionally cute. But the main reason, Parker says, is that her parents weren't comfortable with the idea of her becoming a television star.

"They wanted me to be smart," Parker says. "They were encouraging, and rather forceful. Early on, my parents didn't want me to do TV; they didn't allow me to do TV. Back then, I got (offered) a lot of TV series, three or four. They wouldn't let me do any of them."

Her parents relented when their 16-year-old daughter was offered the role of Patty Greene, the brainy, bespectacled, eager-to-please high-school outsider at the center of Square Pegs. The cutting-edge sitcom (The Waitresses, one of the great below-the-radar rock bands of the 1980s, did the theme song), lasted only a season on NBC. But it put Parker on Hollywood's short list of young actresses to watch.

Her path was clear

By this time, Parker was determined to tough it out. Her experience with Square Pegs ("I really loved that show," she says), combined with her subsequent role in the critical success of Michael Brady's play To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (Parker was cast as the title character's young daughter), convinced her to embrace performing as a profession.

"Then I knew that I wasn't going to college," she says. "It wasn't a conversation that I had with myself, but it was a realization, like, 'This is what I'm going to be doing. This is hard. I'm going to have to audition every day. But this is my life.' "

Those words suggest a strong work ethic, and Parker very much has that. Nearly everyone who works with her praises her professionalism; "She knows how to do this forwards and backward," says Tom Dey, her director on Failure to Launch. And though her sweet nature might suggest a hesitancy to criticize others, she doesn't hold back when assessing those who view acting as some sort of lark.

"The greatest problem of all is convincing somebody that work matters," Parker says, sounding for once more exasperated than effervescent. "This is really a uniquely vulgar time of celebrity, where people are celebrated who have accomplished literally nothing. You want to say to a young person, 'Desire the work, desire good work. Don't desire fame, it's nothing. Don't desire money, because it's a nowhere road."

She's equally critical of audiences she sees as being less and less discriminating when it comes to which movies they'll flock to see.

"I feel like I'm competing against 16-year-old boys wanting to see movies for knuckleheads, that's what I feel like I'm competing against," she says. "There was a time (when) going to the movies, the mid-'70s until about five, seven years ago, there were always these adult films, and they made money, they made their money back. It wasn't such a risk. I feel I have to compete with an audience's taste."

Even after Square Pegs and To Gillian, Parker spent years honing her craft, showing up in forgettable films and being regarded as little more than window dressing. It wasn't until she was cast as Steve Martin's ditzy, good-hearted girlfriend SanDeE* in 1991's L.A. Story that audiences really began to notice her. "Everything that has happened to me is because of Steve," she once told the New York Times. "Everything. I don't know how to thank him. He just stood there and let me be extremely large in that movie."

A series of strong performances in solid pictures, mostly comedies, followed: as a frustrated, frantic bride-to-be in Honeymoon In Vegas (1992); the sweater-wearing girlfriend of a transvestite Hollywood director in Ed Wood (1994); an air-headed trophy bride in The First Wives Club (1996); a self-absorbed actress in State and Main (2000). She even played Nell Fenwick in the 1999 live-action version of Dudley Do-Right.

Then came Carrie

Still, Parker might have a remained a minor, if well-respected, film figure, had Sex & the City not come along in 1998. Cast as Carrie Bradshaw, a sex columnist for a New York newspaper (based on Candace Bushnell and her columns for the New York Observer), Parker turned the role into a showcase for her irrepressible personality and her impeccable fashion sense. She and her three relationship-challenged pals (played by Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis and Kim Cattrall) spent six years navigating the pitfalls of big-city life; in the process, they became one of New York's greatest marketing tools. So popular was the series, and so inextricably linked was it to the city, that entrepreneurs offered Sex & the City-inspired tours of New York.

The series ended in 2004, after Parker decided to concentrate on movie projects that would leave her more time to spend with her family. Its popularity continues -- newly repackaged DVD sets of selected episodes were released last week -- and Parker (who won an Emmy and four Golden Globes for playing Carrie) stills cherishes her association with the show.

"There are things (about it) that I'll probably miss as long as I have cognitive thinking," she says, "until I'm senile and make up my memories. I like being nostalgic for it; I like being reminded of it. I like people still talking about it."

Even as she approaches her 40th birthday, a point of reckoning for many actresses in today's youth-obsessed culture, Parker remains upbeat. In the past year, she's starred in both Strangers With Candy and The Family Stone, as well as the forthcoming Failure to Launch, in which she plays a woman hired to entice stay-at-home-son Matthew McConaughey to move out of his parents' house. She's still getting plenty of good scripts to read, she says, and believes that things may be looking up for actresses who are no longer ingenues.

"There are new, inventive, exciting ways to make a romantic comedy," she says, "movies that are of interest, with adult themes, sophisticated themes. If there's a way to do them and have them be cost-effective in some way, then we will all benefit, all of us women who want to play interesting roles."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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