Sarah Jessica Parker wafts into a hotel suite at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, a vision of fragrant, fashion-forward loveliness. She’s wearing a gown by Giambattista Valli, she tinkles lightly thanks to the jewellery that encrusts her wrists and fingers, smiles brightly and quickly fills the room with her capacious personality and, well, with her smell.
“It’s my new fragrance,” she says, meaning one she’s launched rather than one she bought in duty free on the flight from New York. “It’s called Stash,” she reveals of the avowedly “gender-neutral” scent that’s not yet, at this point, in the shops.
It seems that the beloved SJP of pop culture and fashion magazine lore – the actor who not only portrayed but embodied style maven Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City – lives on, albeit off-screen (although that’s about to change) six years after the quartet had a final (allegedly) outing in the woeful (I’m told) second film adaptation.
SJP in Sex and the City
But the 51-year-old doesn’t always look fabulous, “I really don’t,” Parker insists with a laugh. Like all of us there are times when she dresses for practicality. “If I’m running the kids to school in New York City,” she says of her three children with husband Matthew Broderick, “and you’re just getting them out the door and what’s important is to be punctual – and if it’s freezing and raining or snowing – you dress for the day. But for an occasion like today I really wanted to be shined up and present the best version of myself,” she beams.
“We all make choices about what we wear,” she adds, although such is Parker’s flawlessness, I’m lambasting myself for “choosing” a boring T-shirt.
Parker is, however, box-fresh and pin-sharp, and also wildly enthusiastic about her new project. Divorce is an HBO comedy series in which Parker and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) play a married couple who are in the course of becoming separated. The suburban New Yorkers have two teens, two increasingly separate lives and one affair – Parker’s Frances, a corporate recruiter, is sleeping with a muesli-making academic played, hilariously, by Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement. Co-written by Britain’s writer-of-the-moment Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe), the laughs in Divorce come thick, fast and bittersweet.
So what made her return to TV more than ten years after SATC, having reportedly said that she would never do a TV show again? “I was interested in marriage as a landscape,” she says. “I just felt like I hadn’t seen anything in this truthful, kind of raw way. I loved that cinema in the 1970s was female-centric,” she adds, mentioning the 1978 comedy drama An Unmarried Woman, “and I just thought we hadn’t seen this story on television.
Thomas Haden Church and SJP as troubled spouses in Divorce
“I was developing this for years as a producer,” she continues. “And I wasn’t going to play Frances…” Only belatedly did she say to her producing partners: “So, I’m playing Frances.”
So what made her change her mind? “Because, honestly, I had been picturing of lots of other people – and I will not say their names, so no one’s reading this going, ‘Arrgh, darnit!’
“But I really had to think about it [taking the role of Frances] because I knew what it took to produce and act, what it deserved time-wise and what it meant to my family. But it was hard to say no to.”
Horgan has written the pilot, but Parker admits she didn’t hire her because of the runaway success, on both sides of the Atlantic, of her Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe. When the pair met for lunch at HBO’s suggestion, “I hadn’t seen Catastrophe. I had just read spec scripts of Sharon’s, and liked her voice,” she says, smiling again. “In the pilot there’s a truth that allows for both humour and profound sadness. She’s created the exact music that I wanted.”
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney as a dysfunctional couple in Catastrophe
Also appealing was the difference between Frances and Carrie. “We only see fashion in that she’s required to wear clothing,” she says. “It’s not appropriate for Frances to be someone who has a relationship with fashion beyond the limited choices that exist in her limited closet. That’s a really big part of her story. She thinks about how she looks when she leaves the house, but doesn’t have a rabid affection for clothing.”
And just in case there were any doubts that this is Sex and the City: The Middle-Aged Years… “I understood in advance there would be that question. But when you look at the character, she is so strikingly different [from Carrie]. Her life, her choices, her surroundings, her economic place in the world… Her relationship with a man, with clothing, with others – it’s a very different tone.
“But we didn’t do that to be different,” she adds firmly. “And I recognise that I look like me!” she beams. “And I still mostly walk like me. So that person walks like Carrie. But she also walks like Frances. The storytelling is very different. There’s not the same kind of buoyancy in this show; the frivolity that was innate to Sex and the City does not exist here. But I don’t feel defensive,” she concludes, definitely non-defensively. “I’m comfortable illuminating what I believe are the distinctions.”
The Sex and the City gang
And what of returning to that world? After donning Frances’s dowdy clothes, tramping the humdrum streets of Hastings-on-Hudson (a real commuter town north of the city) and acting out the pain of a divorce (albeit humorously), does Parker hanker after some of that frivolity again? Might she find herself in Carrie’s Manolos one last time?
“We always feel honour-bound to those women who gave their dollars not just to pay for movie tickets but also all those years on HBO. So we feel it better be worth it again to ask for anybody’s time and money.
“For all of us to be together again and shoot on the streets of New York is a very nice idea. But no matter how much people may or may not want us to do it, we want to be considerate of that choice.”
Then, with a final witty clarification about her perfume – “Stash is not linked to moustache!” – Sarah Jessica Parker, as elegant in her sentence construction as she is in her deportment, sweeps out of the room.
Divorce begins tonight at 10:10pm on Sky Atlantic