Sarah Jessica Parker: Life without Sex

Despite her huge TV hit, Sarah Jessica Parker tells Elaine Lipworth that she was nervous about returning to the big screen
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Sarah Jessica Parker is trying to persuade me that life is not as fabulous as it appears. I'm not convinced. The glamorous actress sitting across the table, discussing the difficulties of being a working mother, was the star of one of the most popular TV shows in recent history, Sex and the City. She made a reported $38m (£22m) modelling for Gap, has launched her own perfume, and has a slew of new films in the pipeline. She's married to the actor Matthew Broderick, and they have a young son. Surely Sarah Jessica Parker has it all.

Ostensibly, she seems self-assured. So it's hard to take her seriously when she confides that relaunching her post-Carrie Bradshaw movie career has given her sleepless nights. "It really has been terrifying," says Parker, 40, who plays a repressed, insecure businesswoman in her new film, The Family Stone, a cosy Christmas comedy with Claire Danes and Diane Keaton. "I can't begin to say how hard it was at the start of the film. I was sure I would be fired. I was playing opposite Diane Keaton and I was scared to go into work; you'd be a fool not to at least try to compete, you don't want to be the weak link. And that creates terror."

The Family Stone revolves around a dysfunctional family getting together for the holidays. Dermot Mulroney takes his fiancée home to meet the parents. But SJP's character, Meredith, is not the calibre of woman Keaton had in mind for her precious son. Keaton is theatrical as the opinionated matriarch. Her prospective daughter-in-law is highly-strung and socially inept.

"I thought Meredith Morton was radically different from Carrie Bradshaw," says Parker, explaining why she took the role. "She is such a rigid, intractable person and doesn't have people skills. She is an enormously successful business person, but such a wreck of a person."

Given her reputation as a style icon, it's not surprising that Parker was largely responsible for the look of her character. She chose severe suits, again far removed from the role she's so closely identified with. "Meredith is very tailored and finished. She comes down for breakfast 'dressed' while everyone else putters around in their pyjamas. She's all about the surface of things and never digging, which is the exact opposite of Carrie, who was just mining stuff all the time. I wanted to do this film because it was completely new and scary and challenging."

Parker is hardly a novice in the film world, having had an impressive career before Carrie Bradshaw existed. So it's interesting that she feels she has to prove herself all over again. She stole practically every scene as the delightfully giddy SanDeE in LA Story with Steve Martin in 1991, and went on to appear in Miami Rhapsody, The First Wives Club, Ed Wood and Extreme Measures. Then, in 1998, HBO's Sex and The City began with a cult following, and turned into an international phenomenon. Parker became a massive star almost overnight.

Still, she says none of her previous experience matters now. The current challenge is to avoid the obvious stereotypes and detach herself from the character of the hip Manhattan sex columnist, who has defined her for so long. "I'm not running away from Carrie Bradshaw, I don't feel burdened by the image of what she was, but it was time for me to be more of a journeyman again. While it would have been very lucrative and comfortable to do romantic comedies with familiar urban women, that really wasn't going to be interesting for me. But I do miss the show," she says. "I was very attached to Sex and the City and very attached to the cast and the wardrobe people and the whole experience of shooting in New York. We created our own family and I enjoyed that.

"So it's tough," she sighs. "Yeah, every time I start a film it's hard, it's entirely new and the kind of comfort you depend on is gone. I'm in a total panic about my next film; it's called Spinning Into Butter. I play a college dean. It's a very hard role and I don't know how I'm going to manage. The quality of actors I'm working with is so great. My first scene is with Miranda Richardson," she says reverentially, "which is completely horrifying to me because I love her and she's unbelievable and I want to be as good as her."

It's unusual to hear a star talk so candidly about fear of failure. And you don't expect it from a woman who is an A-list player as well as a formidable businesswoman. "You want to be the best you can be as an actor and the expectations that you place on yourself, and that others have for you, are big. I have this desire to please," she confesses.

It is a telling comment. Parker wants to be liked and doesn't want to come across as superior. For example, ask her about her style, and she insists that the only reason she looks so good is because "I have a team of experts round-the-clock. I'm actually not Carrie Bradshaw, you know. I'm not a shopper. I don't need a lot of clothes. I have to give these back by midnight or I turn into a pumpkin," she says, fingering the silk top she's wearing and matching beads. "I like borrowing clothes, it's like the library - you return them in good faith, then you get to borrow more."

Parker appears to be concerned about everyone around her. She's attentive to the hotel staff in Los Angeles, where we're conducting the interview, polite to publicists and warm and friendly towards journalists. "Do you have children?" she inquires when she talks about her own son, James Wilkie, who's nearly three. Two daughters, I tell her. "How do you manage? It's constant juggling, isn't it?" she says. "You're hoping that your child isn't terrifically disrupted by the choices that you make and always reminding yourself that he's the priority. It's hard, specially because women tend to put more pressure on themselves to be all things to all people and do everything exceptionally well, which is, as you know, an impossibility."

To be fair, Parker is well aware that she has very little in common with "ordinary" working mothers. "I think I'm no better at balancing it all than any other working woman in the world. But I have the financial means to have the kind of help that allows me to make the choices that I make, and that's what separates me from a lot of other women.

"What does success mean to me now? It means a full refrigerator, as many groceries as we need without worrying," she says. Of course she's not being literal, but I remark that a fridge full of food can hardly pose a problem for a star who was recently named Manhattan's wealthiest woman by New York Magazine. "I think it's hilarious. Hilarious," she shouts. "I was simultaneously flattered and insulted. It's just simply not true. There is no way. Listen, if I had that kind of money, I would be a very proud and very public philanthropist. I would fund every public library that's been shut down in our city. I would fund every ballet company and I would improve schools and have a will dictating that every child in New York be well educated.

"Of course, we do have money," she continues. "But money doesn't change my own anxieties as a mother, about not being there with my son today, for instance." Her son and his father are at home in New York.

Married to Broderick for the past eight years, Parker says the relationship works well partly because they continue to live in their Greenwich Village apartment and have never considered making Los Angeles their home. "We don't live in a town that shines such a hot spotlight on our marriage. We live in a city where the engine is not the entertainment industry," she says.

"I can't imagine a time when I would want to leave New York City. You'd have to drag me kicking and screaming from that city. Matthew would never want to. He was born and raised there, our son was born there, I've been there for 30 some years, it's my home. And our marriage is good because we've made choices in our life that protect us from the glare and allow the relationship to be real. It's great, awful, good, bad, disappointing, thrilling, you know all the things that a real marriage is and all the things that make it a good one."

Is she worried about the impact of famous parents on her son? "He doesn't have a real understanding of what my husband and I do for a living. The other day my friend said to him 'do you understand what your poppa and mama do when they go to work?'. He said 'yes, poppa rehearses and mama hair up'. It's like, that's all I am, hair up and a dress. But papa rehearses. He's the hard-working one."

Born in Nelsonville, an Ohio mining town, Parker won a role in a TV production of The Little Match Girl when she was just eight. At 12, she was starring on Broadway in Annie. She puts her success down to luck and persistence. "I've worked really hard to get success and to maintain it. But I don't think it's a gift. And I never, ever, assume that I'll continue to get great work. I assume that people will get tired of me and that it will all go away tomorrow, that it was just a lucky moment."

Parker has just finished filming Failure to Launch, a comedy with Matthew McConaughey and Kathy Bates, and will be making two more films next year, Whistle from David Mamet and Slammer, directed by Adam Shankman.

"There won't be a Sex and the City film because some of us wanted to do it and others didn't, sadly," she says. "I am busy," she adds. "And as long as I feel I'm giving my son everything he needs, then I guess it's better to be engaged than not to be. Sometimes I worry about being overwhelmed and overextended, but you know, as my friend always says - you sleep when you're dead."

'The Family Stone' opens on 16 December