'When love goes wrong, it can be war and it's terrible'
She became a small-screen icon deciphering how to find the perfect partner. Now Sarah Jessica Parker's focusing her attentions on what happens when marriages crumble. The actress tells Susan Griffin why her new series Divorce is such a labour of love
While shooting her new TV series, Divorce, Sarah Jessica Parker had no qualms about dropping the F bomb. "It's funny, because on Sex And The City, I was so careful about using the F word," reveals the actress, who played sex and dating columnist Carrie Bradshaw in the seminal show about four single friends living in New York, co-starring Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon.
"I thought because Carrie's a writer, she's thoughtful about language and would like words to describe what she was seeing or feeling."
Her new character, Frances, however, "is not thoughtful about it".
"Frances really does use the F word and she means it. It's not inconsequential. I like it very much," notes Parker, laughing.
Divorce marks her first return to HBO since the Golden Globe-winning Sex And The City ended after six series in 2004 (two movies followed in 2008 and 2010). It depicts the frustrating, devastating, complicated and seemingly never-ending process of unwinding a marriage. Conscious uncoupling it ain't.
Parker, who also serves as executive producer on the show, had been looking for something in this vein for a few years.
"There had been lots of ideas," she admits, including one that was potentially going to be titled The Affair.
Parker and Alison Benson, her partner at production company Pretty Matches, were forced to change tack though when another show with that very same title, starring Dominic West and Ruth Wilson, was green-lit.
But their determination to find a project that examined marriage did not wane.
"I hadn't seen for a long time a portrait of a middle-class marriage, a marriage inhabited by people we all see on the train, in the car next to us or at a school event," continues Parker, who has three children - James, 13 and seven-year-old twins Marion and Tabitha - with her husband of 19 years, Matthew Broderick.
"What does that look like today? How often have you gone back to try and salvage a marriage? How does it look from the outside, and what do your friends think of your spouse? How do you function, who's the breadwinner and how do the partner's disappointments affect you? Not only in terms of sympathies, but how do you see that other person?" muses the actress, without pausing for breath.
Given that so many marriages end in divorce now, it would be easy to suggest it's the norm. But as Parker points out: "For the people it's happening to, it's not ordinary - unless you're a serial divorcee. It is monumental, and if there are children involved, I imagine you feel undone.
"You feel flat-out terrible disappointment to yourself, to your spouse, and most importantly, your children. So it does happen all the time, but to the people it's happening to, for them it's a war, it's combat, it's the trenches. It's just terrible, and it doesn't matter if it happens easily for people or not. For those who loved and cared, it must feel earth-shattering."
In the opening episode of Divorce, a disastrous evening at a friend's 50th birthday party provokes Frances to reassess her marriage to Robert, played by Sideways star Thomas Haden Church.
Deciding she needs a clean break and a fresh start, Frances tells her husband they need to part ways, prompting Robert to ask: "When did it start going off the tracks in your mind?"
"Well, perhaps when you grew the moustache," Frances confesses, in a moment that perfectly sums up the show's tone.
The subject matter might not scream light relief, but the actress knew that "if we wanted to do it in a half-hour format, it had to be funny somehow".
For that reason, they were "delighted" to have Sharon Horgan, co-creator and star of Channel 4's brilliant comedy Catastrophe on board as creator and writer.
"And also Paul Simms (who wrote for The Larry Sanders Show), who I'd admired for so long," adds Parker, who was born in Ohio. "It's been a wonderful challenge to maintain it (the tone) over a season."
The actress readily admits she's always been interested in how other people live their lives. "I think we (all) are, unless I'm completely mad," she reasons. "From the time I was a little girl, my dad used to tell me to stop staring all the time. He used to say, 'You're making a spectacle of yourself', but I was always interested in everybody."
Parker was 11 when she made her Broadway debut in The Innocents, tackling the title role in Annie three years later.
"From the time I was a little girl, I've always loved to be someone else," notes the actress, whose big-screen credits include Footloose, Honeymoon In Vegas, Hocus Pocus and Failure To Launch.
"Not because I'm unhappy being myself, but rather because it's the most wonderful thing in the world to be somebody else; to spend some hours, days, years being someone else. It's this peculiar, wonderful, alternate life and, to me, endlessly fascinating."
To that end, she's keen to explore characters "least like me or Carrie".
"That's what's good for me, and makes me sick to my stomach with fear, excitement and worry, but it's what I think is necessary," she adds. She isn't opposed to returning to Sex And The City again, however, to see how Carrie, Mr Big and the girls are getting along.
"I don't think any of us have said no. I don't know whether it'd be a series or a movie, that remains an open question and discussion that will continue," says Parker. "I think that's always a possibility, definitely."
- Divorce begins on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday, 10.10pm