Sarah Jessica Parker is back on TV, and back on HBO, the network of her landmark comedy Sex and the City. Divorce is also a comedy but with a bit of an edge, because it’s about, of course, divorce.
Frances (Parker) has doubts about her 17 year marriage to Robert (Thomas Haden Church), but when she cheats on him he makes it clear there’s no saving their marriage. Parker spoke with reporters after a panel for the Television Critics Association over the summer about Divorce. Divorce premieres tonight at 10PM on HBO.
How did you identify with Frances?
I think anybody who wants very much to save their life and to figure it out is somebody that you can relate to. It’s not so much that I’ve been in her position, but I certainly understand somebody who feels that they want to find fulfillment. They need to rescue themselves and their lives. I think also just being a mother who’s concerned about making the right choices for her children and handling something that’s potentially so painful, how do you talk about it in a way that’s not patronizing, that is careful? That mattered a lot to me in how we talked about it. It’s not necessary to relate to the character you play at all. I mean, I don’t think Jimmy Gandolfini related to Tony Soprano. I think that’s always a question that I’m always like, “I don’t know, do you relate to every subject that you write about?” No, but you throw yourself towards something because you’re curious about it. I don’t really relate to Frances. Her life is different. She’s a much more withholding, chilly person than I am. She’s not very buoyant as you can see. She can be mean and angry but I loved playing somebody like that. I don’t need to relate to somebody. In fact, what I want very much is to not relate to somebody.
Can you learn anything from Frances?
Is it necessary to always learn? I don’t know. There’s a really amazing thing if you get to do television long enough where you’re basically in an alternate universe. It’s the weirdest thing. You’re actually living a completely different life for a long time. I don’t know that you’re in a position when you’re in the midst of it to recognize what you’re learning. I think you’re in the day to day of living a life and you’re just having these experiences. What have I learned from Frances? I don’t know. I only played her for a season.
When you spend all day fighting with your fake TV husband, do you go home and say, “Let’s not fight over little things like the toilet paper role?”
No, because the things that make me not want to fight about things are things that are happening in the world. Although I will say, having played friendships for so long, the fingerprints that were all over me were devotion to friendship. I could tell you right now, I’ve only spent a year producing this show and playing this part, which means four months, which means there’s all this work. It’s a thoughtful process right now. I’m not trying to elude the question at all but right now I’m just trying to sort it out.
Were you looking for a character who wasn’t necessarily sympathetic?
I think I just wanted to tell the story of marriage. I’ve been working on this idea for four years prior to meeting Sharon [Horgan]. We’d gone through another writer. I didn’t care about people responding well to choices Frances made. I think marriages are incredibly complicated and smart, thoughtful, evolved people make choices that are not necessarily smart actually. She’s committed 17 years to this marriage and she says they’ve been through counseling. She’s really devoted herself to making it work and she’s weary. She makes some choices that some of us might not but she’s very real. She’s a very real person and I think the more you spend time with her, the more you’ll learn about who she is, like we always do with friendship or when you meet and know somebody. The more time you spend with them, the more they reveal of who they are. You might still not care for the decision making, but you will certainly have a better sense of why they might arrive a that decision.
The comedy on Divorce isn’t so punchline driven. How did you adapt to this style of comedy?
I’ve done that kind of comedy in theater, on film. I don’t know, it doesn’t feel that radically different to me. It’s just telling a story. You’re in a scene and you’re responding to somebody. Whether the joke by the person who is giving or receiving is dialed up or dialed down doesn’t change the way you’re responding or delivering. For me, there’s a tone. I think the entire tone is something we talk a lot about but I think if you talk too much about is it different than Wings, you can’t start to pick things apart. I think you have to sit in a room and play opposite of Thomas or Molly Shannon or Charlie [Kilgore] or Tracy Letts and be a good listener and a good responder.
Did you learn anything about the process of divorce?
I did. What I learned is that it is rife with all sorts of people that relish it and enjoy it. I always had this sense of lawyers. I think there’s things about it that friends enjoy because it allows them to voice feelings and share thoughts about spouses that they were harboring. It ca bring out some selfish qualities of people. I think really smart people think ridiculously awful things. I think people are hurtful when they never thought they would be. I don’t think Frances ever intended in this marriage or in this attempted divorce to be unkind or malicious or be violent in any way. But I think it becomes very battle-like. And I see it. I’ve had family members go through divorces and close friends, people that have considered it. It can be a very emotionally charged experience.