When Sarah Jessica Parker departed from the small screen nearly a decade ago, it seemed as if New York had lost one of its most colorful characters. Happily, the acclaimed actor has resurfaced in the backyard of the same city that made her famous in HBO’s smart, new comedy Divorce, which was filmed and is set in several Westchester towns.
Originally conceived by Parker and written by Sharon Horgan, Divorce is a slightly dark and intelligent comedy about a seemingly well-to-do couple—played by Parker and Thomas Haden Church—preparing to split. Despite the unlikely subject matter for Parker, who has long been married to actor Matthew Broderick, Divorce was a true labor of love.
“The show is something I have been working on for four years,” says Parker. “I hadn’t seen a portrayal of a marriage on television in a long time that was based on reality, one that wasn’t really funny and wasn’t dramatic but was instead a portrayal of an American marriage and an attempt at divorce. It was landscape I thought was worth exploring; I just didn’t know what that would mean or how we would tell that story, because there are obviously millions of ways to tell it.”
As the concept went through several development stages and scripts, Parker doggedly pursued the idea. All the while, she knew that Divorce would be a major departure from her Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning stint on Sex and the City. “What’s different about [the show] is everything,” she explains. “I have never played a character like this—a character who has been married this long, with children, who is entering a battle stage of her life that she didn’t expect.”
For Paul Simms, Divorce’s showrunner and executive producer, Westchester itself was a vital element of this story. “We wanted [the characters] to live in a beautiful place so that they had a beautiful backdrop for this horrible thing taking place in their lives,” says Simms, who has worked on HBO’s Larry Sanders’ Show, Flight of the Conchords, and Girls, and also created the hit ’90s sitcom News Radio. “We scouted all over the place, and the houses in Hastings-on-Hudson—one of which we selected for our main characters’ home—are just exceptional.”
Parker agrees Westchester contributed an indispensible element to the show’s tone and look. “We got to spend a lot of time in Hastings-on-Hudson, and that was fantastic because we really feel it gives the show a different look,” she shares. “It is so interesting to have the city in the distance and to experience the way the Hudson River changes the tone and environment. We were very excited about this space north of Manhattan.”
While the choice of location also had a lot to do with providing the show a more authentic feel, Simms soon found that Westchester influenced Divorce in myriad other ways. “A lot of it was about authenticity,” says Simms of the choice to shoot scenes in the county. “In the very beginning, we were just looking around Tarrytown and Hastings, but once you spend time there, you begin to get such a deeper sense of the story and characters, and I think that influenced the scripts.“
Once Thomas Haden Church, Molly Shannon, Talia Balsam, and Jemaine Clement joined the cast, both Simms and Parker knew the acting would do the writing justice. “The people involved with the show have been around for a long time and have been producing beautiful work as actors and as storytellers,” remarks Parker. “It is like spending time with the upperclassmen.”
Simms feels much the same way about Parker. “I think she is so funny, and I also think she is an actress who can pull off things that, in another actress’s hands, might seem too dark, but because it’s her, you are more willing to go along for the ride,” he muses. “And then, once we cast Thomas, it was terrific. There is a kind of combustion that happens when you have two actors like that together, especially in a story that has so much conflict.”
For Parker, this constant conflict only added to the role’s attraction. “This marriage is so different from my own, but I am not interested in playing people like myself,” she says. “One of the exciting things about being an actor is this contractual obligation to be somebody else, and I love it. …The beauty of television is that if you get to be on the air long enough, you really get to live somebody else’s life.”
Above all, Simms feels that Divorce, which premieres October 9 on HBO, will appeal to a wide audience, largely due to its overarching subject matter. “I think anyone who is married or has been in a relationship of any kind, and has fought or had those passing moments in which you really just hate the person you love, is going to enjoy this show,” he says. “You are watching characters say the things that maybe they wanted to say to each other over all of those years and experiencing the mixture of anger that comes with love.”