In Westchester’s October issue (on stands now), we caught up with Sarah Jessica Parker, the award-winning actress and star of HBO’s new, daring drama, Divorce, which premieres Sunday at 10 pm (and is available for streaming now on HBO GO and HBO NOW). Telling the story of a couple’s separation and subsequent self-discovery, the show was filmed throughout Westchester and marks a bold new chapter in the Sex and the City alum’s career. Below, we present the extended interview, which offers a surprising take on the Manhattanite’s new role and her time shooting in our county.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what defines Divorce.
Well, it’s something that I’ve been working on for about four years. I hadn’t seen a portrayal of a marriage on television in a long time that was based on reality, that wasn’t really funny or wasn’t dramatic, but was a portrayal of an American marriage and an attempt at divorce. I thought it was a landscape worth exploring. I didn’t know what that would mean or how we would tell that story, because there are obviously millions of ways of telling it. Eventually, we met with [creator] Sharon Horgan and hired her, and here we are.
What differentiates it from anything you’ve done thus far?
Everything. [Laughs] I’ve never played a character like this. I’ve never played a character who’s been married this long with children, who is entering this sort of battle-stage moment of her life that she didn’t expect, and I think divorce can be lots of things to lots of people, and I think my character and my husband’s character, played by Thomas Haden Church, think that they can handle it one way. What many people discover is that it promotes behavior in people that is surprising and unexpected, and friendships change. People are sort of parasites around divorce, and sometimes lawyers are involved. Also, money is a huge part of it, and what does that mean for people who are very middle class and maybe struggling, touched in a real way by the economic downturn in 2008?
Can you give a sense of where we first encounter the characters?
Well, we find them in the pilot episode married and headed to a party, and there’s a sort of monumental event that takes place, which allows for my character to reveal to her husband that she’s very weary in this marriage despite their efforts to salvage it at tough times. It’s really just kind of just a story of their attempt at divorce throughout the first season.
How was it working alongside Thomas Haden Church, Molly Shannon, and everyone else?
Everybody in the cast were people we were incredibly excited about. Pretty much everyone was our first choice. I’ve known Molly for a while, and I loved her, and we all thought she would be wonderful. Talia Balsam was my first choice for Dallas. I thought she would be an excellent contributor in lots of ways. Working with this cast, I describe it as being on the seniors’ golf tour—people that have been around for a long time and just been producing beautiful work as actors and storytellers. It’s like spending time with the upperclassmen, you know?
And what about reuniting with HBO?
Being home again with HBO was fantastic. It was challenging. I think the first year of a television series is always hard as you try to develop the language and the tone and teach everybody what that language means and figure out story, but we’re very pleased with it. And of course we got to spend a lot of time up in Hastings and on the Metro-North line, and that was fantastic, because I feel that it really gives the show a different look. Just how the Hudson River looks and how it feels and how it changes the tone and environment were things that we were very excited about. It’s not a part of the world that’s shot in the way we wanted to shoot it, and it’s not used often in television in the way we wanted to shoot it. We found it enormously helpful, and really, it became very much a part of our story.
In the show, what’s your character’s relationship to Westchester and the city?
This is a character who does not live in the city—she’s very different than Carrie Bradshaw—and the city fits in the distance in a way we like. It’s a place of work for her, like many commuters. The Metro-North is her connection to the city, she’s on it every day, and the city is not a romantic, aspirational place but rather a perfunctory part of her life. That I think is the case for a lot of people. That doesn’t mean they don’t have lots of sentimental and romantic notions or memories or experiences attached with New York City, but I think it’s very different to be living outside the city, to be a commuter, versus Carrie Bradshaw, plopped in the dead center of the heartbeat. We did it to tell the right story for Frances and Robert.
Do you think your own marriage informed the show?
You know it’s strange, everyone’s asking that question, and the honest response is no. This marriage is so different than my own. I’m not really interested in playing people that are like myself. That’s seemingly the easiest thing to do, although not really. One of the many exciting things about being an actor is this contractual obligation to be somebody else, and I love it. The weird thing is that it’s not because I’m unhappy being myself. [Laughs] I’ve just always loved pretending. It’s a very unique thing to have an alternate life, and it’s such an interesting exploration of feelings and personality and responses. The beauty of television is that if you get to be on the air long enough, you really live somebody else’s life for a long time. In some cases you spend more hours being that other person than you are yourself.
What do you hope, then, that Divorce communicates to its audience?
I hope that we’re offering up characters that are real, and that doesn’t mean that they’re always likeable. Sometimes they’ll be relatable, sometimes they won’t be. I guess what we’re hoping to communicate is, you know, the way you like a great book. Well, why do you like it? It’s because the characters are compelling, they’re living lives that are interesting, provocative, controversial, relatable, kind, disappointing, foolish, ill advised. I don’t think there’s a moral we’re trying to impose or offer up. I think this is one couple’s story, and I think for a lot of people, the chaos and the battles and the sadness and the humor associated with them at this time in their lives will be familiar and relatable. If not from their own lives, then from their friends or family or siblings. That’s what I hope we’re doing.