On a frosty afternoon in December, Sarah Jessica Parker is tucked into a corner booth at a fashionable Italian restaurant in the West Village, her head buried in a rumpled copy not of Vogue or W, but the WestView News, a modest local publication that chronicles zoning disputes, hospital closures and other unglamorous happenings in this affluent neighborhood.
Parker, a woman who’s been a fixture in the pages of much glossier publications for the last two decades, is a major fan.
“I was just thinking on the way over here, how wonderful it is to see newspapers be so alive again and be so necessary to people,” says Parker, 52, dressed down in a loose gray sweater and jeans, her trademark mane coiled into a tidy, ballerina-style bun.
The choice of reading material speaks to Parker’s relentlessly inquisitive nature. The multi-hyphenate tends to ask a lot of questions, turning what’s supposed to be an interview about Season 2 of her series, “Divorce,” into a two-sided conversation stretching nearly two hours. This thoughtfulness extends to a fresh-faced young waiter, whose distinctive, not-quite-Russian accent piques her interest. She asks about his home country (Russia by way of Belarus, it turns out) and within minutes, has gathered much of his life story.
Parker’s seemingly genuine curiosity defies the stereotype of the self-involved actor but also serves her well in the profession, particularly as the star and hands-on executive producer of “Divorce,” which returns to HBO on Sunday.
Created by Sharon Horgan, the writer-actress best known for Amazon’s brutally funny “Catastrophe,” the series follows the marital demise of Frances (Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church), a middle-aged couple with two kids living in the Westchester suburbs. While Frances is certainly a premium-cable version of an Everywoman, with a beautiful house overlooking the Hudson River and a consistently perfect blowout, she’s also a far cry from Carrie Bradshaw, the fabulously single sex columnist Parker played for six seasons on “Sex and the City.”
In her first regular series role since that massively influential comedy ended in 2004, “Divorce” debuted to considerable interest in 2016, but critical reaction was decidedly subdued. For some, the icy tone and embittered characters were difficult to tolerate. (“It’s an intelligent, if sometimes taxing or manipulative show,” wrote Times TV critic Robert Lloyd.)
“It wasn’t a perfect season but a first season of television just isn’t,” concedes Parker. (“Sex and the City” fans may recall that show’s fumbling start.) But she expresses some exasperation with the focus on her character’s supposed flaws. “If one more person asked me in the first season, ‘Are you worried that she’s not likable?’ I was like, ‘Did anybody ask Jimmy Gandolfini if he worried that Tony Soprano was a murderer?’”
In its second outing, “Divorce” is noticeably brighter and more broadly funny. The story picks up just as Robert and Frances are finalizing their split and beginning to date again, so somewhat inevitably, the mood is a little more upbeat. (Even the snow has melted.)
Changes behind the scenes may have also contributed to the tonal shift. Shortly before the season began production, original showrunner Paul Simms departed, citing creative differences. Jenny Bicks, a former “Sex and the City” writer, was hired to replace him, and several writers who’d worked on that trailblazing series, including “He’s Just Not That Into You” co-author Liz Tuccillo, were added the writing staff.
Perhaps still sensitive to the endless “Sex and the City” comparisons, Parker is careful to note that none of this was her idea. She also expresses some apprehension about “Divorce’s” subtle tune-up, worrying that viewers will feel like they’ve pulled a “bait-and-switch” or that the show now “feels like a baked good that isn’t complex.” But there are some not-so-sweet notes ahead for Frances, who has to cope with the financial realities of opening a business and the withering resentment of her teenage daughter, Lila (Sterling Jerins).
Parker finds her character, who was, for many years, the family breadwinner supporting her dreamer of an ex-husband, “incredibly relatable,” particularly in an era when more and more professional women are outearning their partners.
The actress has been married for 20 years to actor Matthew Broderick, with whom she has three children. She says she understands the ways in which mothers, particularly working ones like Frances, tend to be the target of their children’s ire, and must grapple with the pressure to “have it all” in a way that few men do.
She cites “the big horrible” fights she sometimes has with otherwise “amazing” son James Wilkie, 15. “I’m like, ‘Why am I always blamed for stuff? Go ask Papa. I don’t make these decisions unilaterally.’ But Matthew’s like, ‘I know this must be awful, but you’re the one. It’s a badge of honor.’”
As if to underscore the Normal Woman impression, Parker nods her head in the direction of Tyra Banks, who’s air-kissing a friend a few tables away. “This place is a social mecca of fancy people, by the way,” she says. “Have you noticed?”
Friend and costar Molly Shannon, who plays Frances’ wealthy, high-strung pal Diane in the series, describes Parker as “a very different, very generous kind of superstar.” She recalls how the actress, wearing “sparkly little shoes,” walked her home in the freezing cold the night they met many years ago, when Shannon was pregnant. Her impression of Parker on the set of “Divorce” is of “a powerhouse businesswoman, eating soup, reading a book in between takes. She makes soup look so good.” (This checks out: Parker orders a bowl of spinach soup with such excitement it’s impossible not to do the same.)
In addition to her work as an actress, producer and mother, Parker has a line of shoes and handbags and recently launched a literary fiction imprint for Hogarth. Her days begin around 5:40 a.m., when she wakes to have a few minutes of quiet before making breakfast for James Wilkie. She gushes about her 8-year-old twin girls, Tabitha and Marion, likening them to “two permanent assistants” who can not only feed the cats but put the remaining food in a Ziploc with a rubber band around it.
Apparently this precociousness runs in the family. The fourth of eight children from her mother’s two marriages, Parker took on child-rearing duties, like potty-training her little brother, from a young age. (“We shared a door between our bedrooms and he would just say ‘Sawah, Sawah, take me to the potty,’” she recalls.)
Like most women in Hollywood — and the country — Parker has been thinking a lot about gender roles as allegations of abuse and harassment have jolted the industry. “I’ve been yelled at by Harvey [Weinstein]. But a lot of this really surprises me. I’m so sad for so many of the women, I just can’t believe what they have been through and what they put up with and what they didn’t talk about.”
She continues, her voice rising an octave in disbelief: “Here’s my big thing about it. If you were not given a signal — I’m not trying to be funny — why would you think anybody wants to see your penis? Why in a million years, at work, in the office ... it’s not a bouquet of flowers.”
Parker, who a few weeks later would join roughly 300 other women by signing a letter of support for Time’s Up, believes the solution lies in ratifying the long- stalled Equal Rights Amendment and shifting conversation toward “the women that are working two and three jobs, the women that don’t have childcare, the women that don’t have good schools, the women that don’t have the resources, whether familial or financial.”
If Parker is embracing yet another role as advocate, she remains happiest in front of the camera. “Acting, when it feels right and good, is still the thing that I just love. To be somebody else in a way that you’re most engaged in is really thrilling.”
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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