Sarah Jessica Parker arrives at an Upper East Side mansion for a scene in "The First Wives Club," starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, wearing a straightened blond wig, bright red geisha-style mini-dress and lips to match.
In a gilt-edged rotunda complete with Viennese detail and dripping crystal chandeliers, she sits opposite Maggie Smith's ever-proper, diamond-crusted society matron. As the knockout husband-stealer, Shelly, Parker gesticulates with her salad fork and gabs through mouthfuls of lettuce. At one point, she refers to Midler's character as a "dumpster woman."
Despite the impression she gave as the brilliantly bouncy and carefree airhead in her breakthrough role as "L.A. Story's" SanDeE* five years ago, Sarah Jessica Parker is cursed with exactly the opposite problem.
"I'm deeply neurotic," deadpans the actress, who is best known on movie sets for carrying around the New York Times and who would rather shop for kitchen tiles over clothing any day.
"I can't stand being so mean all the time," Parker says of playing Shelly. "Especially with Maggie Smith--she's the arbiter of class, talent and subtlety. How does she know I'm not like that? She doesn't know me. What if she thinks that's how I dress?"
When Parker arrives at a neighborhood Greenwich Village bistro on a Saturday afternoon in her New York camouflage--gray leggings, an oversized blue sweater and dirty-blond ringlets hanging in her face--she wears no makeup on her angelic face, except for a hint of pale lipstick.
At 30, she has finally been recognized as an exotic on-screen beauty. Though without Hollywood's magic, her nose and jaw seem stronger, her face narrower and it becomes clear why it took such a long time for her to break out of the quirky characters she was offered after her teen stint on the television series "Square Pegs."
From SanDeE* to Ed Wood's starlet paramour, Dolores Fuller, to the floppy lab-and-poodle mix she played last year in "Sylvia" at the Manhattan Theater Club, Parker not only looks different in every role she takes, she has avoided Hollywood typecasting.
But while her choices have kept her performances fresh, they have also kept her from the A-list recognition so many of her directors and co-stars believe she deserves. Perhaps it's because she's such an avid New Yorker, because she wants to do theater "all the time" or because her life outside of work is too important to her. Nonetheless, she has worked consistently for more than two decades and appeared in a dozen feature films, including "Footloose" and "Honeymoon in Vegas."
"What makes a real movie star is when you give the audience exactly what they want. Like with Woody Allen. We expect something from him, we enjoy it and want more of it," says Parker, who has recently finished a television remake of "The Sunshine Boys" with Allen and Peter Falk that will air this fall on CBS. "And I will never achieve that because that's my great fear--being the same."
But with eight new projects this year, including a starring role opposite Hugh Grant in "Extreme Measures," a thriller due out late this year, and a Broadway run in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" scheduled to begin this month opposite her boyfriend of four years, Matthew Broderick, it will be hard for Hollywood to ignore Parker much longer.
In TriStar's "If Lucy Fell," which opens Friday, Parker's witty performance proves that the attention she got in last year's Disney comedy "Miami Rhapsody" as the marriage-wary Gwyn, was well-earned. While reviewer Peter Rainer, writing in The Los Angeles Times, didn't care much for the film, he described Parker as "such a spirited performer that she elevates the sitcom . . . material into something fluffier and funnier than it has any right to be."
Because of the departure of several key executives on "Miami," including Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, the movie never made it to many cities and earned only $5.2 million at the box office. "It was a terrific disappointment," Parker says of the project she had hoped might give her pull with studios. "I had never played a role like that before--it was a role traditionally reserved for men. I know what the money people said--it could have easily been our 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' if they had just handled it right.' "
In Eric Schaeffer's "Lucy," Parker has another chance. She plays a neurotic New Yorker who agrees to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge with a friend if they don't find true love by 30.
Schaeffer, whose indie film "My Life Is in Turnaround" won him critical recognition last year, first met Parker eight years ago when he picked her up in his taxicab. When he met her again at a birthday party last year, he asked her to read his script.
"She has grace and a wonderful sense of physical humor," Schaeffer says. "Smart New York-y humor--in a great package."
He wooed her with chicken soup from the Second Avenue Deli when she was sick, and waged an aggressive campaign to sign her up for his film, then still an independent project. TriStar bought the film after Ben Stiller signed to play the role of a wacky artist, Bwick, and Parker became nervous.
"The stakes changed enormously," says Parker, who worried that Schaeffer didn't have the experience to head a studio film. "The budget grew and a different pressure was attached. I guess it was a learning experience for all of us."
As the acting veteran of the group, Parker learned to give tips where she could--a big step for the actress and the fourth of eight children, who has made a habit of watching and listening on sets.
"Sarah Jessica nailed everything in one or two takes," Schaeffer says. "Sometimes she would get a little frustrated with me. I'm still learning 10 takes does not mean doing a scene 10 different ways. Ben and I were doing these crazy improv things. Sarah would just hit the ground running."
Yet Parker says she can't watch herself on-screen without cringing. "I always have problems with my work," says Parker, pulling at her sweater absently, her brows crinkling above her blue eyes. "When you have a great experience, you're much more forgiving and far less critical, especially with yourself."
"Miami Rhapsody" director David Frankel isn't quite sure why she's not opening big-budget movies. "It's hard in films for actresses to play sophisticated and intelligent comedy, which Sarah Jessica can do," he says. "I think she is being tragically overlooked by Hollywood. For all her life she was told she was not pretty enough. But she is very smart and to me that's sexy--on top of a knockout body. She is one of the leading comediennes of her generation."
And while Parker mentions Albert Brooks among her favorite actors and searches out humorous movie scripts, most of her stage work has been dramatic. She will re-create her role as Sarah Geldhart in Jon Robin Baitz's "The Substance of Fire" on-screen this fall opposite Timothy Hutton and Ron Rifkin.
The play, about a tragedy that tears a family apart, posed an interesting challenge for Parker.
"In the movie, I finally did her justice. It was hard to feel right in that role for a long time," says Parker, who played the character on stage for more than six months in 1991-92. "The way he writes is very specific. You have to pay attention to the words. I hate using stupid actor words, but there's a subtext you have to pay attention to. I usually prefer to be more instinctual."
Though many actresses rigorously research their roles, Parker, who has never taken an acting lesson, prefers simply to think long and hard about her characters--and then worry she hasn't prepared well enough.
Daniel Sullivan directed Parker in the stage and screen versions of "Substance of Fire." "Sarah Jessica puts it together on stage slowly, bit by bit," Sullivan says. "I remember when I directed her in 'The Heidi Chronicles' in 1988, some of the other actors were frustrated because she put it together so organically, they wanted it faster. She always took the disdain of her elders in stride when they didn't feel she had the stage chops they had."
But on screen, says Sullivan, she worked differently.
"She obviously loves the camera and the camera returns the compliment. She is totally spontaneous and prepared--once the camera is on, she's immediately there."
Unlike many stars, however, Parker says she has always felt more a part of the crew than the cast. "I've never felt like I'm an above-the-line person. I always feel I'm below the line. My union instincts."
Her mother, Barbara Forste, exposed her children to rallies and protests in their youth. As a result, Parker has used her high profile to promote her own beliefs and concerns. She's been active in the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, and received a 1995 award from that group. She is also active in several AIDS causes, abortion rights and sits on the board of the ACLU.
Clearly, Parker has adeptly avoided going the route of Taffy, the dried-up ex-child actor she plays in " 'Til There Was You," to be released by Paramount in late summer. Perhaps that's why director Scott Winant was so eager to nab Parker for the role in the Jeanne Tripplehorn-Dylan McDermott romantic comedy.
Winant, who produced the television series "My So-Called Life," wanted to make sure the character wasn't a throwaway part. "Outwardly she looks like comedic relief," Winant says. "But the whole point was to show this character has weight and consequence. By the end of the movie we care deeply for her."
Perhaps growing up in Cincinnati and Athens, Ohio, in her large family, and helping out with her younger siblings saved Parker from the dangers of childhood stardom she portrays so poignantly in " 'Til There Was You."
"I really don't approve of child performers," Parker says. "Look at Macaulay Culkin--that's the best example of all the bad things that can happen. It's so sad, but on the other hand, it's so predictable. I worked as a child actor in New York City, mostly in theater, and it's an entirely different set of circumstances than making movies or a TV series. The pressures are so much less, and there's so much less money at stake. You're not a product."
In fact, Parker has been acting since she could speak. Her oldest brother, Pippin (named after Pip in "Great Expectations"), who now writes television scripts, recalls putting on plays for their parents based on books they were reading at the time.
"Sarah Jessica always had a very, very high ability to amuse herself," he says of his sister 4 1/2 years his junior. "Since she was 2, she was making up songs, and we'd hear her off in her room, singing--about taking a bath, or what was for dinner--anything." Eventually, the family moved to New York because Sarah Jessica and her siblings were getting so many jobs.
At age 8, Parker debuted on a television special called "The Little Match Girl," and soon after, she and older brother Timothy hit Broadway in a production of "The Innocents." By age 12, without formal vocal training, Parker found herself playing Broadway's third Annie. She stayed with the production for two years and eventually became a regular on the TV series "Square Pegs" at 16.
According to Pippin, Parker is now making up for lost time. "Sarah was very lucky, she worked constantly, and rarely had any time out," he says. "Now, she's much more likely to take time between jobs. People who meet her are amazed at how complete her life is. She's a very good cook, she's very domestic." She's also just completed an 11-month renovation on a TriBeCa loft she bought.
When she's not busy--as she is now, working on "First Wives Club," "How to Succeed," Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!" and "Extreme Measures"--Parker likes to sleep in and then head out with Broderick for a late breakfast at a neighborhood cafe.
"He's probably the funniest fellow I've met in my whole life," she says, adding that the rumors of a pregnancy are false and that the couple have no plans to marry soon. "He's so bright, so handsome, I think he's the most handsome man I've seen in my life. And he inspires me. I'm mad for him, totally."
Which says a lot considering her lineup of high-profile former boyfriends, including John F. Kennedy Jr. and Robert Downey Jr.
Still, she wonders if she missed out on a social life, not to mention a full education, by skipping college. "My friends that went say I didn't miss much," Parker says. "But I don't really believe that. I love information. I would like to learn to write a proper paper."
But she's attacking the classics on her own; one of her favorites is George Gissing, a contemporary of Dickens. And next she's set to take on Old English with "The Canterbury Tales."
"I just happen to love to read. That's what we did in our house," says Parker, becoming relaxed and animated as she talks about her family. "We weren't allowed to watch TV. My mother would tell us to go to bed and we'd go in the closet, turn the lights on and read."
Though she hasn't sung onstage in 16 years--since just after "Annie"--she agreed to co-star as Rosemary opposite Broderick's Tony Award-winning Finch in "How to Succeed."
"I'm so nervous acting opposite him," she says, clenching her stomach. "I don't know how we're going to manage this without laughing hysterically at each other. We do not discuss it. I don't even want to rehearse--I'm going to go onstage with a big blinder on my head--I don't know what I'm thinking."
Of course, after playing Sylvia, "How to Succeed" should be a breeze.
As the much-praised pooch (a performance filled with "truth and wit," raved the New York Times' Vincent Canby), Parker humped, sniffed, scratched, lounged and flirted her way to a hilarious incarnation of her master's midlife fantasy woman-cum-canine. She managed to flop, prance and strut about (her unkempt curls didn't hurt the dog effect) without crawling on the floor or even barking.
John Tillinger, who directed the production, says very few actresses could have pulled off the role.
"It's a difficult razor's edge thing, to do this strange dog-like behavior and keep it very real in human terms. She was very open to do anything in rehearsals, snuggle, climb on furniture, throw herself on the ground, kiss people. It was all very accurate without being in any way sentimental."
Pippin was surprised at how much of herself Parker managed to evoke in her performance as Sylvia. "She's a good listener," he says. "Directors and writers really like that because it keeps things alive. She's definitely a performer in the most generous kind of way. Sylvia was that. It was purely about Sylvia's desire to make a connection--to please."
Parker, it seems, wants to do more than simply please. "I love what I do. I'd just like to think there's a greater contribution I can make to the world. Acting can encourage a sort of self-indulgence I'd like to avoid. Maybe that means having a family--or maybe teaching or being a senator, where it's not so much about me."