Making a beeline out of her comfort zone
HomepageMaking a beeline out of her comfort zone

By Matea Gold, Times Staff Writer

The weather was bitingly cold on the wintry November day when Sarah Jessica Parker wrapped work on her latest movie, “Spinning Into Butter,” an independent film about a hate crime at a politically correct New England college. A group of parka-clad students huddled on the grassy quad of Drew University to catch a glimpse of the star, stamping their feet to stay warm and exhaling puffs of steam that hung in midair.

But Parker, dressed in a prim brown cardigan and a thin patterned dress for her part as a dean of students, seemed unfazed by the temperature as she filmed a scene outside one of the stately brick buildings.

“Relative to what I wore for all those years, this is like a snowsuit,” she joked, referring to the skimpy ensembles she used to don to prance through the streets of Manhattan as “Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw.

Besides, even if she weren’t accustomed to the frosty climate, Parker is ready to endure a little discomfort. After taking a year off in the wake of the HBO show’s six-season run, the 40-year-old has returned to a full schedule of acting projects — and this time, she’s seeking out parts that are decidedly different from the irrepressible romance-seeking columnist with whom she is most closely identified.

“It’s kind of a running theme of mine, but I prefer terror to what is comfortable and often more lucrative,” Parker said, seated in a small student lounge during a break between shots.

In the last 12 months, she undertook an eclectic trio of roles: Along with Sarah Daniels, the guilt-ridden dean wrestling with her own prejudices in the yet-to-be-released “Spinning Into Butter,” she has played an uptight fiancée in the holiday season release “The Family Stone” and a pragmatic girlfriend-for-hire in “Failure to Launch,” a romantic comedy costarring Matthew McConaughey that opens in theaters March 10.

Her friends joked that it was her “trilogy year,” but for Parker it was more than a chance to sample different personas. After three decades of acting, she finds herself at a crucial juncture in her career. She’s better known than ever (the TBS reruns of “Sex and the City” alone make her an ever-present figure on the small screen), but also ready to move beyond the show that helped secure her place in pop culture.

“I had been really happily cloistered for so long on the set of ‘Sex and the City,’ which was one of the reasons I felt it was necessary for me to leave — I could have stayed there forever,” she said. “It became very clear to me that that was probably the right time to maybe not be so comfortable.”

After leaving the series, Parker faced a problem shared by many successful television actors: that many in the public now view her as intricately bound up with the character she played for so long. Colleagues say she has dealt with that quandary in a particularly thoughtful manner.

“A lot of people coming off of television shows are either still cashing in on that character or desperately determined to prove they can violate that persona,” said Michael London, who produced “The Family Stone” and is now working with Parker on a film adaptation of the novel “Love Walked In.”

“She knows that Carrie Bradshaw is always going to be part of her, but she is very conscious of finding ways to move on and do different things without feeling like she’s reacting against Carrie Bradshaw,” London said. “That’s a really wonderful gift.”

Hardly the spoiled diva

IN person, Parker is warm, unfailingly polite — she greeted each startled student in the lounge with a handshake, asking, “Hi, how do you do?” — and remarkably willing to poke fun at her own idiosyncrasies.

She stills carts around her “Sex and the City” set coat, the hip-length, puffy white down parka she wore between takes during long days of shooting in New York. In the pocket, she keeps her lines from the last episode, along with cough drops she squirreled away when she was in Paris filming the final scenes.

Last year she took the parka with her to every new film — even to New Orleans, where she shot “Failure to Launch” during the hot and humid summer months.

“I have certain crazy rituals in my life that I just cling to because, foolishly, I think they’re going to protect me from any sadness, disappointment,” she said, grinning at her melodramatic tone. “It just makes me feel some sort of comfort and safety … like if all else fails, this was a moment where someone cared and someone loved me and I felt all right about my work.”

It was Parker herself — who not only starred in but co-executive-produced the HBO show — who made the decision with executive producer Michael Patrick King to end the series, feeling that the characters’ stories were coming to a natural conclusion. But it took some time to move on.

The backyard of the West Village brownstone she shares with her husband, Matthew Broderick, and their 3-year-old, James Wilkie, actually abuts the backyard of the building that figured in the show as Carrie’s Upper East Side apartment.

For a while, walking past that building “just broke my heart, especially certain times of year — this time of year, or winter, or a hot summer night,” she said, smiling fondly as she recalled the show’s love affair with the New York seasons.

In the year she let pass between the show’s end and starting her first post-Carrie role, she dabbled in other projects — including the creation of her own fragrance, Lovely, and a stint as the face of the Gap — and relished just being a mother, for once.

“Not to sound too, you know, overly philosophical about things, but I am at a point in my life where it’s all about the experience now,” she said. “Any time I work, it’s time away from my family, and that has real meaning to me.

“It’s a huge sacrifice for my son, I feel. I’m very conflicted about it on a daily basis.”

Her voice softened.

“I miss him so much,” she said wistfully. “I come home every day and I say, ‘I missed you so much today, James.’ And he says, ‘Why did you miss me so much? Why do you love me so much?’ And I’m like, ‘When you have a child, you will understand.’

“It’s great to have a different kind of reason to come home. It’s not for everybody, but it’s definitely for me.”

The first film she took on after her hiatus was “The Family Stone,” an ensemble drama starring Diane Keaton, Luke Wilson and Claire Danes that was the perfect project to wait for, she said. The character of Meredith Morton — brittle, tense and overwrought — was everything that Carrie Bradshaw wasn’t. Parker loved the part, but producers weren’t initially convinced that she was right for it.

As London put it, “There was that fear that no one would ever dislike her.” Ultimately, he and writer-director Thomas Bezucha concluded that Parker would actually bring a new dimension to Meredith.

“You only have to spend a couple of minutes with Sarah Jessica to know how self-challenging she is,” Bezucha said. “She did this amazing turn where she is both aggressive and vulnerable.”

But immersing herself in such an unpleasant persona was not easy. London recalled watching Parker leave the set some days on the verge of tears.

“You could see the toll that the whole thing was taking on her, of not being lovable,” he said, adding that the other actors, especially Keaton, also took delight in teasing her about it.

“It was really good for her not to be the favorite child,” London added. “I think it toughened her up and caused her to focus on her work.”

Parker said that despite the difficulties of the role — which garnered her a Golden Globe nomination — she was relieved to find herself enjoying the experience of working with new actors and an unfamiliar crew after fretting that she would never again find the kind of close relationships she had had on “Sex and the City.”

“Walking onto a new set isn’t as awful as I thought it was going to be,” she said.

“I did meet new people, and I did love new people — I don’t mean in an ‘I love ya!’ way,” she added, mimicking a tone of fake Hollywood sincerity. “No, I really care about new people, and it’s thrilling at this point in my life I’m allowed to have those kinds of opportunities.”

A sought-after leading lady

AFTER the scene at Drew University wrapped, a group of several dozen giddy students — all young women — swarmed around the actress. They thrust out copies of a recent Vogue with her on the cover, begging for autographs.

“Oh, my God, oh, my God, I just love you so much,” one blurted. “Thank you so much,” Parker replied with a friendly smile. She stood and posed for photos until a production assistant pulled her away.

For all of her desire to move beyond “Sex and the City,” Parker’s work on the series has elevated her to one of the most sought-after romantic comedy leads, said producer Scott Rudin, adding that she was his only choice for the part in “Failure to Launch.”

“On the most basic level, if you’re doing this kind of movie, she’s the first stop, and anyone who gets her is lucky to have her,” Rudin said. “She knows how to have substance in a light comedy.”

In the movie, Parker plays a woman hired by parents to date their still-living-at-home sons and persuade them to leave the nest. Once she meets McConaughey’s character and falls for him, however, things get complicated. She described the movie as “really easy, breezy.”

“I’m always like, ‘It’s a romp,’ ” Parker said with mock chagrin. “But I like a romp! Romps are necessary.”

In an odd twist, living in New Orleans’ Garden District for several months to film “Failure to Launch” also ended up informing her take on the thorny racial issues she grappled with in her next project.

Weeks after shooting wrapped, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Parker quickly got in touch with many of the local families she had met during her time there, only to be taken aback by some of their responses to the devastation — that perhaps the near-destruction of the city’s poorer communities was what New Orleans needed to “cleanse itself,” she recalled.

“I was shocked,” she said somberly.

Those sentiments underscored what she believes is the country’s need for a candid discussion about race — the theme at the heart of “Spinning Into Butter,” adapted from a play by Rebecca Gilman.

In the film — co-produced by Parker and starring Miranda Richardson, Beau Bridges and Mykelti Williamson — a hate crime at a largely white liberal arts college forces Parker’s character to confront her own prejudices.

Director Mark Brokaw said the story could easily have slipped into sentimentality, but “it’s just not in her vocabulary,” he said, adding that Parker imbued the character with a careful balance of wry intelligence and empathy. “It never goes to that place of pathos.”

Producers hope to premiere the movie, which is still being edited and has yet to find a distributor, at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

“It’s very upsetting, but it’s also really relevant and necessary,” Parker said of the subject material. “Just given recent events in this country, and politically where we are, where we find ourselves, I think it’s a conversation that’s really critical.”

Parker now has her own production company, Pretty Matches, which is developing television projects with HBO, but she says she doesn’t plan to star in any more TV series herself, largely because of the time commitment required.

Instead, she’s relishing being part of the movie business again.

“I think I felt like the last seven years I was a visitor, really kind of like a substitute teacher,” Parker said.

She already has several more projects in the works. She’s set to film “Slammer,” a musical set in the Sing Sing prison, this fall. She and London are developing a film version of Marisa de los Santos’ novel “Love Walked In,” the story of a romantic cafe manager who falls for a Cary Grant look-alike. She’s also planning to get back on the stage and recently read for a new Douglas Carter Beane play.

Besides that, Parker’s not sure what comes next.

“I just would like to find interesting things that, as a norm, terrify me and make me think that I can’t do it and work with a director who forces me to do it, and kind of see what happens,” she said. “I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.”