By Dotson Rader
“Nothing in life comes easy,” Sarah Jessica Parker said. “You have to earn everything. So you have to know the difference between what you want and what you need. I always knew I needed to work.”
Parker began working at age 8, playing the lead in an after-school special filmed in her hometown of Cincinnati. Three years later, in 1976, she landed her first Broadway play, The Innocents. Then, at 13, came the lead in Annie. Other work followed, reaching a career high point with HBO’s Sex and the City. She has made 23 movies, including The Family Stone, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. Failure To Launch, a romantic comedy, opens March 10.
“Work was never about wanting fame or money,” she explained. “I loved getting the job, going to rehearsals, hanging around with a bunch of actors. I needed that the way you need water. I needed to act.”
Parker is the youngest of four kids born into a struggling family in Nelsonville, Ohio, a coal-mining town. Her parents, Stephen and Barbara Parker, separated when she was 2. A year later, her mother, now 67, remarried and moved to Cincinnati, where she had four more children. She quit teaching to raise her five sons and three daughters.
“I wasn’t raised with money and privilege,” Sarah said. “My biological father was a poet. My mother was busy with eight children, and my stepfather was a truck driver. A big part of not having money as a kid isn’t that you haven’t the stuff you want. It isn’t being without heat or the phone. It’s lying in bed late at night, worrying about your parents’ anxiety.
“It sounds crazy,” she added, “but I’m grateful for all that now. It gave me a good work ethic and sympathy for the majority of people, who aren’t rich. I feel in touch with their lives because of my upbringing.”
When she was 11, the family moved to the New York City area. Sarah landed a role in The Innocents, a play starring Claire Bloom. The experience changed her life. “Claire took me under her wing,” she recalled. “Prior to each performance, I’d go up to her dressing room and see her sit, strikingly beautiful in her bathrobe, spraying Evian water on her skin. I’d listen to her perfect enunciation and think, ‘That’s all I want—just to be like her!’”
In 1981, at 16, Parker won the part of Patty Greene, an unpopular nerd on Square Pegs, a TV sitcom. It wasn’t a Claire Bloom kind of role, but it brought her to Los Angeles. “OK, I wasn’t going to be the pretty girl,” she reasoned, “so I’ll be the cerebral best friend instead.”
Although she may not have sought wealth or fame, Parker, 40, has earned both. Love, however, was a different matter. For years, her personal life was defined by brief affairs and a long, painful romantic entanglement with a drug-addicted movie star. It was not until six years ago that Sarah married the man she admits she needed all along—actor Matthew Broderick, 43.
“With each of the men I dated, everything ran its natural course,” she stated. “I don’t feel resentful. I’m not one of those women who think men are bastards. I love men—straight men, gay men.”
I met with the actress in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where she lives with her husband and their son, James, 3. She is small—5 feet 4 and barely 100 pounds—with beautiful pale-blue eyes.
She met her first serious love, actor Robert Downey Jr., on the set of the film Firstborn in 1984. They were 19 and soon a couple. “Fairly early on,” she said, “he told me he had a drug problem. I didn’t understand it. The people I knew didn’t use drugs. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll help him.’ Addiction didn’t seem like something that would impose itself on us. I was very wrong.”
They lived together seven years, as Downey’s drug use spun out of control. “The simple answer to why I stayed with him is I loved him,” she said. “I felt that if I left, he might die. In every good and bad way, I enabled him to show up for work. If he didn’t, I’d cover for him, find him, clean him up. He was like a broken pipe with a leak that you’re constantly putting tape around and tape over tape, but you can’t stop the leaking.”
The couple broke up in 1991. “Emotionally, it was the hardest thing,” said Parker. “But I tell you truthfully, his situation broke my heart a lot less than that of thousands of Americans with drug problems who have nobody. Downey had people who loved him. Others are victims of circumstances truly beyond their control.”
That year, Parker’s career reached a major turning point with the charmingly offbeat romantic comedy L.A. Story. For the first time, she played an object of desire, and that brought roles in films such as Honeymoon in Vegas and made her a star.
The biggest change of all occurred in 1992. “I met Matthew when he was directing my brother Toby in a one-act play,” she explained. “He called me for a date. We went out, and that was it!” They lived together for five years before marrying in 1997.
Today, Parker is active in children’s charities, raising funds for New York City’s public schools and working as an ambassador for UNICEF. I asked if that work was the result of having her own child.
“No, it’s because of my own experiences as a child,” she answered. “I learned that your childhood doesn’t have to dictate the rest of your life if you’re given skills, opportunity and self-reliance.”
I asked what kind of future she wished for her son. “I’d like him to be an educated person and make contributions that are important,” she said. “But honestly? I’d rather have him happy than smart or successful. I just want happiness for him. That’s what all children need.”