Let’s get one thing clear: Divorce is not a continuation of Sex and the City in any way. It’s not Carrie Bradshaw in the suburbs. Frances, an executive recruiter and mother of two living in upstate New York, “is different,” Sarah Jessica Parker tells ET, as she has told press time and time again, about her highly anticipated return to TV on the new HBO dramedy, her first major role in 12 years since playing Carrie on that other HBO series. “She has a different relationship to men, to romance, to money, to New York City, to children, to commitments.”
“Frances is not nearly as buoyant, as technicolor,” she continues, referring to Carrie’s much louder personality and esthetic. “Still waters run deep with her.”
In fact, the first scene audiences see when the show premieres on Sunday, Oct. 9 will dispel any notion that this is Carrie’s unwritten future. What would normally be Carrie preening into the bathroom mirror as she gets ready for a date becomes Frances examining her aging beauty when her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church), comes in to chide her about fair use of bathroom. “I was forced to take a sh*t in this coffee can [gesturing toward a Folger’s container in his hand] in the garage. Just wanted you to know,” he says dryly, to which she replies with a middle finger.
While the opening scene puts Carrie squarely behind her, letting Parker embrace her new life as Frances, the actress says it wasn’t necessarily a priority to make that distinction so clear. “You can’t produce a show thinking, ‘How will I be different so people stop seeing one thing or another?’” Parker says. “You have to have the courage of your convictions -- and I’ve wanted to tell this story for a really long time.”
That story, about an unhappy married couple, is about more than the title lets on. “Surprisingly and to much frustration, you actually need this other person to be divorced,” Parker says, explaining that it goes beyond a courtroom, not intently focused on the judicial outcome of the separation. “You’re really, in some cases, needing to be more connected during the divorce than you may have been in the most recent past in your marriage.” So, in many ways, it’s about two people -- in this case: Frances and Robert -- coming together in order to pull apart their marriage and figure out what it means to be single in relation to each other. “Who are we as divorced people?”
Trying to answer that question has not been easy. On the process of developing the show, Parker admits that she “didn’t know how to go about it and the story was told lots of ways.” But in 2014, HBO introduced Parker and creator Sharon Horgan, who since earned an Emmy nomination for writing the breakout Amazon series Catastrophe, and the show started coming together. Eventually Paul Simms, who worked on Girls and The Larry Sanders Show, came on board as showrunner. Between the three, and even with feedback from Church, Divorce started finding its voice.
“Everything was subject to revision and rethinking,” Church says of offering notes on scripts very early in the process. “Even when doing the first 10 episodes, a lot of it was, ‘Let's just see how things develop.’”
While Parker knew she wanted to produce the series, starring in it was never a consideration -- at least at first. “Once I was made aware that [HBO] wanted me to play the part, it was a question of ‘was I ready to take on a huge responsibility?’” she says.
When Sex and the City ended in 2004, Parker focused her attention on her family, no longer willing to commit to those 80 to 100-hour work weeks the series required of her. James, her first son with husband Matthew Broderick, was only 2 at the time, and the couple eventually had twins, Marion and Tabitha, via a surrogate in 2009. Now, James is 13 and her twins are 7 and can express how they feel about her going back to work. “I had the blessings of my son and my husband in a way that's meaningful to me,” Parker says of feeling confident about returning to set.
But there’s also “Sarah Jessica Parker” the brand, which has expanded beyond acting. Not only is she the vice chair of the New York City Ballet’s board of directors, which hosted its annual fall gala on Sept. 20, Parker also has a fragrance line and the SJP shoe collection, which is now carried at Bloomingdales and Nordstrom.
“I know what it takes to produce a show. I know what I ask of myself. I know what it means for time away,” Parker says of coming to terms with returning to TV in a way that didn’t require her to abandon her other obligations -- family, philanthropic, business or otherwise. “Once I knew I could sort all those things out, I felt, ‘Yes, I’m actually ready.’”
Now, it’s just a matter of finding out if audiences are ready for this new chapter. “It’s up to us to make it worth the viewers’ time and ask of them for this space of 30 minutes,” Parker says, knowing it takes more than just attaching a name to a show to garner a hit. But there’s been a level of excitement building for Parker’s big HBO comeback series, especially over the last few months as the first teaser trailer and images were released. But Parker says she doesn’t pay attention to all of that -- and wasn’t aware of the anticipation during production. “I'm really pleased that I wasn't privy to any of those conversations or any of that peripheral noise because I probably would have internalized it in a way that might not have been great.”
For Horgan, it went all the way back to the first day of writing. “I couldn't think about it, because if I had thought about it, I would freeze,” she says about trying to ignore the obvious. “Everything I've ever done has always been a small show, but just by luck or chance that it kind of became something. Whereas this, this started out as something -- before I even put pen to paper. I felt a huge pressure but also it was a ridiculous situation to be in, to be writing for someone that good and that well-known.”
Unaware of it while filming, Church got his first taste of excitement during the Television Critics Association press tour in late July, when reporters surrounded Parker after the show’s panel. “That was the first time I was like, ‘This is a really big deal,’” he says, adding that as the anticipation grows, there’s been some hesitation. “I hope the expectations are not absurdly outsized because it’s not a big, sensational show.”
“Compared to Sex and the City, it’s a much smaller, more human story,” Church says, almost reiterating Parker’s point about Frances and Divorce. “I think she’s a very different person, but her story’s being told across the globe frankly right now,” Parker says.
“I think lives are interesting, and that sounds like a very general statement but I think lives that we don't always talk about are, for me, the ones I'm most wanting to explore. People’s lives and choices and big changes and obstacles can be interesting,” she concludes. “I think there's something there.”