DATE July 19, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sarah Jessica Parker talks about her life, acting
career and role on HBO's "Sex and the City"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new season of HBO's "Sex and the City" begins Sunday night. Later we'll
hear from its longtime writer and executive producer, Michael Patrick King.
First, we hear from the show's star, Sarah Jessica Parker. Yesterday she
received one of the show's 10 Emmy nominations. She's already won two Emmys
for her performance as Carrie Bradshaw. This season will be shortened to
eight episodes because Sarah Jessica Parker is pregnant, but her character is
Last season dealt with Charlotte's inability to get pregnant, Miranda's
unplanned pregnancy, Samantha's falling in love and Carrie's marriage
proposal. While rummaging through her boyfriend's things, Carrie found the
engagement ring that he planned to give her. Her response? She threw up.
Here she is at the coffee shop talking with her girlfriends.
(Soundbite from "Sex and the City" episode)
Unidentified Actress: What did the ring look like?
Ms. SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Carrie Bradshaw) Well, that's the other thing.
The ring was not good.
Unidentified Actress: What do you mean?
Ms. PARKER: It was a pear-shaped diamond...
Unidentified Actress: Oh.
Ms. PARKER: ...with a gold band.
Unidentified Actress: Oh!
Unidentified Actress: Ick!
Unidentified Actress: No wonder you threw up.
Ms. PARKER: It's just not me.
Unidentified Actress: You wear gold jewelry.
Ms. PARKER: Yeah, like ghetto gold for fun, but this is my engagement ring.
Unidentified Actress: I helped pick the ring.
Ms. PARKER: You knew about this?
Unidentified Actress: Aidan wanted a female perspective and, PS, I was a
pregnant woman shopping for a ring with a man who wasn't the baby's father.
It's not exactly my dream scenario.
Unidentified Actress: At least you're pregnant.
Unidentified Actress: Are you gonna yell at me every time I mention it?
Because we've got another seven months to go.
Ms. PARKER: I'll just say, `I'm not ready to get engaged yet, but I love you
and I want to live with you.' How does that sound?
Unidentified Actress: Like a no.
GROSS: Carrie accepted the marriage proposal with great ambivalence, but by
the end of the season, the relationship broke up and all four of the leading
characters were single again. In the final episode, Miranda gave birth to a
I spoke with Sarah Jessica Parker last summer at the Old Wailing Church in
Martha's Vineyard at a benefit for public radio station WBUR.
Let me start with something that I think people really do want to know. Could
you ever imagine living the kind of social life that Carrie Bradshaw does?
Ms. PARKER: No. No. I would be exhausted and I'm far too old. I am a New
Yorker at this point in my life. I've lived in New York City about 25 years,
so I know of these people. I know they exist. I've read about them in the
style section. I've seen them on lower Broadway hailing cabs at unseemly
hours of the night in tiny skirts. And my single life was not nearly as
colorful as that, which is perhaps why, as a married person, I enjoy playing
this part so much. You see, I have to and I--and it's sort of like legalized
illegal behavior. But I think at this point in the show, four years into the
run of the show, it's become, I think, more specific. I think it's about four
very specific women in a very specific city at a very specific time, and
there's a sort of heightened reality to it, which may not really be consistent
with single women anywhere. But I think it is the emotional journey that
people seem to have responded to.
GROSS: Two of the lead writers on the show are gay men, and some people have
speculated that some of what happens on the show, particularly what happens to
Samantha, who's the person who's really deep into sex, has more to do with,
like, the gay male experience than the experience most women have. And I
wonder what your thoughts are about that.
Ms. PARKER: Well, I guess I disagree with that because we have more female
writers than male, and we always have. And I think that they're
obviously--people's sensibilities on this show are primarily driven by the
emotional search. And if that--if the show were only that sensibility of an
idea, a cliched idea about homosexual lifestyles, then they wouldn't be able
to write Carrie with soul. And I think the beauty of a writer like Michael
Patrick King and Darren Star, who's no longer with us, is that there obviously
is a point of view and a perspective that they have because of their chosen
lifestyle, but that is not what drives the show. And I think it's fun to sort
of project onto Samantha, in a general way, that she's sort of this--a gay
But I think there is things--there are things about her that aren't
specifically about gender or lifestyle, but that it's--there--listen, the
other three women on the show are absolute archetypes and they are
intentionally so. You have Charlotte, who is hopeful, a romantic, and
Miranda--and these are bad, you know, two word choices, but who is perhaps
cynical and not trusting of love and what it might bring. And then there is
Samantha, who is so comfortable with her sexuality. But they have to remain
those for Carrie to write, for Carrie to be able to have this column.
And the other thing is I'm not even sure those people exist. I wonder if it's
Carrie's imagination, that she has this vivid imagination.
GROSS: That's interesting.
Ms. PARKER: And that I don't even know that those women exist because they're
so beautifully archetypal and because she's given them depth as the seasons
progress, that she might just be a good writer.
GROSS: Because when people watch "Sex and the City," they feel like they know
you or they want to get to know you and, you know, they want to know you above
and beyond the character. But I think they probably make a lot of false
assumptions about you if they're assuming that your character was like you.
Being in such a high visibility role and being such a strong character on
that, do people nowadays project things onto you which are just really untrue
of who you are, and does that ever cause really awkward moments?
Ms. PARKER: Yeah, I think people say very intimate things to me without
provocation. And some of it was, you know, very funny and it would be good
anecdotes for, you know, Letterman or something. But after a while I felt
that I had deceived--it made me uncomfortable because I felt like I wasn't
really deserving of it and it wasn't my place to know it because there wasn't
a lot I could do with the information except thank them, you know.
But what I've--now I think is that I had an interesting thing happen. I went
to see a play and I walked into this man's dressing room, who I don't know
well. And he said to me, `Oh, I didn't recognize you with your clothes on.'
And this is, like, a real theater--this is, like, you know, a big-time actor.
And I thought, `You are--you have made'--you know, it's a thing that I
struggle with with the show, for those people who haven't seen it, that they
assume that it's four women running around New York City searching for the
ultimate orgasm, and it's not about that. And I struggle very hard to
convince people that, without forcing them to watch the show, which I'm not,
you know, disinclined to do. I'd be happy to do that, too, but that
you're--that I don't run around naked on the show. I've never been naked on
the show. You should recognize me with clothes on because I'm, first of all,
not Carrie. And second of all, she wears clothing, less so than more. You
know, sometimes it's just a tea bag, but you could call it an outfit.
GROSS: Well, speaking of clothing, she wears, like, incredible clothes. I
mean, she has incredible outfits, and how do you dress compared to how she
Ms. PARKER: I just wear more. I'm far less daring, far less daring. And,
really, I don't think my husband would be comfortable if I dressed like that,
and I sort of honor his more...
GROSS: You mean in a very provocative way.
Ms. PARKER: Yes, provocative or, you know--yes, a lot of diaphanous things
GROSS: A lot of navels.
Ms. PARKER: ...smaller--yes, exactly. And I sort of honor that about Matthew
because it's one of the qualities I like about him. And she's just a much
more daring person and a much more eccentric dresser than I'll ever be.
GROSS: Now you've been acting virtually all your life. You were on Broadway
when you were 10. Did you want to start acting or did your mother nudge you
Ms. PARKER: Actually, my brother Toby was the first person in our house that
was an actor. And I think what happened was there was a supplement in our
local paper, in The Cincinnati Enquirer, it's called the Mini-Page, it was for
children. They had a little ad for an audition for "The Little Match Girl."
And we were taking creative dramatics classes, but everybody in the
neighborhood did. You know, it's something you did on Saturday mornings. At
the University of Cincinnati, they had this program for kids. And I was also
a dancer at the time. I was dancing with the Cincinnati Ballet Company as a
And I just saw it and I showed it to my mother and I don't know what made me
think that I even had a reason to go and stand in line and audition, but I
just said, `Can we go?' And she said, `Yes,' and she took me and I auditioned
and I got the part of "The Little Match Girl."
And at the time, what I loved about it was they paid me $500 cash, and they
gave me $5 after shooting every day--they would drop me off in time to get to
my ballet lessons with $5. And this was 1973. And at the time an ice cream
cone at Baskin Robbins was a quarter. And two hamburgers, french fries and a
Coke at McDonald's--which I wasn't allowed to have any of these things, if my
parents knew about it--was less than a dollar. So I had, basically, about $4
left every day. And I thought, you know, have--coming from no money, I
thought, `Well, this is it! This is the life!' you know?
GROSS: You're not suppose to eat McDonald's on the way to the ballet lessons.
Ms. PARKER: Of course not. Of course not. But I was fast, so I could eat
when I was a da--I would eat so fast. I would take a bag of M&Ms, and just
open my gullet, and just pour it in, 'cause I--you had to get it in you before
my mom caught me.
GROSS: What was her problem with it? What was her problem--that it wasn't
healthy or that it was too expensive?
Ms. PARKER: It was both a combination of not good for you and too expensive,
and also, my mother always knew which company was building bombs for the war
or, you know, which company shut down a nursing home in order put up a burger
chef. Or Hostess was involved with IT&T--I mean, and they were involved in
the war in Vietnam. Or the lettuce we couldn't have because of Cesar Chavez,
and they only used iceberg lettuce at McDonald's. I mean, there was a whole,
you know, heap of things. I'm surprised we didn't starve to death, with all
the rules. And all the other kids in the neighborhood would be going to,
you know, whatever the local Burger, you know, King, Chef--I don't want to
indict anybody--but we weren't allowed. We had to have homemade hamburgers,
and who wants those?
GROSS: Now your family was also on and off welfare for a while. What the
problem that caused the lack of income?
Ms. PARKER: I think just simply not being able to make enough money. My
father--my stepfather was a truck driver, my real father was a writer at the
time, and they just simply couldn't make ends meet. And my mother was
living--was not working at the time. She stopped--she was a schoolteacher and
she stopped when I was about two years old. And they simply couldn't make
enough money to do everything that was required, you know. There were many
times that we didn't have Christmas or our phones were turned off. But the
thing I want to say about that is that I didn't really know the degree to
which it was different than anybody else in our neighborhood. I knew we were
a little different when we didn't have Christmas presents, but I know that
this is not an uncommon story.
And I think the reason I didn't realize how different it was, especially
'cause I grew up in a affluent neighborhood, was my parents were very smart
about scholarships and free programs, especially in the arts. We could go to
the theater and the ballet and the symphony for free. As long as we
maintained a B average, we could take ballet lesson for free. It was a sort
of contradictory life compared to what our financial means were. But they
were smart and we listened to NPR, so we were educated.
GROSS: How did you end up in a wealthy neighborhood if you didn't have money?
Ms. PARKER: Because there was one house on the block, we always found it,
where a crazy man lived and it was in disarray and in terrible neglect. And I
think it was some tiny, tiny amount of money to buy. And so my stepfather's
mother gave them the down payment and they bought it for nothing. And it was
on a beautiful street, and it was just a wreck of a house. And we somehow
managed to make it more of a wreck of a house. So that's just another example
of my parents' sort of industrious nature, you know.
GROSS: We're listening to an interview recorded last summer with Sarah
Jessica Parker. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview we recorded last summer with Sarah
Jessica Parker at the Old Wailing Church in Martha's Vineyard.
You know, we were talking about "Sex and the City." You basically went
through puberty on stage. I mean, age 10 you were in a Harold Pinter play,
age 13, I think it was, you started "Annie" for two years on Broadway. Did
you replace Andrea McArdle or were you next in line?
Ms. PARKER: I came in when Andrea was an orphan--I mean, when she was Annie,
I came in as an orphan...
Ms. PARKER: ...and then I matriculated to the role of Annie. After her
replacement left the show, I was the third Annie.
GROSS: So, you know, if you are doing Annie ages 13 to 15, you're pretty much
kind of developing on stage and going through those sometimes really
embarrassing changes or at least puzzling changes on stage in front of people,
plus you're doing it playing a child.
Ms. PARKER: Yeah.
GROSS: So what was that like? Did it make it more difficult to go through
Ms. PARKER: I matured late. So those changes were more radical when I was
doing "Square Pegs," which were more appropriate to that show. However, there
was a conversation about two months after I took over the role of Annie. The
stage manager took me aside, and he said to me--naturally the year I took over
the role of Annie, I grew six inches in a year, naturally. So he said to
me--they they were putting out a road company and this little tiny thing came
backstage who was going to play Annie on the road, and she was easily a foot
and a half shorter than I was. And he said, `See that little girl?' and I
said, `Yes.' And he said, `You're getting too big. Put that on the back
burner,' he said, `but just put it on your back burner,' he said to me. And I
thought, `Well, what are we going to do about this? I mean, what can I'--and
I knew that he was suggesting that there was going to come a point that, if I
sat on Daddy Warbucks' lap that it would look--Daddy Warbucks' agenda--it
would switch. It would no longer be about his charitable nature, his, like,
mercy--his, like, desire to be a parent.
And I was very, very worried, and then I told somebody and they said, `Well,
you know, there's, you know, simply nothing you can do.' And I did exactly
that. I thought, `Well, you know, I don't want to be short.' I really wanted
to be taller. And then I wanted to go to high school. And I wanted my brown
hair back. Oops. And I thought, `Well, you know, he's kind of right to have
told me.' It was like this harsh life lesson, and for a second I was like,
`I'm just like Judy Garland with the pills and Louis B. Mayer. And this'll be
chapter 14 of my book,' you know?
GROSS: Well, it must have been very difficult to make the transition from,
like, child star to woman and to, you know, adult actress. I guess it was
like you had a transition, in a way, through "Square Pegs," which is a TV
series, a very good one, about high school and about a couple of misfits in
high school, so that even if you were feeling a little misfitish yourself...
Ms. PARKER: Yes.
GROSS: ...that would have been perfect for your character.
Ms. PARKER: It was exactly. And I thought a lot about that, because my
mother use to talk about this transition from child performer to adult actor,
and that there was a really big difference and expectations were different,
and that she thought what I should do is only work in the theater during that
period where the number--the way you were scrutinized was so much less,
although not--I'm not talking about the New York theater critics, but the
amount of numbers of people that you're exposed to--that you should just--she
always said to me, `Just make smart choices now. Try to do good plays in New
York where you just work on being an actor.'
And then "Square Pegs" came along and she was very reluctant to let me work in
television, very nervous about it. But she felt--my parents felt like it was
a show about real girls and real feelings and what it's like to be, in fact,
what I felt at the time, which was a misfit. I had been away from students
for a long time. The minute I left "Annie," I dyed my hair back to brown, I
went right to public high school and I tried to fit in. And, in fact, I
really didn't. I mean, I got a couple of good friends, but it felt very
right. It was a fortuitous moment, a short-lived moment, but just the sort of
right amount of time to get through, in fact, what easily could've been a
rough period if I wanted to pursue it as an actor.
GROSS: You mentioned that you're concerned about what happens, you know, in a
few years, 'cause for actresses it's much more difficult than for actors in
terms of getting roles. What are, specifically, some of your concerns?
Ms. PARKER: That I will be, you know, relegated to roles that aren't, you
know, really fleshed out and interesting, that I will be--I just don't want to
be sad about choices. I don't want to feel disappointed about the quality of
opportunities and so I try to be very realistic about what the future holds.
I mean, I look at really wonderful actresses--some of the greatest actresses
in my time, who struggle, who I've spoken to, who put their hands on their
head and say, `Who would have thought that I would feel this way? Who would
have thought that some young actress would be standing, clutching a statuette
saying, `And you! I can't believe you're in the same category as me!' you
know? And the person's like, `Oh, I can't either,' you know? You
just--that's the truth, and men seem to be more beloved and more revered and
the lines are more interesting and sexier, and it's simply not the case with
And the parts for women get younger and younger and younger. And it's not a
judgement thing, it's just a keen observation--or even not that keen. And so
you just try to be realistic and you try to remember that that's why the
theater--not to use it as a salvation, but that's one of the beauties, is
that, you know, Blythe Danner can come work in the theater in New York and do
wonderful parts all the time, and Maria Tucci and Marian Seldes and a whole
class of wonderful actresses--and Meryl Streep, because there are great roles
in the theater for women and they simply aren't completely always there in
film and more so in television, though, they are.
GROSS: One last question. Did you already know how to walk in really high
heels for "Sex and the City" or is that something you had to learn for the
Ms. PARKER: Well, I do love high heels. I love them. And I thought I walked
in them pretty well, but looking back now, I realize that I have achieved a
skill--a level of not only walking, but running in high heels. I could run a
marathon and I love the way it makes me feel and I love that my character gets
to wear those great shoes.
GROSS: Thank you so much for being with us.
Ms. PARKER: Oh, my God. This was a joy. Thank you. Thank you so much.
(Soundbite of applause)
GROSS: Sarah Jessica Parker, recorded last summer at the Old Wailing Church
on Martha's Vineyard at a benefit for public radio station WBUR. Our thanks
to our colleagues at WBUR who produced and recorded the event.
More on "Sex and the City" in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, shaping the characters and plots of "Sex and the City." We
talk with executive producer and writer Michael Patrick King. And Henry
Sheehan reviews the new movie "K-19," starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Michael Patrick King discusses the writing of the HBO
series "Sex and the City"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
HBO's "Sex and the City" begins its fifth season on Sunday. The series was
nominated for 10 Emmys yesterday, including outstanding comedy series.
Michael Patrick King was nominated for outstanding directing for a comedy
series. King is the executive producer of the series and has written for it
since the start of the series. He also wrote for "Murphy Brown" and was a
consulting producer for "Will and Grace."
The four women at the center of "Sex and the City" have gotten older since the
series premiered. Here's a scene from last season after Carrie became engaged
to her boyfriend. She realized she wasn't ready for marriage after trying on
a wedding dress breaking out in hives. Here she is with her three
(Soundbite of "Sex and the City")
Ms. SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Carrie) My body is literally rejecting the idea
of marriage. Look.
Ms. CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Miranda) Yeah, once you get a rash from a guy, it's
time to heave-ho.
Ms. PARKER: No, it's not him, it's me. I'm missing the bride gene. I should
be put in a test tube and studied.
Ms. KIM CATTRALL: (As Samantha) It's not just you. I don't want to get
Ms. PARKER: Ever? Why do we even have to get married? Why? Give me one
good reason, aside from the not wanting to die alone thing, which is something
to think about, I admit.
Ms. KRISTIN DAVIS: (As Charlotte) Well, for me, when it was good, it gave me
a sense of security.
Mr. PARKER: But I feel secure now. Things are great with us. And you know
what they say, `If it ain't broke...'
Ms. NIXON: Don't marry it.
Ms. DAVIS: What are you afraid would change?
Ms. PARKER: I don't know. Nothing. Everything.
Ms. CATTRALL: Every bride feels that way at one point.
Ms. PARKER: Well, why aren't they speaking up?
Ms. DAVIS: Carrie, I'm going to ask you an unpleasant question now. Why did
you ever say yes?
GROSS: I spoke to "Sex and the City's" executive producer and writer, Michael
Patrick King, last winter, when, as you'll hear, I had a bad cold. He told me
why the writers decided to have Carrie get involved in a long-term
relationship in the first place.
Mr. MICHAEL PATRICK KING (Executive Producer, "Sex and the City"): If we
brought a new guy in, we'd have to go over the same, you know, defense
mechanisms that any character would have. Whenever you fall in love with
somebody for the first time or you start dating, you get to delay the reality
of who you are for about six months, I think, and then the real stuff starts
to come out. And we thought, `Well, rather than bring another new guy in for
Carrie, let's bring Aidan back so we can really go beneath the surface of
where we've already gone and try to figure out what happens to her when
someone really starts to get close.'
GROSS: I'm going to stop you right there. That's very perceptive, what you
Mr. KING: Oh. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...you know, that when you fall in love with someone new you can delay
the reality of who you really are for ...(unintelligible).
Mr. KING: You know, there's that philosophy that the real person doesn't show
up till six months in. Up until that--for five months, you're just projecting
who you think they are on them.
GROSS: Oh, and the other thing is you can do what Richard Price calls `the
wonder of me' for those first few weeks or few months...
Mr. KING: Yeah.
GROSS: ...where you tell all the great stories about yourself, as if for the
first time and...
Mr. KING: Yeah, the best of you...
Mr. KING: ...from your best CD of how you talk about yourself on a date. The
other thing that's also very effective is on the first couple of dates you
perform your one-man show, which is, `You're so interesting,' at them, which
makes a delay. All you know is you're falling in love with you when you're
talking to somebody else, because they're telling you how interesting you are.
So we thought, `OK, we've done all the initial bull that you do when you meet
somebody, and now we're bringing a guy into Carrie's house and into her life,
and she has all sorts of baggage with him. And now it's like if it was a
creme brulee we can go right through the coating and into the goo and see
So the first thing we wanted to do in the season was bring Carrie right up
against her intimacy and her actual dreams of who she is as a person and what
she wants out of life. So we moved Aidan as close as we could physically and
emotionally to her. And also, we made pretty sure that Aidan was pretty close
to perfect, which then we gave him a couple of flaws, but we thought it would
be really great if she was the flawed one.
As with all the girls on the show, what we try to do when we're writing is
show that they're the problem.
GROSS: And, you know, now that you've lived with these characters for--How
many years?--four years?
Mr. KING: Well, four years. Four years.
GROSS: And now that they're in their mid-30s and not their early 30s...
Mr. KING: Right.
GROSS: ...do you feel like they have to be single in a different kind of way
than they were when they were younger?
Mr. KING: Yeah. The thing is, what we try to do--and, you know, this of
course added with the writer's imagination--but what we try to do is imagine,
you know, what a good story would be, but based on what might really happen to
these women in real life if they weren't on television. What sort of bold
steps would they make? And that's why we married Charlotte to Trey, because
she would be married. That character, looking the way she looks, with her
checklist of what she wants out of life, would just get married.
And so we thought, `Well, what would happen in life if Miranda did get
pregnant and she was 36? What would she really do?' She'd probably think,
`Ooh, this is maybe my last chance, I'--you know, Miranda has a weird ovary,
and so we just try to follow the impulse through.
And with Samantha, what we thought might be nice is if she risked the ultimate
for her, which would be love rather than just, you know, crazy, unbridled sex,
which everybody loves her for. And the thing that's so amazing about the
episode where she actually falls in love on the rooftop is that people really
responded to that. And the thing that I think is so amazing is it took us
four and a half years to give her that moment...
Mr. KING: ...whereas sometimes on network television, they say in the third
episode, `She has to be in love. We have to know that she has the ability to
love. We don't like her. She's too surface.' But for her to fall deeply in
love with somebody, we thought, `OK, it's time.' And people seem to be ready
for it. We were.
GROSS: Now Sarah Jessica Parker starts these new episodes engaged, but by the
end of the third episode she's realized she's not ready for marriage.
Mr. KING: Yeah. That was so difficult for us.
GROSS: Yeah, and when she tells Aidan that she's not ready to marry, then he
thinks the whole relationship needs to be ended.
Mr. KING: Right.
GROSS: He's not going to stick around if she's not ready to commit.
Mr. KING: Right.
GROSS: And that's, like, a real surprise for the viewers. I'm just wondering
what kind of conversations happened behind the scenes between the writers in
making what for the character is a really big decision like that.
Mr. KING: Well, there's two--the Carrie thing was really huge. Trying to
figure out in the room, with all the women writers and myself--we're trying to
figure out, `Do women want to be married? Would they just go there? What is
wrong with saying you're not sure if you want to be married?' And that was
the really heated discussion. And whenever we hit, like, a hot button in the
room like that, I always try to chase it down, because there's a--one of the
writers, Julie, who's in the room, has been living with a guy for a long time
and has no idea about getting married. She gets red. And I'm sort of like,
`What? You don't have to be with someone in order to be fulfilled.' And then
other women in the room were like, `No, she should marry him.' So it was a
real excitement to try to figure out why she wouldn't marry him.
And when we came upon the thing of giving Aidan the push when he starts
pushing her, and we went up to our prop master, Travis, who is a guy married,
and I said, `What if she took the ring off her finger? What would Aidan say?'
because Carrie wears the ring on a necklace. That was our first symptom that
something was wrong. She was trying to distance herself from traditional
marriage by making it jewelry rather than a commitment. And he said, `No, I
wouldn't want that ring on that finger because I'd want to lock this down.
I'd want the world to know she's mine.' And when I heard that I thought, `OK,
that's very male, and a woman wouldn't want to hear that, maybe.'
GROSS: What are some of the conversations that you've had behind the scenes
about how to talk about sex on "Sex and the City"? Because the four main
women characters talk about sex all the time, particularly when they meet at
Mr. KING: Right. We talk about the sex because we--you know, my feeling is
that one of the reasons people are excited about seeing the show is that we
say stuff about a week before people say it. That's it, we're just like a
week ahead. If we were four years ahead, people would say, `They're crazy,'
and turn off the television. You know, there's no--the first thing is we
decide we're going to talk about this topic because it's in the air. We feel
it's in the air and it's a little bit edgy, and primarily and foremost, it's
relatable and then we can make it be funny. And the four girls, if you
notice, never talk about sex the same way, ever. When we want to send up a
firework or really shock someone, Samantha opens her mouth. When we wanted to
show a really strong opinion about it, it's usually Miranda. When we want to
show the audience's reaction to it, the more conservative reaction to,
Charlotte will pipe in. And then when we want to show the people that are
sort of trying to figure out what they feel about what we're saying, it's
usually Carrie. Carrie's the listener, the sorter outer. So when we say,
`How do you write about these women talking about sex?' well, they talk about
it completely differently. There's, like, a very X-rated high school debate
at the coffee shop. I mean, it's like the pros and cons of this or that or
GROSS: Now in an episode that you wrote, you know, right after Carrie's
boyfriend moves in with her, she's worried that she can no longer perform her
SSB, her secret single behavior.
Mr. KING: Secret single behavior.
GROSS: And these are all the things that you do when you live alone that
you'd be really embarrassed to do in front of your lover.
Mr. KING: Right.
(Soundbite of "Sex and the City")
Ms. PARKER: I like to make a stack of saltines. I put grape jelly on them.
I eat them standing up in the kitchen reading fashion magazines.
Ms. DAVIS: Why standing up?
Ms. PARKER: It's weird, but it just feels great.
Ms. NIXON: I like to put Vaseline on my hands and put them in those Borghese
conditioning gloves while watching infomercials.
Ms. DAVIS: Before I was married, I used to study my pores in a magnifying
mirror for an hour each night, but I'm afraid Trey will just think it's weird.
Ms. PARKER: Well, he would. You can't do that stuff in front of men. What
about you, Lolita? Anything you do you wouldn't want a man to see?
Ms. CATTRALL: No.
Ms. NIXON: You know, I believe her.
GROSS: So you wrote this. Is this something you thought about a lot, all
those secret things...
Mr. KING: I think that...
GROSS: ...you do alone that you can't do with your lover around?
Mr. KING: Yeah. It's really interesting for me, and it seemed to be when I
started talking to the other writers about it, the idea that people who are
single, and have been single for a number of years, develop certain things
that they fall in love with, and they might be even aberrant. You know, they
may be just eating cereal in a bowl without breathing, just eating a lot of
cereal, which one of the writers told us that she did. She just likes to put
cereal in a bowl and eat it dry really fast. And it's just symptomatic of
when somebody moves into your life how suddenly you're visible. And it's
interesting in, like, a city like New York, where everybody's so in each
other's faces that when you close your door--and it can be in any city--when
you close your door and you're completely alone, there's a relaxed emotional
side that goes up like, `No one can see me do this. No one is seeing me do
this,' whatever it is.
And the secret single behavior we talked about on the show is all accurate to
each of the female writers that I was talking to, the gloves--putting on the
gloves with conditioning that Miranda does, and then, of course, the comedy
writer in me added `while watching infomercials,' but the actual idea of
looking at your pores for an hour--but all that stuff is really interestingly
idiosyncratic and personal, and somehow embarrassing. The most interestingly,
I think, perceptive, accurate thing I've written about myself is when Carrie
says at the end of that episode, to Aidan, `I know this is weird, but please
don't talk to me for an hour. I'm going to be behind here, you be over
there,' and then she doesn't need it. That...
GROSS: This is when she comes home...
Mr. KING: And she says...
GROSS: She's used to coming home alone and suddenly she comes home, and
there's a boyfriend there.
Mr. KING: Right. Because he's in there and he's talking to her...
GROSS: And she doesn't want to talk right away.
Mr. KING: ...and she doesn't know how to process asking for private space.
So the whole--you know, the thing about our episodes is sometimes it's a huge,
big deal over one tiny request. She didn't know how to say, `I need an hour
when no one talks to me,' because she's been single so long, she hasn't had to
ask for that. So when she actually does ask for it--and he has no problem
with it, of course, because it's her stuff, as soon as she gets it, she has,
like, 30 seconds and she's like, `I'm done. What are you doing?' And that is
accurate, I think, to who I am, the idea that you ask for something. And the
last line of the episode is, `That's the thing about needs. Sometimes when
you get them met you don't need them anymore.'
GROSS: My guest is Michael Patrick King, the executive producer and one of
the writers of "Sex and the City." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: "Sex and the City" begins its fifth season Sunday. Let's get back to
our interview with executive producer and writer Michael Patrick King,
recorded last winter.
Do you feel like you learned some of the things that you don't want to do,
things that have become cliches in terms of writing for TV, from getting
started working on other shows before you worked on "Sex and the City"?
Mr. KING: Oh, I know so much about how not to write TV, it's amazing. I had
a very blessed experience in that I started on--my first really good show was
"Murphy Brown," and that was at the height of when "Murphy Brown" was--I
started the year she got pregnant. And Diane English, who created that show
and ran it, was really spectacular. She had five writers that she respected,
and her job as the show runner, which is the executive producer, is to listen
to the voices in the room and find out what they think, and then incorporate
all those voices into one script. And so I had a really good experience
there, so I know what the target was to shoot for.
But, I mean, I've had really bad experiences where as soon as you start to
open your mouth to pitch an idea, they go, `Won't work. Can't happen. Not
likable. Don't like the character. It's only 20 minutes long. You're trying
to do too much. What's the subtext about?'
And the other thing that's really, really, I think, destructive in television
right now is there are very few shows that actually let writers write, where
you actually get a writer and say, `Oh, that's his voice. Let Michael write
that one. Let Julie write that. Let Amy write that.' Instead, they call
them gang-written scripts, where something goes wrong at the table read--these
are four-camera sitcoms I'm talking about. I really don't have any expertise
in dramas or other one-camera shows, which is what "Sex and the City" is,
which is like a little movie. But these are when you go in front of an
audience, and the audience is there and they're applauding, and they're
waiting to hear the big jokes. As soon as something goes wrong, there's a
tendency to go back to the writing room, throw out the last three months of
thoughts that you've all put into this idea, and just go like a pop beat--pop,
pop, pop, put this joke next to this joke next to this joke next to this joke.
What do you say? What do you say? And it works in terms of it makes people
laugh, but it doesn't really give you anything--in my opinion, it doesn't give
you anything to believe in or relate to. You're not tuning in every week to
see what happens to people. You're waiting to see the funny thing.
GROSS: Now you were a consultant on "Will and Grace"...
Mr. KING: Yeah.
GROSS: ...I think during the first season.
Mr. KING: We finished the first season of "Sex and the City." Darren and I
wrote all of them. It was just Darren Star and I. We did the entire season,
and then we were done before they were on the air, and we didn't know what was
going to happen. And Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, who created "Will and
Grace," asked me to come over, and I joined them for the first 12 episodes of
that series, which was really fun to start because it's an entirely different
muscle, and the writing room was really funny and they're very smart, and it
was fun to help begin to shape a new show.
GROSS: In what sense is it a different muscle than "Sex and the City"?
Mr. KING: It's the Olympics. And for years after I--you know, "Sex and the
City" came back on the air and I couldn't be on staff of "Will and Grace," but
I would go over on show night, which is in front of the audience, and they
used me as punch-up, and I would put jokes in in the moment where you're
watching a show and you go, `Maybe if,' boom, and everybody's putting jokes
in, and you run up to the actors and say them and they say them back and the
audience hears them. It's really like a vault vs., like, an Olympic swimming
event where you just have to vault, boom, off that horse and you have to hit
that mark and you know exactly right now if it worked.
GROSS: Now how do you do that without falling into the trap that you were
talking about before where it's just, like, joke, joke, joke, but there's no
real investment in the story or the character?
Mr. KING: It all comes into the individuals. I mean, joke, joke, joke can be
really good, too, if the jokes are based on character or the person pitching
them is unique and funny. But, you know, "Will and Grace" tells stories and
they're a whole other thing. They're like a millennium Noel Coward or
something. I mean, they're all about dialogue and those four characters.
And, you know, the difference between a network sitcom and what we do on HBO
is that network sitcoms are 20 minutes long, 20 minutes, 21 minutes, and I can
have my show be 30 minutes, and that seems like only nine minutes, but that's
nine minutes of character, nine minutes of story. You know, you get to go a
little bit deeper because you have that extra nine minutes. It really doesn't
matter how important the story is, because it has to end at a certain time.
Whereas I can actually pick up the phone and say to HBO, `I need two more
minutes, I need two more minutes,' and then we debate about whether I need two
more minutes, and then I do get the two minutes.
So, I mean, it's just a different animal. And then the other thing, what we
do on "Sex and the City," which is the girls are sort of--they make jokes to
make each other laugh, you know what I mean? There are jokes that we say,
`Well, that's too big of a joke.' We did a joke about the Guggenheim Museum
last year, which is a wonderfully crafted joke between four writers. You
know, when four writers are making a joke, you know it's a joke. But we made
a joke--it was an episode where Charlotte hadn't looked at her vagina, and she
says to Carrie, `Have you looked at your vagina?' and she says, `I think of it
like the Guggenheim. Whenever I'm the neighborhood, I stop by and see what's
on. But I get confused and a little dizzy.' And, you know, we thought, `Oh,
Carrie comparing her vagina to the Guggenheim, it's brilliant.' And then when
we filmed it, we went, `Well, that's just about joke writers sitting in her
head, working her like a puppet. Carrie would never say that.'
GROSS: Right. So you took it out.
Mr. KING: And eventually, the joke eventually turned into, `Carrie, have you
looked at yours?' and Carrie said, `How'd I get involved?'
Mr. KING: And that seemed more right for our show because it's Carrie's true
attitude about it rather than `Look how we clever we are. We built a joke and
now Sarah Jessica's doing it.' And she did it perfectly, but she also did
look at me like, `Is that all right?' and I knew, `OK, it's a joke. We put a
joke in the show.' And the writing in our show is more about--we get to show
off a little bit. If on "Will and Grace," they get to show off in the jokes,
we get to show off in Carrie's column or the narrative, you know what I mean,
or our turns of phrases. We have our thing, too.
GROSS: Well, Michael Patrick King, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KING: Terry, it has been my pleasure.
GROSS: Michael Patrick King, recorded last winter. He's the executive
producer of "Sex and the City," and has written and directed many episodes.
The fifth season begins Sunday on HBO.
Coming up, Henry Sheehan reviews the new movie "K-19." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New film "K-19: The Widowmaker"
TERRY GROSS, host:
"K-19: The Widowmaker" is a new movie based on a true Cold War story. It
stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson as officers of a Soviet nuclear submarine
facing a crisis at sea.
Director Katheryn Bigelow's new movie "K-19" features chases, special effects,
hardware, a mile a minute steady cam and pedal to the metal editing. So just
as summer in the northern forest brings forth the cry of the loon, so too we
have had the usual collection of media stories about how wonderful it is that
Hollywood boasts a woman who can direct action films so well. This tired but
predictable assertion begs two questions. First, what makes anyone think
there are any American men out there who can direct action movies well? I
can't think of more than two or three unless you count recent immigrants.
Secondly, what is an action movie anyway? The term itself isn't that old, and
what it means is frankly commercial.
Let's take a look at "K-19," which starts out at least in a conventional
manner. In 1961, a Soviet submarine, the titular K-19, is in a dry dock being
outfitted for a special mission. Its captain, Mikhail Polenin, played with a
appealing energy by Liam Neeson, is so outraged by the shoddiness and
inadequacies of the supplies and repairs that his unceasing protests cost him
his command. He's demoted to executive officer and his post his handed to
Alexi Vostrikov, a taciter and older man who has none of Polenin's easy
leadership abilities, and is played by Harrison Ford in his familiar, subdued
The mission involves getting close to American reconnaissance in order to
shoot a test missile that will warn NATO of Soviet military capabilities.
Vostrikov, who's been running non-stop drills that have brought the crew to
the edge of their frayed nerves, accomplishes the mission, but practically
destroys the sub in the process. His maneuvers bring the long-simmering
tensions between him and Polenin to the surface.
(Soundbite of "K-19: The Widowmaker")
Mr. HARRISON FORD ("Alexi Vostrikov"): You will be in my report for leaving
Mr. LIAM NEESON ("Captain Mikhail Polenin"): And you will be in mine. You
needlessly endangered this boat and its crew. Two hundred million Soviet
citizens are depending on us, on us Captain Vostrikov, to save them from
nuclear attack. You risked them as well.
Mr. FORD: I took this boat and these men to the edge because we need to know
where it is. These 120 men are a crew now because they achieved something
together that they did not think they could do. Next time, when there's not a
drill, they will go to the edge and past it and die if necessary, because that
is what their duty demands of them.
SHEEHAN: "K-19" is based on a true story, one that was locked way in the
Soviet archives for decades after all evidence of it was scoured from the
seas. After having accomplished its missile launch, K-19 was ordered to
patrol along the US coastline, but on its way the nuclear-powered sub twice
developed catastrophic problems with its reactor. Doubly haunted by the poor
equipment on board, both by the initial breakdown and the lack of adequate
tools, the men on board became exposed to radiation sickness. Beyond that,
the nuclear core was likely to begin a chain reaction that could have ended
with an explosion larger than the one at Hiroshima. But since this was a true
story, and we know there never was a huge mushroom cloud over the
mid-Atlantic, Bigelow can't focus merely on what the larger outcome of K-19's
nuclear crisis could be. This brings her back around to the tension between
Polenin and Vostrikov and to the way that tension coursed through the crew.
Bigelow's mastery of what's called action, or pure kinetic energy, is
superior. There is a lot of thrilling submarine work, and you can imagine
what a missile launch is like in the hands of a filmmaker who can make even a
soccer match played on arctic ice exuberantly exciting. But her real focus,
as it has been from her vampire film "Near Dark" through her extravagant
"Strange Days," is on human action. Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford both give
exceptionally good performances with the emphasis on exceptional. These two
tend to be solitary actors, uninclined to share their emotions with other
performers. Bigelow has gotten Neeson to open up, to bleed a little and thus
be the heart of the movie. Ford delivers one of those stoic turns that can be
so deadly in other films, as in the two movies he did for Sydney Pollack,
"Sabrina" and "Random Hearts." But Bigelow keeps her shots of him short and
Maybe Bigelow should have put a submarine into her last movie, "The Weight of
Water," which debuted at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival. A tale of sexual
intrigue that takes place both today and in 1873, it stars Sean Penn, Sarah
Polley and Elizabeth Hurley, but has never been released in the US. But
without that sub or that wild ride, they just can't sell it as a `Katheryn
GROSS: Henry Sheehan is a film critic based in LA.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.