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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Sarah Jessica Parker stars in the HBO comedy drama series "Divorce," which started its third and final season Monday night. She's also an executive producer of the show. Her previous HBO series "Sex And The City" ended its six-year run 15 years ago. In "Sex And The City," Parker played Carrie Bradshaw, a single woman in New York who writes a newspaper column called "Sex And The City," drawing on her own experiences with romantic relationships, friendships and fashion.
In "Divorce," Parker plays Frances, a working woman, wife and mother of two living in a suburb of New York on the Hudson River. In the first episode, she realizes she wants a divorce. Season 1 was about how the couple navigated untangling their lives and ending the marriage. Season 2 is about figuring out their lives after the divorce. In Season 3, they're each in new relationships.
Let's start with a clip from the pilot episode. Frances and her husband Robert are at a party hosted by a couple that's been married eight years. But the host and hostess got into a fight that ended when she tried to shoot him and, fortunately, missed. That incident leads Frances to have this conversation. Here's Sarah Jessica Parker as Frances and Thomas Haden Church as her husband Robert.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIVORCE")
SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Frances) How do you go from eight years of a happy marriage to wanting to blow someone's head off? What if the same thing happens to us?
THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: (As Robert) Well, I would never try and blow your head off.
PARKER: (As Frances) Are you sure? Are you really sure you would never try and blow my head off?
CHURCH: (As Robert) Yes, I am sure. Hang on. Are you not sure?
PARKER: (As Frances) When you threw my laptop out the window...
CHURCH: (As Robert) Wait. That...
PARKER: (As Frances) I specifically remember thinking that I wanted to hit you in the face with the ceramic - you know, the Chinese ceramic cat thing with the little wavy arm. I wanted to smash the cat and scalp you with one of the shards.
CHURCH: (As Robert) What the [expletive]? Are you drunk?
PARKER: (As Frances) (Laughter).
CHURCH: (As Robert) What's funny?
PARKER: (As Frances) You spent last Christmas fishing in Alaska.
CHURCH: (As Robert) No, no. Hang on a second. That's the only time of the year that the Chinook salmon run in those numbers. And you said you didn't mind.
PARKER: (As Frances) I didn't mind. It was the best Christmas I've had in years.
CHURCH: (As Robert) You're welcome.
PARKER: (As Frances) Sometimes, I come home from work, and I'm happy. I actually feel happy. And then I see your car there parked, and I realize you're home. And my heart sinks.
CHURCH: (As Robert) Is this about my old job? Is that what this is about?
PARKER: (As Frances) I want to save my life while I still care about it. I don't love you anymore. I want a divorce.
CHURCH: (As Robert, vomiting).
PARKER: (As Frances) Oh, God, Robert.
GROSS: Now let's skip ahead to Monday night's episode of "Divorce." At this point, Robert is engaged to his new girlfriend. She's pregnant, and Frances, who doesn't know about the pregnancy, has just come by to show Robert the latest co-parenting schedule for their kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIVORCE")
PARKER: (As Frances) What's going on, Robert?
CHURCH: (As Robert) I wasn't going to say anything until we were a little farther...
PARKER: (As Frances) Jackie's pregnant.
CHURCH: (As Robert) Yeah.
PARKER: (As Frances) I didn't know that you...
CHURCH: (As Robert) It wasn't planned. It just happened.
PARKER: (As Frances) Wow - all over again.
CHURCH: (As Robert) Yeah.
GROSS: Sarah Jessica Parker, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been too long since you were last on our show. (Laughter) Welcome back.
PARKER: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: I think you don't have to be divorced to have experienced some of the problems in a relationship that, when they really get out of control, will lead to divorce. But, you know, every relationship has its bumps (laughter). So what were some of the things you wanted to explore in "Divorce"? Like, you're a co-creator of the series. You're an executive producer of the series and the star. You initiated the idea and then brought in Sharon Horgan to kind of really create and write it. So what direction did you want to head in? And why did you want to head there?
PARKER: Well, I wanted to - I think we all wanted to - Sharon Horgan, myself and Alison Benson, my producing partner - I think we were most interested in the smaller stories of divorce; the stories of divorce that are not accompanied by high-powered attorneys and people that have divorced countless times and have strategic plans behind it. I think we wanted to tell the story - the first season - of just being completely embedded in battle and divorce; people who find that they are terrible at divorce because they've never done it before. And they don't know how to be strategic, that they're - you know, the counsel that they get from friends and attorneys can be not helpful, that they - that smart, decent people become villains and behave poorly. I think we wanted to explore how money affects divorce; when you don't have money, when you have debt, when there are children involved. And those realities and the stories that tend to be smaller - we were excited about the real human side of that for both parties.
GROSS: We heard some of Thomas Haden Church in the clips that we played. He's terrific in the series, and he has some very unusual line readings that I really enjoy hearing.
GROSS: Does that ever throw you? Are you ever just, like, really surprised at how the script that you've already read comes out when he's saying it?
PARKER: Always - I think he's an absolute treasure. He was my first choice. Everybody said, he'll never do it. He hasn't done television in 20 years. And I said, let's let him turn us down before we sort of...
PARKER: We turn him down, like when you sort of...
PARKER: Yes, exactly. And he said yes. And he is extraordinary. He always turned something inside out and upside down. He is a delight and a wonder and a mystery on set because you simply don't know what he's going to do.
GROSS: So speaking of divorce - so your parents divorced when you were 3 1/2. So what was the arrangement for you growing up? Because memory, I think, basically, starts at around 3 1/2, so you probably don't even remember when your parents were together.
PARKER: Yes. And, in fact, I think I was even younger. I think my parents might have - perhaps, they originally separated when I was maybe 18 months or even 2. I'm sort of mystified by how little trauma I feel about it. Like, I can't pretend that it was - in any way sort of shaped my own feelings about marriage or a relationship or what I wanted to do specifically with this show. And that might be because my mother remarried fairly quickly. And, you know, my father had a relationship fairly soon after that. And a majority of my life, these were two separate people that I didn't have to separate from myself. I don't know if that makes sense. Like, I knew them only as separate people, separate of one another. And I lived exclusively with my mother. I think it was 1967 or '68. The agreement was loose, fluid. We saw our father when we could, when his life allowed, when our life allowed. And I think they made it up as they went along. They were sort of creating the agreement in real time. And they found a way to do it without an enormous amount of trauma to the children. And we were able to maintain relationships as adults. And I think that is a victory, you know, that we maintain those relationships by choice.
GROSS: Did you spend a lot of time with your father? Did you live in both places or visit on weekends?
PARKER: One of the things, actually, that I was going to say about it is when - you know, I was so young. It was the late '60s when my parents divorced. And we were living in southeastern Ohio at the time. My mother was a schoolteacher, actually, in the foothills of Appalachia. And my father was a poet, and he had been a teacher at Ohio University and I think had perhaps gone back to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I'm not sure at that point.
But to be divorced in southeastern Ohio, there wasn't a lot of precedent, you know? It wasn't done. There weren't divorce attorneys. There wasn't a lot of advocacy, I think, really on either side for either party. So there weren't things like custody agreements - you know, arranged and visitation. To my understanding, there wasn't an agreement that was reached that everybody sort of was bound by. So we saw my father, you know, when we could. We were in school. And he moved to - eventually to Philadelphia (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, I don't think I'd known that. Yeah.
PARKER: And he became a businessman, and - a man that I'm very fond of and admiring of. And I'm grateful that they were together (laughter) - you know, got together and had children, and I have these siblings that I'm incredibly fond of and reliant upon and love very much. And I have a stepfather who also stepped in and - so we all maintain relationships in the best way that we can, and I do so without resentment.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Jessica Parker, and she stars in the HBO series "Divorce," which just started its third season last night. It's on Monday nights. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "TWELVE'S IT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Jessica Parker. She stars in the HBO series "Divorce," which just started its third season. It's on Monday nights. And HBO was the home of her famous series, "Sex And The City."
So you didn't grow up thinking that marriage is forever because your parents' marriage was kind of dissolving, you know, before you were even making memories. How did that affect your view of what marriage is or could be or whether marriage was even worth pursuing?
PARKER: I just said to a friend the other day that I don't think I ever dreamed of being married, or I didn't have fantasies about being a parent or being married. But I don't - I really don't think it's related to my upbringing. I think my family shaped me but not the marriage. I think what was more impressive to me growing up were the things my mother wanted for me - played a much bigger role in my life and in my siblings' life than her relationship with my father.
GROSS: What were those things that she wanted for you?
PARKER: She wanted us, you know, to be exposed to the arts. She wanted us to be readers. She wanted us to be curious. She wanted us to see everything we could see, hear everything we could hear, eat everything we could eat. She wanted us to feel that we were witnessing the unfamiliar.
GROSS: So I know she - that, you know, she took you to the ballet and to theater and I think the symphony. But you guys didn't have money when you were young; you were on welfare part of the time. So - those tickets are expensive. How did you get to see all that?
PARKER: Yes, so we did receive free lunches at school. There were times that we were - we existed with the help of many of those programs. But there was this wonderful period in the '70s where arts was also funded by our government, and there were programs and tickets available for free or for a very small stipend. And my mother is industrious (laughter) and smart and was always aware of any opportunity that she could afford.
And listen - there were all sorts of things we didn't have, but my mother felt those were not nearly as necessary as exposure to the arts. I mean, she really felt that your life was far more enriched by that than a Barbie doll or a television set or air conditioning (laughter) or, you know, clothes that everybody else in your grade wore or sneakers that were popular or popsicles.
GROSS: Well, you know, I think a lot of kids would not have wanted the ballet and the symphony and the theater. They would have wanted, you know, like, TV and movies...
GROSS: ...And whatever music was popular at the time. So...
GROSS: Did you share your mother's interest in that? I mean, I know you were a ballet student when you were young, so you must have been interested in it.
PARKER: I was very interested in all of it. That didn't mean that I always found the symphony, like, the most dazzling place to be. And I'm sure there were many times that I had fantasies of being at my friends' house because they were watching maybe "The Partridge Family" or "The Brady Bunch" and eating sugar...
PARKER: ...You know, or a Hostess product. But I will say that when I was in the audience at the ballet or the theater, I was engrossed and engaged, like, transported - unquestionably, nowhere else I'd rather be. I loved the discipline. I really, really wanted to be a ballet dancer. I mean, I really wanted to be Gelsey Kirkland. I really thought she was extraordinary. And what was singular to me about her - and there was a dancer in the Cincinnati Ballet company named Colleen Geisting, who I felt was similar.
But, you know, Gelsey Kirkland was one of the great American ballet dancers because she was such an exquisite actress, as you probably know. She was Russian in that way, you know, expressed so much, told us so much with her face and her body. And that was my ideal. I thought she found a way to be all the things I want to be. I want to be an actor and a ballet dancer, and she's doing both perfectly.
GROSS: So you didn't become a ballet dancer. Is that because your interests changed or because you weren't - you know, you didn't have the talent to actually make it as a professional dancer?
PARKER: When we moved to New York City in 1977 - and by that point, was already acting. And it just came to a point where I simply had to make a decision because I was adding classes at American Ballet Theatre, the school, and it was no longer possible to miss ballet classes. But my work as an actor was consuming my time and monopolizing it, and I just had to make a choice. And I remember thinking, well, I could try to be Ruth Gordon.
PARKER: She got to act, you know, until her last moments. And there will come a time when somebody says to Gelsey Kirkland or Cynthia Gregory, it's time for you to stop. And then they'll be - and I really did ask myself this. I don't think I'm - I'm not a generous enough person to say I'd be happy teaching ballet. I know I wouldn't be and knew then, and I would rather be pursuing my professional life - still doing. And so I decided...
GROSS: How old were you when you figured that out because most - yeah. Most kids don't think they'll ever get to Ruth Gordon's latter years.
GROSS: You - children don't think ahead like that.
GROSS: You think you're going to be young forever. It's hard to even envision being an adult, let alone an older adult. So how old were you when you started thinking, like, I can't retire when I'm in my late 30s, so I have to go with acting instead of ballet?
PARKER: Well, I think it's when I auditioned for "Annie," the musical, and I was cast as an orphan in the Broadway company and - as the understudy to Annie, and I knew then that I would not be able to keep dancing. And I really think either I had a conversation with somebody who was wise and articulated this argument to me, or I came to that conclusion. So I decided I would - I was going to gamble on acting.
GROSS: Do you think all the ballet work helped you as an actor? Learning so much about your body, learning to do things that most humans can't do.
PARKER: Definitely (laughter).
GROSS: Because ballet dancers are amazing in the things that they can have their bodies do. So that must have helped you in, like, moving around on stage and expressing yourself physically.
PARKER: It absolutely did, yes. It's also why I could always ask more of myself and experience pain in a different way. But I think that it also allowed me to be physical in my work, and that's not something everybody wants to do or can do or thinks of integrating. But I think even for "LA Story," being a dancer was helpful in sorting out that role, and especially because Steve Martin had written that part, and he was such a physical performer. And I thought, oh, well, I can be physical because he might write imagining a physical performance as well. And even as Carrie Bradshaw, running all the time or moving around, finding ways to be physical in lots of things has been, yeah, something that I call upon it. But it's sort of involuntary.
GROSS: You said ballet taught you to experience pain in a different way. Can you say more about that? Like, how that relates to...
PARKER: Yes, I...
GROSS: ...Your performing career and also learning how to experience pain.
PARKER: I think you understand when you're a ballet dancer that you're asking your body to do things, like an athlete, that aren't familiar until they are because you're forcing your body to learn to turn itself in all sorts of ways that we aren't actually made to do. But I think you push through pain because you want to achieve something, and so you find a place for a lack of comfort. And you don't talk about it. You don't tend to it. You accept it, and you find a way to integrate it into whatever that moment is that - when you're experiencing it.
And I know it's not relative, but running in heels, for instance - you know, they would always say, like, do you want to take your shoes off in between takes? Do you want to take your shoes off while we're changing the lens? Do you want to take your shoes off while we're moving the camera? And I would always say, no, I don't want to because I want to stay where I am until you call wrap.
And I think that just comes from, you know, getting used to pointe shoes. And when I was a ballet dancer, we weren't allowed to put lamb's wool in our pointe shoes because they thought it sort of developed a emotional and physical callus, and the lamb's wool sort of was a protective layer that eventually you were going to have to take it out in some way. So I think, for me, I know how to deal with pain because I - it's sometimes necessary to get to where you want to be or to do what you want to do.
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Jessica Parker. She's now starring in the HBO series "Divorce," which started its third season Monday. After a break, we'll talk about the #MeToo, Time's Up movement and how it's helped her rethink things that happened to her in the past. And Justin Chang will review the new art house thriller "Midsommar." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "MY BLUE HEAVEN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Sarah Jessica Parker. She stars in the HBO series "Divorce," which started its third and final season Monday. She is also an executive producer of the series. And of course she starred in the HBO series "Sex And The City."
"Sex And The City" was a kind of defining series for a lot of young women who were the same age or about to be in that age group of the characters on "Sex And The City." To what extent did you relate to the lives that they were living on the show?
PARKER: Not at all (laughter). I didn't know these women. I had read a little bit. I was really familiar with Candace Bushnell's column. I had actually read the book when it had been, you know, all those columns had been compiled into book form, those New York Observer columns. But those women or the women that we eventually played - they were not women that I knew. They were not familiar as friends that I had or even one friend. They were sort of a different species to me, which was thrilling and completely intriguing.
GROSS: So what did you do to find out more about those women since you felt so distant from them?
PARKER: Well, I relied a lot just on good writing. I spent a little time with Candace in the early days just socially. I knew that there was this culture in the city. I knew the time in which I was living. I knew our city's politics and the economy. And I knew the decadence that I was surrounded by, that we all witnessed. But we had never - my friends and I - we weren't part of it. We read about it. So I learned more as scripts were revealed and called upon the things that I had witnessed but not participated in. And that was good enough for me.
GROSS: Did you start going to clubs and certain kinds of parties just to see what that life was like?
PARKER: I didn't, not really. I mean, I think some of the events that we would be invited to - I think I would rarely - I would, you know, poke my head in. But I never went to clubs growing up. I always felt intimidated by the atmosphere, by the rope, by a guard, by someone asking my name and how many were in my party. All of it seemed forbidding. And I never felt cool enough, so I didn't do any of that. But I didn't feel it was necessary for me to understand what was being asked of me. And I loved playing her so much. I think we all loved playing those characters so much. And we were consumed by work. You know, I was working 18-, 20-hour days for years and years until I had a child.
GROSS: So now that you're in your mid-50s and the series "Sex And The City" ended nearly 15 years ago, looking back on the series, how does it look to you? What do you think really holds up? What do you think may look dated now because culture changes so quickly?
PARKER: Looking back - and I - you - one must look back at all of it, not - you know, not the latter years, which maybe - it might be easier - I would say, yeah, there's a lot that speaks of its time. But there is some truth, I think, in that, even if it's not ideal, frankly. I think I was having a conversation with somebody about, obviously, the lack of diversity in terms of women of color, for instance. Let's start with that, right? It's hard to not see that, I think. I think lots of people would agree.
What's interesting is that was reflective of a particular group in New York City - right? - who were not surrounding themselves with women of color. Their friend group on the Upper East Side - it was not colorful. So there is that. And I think, you know, if you made the show today, that would be really - one must look at how you would want to tell that story in all its truthfulness.
So there's that. I think the way we talk about money was very specific of its time. I think, you know, we were having conversations about women's empowerment, but they were before what's happened in this country in the last two years, less than two years.
GROSS: Before the #MeToo movement.
PARKER: Correct, yeah, but they weren't the kind of conversations women are having today. But that's because culturally and politically, that was where we were.
GROSS: Can you give me an example of, like, a conversation or an experience that you - that was interpreted one way then that you'd interpret differently now?
PARKER: I would bet that in the pilot - and I can't - I don't say this with a huge amount of conviction, but there is a whole - sort of the thesis of Carrie is - Carrie's thesis is, I want to have sex like a man - right? - I think. I'm just so - I would be so interested to watch that today and wonder what that conversation would be like today. That's just one.
I think there would probably have been countless conversations with Miranda, Cynthia Nixon's character, talking about, you know, her work, how she's treated at the office. I think there were lots of conversations about how she felt she was being treated as a partner in a law firm or not yet partner in a law firm or what was expected of her to become a partner in a law firm - be so curious to hear everybody's opinions about that, you know, what advice they were giving Miranda, how out of touch that might sound today. But that wasn't because Michael Patrick King and Darren Star or initially Darren Star and then Michael Patrick King were not evolved. They were pushing that conversation as far as we had yet gone. And for many, that was too much even.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us...
GROSS: ...My guest is Sarah Jessica Parker. She stars in the series "Divorce." She's an executive producer of the series. And it just started its third season on HBO this week. It's now on Monday nights. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LARY BARILLEAU AND THE LATIN JAZZ COLLECTIVE'S, "CARMEN'S MAMBO")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Jessica Parker. And, of course, she's famous for the HBO series "Sex And The City," and now she stars in "Divorce" on HBO. The third season just started this week. It's now on Monday nights.
Can I ask - like, in your own life, you got into show business when you were a child, basically. Did you have experiences with men behaving inappropriately with you, taking advantage - trying to take advantage of you?
PARKER: Yes. And it's interesting or curious to me that I didn't spend any time thinking about any of that until the conversation was being explored beyond those initial New York Times articles. Because those were so specific to Harvey. But it really wasn't, I would say, until about six or eight months ago that I started recognizing countless experiences of men behaving poorly, inappropriately, and all the ways that I had made it possible to keep coming to work, or to remain on set or to simply, as I've described it, just push it down, push it away, find a little space for it and move on.
And really only on one occasion did I ever call an agent. And the agent stepped in, I will say, immediately without hesitation, had no problems calling on and calling out the parties that were behaving not only inappropriately but perhaps even, I would say, they weren't living up to contractual obligations, as well. But I always found a spot and really just didn't allow it to consume me. I don't know if I'm just - I don't know why, to be honest. I don't know why I either wasn't courageous or more destroyed by some of the things that I was privy to, that I was on the receiving end of.
GROSS: Did you know how to draw the line and say no? I think it's hard for when you're young. And especially if it's somebody who's in a position of authority, you know, who's either casting you, or directing you or the adult star when you're the kid. I don't know what happened so I'm just...
PARKER: That's right.
GROSS: ...Like, throwing out some categories.
PARKER: All of it.
PARKER: You can - that's right. You did it. (Laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So how do you know how to say stop when you're the kid and everybody else is the adult with the power, and the authority, and the knowledge and, you know, the acclaim and all of that?
PARKER: Sometimes it was making deals, trying to be witty and clever and use the information that I had about this other party. Maybe their politics. Maybe making a joke - you know, if you continue doing that, I'll tell everybody that you're, you know, voting for George Bush in the next elect - you know? I would try to find ways with language. I did things like have a friend spend the night and answer my phone.
PARKER: I remember in a hotel once...
PARKER: ...I asked a male friend of mine if he would stay in the hotel room with me and just answer the phone and simply say I wasn't there. I never - I don't recall saying no. This is very weird about this. And I don't know if I'm ashamed of that or if I simply found a host of other words that said no in other ways. And I do think I probably was nervous about saying the word no, that it jeopardized my place, my work.
GROSS: So it sounds like you found ways of blocking men who were speaking or behaving inappropriately without necessarily literally saying, no, you cannot do that. But you block - you found ways to stop them, anyways.
PARKER: Yes. I think I found ways as best as I was able, yes.
GROSS: And why do you think that you didn't think about this until, like, the #MeToo movement, and then you started kind of putting it together and seeing a pattern and feeling, yeah, that happened to me?
PARKER: I think no matter how evolved you think you are, how modern you think - well, I will say, no matter how evolved or how modern I thought I was, I think that I didn't feel entirely in a position, no matter what my role was on set. I didn't feel as powerful as the man who was behaving inappropriately, which, it just strikes me as just stunning to say out loud. Because there were plenty of occasions where it was happening, and I was in a different position, and I was as powerful. I mean, I had every right to say, this is inappropriate. I could have happily - I think I had every - I could have felt safe in going to a superior and say - and in fact, I will say, when there was a situation with somebody and I did go to my agent because I felt I was no longer able to convey how uncomfortable this was making me, how inappropriate it was and also that it was crossing lines outside of this personal exchange, I felt like there were - I felt like if a government authority was witness to what was happening, you know, if it was an environmental issue, OSHA would've been called in.
You know? Like, if we were shooting and it was 2 degrees, they would've said no. So I called my agent, and he - it was fascinating. Within hours, everything had changed. And in fact, I will also say he said to them, if this continues, I have sent her a ticket, a one-way ticket out of this city, where I was shooting, and she will not be returning.
GROSS: Wow. So it was effective in getting the inappropriate behavior to stop. But what was life for you on the set after that?
PARKER: It wasn't perfectly pleasant, but I didn't have to be coy any longer, and I didn't have to dread a potential conversation. I didn't have to listen to jokes about me or my figure or what people thought they could talk me into doing - you know, all these men, all these men. And that just - that stopped. I mean, the nature of the person who I felt was really the instigator - though, you know, this was a grown man, a very big movie star. And, you know, he was baked, meaning his personality; it was cooked. And he was a formed person, and that wasn't going to change. But I felt certainly better and safer, like I could finish what I had agreed to do.
GROSS: When "Girls" came on HBO, a lot of critics and viewers started comparing it to "Sex And The City" because it seemed like, well, this is, like, a new generation's version and this generation's story of being in its 20s. And I think the characters were younger on "Girls" than on "Sex And The City" - but that their story's, like, really different. Their attitudes toward sex is different. The kinds of lives they're leading is different. They have a lot less money. So did you make those comparisons in your head, too? Did you - I'm really curious? Like, did you watch "Girls" and did you compare it?
PARKER: I've never seen "Girls." I feel terrible saying that.
GROSS: How come?
PARKER: But I've never seen - OK, I've never seen "Breaking Bad." I've not seen most of what people are talking about in television. And it's not me avoiding anything, I assure you. I will also tell you that I've not seen the finale for "Sopranos" so don't say anything about it.
PARKER: I stepped away from watching television not because I wanted to, but because I eventually had three children. This is the real truth. I'm going to be completely honest. I had three children, and I would have fantasies about watching all of it. And when I would go to a dinner, I could join in the conversation and contribute and have my opinions and defend or join in the criticism. But it would get to be 9 or 10 o'clock at night, and I was also a working mother, and I just couldn't do it. I just stepped away from scripted television. I will say that I did watch "House Hunters International" (laughter). But that didn't ask anything of me.
GROSS: I don't know the show.
PARKER: And so I - "House Hunters International." Oh, Terry.
PARKER: It's a show where you can watch people travel and try to find an apartment in...
GROSS: So it's kind of like house porn, no? (Laughter).
PARKER: Somewhere - yes.
PARKER: And they just are looking for an apartment, say, in Peru or a home - because they've been transferred, and they need to find a home in Stockholm. And if you have wanderlust like I do, it - you know, it, like, takes care of you a little bit. But that was, like, what I could do at night.
GROSS: Right. Yeah.
PARKER: And-or read. And then once I was removed from scripted television, with some exception, then I couldn't jump back in because I'd been overwhelmed by the choice - where to begin?
GROSS: Weren't you just a little curious about "Girls," though?
PARKER: I remain curious about "Girls," and I will see it. I will - there is going to come a time where I can - I will be able to sit down and watch "Girls" and lots of other fantastic shows and shows that have been really meaningful to people and people have made connections with and they watch over and over again. And I will - you know, I've never seen "The Office." I've never seen "The Office."
GROSS: (Laughter) Right. Yeah, I get it.
PARKER: Isn't that mad?
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
PARKER: I mean, it's just crazy. I've seen the British, the original "Office."
GROSS: Mmm hmm, when you had time.
PARKER: Yeah. Like, there's just - something happened. Like, I used to go to the baseball games. Like, I used to watch baseball. I used to watch baseball.
GROSS: Sarah Jessica Parker...
GROSS: ...it's been just great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
PARKER: Oh, Terry, I - it's such a total delight and thrill, a privilege. So thank you so, so much for having me.
GROSS: Sarah Jessica Parker stars in the HBO series "Divorce." The third and final season began Monday. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new art house thriller "Midsommar." This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new art house thriller "Midsommar" stars Florence Pugh as a young woman reeling from tragedy, when she decides to accompany her boyfriend to a Midsummer festival in the Swedish countryside. It's the second feature written and directed by Ari Aster, who made his debut last year with the horror film "Hereditary." Film critic Justin Chang has a review of "Midsommar."
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In the viscerally unnerving films of Ari Aster, there's nothing more horrific than the reality of human grief. His haunted-house thriller "Hereditary" followed a family rocked by traumas so devastating that the eventual scenes of devil-worshipping, naked boogeymen almost came as a relief. Aster's new movie "Midsommar" doesn't pack quite as terrifying a knockout punch, but it casts its own weirdly hypnotic spell. This is a slow-burning and deeply absorbing piece of filmmaking full of strikingly beautiful images and driven less by shocks than ideas. It's not interested in frightening you so much as seeping into your nervous system.
And like "Hereditary," "Midsommar" is very much rooted in loss. It begins with a young American woman named Dani, played by the great English actress Florence Pugh, panicking over a family emergency that moves swiftly toward its worst possible outcome. As she tries to pick up the broken pieces of her life, Dani seeks solace from her boyfriend Christian and is surprised to learn that he's about to go on a trip with some of his grad school buddies. They're headed to a remote, Swedish commune that is holding a nine-day festival to observe the summer solstice. Dani presses him about why he didn't tell her earlier, and an argument ensues.
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FLORENCE PUGH: (As Dani) No, you said it would be cool to go.
JACK REYNOR: (As Christian) Yeah, and then I got the opportunity, and I decided to do it.
PUGH: (As Dani) Look. I don't mind you going. I just wish you would've told me. That's all.
REYNOR: (As Christian) Well, I just apologized, Dani.
PUGH: (As Dani) You didn't apologize. You said sorry, which sounds more like too bad.
REYNOR: (As Christian) Maybe I should just go home.
PUGH: (As Dani) What? No, no. I'm just trying to understand.
REYNOR: (As Christian) And I'm trying to apologize.
PUGH: (As Dani) And I don't need an apology. I don't. I just wanted to talk about it. That's all.
REYNOR: (As Christian) I really think I should just leave.
PUGH: (As Dani) No. No, no, no, no, no. Please, please, please. I'm not - I'm not trying to attack you. I'm not.
REYNOR: (As Christian) It really feels like you are.
PUGH: (As Dani) Well, then I'm sorry. I'm - I just got confused. I'm sorry. Hey, please. Come on. Can you come - just can...
REYNOR: (As Christian) Stop.
PUGH: (As Dani) ...You come and sit with me, please? Please, and we can talk about it.
CHANG: The handsome Irish actor Jack Reynor clues you in to the selfishness beneath Christian's quiet, sensitive-sounding demeanor. Dani doesn't know that he was about to end their four-year relationship before tragedy struck, and he's only staying with her now out of a sense of obligation.
Christian reluctantly invites her to join him in Sweden, and she accepts to the irritation of some of his friends, who don't want his mopey girlfriend along to spoil their fun. They fly to Sweden, and after a few hours' drive, arrive at a remote, centuries-old village where they are greeted by about 60 men and women wearing white robes embroidered with mysterious symbols. They are known as the Harga, and they invite their American guests to participate in each day's festivities, which include lavish feasts, silent meditations, exhausting maypole dances and the consumption of various mind-altering drugs.
Aster has a gift for dreaming up fictitious subcultures. And he visualizes these ancient customs and artifacts with an almost anthropological attention to detail. The Harga seem benevolent enough at first, and there's something comforting about their strange rituals and their intimate communion with nature. But then the mood takes a sinister turn, and Dani and Christian's traveling companions start to disappear.
The story owes a clear debt to "The Wicker Man," Robin Hardy's 1973 horror classic about a pagan fertility cult. But "Midsommar" is more ambiguous and slower to come into focus. This is a nightmare that unfolds in broad daylight, under a midnight sun that bears down relentlessly on the landscape. The sun could almost be a metaphor for Dani's grief, something ever-present and all-consuming, especially since Christian seems to take so little interest in consoling her.
Aster has said that he was inspired to write "Midsommar" after the end of a long-term relationship and that Dani's experience is a fictionalized version of his own. Whatever the real-life details, he's made the ultimate bad boyfriend movie - a withering portrait of emotional neglect that has nothing nice to say about Christian, his petty-minded friends or, indeed, the state of contemporary American masculinity.
Among other things, "Midsommar" is a wickedly funny movie about the clash between pagan traditions and the ways of the modern world. One of its more provocative notions is that Dani may, in fact, be better off with the Harga, with their seemingly selfless, utopian way of life. Sex and death, a source of so much pain and anxiety in the outside world, are here just part of life's unending cycle.
"Midsommar" is in no rush to solve its many mysteries. The third act is full of surreal images of revelry and ritual sacrifice, plus a sex scene that's as hilarious as it is appalling. What do you remember most is Florence Pugh's quietly mesmerizing performance. Your sympathies are with Dani at every moment, and so are the movie's. Toward the end, she fixes the camera with an extraordinary look of terror and exaltation as she beholds the stunning fate that awaits her. Her story may begin in heartbreak and end in madness, but Aster ensures that she gets the last laugh.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR for the Fourth of July, we'll feature one of our most popular recent interviews, which is also one of our favorites - our interview with singer and rapper Lizzo. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.
I'm Terry Gross.
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