Sarah Jessica Parker on success, personal discovery and triumph, and the indisputable power of the arts
BY PHOEBE DE CROISSET
Here at SBJCT, our goal is to quiet the noise that often surrounds our subjects and cut to the passions and pursuits that are less known to our readers. Enter Sarah Jessica Parker; arguably one of the better “known” people in the world. I felt the only way to get to the heart of this formidable subject was to treat our conversation not as a traditional interview, but as an excavation of sorts. Of course, I had questions, but mostly I just let her talk, prodding her along as needed – which was not often! Sarah Jessica has an incredible curiosity that translates into constant questioning, examining, and re-examining of ideas and themes. Those two hours with her flew by, but if I discovered anything, it’s that I didn’t really know Sarah Jessica at all. I hope you’ll feel the same way.
PHOEBE DE CROISSET I’d like to start by talking about success, which is something I, along with most everyone who knows your name, associate with you. After reading your speech to Harvard Law School’s class of 2016, the idea of private triumphs stuck with me. You urged graduates to “treasure the accumulation of the triumphs the world doesn’t see.” How do you do that in your own life?
SARAH JESSICA PARKER I think I do it in a couple of ways. The first is to recognize that idea, which I think probably a lot of people do, but don’t name it. When there is a clean, clear triumph that is private, I think I can just feel it and understand it. In a moment of disappointment, I am more inclined to see what has come from it that is actually beneficial or that is sustaining in some other way.
But perhaps more importantly, where that philosophy is more exercised is with my son, James Wilkie. He is becoming a young man and trying to navigate the world. He’s in middle school, which is just riddled with landmines of disappointment and failure. In those moments of failure, I really try to remind him of the things that he has accomplished, all of his personal and academic successes, which are bountiful, and the things that he contributes that others might not always see but that he actually secretly knows about himself. The thing that I tell him is that I am so happy that he is such a resilient person and that he’s fortunate that he has a personality that allows him to feel the failure or disappoints and talk about it, but not sit in the saddle of it.
PC How does this idea apply to those graduates?
SJP When I was drafting my speech for these graduates from this particular college, who are such high achievers and are so used to competing, not just with themselves, but with their peers – and competing for the attention and approval of professors and the expectations for a group like that from the outside world, I wanted them to know that doing something that doesn’t fit into the pattern doesn’t mean they let go of the dream. There are a million things that can happen between A and Z and it’s very probable that those are very good things. All the lousy jobs they are going to have to take – and I haven’t met a soul who hasn’t – to pay the rent. I was working from the time I was little and I have taken TONS of lousy acting jobs for the same reason: to subsidize the thing I really wanted to do. And the work is different than being a waitress in a restaurant, but you’re serving another machine that you’re not inspired by, you know? And I wouldn’t want to change any of it. Any of the toughest times – I mean, would you?
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PC You also talked about the preparation for an audition versus the achievement of getting the part – the idea being that if you’ve prepared and done the best job you could, you can count that as a private triumph, even if you don’t get the part?
SJP Getting the job is not necessarily a good thing. I never say it wasn’t meant to be, because who knows? But sometimes you’re not ready for something, or sometimes you didn’t get that, but you’re going to get something else that actually asks more of you or that proves to be a much more interesting experience. Or you spend the next few months doing something else in your life that has some value. So I think preparation is everything because it’s the antidote to regret. In romance, in love, in friendships, the same is true. The heartbreak? Who would give up a heartbreak? It’s the greatest thing in the world.
Preparation is everything because it’s the antidote to regret.
PC Whose opinion do you hold in the highest regard? Is there someone whose standard you hold yourself to?
SJP Growing up it was always my mom. My mom’s opinion really mattered to us, and her standards were really high. We would mock them because they seemed ridiculous, but even today, still, I want very much for her to be proud of me. But there are so many people whose opinions matter to me, and for so many different reasons. There are some people you imagine you have a relationship with, and you’ve never met, and you think ‘what would they think of this?’ I kind of like the idea of having to answer to a lot of people – some of whom I will never even meet.
PC I think we often have unrealistic expectations of women working in your industry; we expect them to succeed in all aspects of their life. But nobody can truly have it all, do it all, and do it well. At what point do you make a conscious decision to let something go?
SJP There are times I think ‘it’s just too much!’ – the little things that are required to support a business. One more picture, one more idea, one more caption! But it’s the greater goal that matters. I don’t know that any of us have the time to do the stuff we do – we just make the time. You find thirty more minutes in the day.
PC Do you ever mourn the opportunities that have fallen by the wayside?
SJP I don’t really regret the things I let go. I wouldn’t know what to do with that feeling. I think some of the stuff I said no to I later think: “Oh God, really?’ But then I see that someone else did it and were great at it. And it was fine. I think as long as you feel busy or engaged and there are interesting things to do each day – things to get done that even if they are not interesting in the moment, they are part of something bigger. For the time being I have enough on my plate that I don’t have time to look back and think “Shoot!”
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PC Speaking of regrets, do you find yourself revisiting things you’ve spoken about that were perhaps misunderstood or taken out of context (by the media)?
SJP This whole controversy that erupted about me not being a feminist – I was surprised about that because I felt I was just born a feminist.
Our parents did all the work and we are beneficiaries of that movement. I believe (although I don’t always behave that way) that of course opportunity will exist for me. Of course I will be treated as an equal in the workplace, and in relationships. So what is more important to me are the new conversations that exist now about other people who feel marginalized, whether it’s the LGBTQ community or
the disabled community or the immigrant population or working mothers holding down two and three jobs. Don’t those all fall under the umbrella of advocacy? Don’t you move past what you believe you were born with – the right to pursue opportunity and be treated with equality – and speak to a larger group that now also need attention?
In a way, all of that is about being curious about others. And it doesn’t mean you act on it all the time or that your curiosity is the thing that always leads you, because you can find yourself falling short sometimes. Like when a man says something to you in the workplace and you find that you don’t respond. I still can’t quite get over why I don’t just turn to that person and say: “Are you kidding me??” Or even “That’s a really weird thing to hear in 2017”.
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PC Can you tell me about a time that your curiosity led to something unexpected?
SJP So many times! With the book imprint, for example. Just meeting somebody and asking about a book ended up three years later in an imprint (at Hogarth Publishing). I think if you could trace it back, you might find you asked someone one question and a whole world became accessible. I see that happening more and more – people want to share ideas. My curiosity has led me to sit at the table with titans of industry that I have no business being with. I am actually very shy, but when I am at a table surrounded by interesting people, if I find the courage, I will talk! I will ask questions. And at the very least, I will listen, rapt!
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PC You are a dedicated supporter of several organizations. How do you choose where to spend your limited time and lend your voice?
SJP I stick to areas that I feel genuine affection for and passion about. The NYC Ballet and the Presidential Committee on the Arts and Humanities are two things I feel comfortable talking about because I have a personal connection to them. In the case of the Presidential Committee, I have been on the receiving end of its purpose. I know what it feels like to have had access to the arts as a young person, and so I can talk about the importance of that, and at this point, I can even talk about data and studies and statistics. But maybe most importantly – because others do that very well too – I can talk about the life-altering possibilities for young people whom have access to the arts.
PC How does the introduction of the arts into schools affect its students and the community at large?
SJP Being an educated person doesn’t just mean the math and the sciences. In fact, the more studies we do on arts education, the more we see that as the investment of arts in schools goes up, the more engaged a child is, the higher their attendance, and the parent involvement goes way up. Not only that, but they stay in school, they pursue higher education, and the community gets stronger because there is a component that engages everybody. Not every child is able to sit down in a classroom and write a paper, for instance. Some kids don’t engage academically, but when you bring the arts into a school, and especially into schools that are marginalized, the lowest performing schools that are barely surviving, it’s a total game-changer for those schools.
The arts, whether it’s visual or performing arts, or literature, cultivate empathy in children, and you want that. You want children to look outside themselves. You want to show them a world of opportunity and hope. Not only can they express themselves through the arts, but they can also connect with people.
PC You spent a significant part of your childhood training in ballet, and your love of dance is still strong today, taking shape in your work as a member of the Board of Directors of the NYC Ballet. Can you describe you relationship to this particular company?
SJP With the ballet, it’s a visceral thing. And I just love this company. I love the history of this company. I love how they run their business. I love who this company is and has become. As Peter Martins (Artistic Director of the School of American Ballet) has said, the company is in the best shape of its life right now. It is so easy to talk about. You can’t argue its merit in the world and you can’t argue that all arts-related non-profits are deserving of support. They enrich our lives. As Americans, we want to export our greatest self, which is often our arts and our entertainment. We’re thinkers and innovators, but thinkers and innovators are also part of the ballet. It’s a very American company, and very much a farm system – it promotes from within so you are growing talent, which I think is also uniquely American.
PC When you think about the ballet, what specifically makes your heart skip a beat?
SJP I think it’s the dancers. And just allowing yourself to be transported without words. Dancing is an unusual discipline because it asks so much of the partnership between the dancer and audience. The dancers don’t just have to move beautifully and skillfully and be graceful and athletic, but they also have to emote, to share, to express something. The audience has to be called by the dancer, and that is what’s most compelling to me.
At this company, you are seeing more and more dancers who are able to morph into actors. I used to pick my favorite dancer and then go on the night they were dancing, but as I see this company grow, there are so many new dancers emerging to the core, more and more people are pulling you in. It’s a singular experience in the arts.
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PC This year you celebrated the 5-year anniversary of a program you conceived that pairs world-renowned choreographers with fashion designers. Can you tell us about the inception of this program? What did you hope to accomplish?
SJP I was sort of stealing from Anna [Wintour]! Anyone can look at the Metropolitan Museum and see what their partnership with Vogue has generated in terms of revenue for the Costume Institute. And what it has done to build and cultivate an audience for the museum. It took me a really long time to join the board of the NYC Ballet because I didn’t know what I could bring to the table. I don’t have corporate ties, I haven’t sat on others boards and made those relationships. But I thought well, the most important thing for the ballet is to build the next generation of audience. The money is great, but you want a sustainable audience. I thought we could build that by telling people we just needed two hours of their time – and that those two hours would change their lives. But you have to get them in the door. And how do you do that? So we just kind of worked around that question.
Who would give up a heartbreak? It’s the greatest thing in the world.
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PC And you concluded that the way to get them in the door was to marry fashion with ballet? How did you begin?
SJP New York Fashion Week had just recently moved to Lincoln Center. As the tents began to arrive, I suddenly thought, well, they’re here and we’re here, and this is a wonderful potential marriage. There is so much energy in fashion and a lot of that is younger energy. I thought if we made it interesting enough, maybe people would come and give us that one night. And maybe that would change the course of the way they choose entertainment in the city.
My first idea was to have three designers make the costumes that first season of the gala in 2011. Valentino happened to be in town and he is an old friend of Peter Martens’ and so we went to his apartment and presented the idea. And he said right then and there, “Yes! I will do the whole night!” And we thought: “Uh-oh, didn’t get a chance to invite anyone else!” But you can’t take that away from him, so he was given that first night, which was fantastic and lovely. He is such a special person and still is so talented.
PC I think that the arts are sometimes dismissed as less meaningful or worthwhile than more pressing, tangible issues like politics, the environment, or social crises. Why is it so important to continue to support and promote the arts, in your opinion?
SJP I don’t think one should say that either is more important than the other. Of course, solving human suffering is always paramount. The refugee crisis, Syria and other pressing and urgent issues – one doesn’t try to compete with those. As we look to our leaders or those who are in conflict resolution, or we ask of each other to contribute to organizations that contribute to a crisis, whether it’s Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders, in the meantime the world hums along. You don’t let your house crumble just because you are also taking care of something else. We are better, richer, stronger for taking care of what exists here, and not only taking care of it, but making sure others have the opportunity to experience it.
PC Do you sometimes feel it’s your responsibility to use your influence for issues you believe in?
SJP Not necessarily, because I don’t always know that’s the best use of my enthusiasm or passion. I want to be informed and well versed and do right by the particular cause or candidate or issue, and when I feel I won’t, I will not do it. Everything is too fragile. But that doesn’t mean I engage less in my own way. Sometimes I get involved more and sometimes I retreat.
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PC How did watching the vitriol that transpired on social media during this presidential campaign affect you, if at all?
SJP What was happening on social media during this particular presidential campaign was scary. I saw the response to public figures talking about supporting their candidate and the backlash from their followers – comments like “Stick to talk shows!” Or “Stick to your acting career!” were everywhere. The vitriol leveled at them for their support of their candidate was staggering. They were just doing what you were doing on your social media page, which is talking about the person for whom they intend to vote.
They were using their voice as Americans to participate in a process that we were told by our founding fathers we are supposed to participate in. This is what makes us a free society. We had two candidates. The likelihood is that I might not be voting for the candidate you are voting for. However, I will fight to my death to make sure that you have the right to vote for whoever you want – even if I find your candidate to be objectionable – I will still fight for your right to voice your support.
And I will never say to you, whether you are a plumber, a rock star, an architect, a teacher, a stay-at-home mother, a janitor, a piano teacher, a painter, an electrician, that you don’t have the right to talk about it in the way you talk about it, which in many people’s cases these days is on social media.
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PC Now that Trump has been elected, what, in your opinion, are the things we must do as Americans to ensure our voices are heard?
SJP I am trying very hard to believe in our system still and look at it as four years of a test of our nature. We must take care of the values that are important to us and speak out about those things and do so without vitriol and vulgarity and rancor. We must exercise our right to protest and talk about things that are important and maybe find our way back together. I won’t abandon this country. I would never. I think we call upon our better selves and who are we as a country.
I will say that some of the things Trump is doing are deeply concerning to me. I am not a left-wing liberal Hollywood elite. I came from no money. I have grown up working my entire life. Nobody has ever given me a penny. I have never borrowed a penny from anybody, and that means on occasion I could not pay my rent, could not pay my Con Ed bill, could not pay my phone bill. I have taken care of my family, and I have taken care of other people’s families. So this has nothing to do with privilege. These things concern me based on my entire life as a human being, not because I am a rich Hollywood elite. And by the way, I don’t live in Hollywood.