Sarah Jessica Parker’s previous attempt at turning a bestselling novel into a screen gem resulted in one of the most popular TV series ever made – Sex And The City. So it’s no surprise that her new offering – I Don’t Know How She Does It, a film based on the acclaimed 2002 book by British columnist Allison Pearson – is a funny and thought-provoking take on women’s lives.
Thanks to screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), the story has been transferred to Boston, but all the vital elements remain. The heroine Kate is still a financial executive mother-of-two, battling both the male bullies at work and the well-rested stay-at-home ‘Mother Superiors’. All this while carrying around the must-have modern accessory of the working mum: guilt.
Not that SJP looks guilty when Stylist meets her at London’s Soho Hotel, dressed in head-to-toe Ferragamo. With a busy schedule that often takes her away from her family (husband Matthew Broderick and children James Wilkie, 8, and two-year-old twins Marion and Tabitha), she sympathises with Kate’s juggling act, but is firm when distinguishing between herself and the ‘obsessive’ character she plays.
What attracted you to the character of Kate Reddy?
It was the first script I’ve read that I felt accurately portrayed what it’s like to be a parent in these modern times. I liked that Kate wasn’t a rich person; she was someone who has clearly worked very hard to get where she is. Her husband has had a middling career and I thought they reflected a lot of people who are struggling a bit in this economic climate.
It’s so interesting that women still have such strong objections to other women
Combining career and family is something people still have strong opinions on…
I’m happy to be part of something that is provocative in some ways. But I think I’m just more curious about people’s opinions. It’s so interesting that women have such strong feelings and objections about other women still.
You have three children. Was it strange to be playing a harassed working mother all day then going home to your own family?
Fortunately it was a short shoot. It was seven weeks, which is merciful but it also makes for very concentrated hard and long days, which I’m sort of a fan of. I like that speed because it just keeps it so focused on work. Sometimes you get bigger budgets and these really luxurious schedules and then this inertia sets in. I prefer to work my ass off all day long – 12, 14 hour days - get a lot of work done, and then ultimately have more time with my family.
Your character also goes into work with pancake batter on her lapel. Have you had similar experiences?
I have food on me all the time. The babysitter will say to me when I’m leaving the house, ‘Do you know you still have your slippers on?’ I went to my son’s end-of-semester karate presentation and I got out of the cab and I said to my husband, ‘I have my slippers on’. And it was not a nice time of year. My daughters love stickers. I went to an interview and I had stickers all up and down my arm and I didn’t realize. It’s kind of nice.
How similar is the dynamic of the family in the movie to your own family?
They lead a much more conventional life than we do; they work in more traditional work environments. But I think the energy in that house, the kind of constant electricity that exists in houses with a lot of children is probably very similar. I came from a family of eight kids so it was what I knew. It was always like a busy small town in my house. There are moments that it’s overwhelming, that kind of insanity, but I also really, really enjoy it. There’s always music on, there’s always someone crying, there’s always someone laughing, there’s always someone on a bicycle in the house in the kitchen, going round and round and round in a tiny space.
In the film Kate uses a mammogram as an excuse for being late. What excuses do you use?
I use the children. But I was told I was supposed to. Everyone said, ‘You have six or seven more years of using the children’. Leaving events early because of the kids is really excellent.
The film touches on the issue of how women can be the subject of criticism whatever they do. Have you ever felt criticised?
I’m criticised all the time. I’m not even circumspect about it; the idea of it is very painful because I think, ‘How can they make assumptions about me that are so untrue?’ Proper film or theatre criticism is a part of what I do; I don’t read them but I don’t begrudge a critic an opinion. But personal criticism I find distasteful.
In what way?
The reckless abandon with which we’re unkind to each other. Every day we lap it up. We think it’s funny to be mean and women say awful things about other women and use terrible language and call each other awful names. It’s so uncivilised and vulgar; it’s not good for our souls.
Proper film or theatre criticism is a part of what I do; I don’t read them but I don’t begrudge a critic an opinion.
When you had your twins with a surrogate, you got a lot of attention. Was that particularly tough?
It wasn’t hard until it intruded upon [the surrogate’s] privacy. I suspected people would have opinions about our decision but I didn’t expect people to behave so poorly. Her safety was at risk. Her home was broken into and all of our sonogram pictures were stolen. It really got very ugly. She was chased down a highway at 90 miles an hour three weeks from giving birth.
How does that affect you?
There are times when you think, ‘I certainly didn’t want this’. But on the other hand I know the purity at which I arrived at the decision to be an actor and it was really about the work. Why should I let some boob determine what I do?
Sex And The City turned you into a New York icon. What do you love about the city?
There’s something about the promise of a city; the potential every day for the unknown. To walk out your door and not know who you might see or what you might see. London is very similar. I really mean it, I’m not just flattering. Plus, you guys just have an elegance that we don’t have; I’m jealous of that.
I Don’t Know How She Does It is out in cinemas now