At this point, Sarah Jessica Parker’s name is practically synonymous with New York City. As one of Manhattan’s proudest celebrity residents, it’s nearly impossible to scroll through the star’s Instagram feed without coming across an appreciation post for the Christopher Street subway station or one of her favorite local haunts (RIP Tortilla Flats). While Parker wears her real-life passion for NYC on her sleeve, she’s also, of course, portrayed one of the most iconic fictional New Yorkers, as the Manolo-wearing Carrie Bradshaw for six seasons of Sex and the City, plus two subsequent movies.
Parker takes on the role of yet another Manhattanite in her latest film, Here and Now, which hits theaters and will be available to watch on demand Friday, November 9. She portrays a successful jazz singer named Vivienne, who just might give Carrie Bradshaw a run for her money when it comes to maneuvering city blocks in stilettos. But that’s where the similarities between the two end. Vivienne’s New York City quickly becomes a much darker place than Carrie’s when she receives a life-changing medical diagnosis within the first moments of the film. She’s forced her to re-evaluate her entire life as she wanders around the city, taking in the last hours of normalcy before revealing her news to others. The entire story unfolds within one 24-hour period, during which the glitz and glamour that Sex and the City brought to our screens is nowhere to be found. And according to Parker, that was exactly the point.
“New York is characterized differently [in this film], because it’s not among the many other ways we’ve seen it onscreen,” she recently told InStyle when sitting down alongside the film’s director, Fabien Constant, in — where else? — New York City. “It’s not all promise and inspiring and hospitable. The city that Carrie Bradshaw lives in and sees and talks about and experiences, for Vivienne, has become aggressive and disappointing. It’s taken more than it’s given, and it’s asked of her more than she ever thought that she could give or would want to give. It’s betrayed her, and the city can be hostile when it’s not on your side. But despite that, I think it’s still a place that she feels has potential.”
Vivienne still has potential, too, and according to Parker — who executive produced the project — Manhattan is her key to unlocking it. “The city is still the place that she wants to find success,” she said. “She still wants to play Carnegie Hall, and that’s not delusional; it’s within her grasp. She is the kind of singer who has that kind of career, and she wants to get off the road, and be here, and find the success that has eluded her. She says in an interview [in the film], ‘I’m not done yet,’ and I think the city is a part of that story. New York is still that place of promise, even though it’s also been enormously disappointing — and she’s created her own disappointments in the city, too. She’s turned her back on her job as a parent, as a mother. There’s a lot in the city that reminds her of the regret, but it’s the only place she has.”
Parker and Constant worked hard to get the feel of Vivienne’s New York City just right. The end result is the culmination of “a French guy who knows the city pretty well, and somebody who knows the city by heart and physically drives all the taxi drivers in town,” said Constant, who describes the film as “the portrait of a lady and a city” at its core. “Sometimes the city says even more than her and talks for her. It takes on emotions and rejects a fight with mood and feelings.”
Really, “it’s like a relationship,” added Parker, who didn’t let the heavy nature of the plot ruin her spirits during filming. “Sharing the emotional life of a character is hard no matter what,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a somber set that allows you to find it and access it. I think it’s really freedom — a set that feels free, that feels like you’re not being graded all the time. It’s a hard thing to describe, but I think that on a creative set, the thing that seems most difficult is often the easiest to find.”
And on the set of Here and Now, creativity flowed. “It was a very joyful set,” said Parker. “It was one of the most happy creative experiences I’ve had in years and years. And we were, in theory, under the gun. We had 16 days, but we finished every day and no one threatened to pull the plug. We worked 12 hour days because that’s what we wanted to do, and that’s what we needed. Everyone was only there because they wanted to be — because God knows we weren’t getting paid a lot. I think that changes the entire environment.”
One of the most emotional scenes to film? When Vivienne wanders into a vintage store and finds a glittering gold dress (of which, for the record, Carrie Bradshaw would definitely approve). She plans to wear it to her upcoming performance but ultimately gifts it to her teenage daughter. Constant describes the dress as being “the saddest thing in the world,” because “it’s everything she might not be able to be anymore — and wearing it, performing in it, all of this might end.” Parker couldn’t agree more. “I feel like it is an attempt at ignoring anything that suggests there is an ending,” she said. “It’s like a commitment to decadence and recklessness — the part of her that she’s feeling has not been good for her. It’s ignoring what she really needs to deal with. All of these moments, I feel, are like respites from the truth for her.”
For Vivienne, work is another form of escapism. When she takes the stage at the famed Birdland Jazz Club to debut a new song, “Unfollow the Rules,” her passion for singing is enlightening. “I think it allows you to know more about Vivienne, because it’s a beautiful song that stands alone, but it also does a lot of narrative story for us,” said Parker, who landed her first singing gig playing the lead role in Broadway’s Annie in 1979. “Like, you know, ‘Oh this is what her career is. This is the kind of singer she is. This is what she spent her adult life doing. This is the way she chooses to be an interpretive artist and tell a story.’ And it’s not, like, legit Broadway singing…it’s [more] like French cinema singing.”
It’s the kind of singing that Parker prefers — especially in front of an audience. “I love this kind of music,” she said. “It’s definitely what I feel more comfortable singing than big Broadway score.” When it comes down to the details, though, the songs of Here and Now aren’t so unlike Parker’s most iconic musical moment, which came when she starred as the enchanting witch Sarah Sanderson in 1993’s Hocus Pocus.
“Now that I think about it, ‘Come Little Children’ is actually not that different from this, tonally,” said Parker. “It’s a pretty dark lullaby.”
And, really, so is Here and Now.