By Jess Cagle
Updated October 01, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Are you going to cover my zits?” Sarah Jessica Parker wants to know. She sits before a large mirror, in a trailer on the Pittsburgh set of Striking Distance, a mystery/romance/shoot-’em-up in which she is costarring with Bruce Willis. The makeup woman dabbing base on her face says no, since the red spots are mostly in her head, not on it, then adds, ”You’re in one of those,” grabbing a stack of tabloids and handing a Star to the star. Parker finds herself on page 14, where W.B. of Westerley, Conn., writes in, ”Who has Sarah Jessica Parker been dating since she and Robert Downey Jr. split up?” Parker laughs, wide-eyed. ”Really bad picture,” she says, mashing her thumb over her own shiny color close-up. Then she studies the printed answer: ”Sarah had a brief fling with John F. Kennedy Jr. and is now involved with actor Matthew Broderick.” ”Good,” she says, sighing and glancing at the mirror for a last-minute pimple check. ”They kept it simple.”

One year later Striking Distance, in its opening weekend, is topping The Fugitive. And once again critics are singling out Parker, as Willis’ partner both on the Pittsburgh police river patrol and in bed, as the bright spot in a blemished movie. Parker, 28, bristles at being misquoted recently in articles that say she is disappointed in the film; actually, she hasn’t even seen it. She will say that making it ”was a tough experience. I think anybody involved in the movie would tell you that shooting on the water for five months is not a simple task.” In other words, it was a lot of hard work for a movie that establishes only two things: (1) Parker should never again part her hair in the middle, and (2) Willis should enjoy what little hair he has left. Ever since her career took flight in 1991 when she played SanDeE*, Steve Martin’s dizzy seductress in L.A. Story, Hollywood hasn’t known what to do with this beguiling, offbeat beauty. Last year’s modest hit Honeymoon in Vegas positioned her as the industry’s next romantic leading lady, but this summer her role as Sarah Sanderson, a dumb-blond witch, was almost edited out of Disney’s wickedly awful Hocus Pocus. Although Parker, Bette Midler, and Kathy Najimy (Sister Act) spent weeks rehearsing their wacky, child-eating characters, the studio ultimately opted to play up the roles of their young prey. ”I haven’t experienced editing to this degree before,” says Parker, discussing Hocus Pocus one summer afternoon in her comfy, sunny apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Perched on her sofa, wispy thin, cocking her cigarette like Bette Davis, she can talk nonstop for minutes without a breath. Her white blouse is tied high above the waist, and her bellybutton peers over hot pants fashioned from cutoff gray sweats. The entire ensemble teeters on red suede platforms. Her giggle and tenuous self-assurance make her likable; her brains and excitability keep her interesting. On her truncated Hocus Pocus character: ”She was, like, Renfield mixed with Lolita mixed with a Shakespearean wood nymph mixed with, like, a 4-year-old with breasts. It was totally up to me to create her. I understand the choices that they made. I just wish they had left in a lot of the weird moments.” Parker views her career ups and downs with an absence of melodrama. ”I’m not one of those people who had a meteoric rise,” she says unapologetically. ”So I don’t expect anything to happen overnight.” ”Up to now, she has often chosen her roles more carefully than her movies,” says producer Laurence Mark (The Adventures of Huck Finn), who hopes to reteam Parker and former boyfriend Downey for the movie of Stephen McCauley’s The Object of My Affection, a 1987 novel about an unwed expectant mother and her gay male best friend. ”And she’s usually better than the movies that surround her.” * Indeed, it’s not her roles that have set her apart from the competition- Mary Stuart Masterson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and ”basically any actress with three names,” she says. Parker has distinguished herself by sheer force of personality. She has never wanted for tabloid attention: Sarah plus Downey. Sarah plus John-John. Sarah plus Honeymoon costar Nicolas Cage. Sarah plus Matthew. Once, erroneously, Sarah plus Michael J. Fox. And no three-name actress is better on a talk show. On her frequent David Letterman appearances, she flutters, she flirts, she charms, she disarms-a hip Teri Garr for the ’90s. This is one of the twists of Parker’s career: Her turns promoting her movies at Letterman’s desk are usually much better than the movies themselves. Recently, when Willis went on Letterman’s Late Show to plug Striking Distance, the host’s mind was still on an earlier visit by Parker. ”We’ve had her on the show several times, and we think the world of her,” he told Willis. ”You can’t go wrong with (Sarah). She’s terrific.” Last June, back in Letterman’s NBC days, in front of about 4 million Americans, Parker publicly encouraged Broderick, her 18-month steady, to propose to her. He wasn’t amused. ”I feel older than her in some weird way, or more bitter,” explains Broderick, 31. ”I just don’t want everybody in my business.” Says Parker, ”In all honesty, Matthew has a certain maturity I don’t possess. I wish I didn’t have such a big mouth.”