Twenty years ago, Darren Star introduced the world to four unforgettable, unapologetically single women. Television — and standards for acceptable brunch talk — would never be the same. In her new book, Sex and the City and Us, former EW writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (Seinfeldia) uncovers the hidden history of the HBO show. This exclusive excerpt details how Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, and Kim Cattrall landed their iconic roles.
A New Kind of TV Woman
Sarah Jessica Parker wasn’t sure she wanted to commit to a TV series. But she agreed to meet with Darren Star in March of 1997 at E.A.T., a restaurant on the Upper East Side owned by Eli Zabar. Its bagels, sandwiches, and matzo ball soup are legendary. As Parker and Star lunched, he told her that when he wrote the script, he heard Carrie in Parker’s voice. She didn’t hear it herself, but she was flattered and delighted. She did find the script compelling—seductive, even. She had never read anything like it. And her agent loved it.
She had conditions, however, for considering the role. She didn’t want Carrie to throw around the word “f—” just because the show was on cable. She hoped Carrie would be thoughtful about language, given her profession as a writer. No problem, Star told her. She had [another] concern: the sex part of Sex and the City. “I just don’t see that it’s important,” she said of doing nudity. “But we should have that conversation.”
Star assured her neither he nor HBO would require her to do anything she didn’t want to. “If you want to wear a bra and roll around in bed with somebody, and that’s what makes you comfortable, then that’s what you shall do,” Parker recalls Star saying.
After the lunch with Star, Parker discussed the project with [her then-fiancé Matthew] Broderick, as well as her oldest brother and her agent. They all reacted the same: “You have to do this.” She worried if she did TV, she wouldn’t be able to do plays and movies—her career had allowed her a variety of challenges up until this point. But everyone she consulted insisted Sex and the City was the right path.
Finally, Parker relented. But she was starring on Broadway as Princess Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress and was about to get married. She and Broderick would need time to have their wedding, and then she wanted to finish the final two weeks of the play before filming began.
The Sex and the City pilot started shooting early in the morning on Tuesday, June 2, 1997—two days after the last performance of Parker’s play.
Before then, Star would have to find his Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha.
Casting the part of Miranda Hobbes, one of Carrie’s three friends, proved tricky in other ways. Star swiped the character’s name from one of the many cynical women featured in [Candace] Bushnell’s columns, but he elaborated from there, making her a career-focused lawyer who appears to have given up on love. But Miranda’s characterization as the “smart one” meant, in Hollywood code, the “not pretty one,” which, in Hollywood, didn’t appeal to every candidate for the part.
Respected actor Cynthia Nixon, however, didn’t harbor such vanity. Nixon, thirty-one at the time, had her share of conventional beauty—strawberry blonde hair, translucent pale skin, gray-blue eyes. But of the Miranda role, she said, “I was excited about playing somebody who was so angry, bitter, and cynical because, having been a child actor with long blond hair, I was always playing sweet, waiflike, hippie characters. It was nice to grow out of that.”
She’d go on to attend Barnard College. In 1984, while a freshman, she appeared in two Broadway plays at the same time, Hurlyburly and The Real Thing, a likely Broadway first. After graduation from Barnard in 1988 (along with future Gilmore Girls actress Lauren Graham), she returned to Broadway in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika. She scored her first Tony nomination as part of the original cast of Jean Cocteau’s Indiscretions in 1995. A theater nerd, she said she wanted her funeral to feature Judy Garland’s “I Happen to Like New York.” In the two decades previous to Sex and the City, she appeared in twenty-five plays on and off Broadway.
While Nixon had never done sex scenes before, she didn’t mind nudity. Her previous roles hadn’t required it, but, as she later explained, she breastfed her newborn daughter on the subway; she didn’t see on-screen nudity any differently.
She was perfect for the part except for one thing: She was blond. As Carrie, Parker would be blond, or at least blondish. For another of Carrie’s friends, Samantha, Star was hoping to get Kim Cattrall, who was also blond. Three blondes seemed like…a lot of blondes. Star thought of the lawyer who had helped to inspire the Miranda character; she had bright red hair.
Nixon agreed to dye her hair red. Miranda Hobbes had arrived.
Kristin Davis, meanwhile, had been awaiting The One in Los Angeles. She had gotten her early break on the soap opera General Hospital in 1991, then took her soap skills to Star’s nighttime drama Melrose Place, her first major prime-time job. She’d appeared in memorable guest roles on Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show. But she was still looking for the right role to challenge her and grant her career some stability. She believed that Carrie’s second friend, the optimistic-in-love art dealer Charlotte York, could be it.
Star knew Davis from Melrose and perceived an innocence and “old-fashioned quality” beneath her glossy surface. Before he had ever conceived of the character of Charlotte, he thought of Davis as “the Rules girl.” He could see her as the quintessential traditional woman, and he could see the humor in offending her. He’d also watched her on Seinfeld as Jerry’s girlfriend who unknowingly uses a toothbrush that’s been dropped in the toilet—so Star knew she could do comedy. She had a sense of humor as well as a sense of propriety, and her expressive face showed even the tiniest tick of outrage. As Star says, “There’s just something about throwing a pie in the face of a beautiful girl.”
Because Parker was still indecisive about signing on at the time, when Davis received a copy of the Sex and the City pilot script, it came with a cover letter from Star that asked her to consider reading for the role of Carrie. But Davis shut down when she read Star’s description of Carrie as having “the body of Heather Locklear and the mind of Dorothy Parker.” All Davis could think was, I am never in a hundred million years going to have the body of Heather Locklear. The character also smoked and swore a fair amount—before Parker shifted the character a bit—which felt outside Davis’s boundaries. She thought, Carrie’s fantastic, but I’m Charlotte.
When Davis told her agents she was more interested in the secondary role, they tried to talk her out of it. But then Parker committed to the Carrie part anyway, so Davis went in to read for Charlotte. When she returned home, the call finally came: “You got it. But they might want to make Charlotte a recurring character, not a regular character.” She thought, Ew, but okay. She figured she would do everything possible to stay on the show, and at least she had gotten a shot. She would go to Manhattan to shoot the pilot of Sex and the City with three other women, and it would, she believed, change her life.
When Kim Cattrall first got the pilot script from her agent asking her to read for Samantha, she passed on it. She didn’t mind that the show was set to air on HBO; she had done an episode of the network’s early-’90s comedy Dream On and loved it. But this series came with too many unknowns for her: Like Parker, she resisted commitment to a series. She didn’t know where this character could go. She felt self-conscious about playing a sexy role at forty-one. She’d read a little more than half of Bushnell’s book, but couldn’t stomach any more than that, so overwhelming was its cynical mood. And she felt her actor-boyfriend didn’t like the idea of her playing libertine Samantha Jones either.
In short, the role had little to recommend itself to Kim Cattrall. She’d had a long Hollywood career playing sex objects in movies such as Mannequin and Police Academy, and now she was looking for a role that would catapult her beyond that. She did not believe this was it.
When Cattrall declined, Star cast Lou Thornton, a Phoebe Cates-like actress who’d appeared on a guest spot on Friends and as a cast member of Jenny McCarthy’s MTV sketch show. Star liked Thornton and thought she was brash and funny. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t Samantha.
Still, Cattrall didn’t identify with the character he was asking her to play. Her sex life had not, overall, set the world on fire like Samantha’s; in fact, for most of her life, she later wrote, her sexual experiences had been “unfulfilling.” She took longer to get over an intimate relationship than Samantha did. But Cattrall also had faith Samantha could change and grow, should the series continue long enough.
Star told Cattrall that he couldn’t guarantee anything except that she’d have a say in her character’s trajectory. He told her he genuinely believed the show could be “something special.” His honesty got to her. Later that day she told HBO she was in. And she soon left the boyfriend whom she felt didn’t like her playing Samantha.
FromSex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Copyright ©2018 by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.