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In Her Best Interest : Sarah Jessica Parker Adjusts Well to Life as a Grown-Up

February 16, 1992|KATHY HENDERSON

NEW YORK — After 15 years as a professional actress, Sarah Jessica Parker has developed a romanticized view of "normal" living.

"I think a civilian life is heroic," says Parker, 26. "Getting up every day, feeding the kids, fighting traffic, going to the office--the hassles of real life are truly interesting to me."

Parker is saddled with hassles aplenty as a manic-depressive mother struggling to care for her five children in NBC's fact-based movie, "In the Best Interest of the Children," airing Sunday.

The film fulfilled Parker's longtime goal of playing a mother, though she says that the finished product is a bit too melodramatic for her taste.

"I've been concerned that people will think this is one of those movies-of-the-week about a tortured woman who extracts herself from some terrible situation and takes control of her life," Parker says, struggling to be diplomatic. "Farrah Fawcett was extraordinary in "The Burning Bed," but I really was not going for some type of unglamorous role. I fell in love with the story of these kids."

From another actress such disclaimers might sound self-serving, but Parker seems charmingly incapable of promoting herself. She arrives at a Greenwich Village coffee shop in an old sweatshirt worn inside out and no makeup, unrecognizable as the stylish assistant district attorney she played in the defunct ABC series "Equal Justice" or the hilarious airhead SanDeE in Steve Martin's film "L.A. Story."

Parker, a respected stage actress currently appearing in Jon Robin Baitz's family drama "The Substance of Fire" at Lincoln Center, confesses feeling "paralyzed with fear" about the summer release of "Honeymoon in Vegas," a romantic comedy in which she co-stars with James Caan and Nicholas Cage.

"People are offering me movie jobs now, and I always think it's because Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, Meg Ryan, Meg Tilly or anyone else with a short, cute name is not available," Parker says in a slightly dazed voice.

Parker credits the demands of growing up in a large family with her unspoiled attitude. While starring in "Annie" on Broadway at 13, "I still had to clean my room and load the dishwasher," she says, "and my parents had seven other kids who were just as important. ...

"I was a daydreamer, one of those people whose mouths hang open in class. I did not do well in math. I hated school, really, so thank God I had an outlet because otherwise I would have felt like a failure."

Television helped Parker make the transition to playing older characters, first in the CBS high-school sitcom "Square Pegs" and then as a newlywed in the NBC dramatic series "A Year in the Life." Along the way, her view of child actors soured.

"I'm lucky to have started out in theater, where everything is about the work, not about fame or money," she says. "In television and film, there's a ridiculous amount of attention paid to actors, which seems nice, but it can be unhealthy, especially for a child. You're thrust in front of millions of people and paid tons of money, and people on the set coddle you and nurture bad behavior all day long. Then it's over. No one is saying you're cute anymore, and you've never learned how to treat other people...

"Show business doesn't turn kids into a small-time criminals. But most children haven't developed enough to know if this is what they really want to do or not. I blame somebody not saying, 'You don't seem happy--let's stop this for awhile and be a Brownie.' There are very few Jodie Fosters and too many kids who end up on 'Sally Jessy Raphael.' I wouldn't let my children do it until they finished high school."

Parker's clear-eyed attitude extends to her angular looks. "Before 'L.A. Story' came out, I was never considered attractive," she says flatly. "It was a constant battle for my agents, because film directors never thought I was pretty enough. Television, yes--I've played attractive people, and I like the fact that it doesn't confine itself to the Hollywood standard of what's considered beautiful or sexy. But film carries a lot of weight, and 'L.A. Story' changed the perceptions about me completely. I mean, my God, I had Steve Martin's hand on my breast!"

Martin all but handed "L.A. Story" to Parker, encouraging her playfulness and giving her the funniest lines in the movie. "Your breasts feel weird," he says to SanDeE, who's "studying to be a spokesmodel." She cheerfully replies, "That's cause they're real."

Parker speaks with enthusiasm about her involvement in Democratic politics, born when she and then-boyfriend Robert Downey Jr. joined the toxic waste bus caravan in 1986. She recently flew to New Hampshire for a day to help in a voter-registration drive aimed at 18- to 24-year-olds. "My candidate is Bill Clinton," she says. "I've met him a couple of times and I think he's a good guy, and palatable enough to get people to vote for him, regardless of any infidelity. And his wife is wonderful."

Parker's natural chattiness disappears only on the subject of her love life. After a seven-year romance with Downey she is dating another actor, but declines to reveal his name. "You'll find out eventually," she admits, "but right now, I have to respect his privacy."

On the important issue, Parker and Mr. X agree: "I don't want to wait much longer to have a baby, and he wants kids too, very much." As for the career-juggling involved, Parker says, "We'll just have to figure it out. It's hard not to date actors, because they're the only people you know. Plus they're just as troubled and neurotic as you are, so you feel normal."

"In the Best Interest of the Children" airs Sunday night at 9 on NBC.

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