Star, who had come off creating “Beverly Hills, 90210″ and “Melrose Place,” needed to find his core four — the female actresses who would soon become known to the world as Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha.
Today, those four names — and the actresses who portrayed them, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon — are synonymous with one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in TV history.
And the show still resonates today. Airing long before the Me Too era and female-forward programming, the comedy was ahead of its time, putting confidentially flawed, unapologetically single career women at the forefront of TV, exuding themes of female friendship, female empowerment and casual sex. “Sex and the City” has held onto its original fanbase and has found a new audience over the past two decades by airing in syndication, inspiring a prequel television series on the CW and spawning two feature films — and nearly a third.
So what’s next for “Sex and the City?” Variety spoke with the creator, Star, to find out…
Can you believe it’s been 20 years, since “Sex and the City” premiered?
Darren Star: It is very hard to believe. It’s a very sobering thought.
Why do you think the show still resonates with audiences today?
It really is a testament to those characters and those actresses. Ultimately, I think the show is about something that’s universal — friendships and relationships. It’s gratifying to know that audiences still care about the show and is still invested in it, after all these years.
Being a female-forward show, was there any pushback from networks at the time you were pitching the show?
That’s one reason I wanted to bring it to HBO because they were looking to do things that were certainly out of the box and wasn’t thought to have been commercial. They were always very supportive of really pushing boundaries, and from the beginning, I really looked at the show of being the equivalent of an independent film for television. It was not so commercial. I never wanted it to be. I never thought it was appropriate material for one of the broadcast networks.
Looking back, do you consider “Sex and the City” to be ahead of its time?
I definitely felt that I was doing something that had not been done on television before quite this way. But I also feel like network TV is very behind the times, so it wasn’t ahead of its time, in terms of reflecting the lives of these characters and it felt like the audience was ready to see this show. Broadcast television has always been very behind the curve of what’s permissible. It’s very sanitized. If this was going to be a show that was going to be about sexual relationships and was going to be very frank and honest, this was obviously not going to be appropriate for broadcast television, but I felt the adult audience out there was certainly ready for this show.
At the time, did you feel like you were ahead of the curve?
I used to feel like it was right on time because it did connect with its audience, so I think it was the right show at the right time, in that regard, because the audience was ready for the show. But beyond that, I think it’s was a single-camera comedy without a laugh track, at a time when every comedy on television was a sitcom. So in that respect, it was certainly ahead of its time for what comedy has evolved to look like on television. Now, primarily, shows are single-camera comedies.
Could “Sex and the City” have been around today?
The show is a reflection of its time. Of course, I think there are shows like it that are around today — I think “Girls” has elements of “Sex and the City” — and I think there’s always going to be shows that are honest about female points of view and shows and that are honest about sex and relationships. I feel like there are many more shows like that out there now. At the time that we did “Sex and the City,” the landscape was so different. There weren’t many places to program a show like that or many companies that would take that kind of risk that HBO did.
The show centers around four white women. If “Sex and the City” were pitched today, how would the show look different?
There would probably be a gay character and it would probably be more diverse, but at the same time, this is what that show was about. It was about those four women, and I think “Sex and the City” can only be conceived in the context of the time that it was done, and any show that is done now would not be “Sex and the City;” it would be something else because it’s 20 years later. I think its an apples and oranges type of question. “Sex and the City” would obviously be a completely different show today, in terms of how it would be conceived from the very beginning. You might even have a gender-fluid character on the show. From the ground up, we would just be thinking of it differently 20 years later.
Today, many shows revolve around flawed female characters, but Carrie Bradshaw was truly a unique central character for a show — she wasn’t just a woman, but she was a single and sexual woman. Do you think the show was a pre-cursor to programming today?
I think “Sex and the City” was very specifically about a female voice and a sexually-empowered woman who was also going to be likable and not threatening. One thing that I think Sarah Jessica Parker brought to the role was her sense of humor. Carrie was a very flawed character in many ways, and the audience was always on a journey with her, and I think her flaws made her more relatable.
Do you remember Sarah Jessica Parker’s audition?
After having written the pilot, I just thought she would be perfect actress for it. I was a big fan of her work. She was funny and always seemed so smart. As an actress, I thought she would be very believable as this writer, and I thought she had great comedy chops, so that combination felt to be the perfect fit. We had lunch in New York and I’m sure she was thinking, “Who is this guy? What is this script?” [laughing] But she liked the script. She was primarily a film actress so it was a big leap to commit to doing a TV series, but the fact that it was going to be on HBO made a difference.
So she never formally auditioned?
She did not audition. We just had a meeting.
Did you have to talk her into it?
I was persuasive. I tried to be charming [laughing]. I think she said that Matthew [Broderick] liked the script, so I thought, “Okay, that’s good. That’s a big plus.” I just knew in my heart that she was the right person for the role and was the only person in my mind.
So Sarah Jessica Parker was always your first choice to play Carrie?
What do you remember about casting Kristin Davis?
I worked with her on “Melrose Place,” and I cast her on “Melrose Place.” I knew Kristin a little bit from working with her obviously, and I loved the character that she played on “Melrose Place,” but I also saw a different side of Kristin and I knew she could do this and bring some of herself to this role, so I just felt that she was completely right for it, having had the advantage of working with her a bit. I just felt she was going to bring some of herself to the role of Charlotte.
Did she read for the role?
I don’t really remember Kristin reading for it. I’m not sure if she read for it or not because I knew her. I don’t really recall her auditioning because I just recalled that she felt like the right person for me.
How about Cynthia Nixon’s audition?
Cynthia, I think, read in New York. She did read. Cynthia was really a legend as a stage actress — a theater actor in New York. Her reading was fantastic. It took me a while to realize that she wasn’t Miranda because she was so in the role, and I didn’t know her before, so I thought, “She must really be like this character.”
What do you think about Cynthia Nixon running for governor?
She’s always been extremely smart and committed to local politics and very passionate about so many issues that are important to her, so I think it’s amazing and it’s not totally out of left field.
Tell me about Kim Cattrall’s audition.
Kim initially didn’t want to do it. She had to be very persuaded to come in and read for it, and actually, we were just about to cast another actress, and at the eleventh hour, we had lunch and Kim agreed to come in and read for the role for HBO, and of course, she was fantastic. It was one of those situations where we just had to make the change [from another actress].
It’s really hard to imagine any other actresses in these roles.
Casting is so much luck. The right people have to be available at the right time, and I feel like the cast, you just can’t imagine anyone else in these roles, and it’s just part of the magic of what made the show work — these four women.
Plans fell through for a third film, reportedly because of some casting issues. Can you clear up anything that happened?
I would say I have about as much information on a third movie as you do, so I have nothing to add to that.
Would you want there to be a third movie?
I think if it was the right story and everybody was in a space to come back and do it, of course. Absolutely. If it’s “Sex and the City” — the show that people connected to — then yes. If it’s something else, then no. But I really have nothing to add to the conversation about [the third movie].
We’re in the age of TV reboots and revivals. Would you ever be interested in doing a TV reboot?
I think a reboot of “Sex and the City” with a different cast, I’m not sure what that would be. But a reboot with the original cast, 100%. I’m there for that. I would love to be a part of that. Absolutely. If everybody comes back for that, that would be wonderful. I think “Will & Grace” has done it brilliantly, and there’s the model for it.