NEW YORK — Nicole Ari Parker wants to tell me a story about who she really is. What’s underneath the 20-plus years of piecemeal journeywoman roles and now, at 52, those gigantic “And Just Like That …” billboards.
The actress, 52, is the breakout star of ‘And Just Like That …’ — but she’s been here all along
“I’m really a theater actress. That’s my passion, my dream, my training,” said Parker, who this week reprised her role as the uber cool Upper East Sider Lisa Todd Wexley, the answer to the question “Where are all the Black people?” on HBO’s “Sex and the City” postscript.
So here’s the story. Nearly a decade ago, Parker was sitting across from a famous director who was mounting an all-Black revival of a hallowed slice of American letters. The veteran actress was nervous. For years she’d longed to sink her teeth into the playbooks she’d studied at New York University — Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry and, of course, Tennessee Williams.
“I’m so excited … like beyond,” recalled Parker, who added that her full-body buzz was less about actually landing a role in the production being mounted and more about the fact that “that somebody wanted to talk to me about my craft.” A craft she’d been deep into for decades but still didn’t feel particularly challenged by, just yet. The meaty roles? They were few.
After a three-hour lunch that she had been warned would be “45 minutes max,” theater director Emily Mann asked Parker, who by then was best known for her turn as the exacting Teri Joseph in the excellent Showtime family drama “Soul Food,” a make-or-break question: Was she a Blanche or more of a Stella?
To deliver her next line, Parker removes her movie-star sunglasses and leans across her lobster Cobb at this fancy Hudson Yards eatery, glances around conspiratorially and lowers her voice just enough to make anyone listening tilt forward, too.
“And I looked at her and said, ‘Emily, I could play Stanley.’”
After sitting across from her for just over an hour it’s hard not to believe her. On screen Parker got trapped in a pattern of type — ingenue, wife of, up-and-coming grand dame, a tough but beautiful lawyer thrown in on occasion. In person she is both fantastical and familiar. Her intense hazel gaze can seem otherworldly, but the way her voice often reaches into her Baltimore roots is very around the way. She can go on deep tangents about how Judy Garland in “A Star is Born” is a master class and insist you watch that famous dressing room scene in its entirety, post haste. To borrow an apt cliché, she is much more than meets the eye.
“She and I just looked into each other’s eyes and sort of fell in love,” the director said of that first sit down. On the drive home Parker got a text: The part of Blanche DuBois in Mann’s 2012 multiracial production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” was hers.
The role was a dream fulfilled, but the reviews were lukewarm. The New York Times’s theater critic wasn’t impressed with actress’s take on “the breakable Blanche Dubois.” But Parker always meant to play the quietly cunning Southern belle as anything but simpering, describing the elder DuBois sister as a mental poker player. “I’ve never seen Blanche played like that until Nicole got a hold of her. I think its one of the great performances of that role,” said Mann.
“I just felt like I had done my job,” said Parker of the play’s three-month run. “Ben Brantley made it seem like it was a hot mess. But ask anybody Black. He didn’t understand that Black people laugh when something is real.”
For Parker, 2012 was “a magical year.” But magic doesn’t always mean more — more work, more success, more respect.
“If I were more aggressive about my professional expansion, if I’d had better management, or a better publicist, or a better makeup artist or better this … ” said Parker before adding bluntly, “If I were White, I would have gone from [‘Streetcar’] to this to that to this.” Instead, she took the road often traveled by actresses of color. After exiting stage left as Blanche DuBois with her back ramrod straight, Parker spent the next decade doing more episodic TV, including four seasons of “Empire,” and the occasional film. Undoubtedly nice work if you can get it, but she was still on the hunt from something juicy.
Her husband, Kodjoe, who proposed to Parker on a mountain in his native Germany after the pair met on the set of “Soul Food,” has been watching from the wings.
“I think she has only just scratched the surface because I know how good she is,” said Kodjoe, who stars in the ABC drama “Station 19.”
“The problem is oftentimes, especially with Black actresses, they are sort of confined to the parameters with which they’re seen by mostly White writers. I’ve been wishing and praying that she would have some of the opportunities that her female White counterparts get on a daily basis,” said Kodjoe.
Then, while Parker was shooting a new pilot in a Brooklyn warehouse with director Malcolm D. Lee, who’d previously cast her as an exotic influencer in “The Best Man: The Final Chapters,” Parker spent a hurried lunch break auditioning for one of two Black roles on “AJLT.” When the show premiered in 2021 to mixed reviews but a still-ravenous fan base, Parker, who had been beloved by Black audiences for decades, suddenly found herself thrust into a new kind of stardom. Articles enamored of Parker’s effortlessly cool and crazy rich LTW declared that the actress had been “catapulted to fame.”
This is why starting with “And Just Like That …” feels wrong. Although the level of global fame the actress is attaining now is definitely new (that type of microscope is reserved for the 1 percent of performers), Parker is decidedly not. New, that is.
“It’s a little bit of Christopher Columbus going on,” said Parker in a high-pitched voice, laughing at the idea that she’s been discovered at 50-plus but also kind of getting it. Yes, she’s been acting since she was a kid, forcing her parents and their friends to pause Spades long enough to watch her perform upstairs. Then, as an NYU freshman, she abandoned her journalism major to audition for the Tisch School of the Arts. In the late ’80s and early ’90s Parker hit the pavement. That’s where she first met fellow “AJLT” cast member Sarita Choudhury. In those “broke broke” days the two did everything together — sharing cocktails and stages. They even shared the same button-down for their “Law and Order” auditions.
Choudhury, who stars as the chain-smoking and Birkin-wielding Manhattan real estate agent Seema Patel on “AJLT,” said the pair are still somewhat shellshocked by their newish roles. “Why the hell out of the whole of New York would they pick me and her? Most projects don’t have room for two women,” said Choudhury, let alone four new female co-stars and all women of color. But under all that progress was a lot of what Choudhury calls “BS.”
Parker’s LTW was the first of the added characters to be leaked before the show’s 2021 premiere, and fresh on the heels of a so-called national racial reckoning, some assumed the actress was Kim Cattrall’s “woke” replacement. Opinions ensued. Folks accused the show, which had long been criticized for being blindingly White in a multicultural metropolis, of swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. The additional actresses of color didn’t help dilute the criticism. An oft-cited tweet pointed out that Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) each got “their own emotional support woman of color.”
“I stepped into a juggernaut. These fans are not playing games. They’ve got stuff they need to say to you. They are waiting for you outside. It’s like a whole world. I got a lot of unsolicited commentary about what they liked and didn’t like,” said Parker, who was shocked by how triggering the cast announcements were. “People were coming out of their faces.” But she did admit that the first season had a lot of work to do introducing four new characters. Season two, Parker said, feels less heavy-handed, allowing the characters to simply exist in the “SATC” universe without excessive explanation.
The fact that her pal is just now getting mainstream notice — and the intense heat of the fan spotlight — is par for the course, said Choudhury. “When you’ve been in the business so long, we’ve gone through so many hurdles of the obvious BS. So you become adept at how you infiltrate. It’s your own little revolution.”
And LTW does feel like a revolution. She is unapologetic about looking like a million bucks. She is intelligent (a documentarian), maternal (a mother of three) and sexy (in the first episode she’s nearly late for the Met Ball due to … adult reasons). She’s a Black woman who is at the party, too.
“From the clothes she wore to the art on her walls … that attention to detail made me feel a little safe in this new environment,” said Parker. Credit for that goes the writer’s room. Writer and producer Keli Goff laid LTW’s foundation in season one with the episode “Some of My Best Friends,” and then passed the baton to veteran showrunner and writer Susan Fales-Hill, who joined “AJLT” as a consulting producer this season.
In one of the sophomore season’s opening scenes, LTW is in her studio-apartment-sized closet putting the finishing touches on a documentary featuring former senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill), the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Inside five minutes her daughter interrupts with a French poem while her sons need answers on field trips and lacrosse practice. In a single frame we see all the new Birkins plus a photo of Shirley Chisholm on LTW’s vision board. Later in that same episode LTW is forced to walk — walk! — to the Met Gala in Valentino haute couture while her husband Herbert (Broadway’s Chris Jackson) carries her billowing red train. It’s a scene people will be playing on a loop, said Fales-Hill.
“How subversive it is for Black women to be portrayed in a glamorous manner. You’re not the domestic, the frumpy friend or the assistant. You are the object of attention,” said Fales-Hill, adding that the impact is far from frivolous. “We haven’t seen a character as glamorous as LTW since Diahann Carroll in ‘Dynasty.’”
And fashions, darling. That is new and Parker is into it.
Foreshadowing that red dress scene in the Met Gala episode, last March Parker attended the Valentino show in Paris. The lady wore red, a long-sleeved floral bodysuit paired with a floor-length cape to be exact. It was a moment when she didn’t mind being the ingenue.
“Girrrrrl, don’t put a cape on me, okay,” said Parker in a tone that absolutely meant “Please, put a cape on me.” “Don’t let there be a Black Wonder Woman, I’d be the first in line on Zoom auditioning.”
“I feel like she’s coming into her own in this part,” said Fales-Hill.
But don’t call it “a reinvention or a resurgence,” said Kodjoe. What’s happening now — the Paris fashion weeks, the fans gushing over her in several different languages, the model contracts coming Parker’s way — it’s been brewing and it still hasn’t boiled over.
“I’m having a great time on ‘AJLT’ but I guess that’s why I’m still here. I’m still going because I know it’s coming, I just don’t know when or how,” said Parker. “I think that’s the plight of us as Black actresses. I think we need four of five of those roles like Meryl Streep does. That’s a career. And if mine kicks in now, then I’m here for it.”