My favorite genre of movie is “bustling, dramatic upper-middle-class white family loses their minds during one particularly charged weekend.” The Family Stone — released in 2005 to middling reviews — is this genre’s crowning achievement. Sarah Jessica Parker stars as the career-driven Meredith Morton, who spends Christmas with her boyfriend Everett’s (Dermot Mulroney) New England family. Meredith’s nervousness reads as iciness from the moment Everett’s car pulls into the Stone’s driveway, and the family immediately circles the wagons when they see that their prodigal son has decided to marry her. If Everett’s mother Sybil (Diane Keaton) isn’t undercutting her every action, his younger sister Amy (Rachel McAdams) sips coffee and sets traps for Meredith in every conversation. Eventually, Meredith calls for backup: She calls for her sister Julie (Claire Danes), and the Stone family is immediately smitten with the more outgoing Morton.
I mean, there’s really no smooth way to say this next part: Everett, boneheaded, falls for Julie. Meredith, against her better judgement, warms to Everett’s weed-smoking, sweatpants-wearing brother Ben (Luke Wilson). The whole family is reeling from the news that Sybil’s breast cancer has returned. There’s a deeply uncomfortable dinner scene where Meredith is cluelessly homophobic, and another scene where she accidentally points to a black character as a charades clue for The Bride Wore Black. Stunningly, the only set piece missing here is a beloved family dog.
And yet I love this movie unironically. I watch it every Christmas. I watch it even when it’s not Christmas. I love Rachel McAdams’s scowl. I love Diane Keaton’s pristine white button-up, and the way she wears it under a frumpy robe. I love Luke Wilson’s oversize North Face parka, which he definitely could not afford. I love that Mulroney’s character is named Everett, because that’s my cousin’s name. Also, The Family Stone is fun! And it’s the rare studio movie that features three women, and, instead of begging you to like them, presents them with sharp sides and questionable intentions intact.
Every year I basically die because no one wants to listen to me talk about this movie at length. (The militia of Family Stone warriors is small, and it’s mostly just me and Bobby Finger.) So I decided to talk to Sarah Jessica Parker about it.
Can you give me a sense of what your life was like when you signed on to The Family Stone? I think you were winding down work on Sex and the City.
I’m not sure if I had finished Sex and the City yet, actually. When I first met [director] Tom Bezucha and the offer came, I had recently finished. I was feeling good. I had just completed a long run as part of a project that I was proud of and had obviously changed the course of my life. I felt very privileged, and it felt like we were able to stop [the show] in a way that we all felt good about.
But also I did have a young son, and I was looking forward very much to being his parent and having real time with him. When Family Stone came up, I remember that I had some time between wrapping Sex and the City the series and starting a movie. I knew my son was going to come with me, which was really important. That’s kind of the beauty of movies: They’re a finite period. While they are intense and all-consuming, it’s kind of like a window. As a parent who wanted to spend time with my child, it was ideal.
What was your meeting with Tom like?
I was excited that he wanted me to play the part. He had very specific ideas about this character. He offered a really nice challenge. He wanted her to be skilled in ways that I had not been onscreen. There was a sort of chilly quality to her, where her neuroses were so evident, and yet she works so hard to mask that. She was wound so tight.
The way she moves and behaves, it’s all very restrained.
There was also that stillness. Carrie Bradshaw was very physical. She moved around a lot; she gesticulated a lot. Hands were an important part of the way she told stories, and Tom really didn’t want that, which was exciting to me. We really did talk a lot about that. Even in the process of shooting, there would be times that he would remind me of some of those original landmarks that we were shooting for.
Last night I read some old reviews about the movie, and I’ve become so defensive of Meredith. People call her unlikable or shrill, which are obviously very loaded labels. I think she’s just really nervous — who can’t relate to that? Did it bother you, how she was received?
I don’t read reviews, luckily. I’m always curious when there is a general opinion about a woman not being likable. I take personal offense to it, as well. I really struggle with how to have those conversations with people and not be defensive, but actually talk about what those words mean, and why qualities that are called unlikable when they are attributed to a female character in cinema are not at all applied to a man. I’ve had that even recently with Divorce. It’s so curious. It’s not without frustration on my part.
I didn’t think she was unlikable at all. Especially in romantic comedies, there’s this idea about likable, relatable gals. I think it does a huge disservice to the billions of woman who are all wonderfully different. Somebody is nervous, or lacks confidence? I found none of it unlikable. In fact, I found her compelling. I was drawn to her because of her exhibited neuroses.
I think Meredith was probably somebody who had very high standards for herself and lived in a world that was about discipline, appearance, success, ambition, and personal achievement. I think it made her actually quite touching. I really liked her, and I was sorry that she suffered so much, that she was so hard on herself and so hard on others. She was making an attempt to have a full life, a life that she thought was a portrait of success. I found those qualities very human.
On the other side of this dynamic is Diane Keaton. Were you nervous? Was it hard to not take her attitude with your character personally?
I was nervous about it. She and I actually had worked together before; we did First Wives Club. I didn’t spend a lot of time on camera with her, but I had been around her a little bit. I was nervous, but at least I had some exchanges with her previous to that. She was very nervous-making. She was tough on me.
I wasn’t certain in the beginning whether she was being personally tough on me, whether it was her relationship to the character. I came to understand that it was very much about the dynamic that the characters, what are they engaging in. She was tough on me in a way, but it was very specific to the on-camera story, and not personal and not mean. It was a huge joy to play those scenes with her, and wonderfully terrifying.
I loved working with her because I learned a lot about … I got — it was sort of a backstage pass to better understanding why I loved her so as an actor, and I do, and have for many, many years.
Can you tell me what you appreciate about her as an actor, about her process?
She’s very particular about the work. She worked extremely hard. She asks a lot of questions. She’s serious about the work. There’s a lightness to her. There’s a sort of soufflé thing about Diane Keaton. She has this really buoyant — do you know what I mean?
She’s witty and she’s clever and she’s seemingly scattered in a way. But that does not actually speak to the enormous intelligence and seriousness that she brings to her work. It’s not an accident, her work. It’s not easy. It’s thoughtful and considered.
I hope I’m not saying something I shouldn’t, but she wears headphones on the set. To stay focused, she’ll wear headphones basically until they call action. I think it’s a very interesting way to stay focused. A set is wonderfully chaotic. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of last-minute adjustments, people talking and going over lines, all the various disciplines on the set taking care of what they need to do. It’s a strangely chaotic place considering what has to happen the second the camera rolls, which is that everything goes quiet and still.
Who do you think was more vicious, the Diane Keaton character or the Rachel McAdams character?
You probably know the movie better than I do, I’ve only seen it once. My guess is that the mother remains the most important person, the person whose approval you most need. I think that family, when they circled the wagons, is very intense and formidable combatants, but the gravitas of a mother kind of eclipses [anyone else].
How many times did the three of you have to fall into that egg dish, the breakfast strata?
Many times. Many times.
Please tell me everything about it.
I know we had a bunch of costumes ready. We did it a lot because it was covered from a bunch of different angles. As always, before those scenes, it’s a lot of discussion about how it’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen. You try to control as much as you can simply I think for a camera to be able to capture it. But it has to feel completely out of control and reckless and spontaneous.
I was absolutely completely covered with it. I recall going in for coverage, and having to stay covered in it. Like, I couldn’t clean up. I had to stay because they were going in for tighter shots, and we couldn’t try to re-create how it had spilled on me. I spent many, many hours staying in that outfit.
I love that stuff. I love falling. I love all the physical stuff. I love props. For me, the more real all that can be, the better the work is, the better I feel like I’m actually having the experience, so I don’t want anyone else to do it for me. I don’t care if I’m covered in some Swedish egg casserole or whatever that was. I definitely know that I was the last of the day. I know that they covered me last. I spent many hours in some version of that, but it didn’t really bother me.
After the strata scene, I think the second most infamous is the dinner scene: Meredith has a really hard time asking Everett’s gay brother and his partner if they’d really want a gay son. Was that excruciating to film, someone who’s wrong but having such a hard time explaining even what she’s thinking?
Yeah, it was excruciating because of the silences, you know? I didn’t want anything about that to be easy, and I didn’t want it to feel familiar. You do so many takes of scenes like that because you’re moving around the table very slowly with the camera so that everybody’s covered in the scene, and that really is a scene where you really need to be on people at different times — in the editing room, you need all those choices.
So, yes, it was, because there’s nobody to help you. You really are alone in it. She’s trying so hard to defend an argument — to course correct really quickly — but it’s a long-held belief. She isn’t arriving at this as a conversation piece. It’s not like you’re joining in and saying, “I just wondered, ‘Did you ever think that maybe it might be easier if you hadn’t made that choice, or if this wasn’t your life?’” That is much more painful because it was so revealing about her, but also she was so much on her own. And, yes, all the actors were looking at me. I wanted to feel isolated, so it was excruciating, but it felt appropriately so.
Was Meredith’s tic always the throat-clearing?
Yes. From the beginning, I think it was written into the script.
Do you remember the cast doing a lot of improv, or finding things on the day?
I don’t think there’s a lot of improv. Diane can do it and does it beautifully. I tend not to because I think it’s hard to do it really, really well. I’m sure you’ve seen many cases when people think they’re good at it. It’s sort of awful when someone isn’t great at it and doesn’t add something meaningful.
Would you be mad if your own sister stole your fiancé?
I guess it would depend on the circumstances.
I mean, I don’t know. I guess that would be pretty hurtful. You mean like a current fiancé, not someone that is broken up, but that somebody who is in fact, to your knowledge, your fiancé?
And you are engaged?
Mm-hmm. Just like in the movie.
Well, yes. It would be very upsetting. That would be awful. Also, it’s very hard to imagine that my sister — I have many sisters. I can’t imagine any of them doing that. Our tastes are very different, let’s just start with that. Yeah, I think that would be probably really problematic for everybody, for the entire family.
I want to go back to the kitchen scene for a second because that’s maybe my favorite line reading in the movie: You’re covered in the food and sort of whimper, “What’s so great about you guys?”
I don’t even remember when I say it. You have to remind me, I’m so sorry.
No, you’re fine! I literally watch this movie every year, so I’m very familiar with it.
Maybe I should watch it again. Maybe my daughters would love it. They’re 9. Are they too young, or are they the right age?
I think that’s the perfect age. I think it’s totally appropriate. You have to show it to them. But anyway, it’s when the strata has just dropped in the kitchen. You’re looking at Diane, sort of like, Why would I even want to be a part of this family? “What’s so great about you guys?” Diane says, “Well, you know, we’re all we’ve got.”
Right, yeah. Thank you.
I’m truly recounting this movie to you, I’m so sorry.
Oh my God, no, thank you.
Since you have kids, have you ever considered that maybe you’ll become this Sybil character when or if they bring someone home for the holidays?
You know, I thought a lot about my children and their romantic life. Matthew [Broderick, her husband] and I would do our very best to be decent and civilized and hospitable to somebody who we’d think is not deserving or worthy of our children.
I’ve also said to [her son] James Wilkie, “You know, when you go to college, you can come home” … or when he’s married, when he’s a grown-up person and he has a romantic partner. I would tell him he was going to marry a woman named Mary, and I have no idea why. I was like, “You understand you have to come home every Friday for dinner, with or without your partner.” I always imagine that it will be like, How could this have happened? That they’d be the most perfect, the most suitable choice, that we’d get so lucky.
I hope that we’re a house that our kids want to come home to, and that people want to spend time with us for holidays. It would be a thrill. I don’t know what you do if you don’t care for a child’s romantic selection. I don’t know how you’re supposed to get through that. Looking back, I know for sure that I brought some people home that, later on, my brothers and parents revealed to me they were so relieved when we broke up.
I love that.
But they were very generous [with the guests, at the time].
Would you, Sarah Jessica, pick the Luke Wilson character or the Dermot Mulroney character?
This is very hard because I love those actors so much.
Okay, but there’s definitely a wrong answer here.
Do you want to tell me what my answer should be? Do you want me to pick Luke?
Yeah. Only because Everett was consistently the worst. Sorry. That dinner scene — he abandons Meredith in that dinner scene! He doesn’t even try to help her. I could not respect him after that.
Well, you know more than I do. Of course she should end up with Luke. Of course she should!
Luke has a line, he says, “You have a freak flag, Meredith, but you just don’t fly it.” I wanted to hear what that advice means to you.
I guess what he meant, and what it would mean to me, is you’re not allowing yourself to be your unique self. You’re not allowing yourself to be flawed or wrong or silly or ridiculous or vulnerable. You’re not allowing yourself to be your true person. I guess that’s certainly what I would mean if I said that. What do you think changed in Meredith?
I think it’s what you said, that she’s just relaxed and herself. A lot of the anxiety comes from not doing that, which I think is what makes the performance so great.
Well thank you.
As I’ve said, this is my favorite holiday movie and I watch it all the time, but especially this time of year. Do you have a favorite holiday movie?
We don’t watch a lot of movies at Christmas. It’s very strange. I didn’t grow up watching movies at Christmas. At Christmas, we always went to whatever the big movie was, as a family.
Actually, we used to watch — now, I’m remembering this — when you could start renting movies on your own we always watched Albert Brooks’s movies at Christmas. Always.
Well, thank you so much for talking to me and letting me indulge —
Thank you. I feel like you know so much more. But mostly thank you for loving Meredith. It’s so touching and so nice to hear.
This interview has been edited and condensed.