From “Law and Order’s” Detective Mike Logan to “Sex and the City’s” Mr. Big, Chris Noth keeps stretching the boundaries of his acting career.
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"They've got great jazz here," says the 55-year-old actor, who's wearing an open-collared blue shirt under a navy blazer. "It's been around-it's got legs. It feels like the old New York, the one you don't see much anymore. I like places with a little bit of history-which must mean I'm getting old."
He laughs and relaxes under an Al Hirschfeld drawing, one of several that decorate the walls.
"You used to be able to smoke cigars in here-now you can barely do it anywhere," he says, throwing a wave of greeting at waiters, who acknowledge him as they walk by. The manager, who stops by to say hello, sends over a complimentary appetizer-a thick, gooey oval with layers of egg, sour cream and glistening black caviar surrounded by toast points.
"This is my neighborhood joint," Noth says, digging into the soft concoction in front of him with a sharp edge of toast. In fact, the restaurant is around the corner from the apartment he shares with partner Tara Wilson and their two-year-old son, Orion. "It's great because I can walk home, which is important when you're stumbling."
He chuckles again. Despite an imposing physicality that rises to a commanding 6-foot-2, Noth has a breezy presence. He may look like the hard-charging police detective Mike Logan of the "Law & Order" series or the prepossessing Mr. Big on "Sex and the City" (and its spin-off films, the second of which opens May 28) or even Peter Florrick, the humiliated (and recently paroled) politician he plays on the new hit series, "The Good Wife." But he's a very different guy.
"It might surprise people to know just how goofy Chris is," says Julianna Margulies, who plays his spouse, the title character on "The Good Wife." "He's a jokester. His character on the show is very serious-his character on ‘Law & Order' was, too-but he is a lot more lighthearted than that. He always has a joke for you."
Sarah Jessica Parker, another of his on-screen wives (as Carrie Bradshaw, she married him at the end of the first Sex and the City movie), said in an e-mail interview, "As originally written, there was a sort of wonderful conventionality about Mr. Big. Chris brought humor to him and a winking delight for Carrie."
That delight, in terms of the ongoing story of Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big, has now extended into the realm of marriage for the characters. Where the first Sex and the City movie dealt with the fallout when Big got cold feet at the altar-until he eventually came around and married Carrie in a fabulously extravagant New York wedding-the second film focuses on what happens after "happily ever after."
While the creative talent behind Sex and the City 2 are exceptionally close-mouthed about plot particulars, Noth says, "My story line is about the growing pains of a marriage. It's interesting because it's actually reversed from which of us people imagine would have a problem with being married. People expect I'd be the one to feel the pressure. I do think it will be a better movie than the first one, just in terms of my storyline. It's not as drastically dramatic.
"The first film had a different feeling from the series because it dealt more with issues that people have. In the series, the relationships were not as dramatic; there weren't as many breakups. The first one was about the things people face, the intense day-to-day reality that people face in a marriage, that they need to overcome to get closer. The second one deals with some of that. But the girls have a grand adventure and that's a big part of the movie."
Michael Patrick King, who wrote and directed both films, said in an e-mail interview, "Our journey over the years has been to keep making Mr. Big more and more real as he became more real to Carrie. And this journey continues in the new movie. I think you see even more new colors in Chris's performance, which was very exciting to me as a director. Chris has the charisma, sexuality and the humor to make the unattainable part of Mr. Big tolerable. The audience sees something in Mr. Big that they feel is worth that struggle to try to attain. And men like Mr. Big because he seems authentic to them...and a little inspirational."
While fans of the show relished the romance between Carrie and Big -in all its on-again, off-again glory-what made the show a phenomenon was the powerful sisterhood of its four female leads: "The friendship equation makes it special," Noth says. "You can't forget the bond these girls have. And the city was also a big part of it. It was New York-and the friendship of the women."
Still, King says, "The entire arc of the six years of the television series and now two films has been Carrie's effort to find happiness with John James Preston, aka Mr. Big. None of it would have worked or even been possible if Chris Noth's Mr. Big was not worth that effort. He had to be a complicated and ultimately a noble guy or Carrie would have seemed a fool. Chris is the man that audiences have loved for over 12 years. That's a major accomplishment."
Noth takes pride in being part of the show's legacy: "When you think of the things that came out of that show-the fascination with Carrie's wardrobe, with the name of shoe designers, with Cosmopolitans-I mean, fashion is a big, important industry in New York and ‘Sex and the City' helped contribute to that. It's more a part of our pop culture now.
"Hey, there are tour buses that offer the ‘Sex and the City' tour and show people where the girls shopped for shoes, things like that. That's pretty interesting. If that exists, it shows it's reached a point of no return. No one's going to start a ‘Law & Order' tour: ‘And here's where Lenny found a dead hooker.' "
With his dark good looks and deep voice, Noth would seem to be a fish out of water in the "Sex and the City" milieu: a man's man among the girliest of girls. Not so, Parker says.
"I don't think he's a man's man or a woman's man," she says. "He really enjoys the company of both sexes. He loves conversation and is certainly not muted in any environment. At this point, we have been working together for 12 or 13 years and he and I get on like a house on fire."
If anything, Parker says, fans might be surprised at some of Noth's tastes in popular entertainment: "First of all, he's a great and devoted poetry fan," she says. "He loves to talk about his favorite poets and who was the most influential in his life. The second surprising thing might be that he is a massive (Stephen) Sondheim fan. He knows every song, every show."
"Oh, I've listened to Sondheim all my adult life," Noth says enthusiastically, nibbling at another bit of toast and sipping a beer. "It's interesting that a gay man was able to write the most telling song ever of what it's like for a man to be married. It's in his show, ‘Company,' called ‘Sorry/Grateful.' It's probably the most insightful song about some of the questions men have.
"I would love to play Sweeney Todd." He pauses, then tunefully rumbles a line from the dark Sondheim musical: "You are young/you will learn." He shakes his head with a sad smile: "I wish I could sing; I sing but no one wants to hear me."
Everyone, however, seems to want to write about him-at least that's how Noth feels some days. He has few kind words for the celebrity media culture he sees as taking over the world, or at least his part of the world.
Sitting in the booth at the Knickerbocker, he catches a glimpse of CNN on a TV in the nearby bar area and recalls a recent item he saw on TV: "It was on CNN, on the ticker under the picture, just recently: ‘Chris Noth hurt on set'," he says. "I couldn't believe they ran it because it wasn't true."
The story emanated, he believes, from an incident on the set of "The Good Wife" six months earlier. At a key moment in the pilot, Margulies had to slap Noth-the angry wife finally unloading on the betraying spouse.
"It was a big moment and she gave me good slaps," says Noth, himself the son of a journalist. "I think we did three takes and it left a little bit of a mark. And six months later I see it on the CNN ticker: ‘Chris Noth hurt on set.' How reliable is the news today if that's the news?
"Everyone is talking about the demise of newspapers. This is one good reason I hope it doesn't happen. I mean, it wasn't true-and it was six months later. It's so ridiculous the news that comes out. They absolutely say anything they want.
"I remember before we made the first Sex and the City movie. None of us thought it was going to happen because there were some legal issues. Someone asked me about it and I maybe said that it would be fun, if we make a movie, if we could go to Bali. The next thing I know, I'm reading that Chris Noth is holding out and holding up the Sex and the City movie until they go to Bali. It's just amazing to me, the fact that people can write anonymously, with no rules and none of the ethical considerations. I don't give a shit, except to have a laugh. But it's more of a signal that anything goes."
(A few weeks later, Noth pops up again, this time in a Huffington Post.com headline: "Snooki, Chris Noth OK After Glass Ceiling Shatters at Purim Party in NYC." To which Noth said in an e-mail: "I showed up at the behest of a couple of friends from Israel and left 10 minutes later. They call that news?")
The success of "Sex and the City"-and people's identification of Noth with his Mr. Big character-mean greater recognition on the streets. But, after 20 years in which he's been a regular TV presence in people's living rooms, Noth hasn't changed his approach to life as a New Yorker. He still rides the subway, still gets his own coffee at Starbucks, still walks the streets-more Mike Logan than Mr. Big, with no thought of holing up behind a curtain of celebrity privacy.
Yes, people recognize him, he says, but they're usually polite about it.
"People never went, ‘Hey, Mike Logan!' " he says. "But they do go, ‘Hey, Big!' They get a lot more excited about Mr. Big. I guess people are desperate for a certain kind of romance and they think I'm that guy. I'm so not invested in that world. And I'm not going to give up riding the subway because people call me ‘Big.'
"A few weeks ago, a woman started yelling at me in a Starbucks. She came up to me and demanded that I take a picture with her. When people present themselves in an offensive way, I won't do it. And sometimes you just don't feel like it. For her, I didn't. And she's yelling, ‘Why are you being such a jerk?'
"I mean, I usually do it. So I sure hope it's not true what the Indians say about having your picture taken."
Los Angeles, where he also maintains a home, is a different story: "In L.A., it's easy to know the places not to go. There are some good restaurants I won't go to because I think it's nonsense to have to enter through a gauntlet of flashbulbs. There are parks in L.A. I won't go to because of photographers. There's a way to do things out there.
"But these days everybody is a paparazzo because everybody has a camera in their phone. Everybody is taking pictures. I don't know what the hell they're doing."
Noth didn't become an actor for the fame or glory. Indeed, when he started, he was still searching for just what it was that he did want to do with his life.