John Corbett Knows What You Want From Him

John Corbett at his ranch in California. He returns to his old TV Manhattan stamping grounds in the new season of “And Just Like That …”Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

Over the years, people have cornered John Corbett on the street, at the grocery store, in coffee shops, to swear fealty. “Every [expletive] person I meet is just, ‘I was Team Aidan!’” he said. He assumes that those people are lying.

“People don’t want to hurt my feelings,” he said. “They’re really careful with me.”

In two seasons of “Sex and the City” and in brief cameos later, including in the improvident Arabian fantasia “Sex and the City 2,” Corbett, 62, played Aidan Shaw, a hunky furniture maker and the on-again, off-again, engaged to, off-again, still mostly off-again love interest of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw.

“He was warm, masculine and classic American, just like his furniture,” Carrie says of Aidan in voice-over.

Aidan, a character designed to contrast Chris Noth’s withholding Mr. Big and originally scheduled for just three episodes, was also, like much classic American furniture, stolid and unyielding. He wouldn’t let Carrie smoke. He demeaned her interests. When she cheated on him, he punished her. Controlling, judgmental, manipulative — who wants a bedroom set like that?

Carrie, apparently. Because as trailers have revealed, Corbett’s Aidan will return to the second season of the well-heeled “Sex and the City” revival, “And Just Like That …,” which premieres on Max on Thursday. And this time around, when people chase him down to declare loyalty to Aidan, Corbett thinks that they just might mean it.

“Those fans that didn’t like Aidan — and I know exactly why they didn’t, he was wrong for her — there’s going to be no [expletive] help for those people,” he said.

Corbett was speaking late last month, by telephone, from his home in a sleepy town about three hours north of Los Angeles. Actually it was “the wife’s” phone, the wife being the actress and model Bo Derek, as Corbett’s wasn’t working. A request for a video interview had been denied.

“I can’t be myself because I’m performing,” he said. “An hour plus is a long time to suck your gut back.”

This suggests that Corbett, who came to acting late and more or less by accident, has complicated feelings about performance even as he maintains, he said, a hands-off attitude to his career. To talk to him is to feel not only his shirttails-out, expletive-heavy intimacy, but also his deep ambivalence about his calling, his craft and the show that made him famous.

Corbett didn’t always appreciate the way he was typecast by playing Aidan in “Sex and the City,” but he was happy to play the character again.Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

Corbett grew up in Wheeling, W.Va., with his mother. After high school, he moved to Southern California to be near his father, a welder, taking a job at a steel plant. Sidelined at 22 by an injury, he enrolled in community college, which mostly bored him. But about a month in, he met some guys in the cafeteria who invited him to their improv class.

“I’ve always been a guy that made my friends laugh, a class clown,” he said. “I saw 30 other people just like me in there.” That same day, he dropped his other classes and re-enrolled as an acting student. He took sword fighting; he took ballet. He has never felt that same excitement or that same freedom again.

“It’s kind of like drugs,” he said. “You’re chasing that first high.”

His transition into professional acting was wobblier. He posed for cheap headshots, whipped up a résumé full of fake credits and supported himself as a hairdresser while he botched almost every audition that came his way, hands shaking, scripts shaking. He had two goals: He wanted to be on television and he wanted to be famous.

In 1990, he was cast as the serene, groovy Alaskan radio D.J. in the CBS comedy “Northern Exposure.” “Northern Exposure” ran for five seasons and 110 episodes. It didn’t pay much. But it gave him his first bittersweet taste of celebrity, and it taught him that while fans loved him, they loved him not for any histrionic skill but rather for his rumbling voice, sleepy smile and 6-foot-5-inch frame.

“I was the hunky guy and women would gush,” he said. “I don’t think one person has ever come up to me and said, ‘Hey, I think you’re a good actor.’”

He had a type, he discovered — handsome, sensitive, not quite a himbo. And in the years after “Northern Exposure,” he didn’t fight it. “You’ve got to go where the money is, right?” he said. The money back then came mostly from TV movies he described as “not great.”

He had some standards, though. And in 2000, when he was first offered a role in the third season of “Sex and the City,” he turned it down. He saw himself as more than a guest star. But the showrunner Michael Patrick King, now the creator of “And Just Like That …,” tried to convince him otherwise, intuiting that Corbett could supply the affection and warmth so lacking in Noth’s Big.

As one of the main love interests of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie, Aidan was a nice guy with a manipulative side.Credit…Craig Blankenhorn/HBO
Corbett and Parker insist the characters’ revived relationship will be healthier. “He’s really, really listening to her now,” he said.Credit…Craig Blankenhorn/Max

“There’s so few actors that have a relaxed, strong sex appeal,” King said in an interview. “He also has that thing that some of the great male movie stars have, a really low vibration of confidence.”

Since Corbett didn’t have HBO, he was sent episodes on VHS. He watched them, and he was still a no. (For one thing, the script required nudity, “and my sweet little mom watched everything I did.”) Eventually he agreed to a meeting with Parker and King, mostly for the free trip to New York. They met at King’s West Village apartment.

“I fell in love with both of those cats,” Corbett recalled. “After that hour, I wanted to be around them some more.”

Parker also remembered an immediate bond. “I opened the door for him,” she said in a recent phone interview. “He did some sort of gallant, old-fashioned bow. I don’t remember the conversation, except that it was really pleasant and happy.”

Once he was on set, she realized that the camera only magnified that charm. “It’s like he wrapped his arms around the camera and merged it into his body,” she said. “He absorbed it.”

Three episodes became four. Then five. Then more. When Carrie and Aidan broke up at the end of Season 3, fans sent HBO Popsicle-stick furniture demanding that Corbett be brought back, and he was.

He had what he wanted: He was on TV. He was famous. But the fame, more intense than what he’d experienced in “Northern Exposure,” changed his life, and “not in the way that I wanted it to, work wise,” he said.

Corbett initially declined “Sex and the City” but changed his mind after meeting with Parker and Michael Patrick King. “I fell in love with both of those cats,” he said.Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

There were such strong associations between Corbett and the role that he struggled to be seen in any other way. He recalled being turned down for other roles he wanted, told that he would be too distracting. His work on “Sex and the City” and in the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” movies, the first of which was released in 2002, affirmed and limited his type: the nice boyfriend. Then he became the nice husband. Lately, in projects like the “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” movies and their recent spinoff series, “XO, Kitty,” he has charmed a new generation of viewers as the nice dad.

“I’ve made friends with the idea of, this is just what I do,” he said. “When the phone rings and it feels like the money’s right and the place is right and the time is right, I’ll go be this guy that these people want.”

Colleagues who speak about Corbett tend to overlap him and his characters. “He is a very fun rapscallion who likes to have a good time,” said Nia Vardalos, the writer and star of the “Greek Wedding” films, which seemed to refer equally to actor and role.

“He’s a big puppy — how can you not adore a puppy?” said Toni Collette, his co-star in the Showtime series “The United States of Tara.”

For Corbett, the boundaries are equally fuzzy, particularly when it comes to Aidan. “The line gets blurry because when they clap the action board, there’s not a change,” he said. “I’m still living the same life.”

In “Sex and the City,” that life, for all of Corbett’s warmth, had its darkness. If fans saw Aidan as comfortable and loving, the character was also judgmental and angry. (For Corbett, the line gets blurry here, too: “I get upset. I want to send a [expletive] chair through plate glass windows a couple times a day.”)

So why bring him back? Initially, King didn’t. Because he planned to kill off Big in the first season of “And Just Like That …,” he felt he couldn’t immediately summon Carrie’s other major love interest. In 2021, Corbett told a reporter that he would be a part of it, but that was just a prank. (“John’s antic,” King explained.)

“I’ve made friends with the idea of, this is just what I do,” Corbett said of the decent, hunky characters he is asked to play.Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

But Corbett did want to come back. “Especially when some of the photos would pop up of them shooting in the streets,” he said. “I would get a little jealous that I wasn’t asked to come back and do a cameo.”

By Season 2, enough time had elapsed. King called Corbett and soon he found himself back at Silvercup Studios, where the original “Sex and the City” had filmed. He even brought some of the same clothes.

But there were differences, allegedly. Max shared only a few minutes of Aidan screen time, but Corbett and Parker said that Aidan and Carrie’s relationship has mellowed and deepened. Aidan no longer argues with Carrie in the same way, Corbett insisted. He no longer controls her.

“He’s really, really listening to her now,” he said.

Parker, in her separate call, agreed. “It’s not fevered; it’s not demanding,” she said of the characters’ romance. “There’s so much heat between them, but there isn’t that urgency from him.”

So could there be justification for Team Aidan this time? King put it this way: “I didn’t bring Aidan back to fail.”

Corbett seemed to want a win for Aidan, though not in any passionate way. Aidan gave him the career he has, even if it has been more narrowly defined than the career he once imagined. But he has made his peace with it. He will likely never be seen as a serious actor, but there are worse things than being a classic American dreamboat.

“It’s given me such a wonderful life, and asked so very little in exchange for that big sack of money that I got,” he said of his career. And then, though it wasn’t entirely true, he added, “I’ve gotten everything out of this life that I wanted.”

“When the phone rings and it feels like the money’s right and the place is right and the time is right, I’ll go be this guy that these people want,” Corbett said.Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times
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