Looking back on the course of Sarah Jessica Parker’s career trajectory, it’s safe to say she has truly come a long way since playing nerdy side-kicks on TV ("Square Pegs"); taking small roles in 1980s films like Footloose; and traveling the made-for-TV movie circuit. Parker’s roles eventually got better, with quirky turns in ’90s fare LA Story, Honeymoon in Vegas and The First Wives Club. As the ’90s drew to a close, though, SJP – as critics often refer to her – did a 180-degree turn and came back to television for her juiciest role yet: columnist Carrie Bradshaw, on what would later become HBO’s mega-hit series, "Sex and the City."

During "Sex and the City’s" super-successful run on HBO – for which the actress garnered three Golden Globes and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award – Parker scaled back her appearances on the big screen and focused primarily on shooting her hit sitcom and starting a family with her husband, actor Matthew Broderick. Now, since her wildly popular show has wrapped and is taking on a life of its own in syndication, she’s dedicated to returning to making films; which, according to her, takes some getting used to even for a veteran thespian who began her career working the boards professionally as a child. "In my day, we actually had a camera!" she begins to explain in somewhat of an old harridan’s voice, before continuing with a laugh. "It hasn’t radically changed. But there are a lot of young actors whom I’m completely unfamiliar with – that I haven’t worked with."

Portraying the role of Carrie in "Sex and the City" helped introduce SJP to a wider audience and made her a trend-setting fashion plate and household name all over the country. So it’s surprising when one finds that while Ms. Bradshaw never crossed a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s she didn’t like, Sarah Jessica takes a different approach when she’s on the fashion prowl.

"I don’t shop very much ... but I look at [price] tags," the actress admits. "There are certain stores where I definitely will look at a tag, and other stores I don’t. I [make it a point to] look in the stores that are expensive, whereas in thrift stores I tend to be more generous with myself."

So the fiction doesn’t cross over into reality but, having said that, we can safely assume that there are more sides to SJP’s onscreen persona than sipping Cosmopolitans with her girlfriends and hobnobbing with New York City’s well-heeled scene stealers. And this is evidenced in her latest role, in which Parker returns to theaters in Steve Bezucha’s ensemble comedy The Family Stone, opposite Diane Keaton, Luke Wilson, Dermot Mulroney and Rachel McAdams.

In the new flick, Parker portrays Meredith, Mulroney’s upwardly mobile, emotionally frost-bitten girlfriend who goes with him to meet and break bread with his family – a tight-knit bunch of bohemians – during their annual Christmas get-together. Laughs are just around the proverbial bend. In Stone, Parker goes against the devil-may-care template she set on the TV show and gets full-on as the neurotic yuppie with tresses pulled back into the world’s tightest bun.

"It’s scary starting new all the time. I was with the same people so happily for so long and while it was a hard decision to leave, every time, it’s like being in the 11th grade, over and over – being the new kid all the time," Parker says when asked to expound on the difference between working in the family like setting of a close-knit ensemble cast and bouncing from film to film.

"I loved playing Carrie Bradshaw. It was an unbelievable time in my life. I left it out of affection because I held it in such high regard and the reason I stopped doing it is because I wanted to do different things. I’d always thought of myself as a journeyman ... I missed being challenged [creatively] and being terrified and working with new people and learning again."

If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, some might say about SJP’s decision to bring closure to the Bradshaw through-line and move on. However, according to the actress, when she’d finished shooting The Family Stone, the way she felt quantified her decisions to step away from a sure thing and spread her wings a little more. "When I finished [The Family Stone], I said to my friends at home, ‘gosh, I haven’t learned anything.’ I didn’t realize that I hadn’t learned anything in a long time," Parker says admittedly of the creative holding pattern she was in while on "Sex and the City."

"We were all really comfortable with what we were doing on ‘Sex and the City’ and it was great ... but I just hadn’t learned [more creatively]. So that’s what I want to do if I’m lucky enough, is to have experiences where I feel terrified and challenged." Parker says of her latest character,"She’s not a murderer, she’s just someone who is not great with interpersonal relationships. She’s functioned quite well, only digging so deep – that’s what makes her comfortable. But I think that makes her very tender at the same time ... [although] she doesn’t make a great case for herself immediately."

The clan of eccentrics featured in Stone are a "huggy" lot, a trait that Parker’s character Meredith has a tough time coming to grips with, which adds to the comedic tension in the flick’s storyline. As Parker puts it, art is not always just an interpretation of life. "I tend to not be as physically demonstrative with people I don’t know well," she states. "I’m always a little bit thrown when people move toward me – especially when there’s a person of European [descent] – there’s a kiss on the both sides [of the cheek]. I’m always a little bit confused. It’s really elegant but I tend to not do it."

Although The Family Stone has a comedic setting, the film touches on deeper issues that are relevant to the human condition. Parker sums up with what she feels the message of The Family Stone is. "It’s about being a grown-up, about loss and being in love or thinking about what it is to have to leave your children, not just in death, but letting them go – letting your children go. That real moment when they don’t need you in that same way any more," she says, continuing. "And, also, how wonderful it is to realize that you’ve raised a child that can let go and be an independent person."