Cynthia Nixon was born in New York City on 9 April 1966, to Anne Elizabeth Knoll, an actress, and Walter E. Nixon Jr., a radio journalist. Nixon made a memorable film debut in Ron Maxwell’s “Little Darlings” in 1980. Since then, she has appeared in numerous films such has “Amadeus” (1984), “The Pelican Brief” (1993), “Little Manhattan” (2005), “5 Flights Up” (2014) and “James White” (2015). But, Cynthia Nixon is probably known for her portrayal of Miranda Hobbes in the HBO hit series “Sex and the City” that ran from 1998 to 2004 and for which she won the 2004 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She reprised the role in the films “Sex and the City” (2008) and “Sex and the City 2” (2010). Nixon’s Broadway debut was in the 1980 revival of “The Philadelphia Story”. Her other Broadway credits include “The Real Thing” (1983), “Indiscretions” (1995), “The Women” (2001) and “Wit” (2012). In 2006, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for “Rabbit Hole”. Her other awards include the 2008 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”, the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Album for “An Inconvenient Truth”. In TV, she also played political figures Eleanor Roosevelt in “Warm Springs” in 2005, Michele Davis in “Too Big to Fail” in 2011 and Nancy Reagan in “Killing Ronald Reagan” in 2016.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival where her latest film “A Quiet Passion” by Terence Davies premiered in the Berlinale Special section of the festival and in which she portrays the American poet Emily Dickinson and talks to her about her role in the film, her acting career, activism, (Hollywood) feminism and, of course, “Sex and the City”.
How would you describe Emily Dickinson?
Cynthia Nixon: There are so many selves inside of her. There’s a very shy person. There’s a very defiant person. There’s an incredibly hopeful and loving, eager to connect person and there’s an almost cruel at times person. There’s such a range of people inside her.
She is very much an enigma. Do you think you solved it and do you think she was a lesbian?
C.N.: I don’t feel like we’ve solved it but, I mean, there’s so much to show about her. And, I think we showed a good amount – not nearly all there is to show. You know, whether she’s a lesbian, is a big question. I think that, maybe, even a bigger question is these passionate love affairs that she had: were any of them physical? I don’t know… I do think, you know, if I had to give my opinion – which is not definitive – I would say that she fell in love with men and women and they were very passionate and painful. The ends of these relationships, you know, the breaking off, was very, very painful. I think she was very in love with her sister-in-law and I think she felt sort of betrayed by her in the end. But, if I had to define her, I would say she’s bisexual. That’s what I would say. But, she’s such a person of passion. I think you get that from the film. She’s so eager with connection. She doesn’t go by gender.
Emily was also a rebel for her time. In your work and your private life, you are an activist and a very strong woman. Do you feel that connection with her?
C.N.: Someone asked me yesterday whether I thought Emily Dickinson would’ve defined herself as a feminist if that had been an idea that was presented to her. And, I don’t think so. I think she was deeply interested in gender and I think she was very interested in women’s equality. I think she thought women’s inequality was wrong but I think that she might have had feelings about women’s equality and about slavery at the time she was living and even about the civil war. But, I think she wasn’t a person who put a lot of stock in political movements. Everything for her was so personal that she wasn’t into “isms” and, I think, for me, I have more faith in political movements than I think she would have or she did. But, I’m a person who is much more out in the world. She, not so much. And, I think that’s what’s extraordinary about her voice as her voice is purely her own.
But, do you think she’s a feminist icon?
C.N.: I think she’s a feminist icon, but we always have this struggle, right? Do we say that a writer is a female writer? Or do we say that a writer is an African American writer? Or writer? Do you know? And, I think she is a feminist icon but I think she is a poet for the ages. I think she is America’s greatest poet and the fact that America’s greatest poet happens to be female… She’s not a great poet because of her gender but her gender is included in everything that she writes about.
And, are you aware that you are as well an icon?
C.N.: Thank you! Perhaps with less longevity that Emily Dickinson!
To me, the main issue is that, in the case of women, that women’s stories get told.
How was it for you to put the clothes on in order to create the character?
C.N.: Yes. I think it’s very important. Well, first of all, it’s very important that I tried to look like her as much as I could because we do know what she looks like. But, I think it’s also very important because we live in such an informal time; we’re so casual about everything. And, this was a very formal time. Even though they prided themselves on straightforward honesty and directness, they were just very formal. And so, once you do get into those clothes, it does help bring you back to that period.
Do you feel more comfortable playing constrained or more outgoing characters?
C.N.: I don’t know! A character is a character. You know what I mean? So, you feel good in whatever makes you feel like the character. So, if the character is constrained, it helps very much if the clothing is constrained.
I’m sure that there have been a lot of changes in the condition of women since Emily’s period. Last year there was a lot of talk about the situation of women in Hollywood. What is your attitude on that and on the industry?
C.N.: Right. You can talk about awards and you can talk about salaries and those are important but, to me, those are kind of like a byproduct. They’re not the main issue. To me, the main issue is that, in the case of women, that women’s stories get told because once women’s stories are getting told, first of all, it seems to me you’re much likelier to have women involved at the top, whether it’s a writer or a director or a producer, a star who’s creating a vehicle for herself, like Viola Davis said recently: “I can’t win an award if the role doesn’t exist.” And so, I think it benefits an audience to hear the experiences of people who are underrepresented, including women. You know, great actors don’t just happen apart from roles; great actors happen in roles. And, if we continue to tell women’s stories and women’s stories at every age, there are going to be actresses who emerge who have something to show us that we haven’t seen before, other than just, you know, beauty.
There is a lot of deadpan comedy in the film. Did you and the director discuss its tone?
C.N.: No. I mean, I think that Terence is very concerned with tone. But, I don’t think we discussed it. I think he would direct me toward it. And, I do think that Terence is a very funny person himself, a silly person even, sometimes. And, one of the first things that he said to me about the movie was that he didn’t want it to be a solemn movie; that he thought she was very wickedly funny. I think that the humor, you know, does help with that a lot.
Can you talk about the material you used to find your Emily? Was it just the script?
C.N.: No. I read a lot of biographies; My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –… I read as many different kinds of viewpoints as I could. I had been an Emily Dickinson fan so I had read a lot of her poetry and I had read a lot of her letters. And, there’s a collection that came out a number of years ago that I had bought, Open Me Carefully, which is Susan – her sister-in-law’s – and her letters. But, you know, there’s so much to read about her. You could just spend your lifetime reading it. And so, at a certain point, I thought: “Oh! I wish I started doing this research earlier.” But then, once I really got to Belgium and we started working, what I realized was that a certain amount of research was helpful but, that, in the end, there are so many Emily Dickinson; so many versions of people. There are different camps of who people think she was. And, this was Terence Davies’ version of her. So, it’s good to have the background as an underpinning but the most important thing: if it wasn’t in the script, then it was almost like it didn’t happen.
I would like to go back to you as a political person. At what point of your life did you decide you wanted to do campaigns and be in the focus of something good? I mean, you are doing a lot of things for public schools in New York City and for the rights of LGBT people and same sex marriage…
C.N.: Yes! I like to do it! You know, my parents were kind of political in the 60s and the 70s and my father moved to New York from Texas. He wanted to be a journalist – he was a journalist for a time –and I think that the thing that really brought him from Texas was the civil rights movement and he wanted to be a part of that. And, he didn’t agree with a lot of the white people living around him in Texas. He wanted to go and be part of a movement, at least document that movement. And then, you know, they were very against the Vietnam War and all the kinds of things you would expect. In some way, when I’ve been acting since I was twelve, and if I look back, when I was thirteen, I did a NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) during an evening. And, once my oldest child entered kindergarten in public school, that’s when I started to get involved with the fight for public schools because I grew up in NY and went to a public school. I think it’s one of the most important issues of our time. The public schools are not perfect; there is a lot of room for improvement, particularly in poor neighborhoods. So, I think one of the first things we would have to do is to make sure that all of the public schools are funded equally. Not well funded in rich districts and poorly funded in poor districts. But, I think there is a movement out there to say the public schools don’t work and are broken and we should get rid of them and I think that nothing could be farther from the truth. And, I think that that movement helps people not fund them in the government. It’s a real problem. So, to me, it’s an issue because I grew up there and went to public schools and had a great education, but it’s also very much an issue for me because my children go to a public school.
You once said that everything that happened on Sex and the City was true…Was it really?
C.N.: What I was saying is even though sometimes fantastical things happened on Sex and the City – things that seemed unbelievable, unrealistic – there was a rule in the writers’ room that every plotline had to have happened to one of the writers in the writers’ room or someone they knew personally. You can’t tell me about your cousin’s dentist, this crazy thing that happened to them like four people removed, and I put it in the story. It has to have happened to me or someone that I can know and call on the phone and say: “Tell me more about that.” Even though it seems crazy at times, it’s always rooted in something that really happened and it’s verifiable.
You started very young in the film business. How do you see the evolution of your job? Has something changed?
C.N.: I think for me, it’s sort of like when I started because I started in like ’79, say, and everything was much more in the middle. There was television – there were like three networks – and there were movies. And, some of them were more expensive and some of them were less expensive. But, it was all sort of in the middle. Now, you’ve got crazy hundred million dollar movies that can make billions of dollars and you’ve got movies like Tangerine that were made with an IPhone. Do you know what I mean? So, for me, the highs are much higher; the lows are much cheaper. But, I think it’s democratizing. I really do. I mean, I think it’s important that a lot of people look up here because there’s so much money to be made but what I look at is, I think it’s easier for young filmmakers today to get their work out there and not have to feed into the system but be able to sort of raise a very little bit of money and get a film made. And, if they have a vision, people will notice and people like you will write about it. It’s very important.
This interview was conducted at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival.