I first noticed actress Cynthia Nixon in 1980, when she was only 14 years old and cast as Tracy Lord’s little sister Donna in a frightfully dull revival of The Philadelphia Story at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. During the laugh-less longueurs of that production, I began to long for Nixon’s entrances literally to brighten up the scenery. Frank Rich, The New York Times theater critic, agreed with my assessment, panning the production but singling Nixon out for praise, writing that the “attractive and stagewise girl” shone throughout the evening.
I next caught up with her career four years later when, even as she began her freshman year at Barnard, she found the time to be in two simultaneous Broadway shows directed by Mike Nichols, David Rabe’s Hurlyburly and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, which were in theaters two blocks apart. Her entrances and exits were timed in such a manner that she was able to be in both. “I only did it for three months,” says Nixon. “Then I got in a panic about my geology finals, so I quit.”
Still attractive and even more stagewise, the 45-year-old actress is now appearing in a revival of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning drama Wit at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the company and theater where she starred in her Tony-winning role in Rabbit Hole, another Pulitzer Prize drama. Nixon has also won an Emmy for her role as Miranda in Sex and the City and a Grammy as one of the readers who recorded Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
Wit concerns a college professor—Nixon’s character, Dr. Vivian Bearing, an expert on the English metaphysical poet John Donne—who has been diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer and the spiritual journey she encounters alongside her chemotherapy treatments as her body begins to repudiate itself, a repudiation that also includes everything she thought she knew, especially her reliance on just that: knowing. Her powerful intellect finally isn’t powerful enough to save her. Her brain cannot concoct the kind of healing she so desperately seeks. She finds it finally in the selfless concern of others. In allowing herself to experience kindness, she discovers more than release; she realizes rapture.
We conducted this interview through Skype. When her image came onto my computer screen, I was a bit shocked to see that she, like me, had shaved her head. I do it to own my baldness. She has done it to inhabit more genuinely her character’s battle with cancer, becoming Vivian Bearing by bearing the cosmetic outcome herself of the character’s chemotherapy. We laughed at our mirror images.
Kevin Sessums: I think baldness is very becoming on you. Of course, you might want to consider the source of the compliment.
Cynthia Nixon: Thank you. But I think I look like Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort. Or maybe Nosferatu.
So many people only know you as Miranda on Sex and the City. But we who know you from New York are thankful that you are such a creature of the theater. What draws you back to dedicate yourself to the eight-shows-a-week schedule, the paltry pay compared with film and television work, and now can even cause you to shave your head?
I’m a total theater junkie—whether I’m working on a stage or sitting in a seat. I am always looking for a great play and a great part to do. I had never really thought of this particular part in Wit for myself because I thought I might be a little young for the part. But I thought about it for only a couple of minutes. I didn’t even go and reread the play. I said yes on the spot. They do say in the play, however, that the character is 50, because you want to believe the woman is at the height of her professional success.
Well, that’s a good description of you at 45, but you’ve always been a bit precocious. And let’s face it, no one is too young for cancer. You yourself were diagnosed with breast cancer a bit over five years ago. How is your health now?
It’s fine. The five-year thing is the kind of magical marker you try to reach once you’re diagnosed. My mother has battled breast cancer three times. For me, I knew they caught it very early. It wasn’t metastatic. I had been through it with my mother and seen others around me go through it so I knew what to expect. It wasn’t fun, but it didn’t seem like a death sentence. Knock on wood. It hasn’t been so far.
What sort of treatment did you choose?
I had a lumpectomy—very small. I didn’t have chemo. I did radiation for six and a half weeks. And I’ve been on Tamoxifen for the last five years. We’ll see if they take me off of it this spring.
When you accepted this role in Wit, did you have any trepidation about toying with fate since your character is dying of cancer. Were you afraid of conjuring it again in your life?
A little bit. Lynne Meadow [the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club who is also directing this production] also had breast cancer. She would bring this big crystal to all our rehearsals and put it very prominently on her desk. Now that we are in the run of the play, our stage manager has the crystal backstage to ward off the boogeyman.
Your character in Wit seeks strength in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, especially his Holy Sonnet 10, “Death Be Not Proud.” But the title of Holy Sonnet 5, “I Am a Little World Made Cunningly,” could also be an apt description of how some actors approach their craft. Do you consider yourself a cunning actor? Or do you have a more guileless instinctive approach?
I do think I am more of a cunning actor. But I think there are people who are far more cunning at it than I. Meryl Streep, for example. She’s very, very cunning. John Malkovich: very cunning. Then there are people who are just so ... I don’t know … there, I guess. Marilyn Monroe maybe. They don’t seem cunning at all but just give themselves over. I do tend to be an analyzer. I’m an old English major from way back, so I do have fun tearing apart texts and trying to find the hidden secrets and the subtexts in there. But even saying that, I do finally react to things in a visceral way.
One of your most visceral performances was as that grief-stricken mother in Rabbit Hole. You were one of the founders of the off-Broadway theater company the Drama Dept. along with John Cameron Mitchell, who directed the film version of Rabbit Hole. Were you hurt when he cast Nicole Kidman in that role instead of you?
I wasn’t hurt, no. And it didn’t surprise me either. I feel like I was the totally appropriate person to play that role onstage, but I am not the appropriate person to play that in a movie. To get a movie made about a woman who loses a son tragically at the age of 5 is hard enough to get made, so you need not only a great actress but a great movie star.
What is it with you and rabbits? You starred in Rabbit Hole. And in Wit there are two references to them—Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and, at the end, your character is read to not from John Donne but from Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.
And there’s “The Rabbit” in Sex and the City, which was the name given to the bestselling, No. 1 vibrator. We mustn’t forget about that. I don’t know. I do eat a lot of carrots.
In the play, your character recalls being read the Beatrix Potter book as a child and learning the word “soporific” from it. What makes you soporific?
A warm bath. I love a warm bath at the end of a day. I am heat obsessed. I crave the heat in my bedroom.
It sounds like you’re now talking about Christine [Marinoni, the woman to whom Nixon is engaged.] Let’s talk about her and how public you’ve been about your relationship, unlike so many other actors or actresses who are in same-sex relationships.
I think it’s a red herring when people say they don’t want to talk about their sex lives because straight people don’t talk about theirs. That’s so beside the point, since straight people talk about their wives and husbands and boyfriends and girlfriends and fiancés all the time. Christine and I are getting married by Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopal bishop from New Hampshire. We’re very thrilled about it.
You’ve been very vocal and political about marriage equality and helped lead the successful fight for it in New York. So congratulations on your own marriage. But before you met and fell in love over seven years ago now with Christine—who, through a sperm donor, gave birth to your son Max Ellington almost a year ago—you were in a 15-year relationship with Danny Mozes, whom you first met in high school. You had two children with him—Samantha, who is now 15, and Charles Ezekiel, who is 9. You’ve been quoted as saying about these two relationships in your life: “In terms of sexual orientation, I don’t really feel I’ve changed ... I’ve been with men all my life and I’d never fallen in love with a woman. But when I did, it didn’t seem so strange. I’m just a woman in love with another woman.” I’m a bit confused. Were you a lesbian in a heterosexual relationship? Or are you now a heterosexual in a lesbian relationship? That quote seemed like you were fudging a bit.
It’s so not fudging. It’s so not. I think for gay people who feel 100 percent gay, it doesn’t make any sense. And for straight people who feel 100 percent straight, it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t pull out the “bisexual” word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals.
But it is the “B” in LGBT.
CN: I know. But we get no respect.
You just said “we,” so you must self-identify as one.
I just don’t like to pull out that word. But I do completely feel that when I was in relationships with men, I was in love and in lust with those men. And then I met Christine and I fell in love and lust with her. I am completely the same person and I was not walking around in some kind of fog. I just responded to the people in front of me the way I truly felt.
To bring us back to John Donne, there is another of his poems, Holy Sonnet 19, that has a title that rather sums up what you’ve just said to me, though he was talking about his own religious conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism. But I do think it’s a good description of how people respond to the comfort you feel about your own ability to love the complete person with whom you share your life and not just the sex of that person. The title of the Donne poem is “Oh, to Vex Me, Contraries Meet as One.”
“Oh, to Vex Me, Contraries Meet as One.” That’s nice. I like that. Look, I understand for political reasons why some people want to kind of squelch this idea that being gay might be a choice, because a lot of the rights we want are posited on the supposition that why are you denying me my rights any more than if I were created a different color? But I don’t feel the need to cede the definition of what a gay person is to the bigots. They don’t get to define who I am.
Are your oldest children vexed by the choice you’ve made to marry a woman and have their sibling with her? Or do you want to talk about this area of it all?
No, it’s fine. My kids--and the kids they go to school with--are all living in a post-category world. It’s we older folks who are caught up in it.
This younger generation is very “ambi-.”
What stumps me when I have these political discussions with right wingers in the Republican party who vilify the LGBT community in order to gin up the GOP base is that when I call them out on their bigotry and intolerance, then I am accused of being a bigot and intolerant of their bigotry and intolerance. The circuitous sophistry of their argument would be dizzying if it weren’t, by now, so predictable. They sure can play the victim card themselves when we whom they target refuse to play their victims.
I don’t think it hurts to remind conservative people that a real American value—and a real conservative value—is live-and-let-live. I do think that when the people who are against gay rights portray themselves as the victim, it is very frustrating—particularly when we’ve had friends who have been horribly victimized for being gay. For those who are against gay rights to claim the mantle of victimhood for themselves is offensive on a certain level. But I think the important thing to remember is that their having to make that argument is a sign of how far we’ve come, because there is no other argument available to them anymore. They can no longer say, “Gay people are sick.” Or “Gay people are wrong.” Or “Gay people are predators.” Because it doesn’t play to the populace at large anymore. They may still think it and there may be a small, dwindling concentration of people they can say that to and they can all sit around and agree with each other. But they can’t go on television anymore and say any of that and receive any kind of respect. If all they can say is, “If two men or two women have the right to get married then my wife and I are being discriminated against,” well, that’s just patently ridiculous. That’s like saying if we allow women to vote that’s discriminating against men.
Since you are such a progressive in your politics, have you ever had any problem being known as a Nixon?
I’m not related to President Nixon—at least that I know of. It was unpleasant to grow up with that name, especially after I discovered my family hated him so much. When I was little and didn’t know anything more about him other than he was the president, I liked sharing the name. My mother always says, “I lived through World War II with a father named Adolph and the ’70s with a husband named Nixon.”
Your mother was an actress herself. She studied with Uta Hagen and still helps you with your roles. She also had a job for many years on To Tell the Truth, a show you appeared on four times as a kid.
I did. My mother was a briefer on the show. She would brief the impostors. She would coach them as to who they were supposed to be and how they were going to lie basically.
So your mother taught you how to lie?
Yes, she did. It comes in handy for an actor.
Let’s get back to Wit. You are playing a professor of poetry in the play. What poets do you yourself respond to?
I always loved Gerard Manley Hopkins. One of my favorite classes I ever took at Barnard was a class on the Victorian poets. I love my Tennyson. I love my Browning.
Oh, they’re yours, are they? I’ve always wondered to whom they belonged?
Yes! They’re mine. They’re mine. They’re mine.
Do you want to keep making these Sex and the City films? If you gals keep making these sequels, one day you can just transition into reviving The Golden Girls.
I don’t know if there are going to be any more of those films or not. I don’t particularly think so. But I didn’t think there would be anything after the TV series ended. I always just assume there’s a “no” until somebody says “yes.” That’s the way I go about my life.