Awards

Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon Talk Tony Awards, Trump, and Broadway Billing

Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon swap the two lead female roles in the latest revival of ‘The Little Foxes.’ Between performances they talk Tony nominations, sexism, and the wisdom of Stockard Channing.

Walter McBride/Getty

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the actresses Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, starring alongside each other in the critically acclaimed and Tony-nominated Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, emerged from the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre’s stage door to greet an extremely polite group of fans who had just seen the women perform in that day’s matinee performance. Most were proffering Playbills to sign, or cellphones for the taking of pictures and selfies.

“Oh my god,” one woman said, “you were both fantastic.”

The murmurs of “Oh my gods” and “thank yous” followed the women across the street, as they entered a nearby restaurant for a late afternoon repast of salad and fish dishes: necessary fuel for that evening’s performance. Sometimes they’ll try for a power nap, too.

Linney, famous for roles as various as Tales of the City, Love Actually, Kinsey, The Savages, and The Big C (and winner of two Golden Globes and four Primetime Emmys), has been nominated in the Lead Actress category of this year’s Tony Awards for playing the viperish and vindictive Regina Giddens, who—in Hellman’s play, set in 1900 in a family toxically riven over money—is willing to do just about anything in her quest for dollars and power.

Linney needlessly apologized for wearing a headscarf: It wasn’t for bohemian effect, she confided, but a wig-related necessity for that evening’s performance.

Nixon, meanwhile—renowned for playing Miranda in Sex and the City and already a Tony Lead Actress winner for Rabbit Hole (2006)—is nominated in the Supporting Actress Tony category for her role as Regina’s flighty, nervy, and abused sister-in-law, Birdie Hubbard.

In a Broadway female first, both women play both roles in selected performances of the Manhattan Theatre Club production, and both are so good—I have seen both permutations—that you will not waste money choosing one over the other. But equally you should, if you can, see both versions, and see two different, beautifully acted interpretations of two very different characters.

As the women ate, they talked about the play, Tony nominations, Donald Trump, and why Cynthia Nixon would welcome the return of Sex and the City. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Are two-performance Wednesdays tough?

Linney: I tend to enjoy matinee days. You’re warm for the second show and you have energy for the first show. You haven’t had a full day of whatever. You have to jump in at 2 p.m.

How is the switching of roles, playing both women?

Nixon: When it’s great it’s great, and when it’s not it’s “Ughhhh.”

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How do you know if it’s a “ugh” performance?

Nixon (sounding very Miranda): Oh, you know.

Linney: Your timing is off, you’re always self-conscious. The hardest thing is the switching, not that they’re two different parts. In rehearsal, what was hard for me was learning them at the same time. I didn’t anticipate how hard that would be: to go really deep in character, to learn it, explore it, commit it to memory, get it into your bones—all of that competed in my brain.

The week before we moved into the theater I thought, “I’ve lost my mind. I can’t remember anything. I can’t put one foot in front of the other.” Both characters were jostling too much for attention. I couldn’t learn either. Once I got over that hump, that part of it became more fun. But when you do one character and go back to the other three days later, there’s a bit of anxiety. Once you’re on stage you’re fine.

Nixon: As the quote goes, “If I miss one day’s practice, I notice it. If I miss two days’ practice, the critics notice it. If I miss three days’ practice, the public notices it.” So much of theater is about being warmed up.

Linney: And being relaxed.

Do you have a favorite character between Regina and Birdie?

Linney: I don’t, honestly. I love them both. There’s so much satisfying about them. They’re both so beautifully written. They play like gangbusters, both of them.

Nixon (smiling): The deck is definitely stacked.

Are you more comfortable with one over the other?

Linney: I didn’t understand Regina at all, and I’ve come to really embrace her and enjoy playing her. There’s something about Birdie that I understood immediately. Now I really love them both.

Nixon: Regina is trickier. She seems more a construct. Lillian Hellman has these things she wants to say, so she creates a character in order to say them, whereas it seems like Birdie seems more of an observed person who is also saying a lot of things that Lillian Hellman wants to say. With Birdie, the character leads plot. With Regina, the plot leads the character.

Linney (smiling): Good point, Cynthia!

Nixon: Birdie is so eager for connection, and Regina is not—in good ways and bad ways; it’s good in that she’s self-sufficient and doesn’t feel bad for herself. She’s bold. For the audience and the person playing her, she’s harder to discover because she doesn’t cuddle up to you. She doesn’t tell you a lot about herself.

How difficult a decision was it to decide which awards season categories you would be nominated in, who would be considered a lead actress and who would be featured actress?

Nixon: There was a question about who would do it on opening night, and it was decided that Laura should do it on opening night. It followed that Laura, who is the most generous person on the planet, should get reviewed as Regina.

Linney: I had no desire to make that decision. I didn’t know what was best for our show, so I relinquished that decision and said to the theater, “You decide, you do it. I don’t know what’s best for us. Whatever is best for us is fine by me.”

I’ve seen the two versions, and you’re both excellent in both roles.

Linney: I wish the Tonys had allowed us to be considered for both parts, quite frankly.

Nixon: That would have been horrible because you would have split the vote. So neither of us would have gotten nominated. We’ve endured enough of being compared to each other. We don’t need to be literally opposite each other in awards categories, too.

What’s it like, being compared?

Linney: It’s disappointing. I find it’s so not the point of why we’re doing this.

Nixon: But what is nice is how many of my nearest and dearest have come and not said, “You’re great and she’s shit.” They’ve been like, “It’s amazing how different it is, and how well it works both ways.” They have really gotten it, which is extremely gratifying. With not even people close to us, it could so easily have gone another way, like “Team Linney” and “Team Nixon.”

Linney: And particularly pitting women against each other: I’m so bored of it. I find it so boring and short-sighted, and what does that do for anybody? We both have an enormous amount to offer. We have both been doing this for a long time. We respect each other tremendously. I love working with Cynthia. To minimize it to that when the play is about something, and women who are about something, to make it all about “Feud” or something derivative makes me crazy.

On the night, one of you might win and the other might not.

Linney: You can choose to look at the Tonys any way you want to. I choose to say, “Hooray, some good work is happening, and being nominated is enormous fun.” If you win, how nice. If you don’t, you didn’t lose anything. I’m just excited to be invited to the party. (Indicating Nixon) I’m hoping she wins.

If either of us wins, if none of us wins, if we both win, that will not take away from one ounce of joy and pride I’m having doing this play. I refuse to let the distractions of all the awards stuff—although it is great fun—disrupt the good stuff that is happening in that building with my work, and the people I work with.

Nixon: It would be different if the people you were nominated against were strangers, but they’re people you know and admire.

Linney: And love. They are working as hard as you are. I know people think there is a lot of gushing about “the Broadway community” that we give each other. But what I don’t think people realize is that it’s completely genuine—the respect everybody has for everyone else. The theater community is inherently kind, people help each other out. And it’s a really, really wonderful place to be. It’s easy to think it’s all feuds and petty rivalries, but it just isn’t.

Nixon: It’s a fellowship. The first time I was nominated, I couldn’t believe it. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Any little crumb of it I savored.

Linney: When you grow up in the theater, being nominated for a Tony is just mind-blowing.

Cynthia, do you mind being nominated in the featured actress, as opposed to lead, category?

Nixon: No. One of the cool things about Boyd Gaines is that he has been nominated in all four Tony actor categories (and won in three). So, I think it’s nice to aim at something like that. (She and Linney both laugh.) I’ll try and get a directing one, maybe set design…

Linney: I’ve never thought of one as more or less than the other (lead vs. featured). People in the business don’t.

Nixon: If you’ve never been to the Tonys before, it’s always a big deal, and then you’re thrilled to be invited back. The ones who haven’t been before are often young, and sometimes they’re [Little Foxes co-star, former John-Boy Walton] Richard Thomas, who’s never been there before and so excited.

Linney: I could cry about it.

Nixon: The morning of the Tony nominations, he and his wife were in bed. His wife said, “Richard, the phone is ringing off the hook.” She was worried in case there was a problem with their kids. There was not any sense for them that morning that this could be a special morning.

I’ve run into people I’m nominated opposite. One year [2012, in the Lead Actress category], I was nominated [for Wit] against Stockard Channing [nominated for Other Desert Cities]. She looked so beautiful. Nominees get seated on the aisles. I ran up to her on her aisle. I said to her, “Stockard, that is the most beautiful dress. You look so beautiful.” She said, “Thank you. It’s very hard to walk in, but apparently that’s not going to be a problem.” [That year, Nina Arianda won for Venus in Fur.] It’s like that.

Linney: It’s sophisticated in a fun way. And it’s New York.

Nixon: The thing is, for women there are fewer parts. Even within our production, written by a woman, there are fewer female parts. There’s much more of a tendency to have one main girl, and then girls that don’t matter.

Linney (laughs): The ladies in waiting.

Nixon: So, there is this sense that everybody is trying to be top dog because there can only be one. It happens lot less with men because there are more parts for men. There are really a handful of really meaty roles written for women over 40, and American roles even less. Regina’s almost it. As Laura says, “There’s one of these major productions in New York once every generation, so why don’t we let two people do it instead of one?”

Linney: I’m a firm believer—my father [Romulus Linney] was a playwright, I grew up in the theater—that parts are meant to be played. Really good plays that have a long life are meant to be viewed through different interpretations. I wanted to see what would happen to a play with very strong female characters, and having two equal forces giving themselves to the play, and see what happens to the play, the company, what themes emerge with one actress as opposed to the other. We are such different people.

Nixon: I was worried about that. We’re not that different, we have so much in common, but our interpretations are different.

How so?

(Both women look askance.)

Nixon: Whoa…

Linney: That would be dangerous for us to say. We let other people judge—you can do that.

OK, but did your Reginas and Birdies influence each other?

Linney: Yes, I’m sure.

Nixon: Some things Laura does, I see them and like them, but they don’t fit with what I’m doing. But when she does something I didn’t think of that I can weave in without it looking weird, I just take it.

There’s this story of nine blind men and an elephant. Each man feels different parts of the elephant—the tusk, tail, feet, the ears. Each tries to describe what an elephant is, and of course you have nine different descriptions. But put them all together and you have one elephant. That’s what’s different about doing Regina and Birdie: It’s the same play, but—playing both of them—the view from the inside of the play is made different. You see the characters in different ways.

Linney (laughing): It’s really cool. It’s really fun.

Nixon: When it goes well, you think, “This is my part.” When it goes badly, you think, “Oh, why am I doing this one tonight?”

Your costumes in the show [by Jane Greenwood] look wonderful, but are they constricting?

Linney: No, very comfortable.

Nixon (laughs): Jane also understands dressing women of a certain age, so even the most plunging neckline has a choker for the neck.

Regina’s brother Ben [Michael McKean] says near the end of the play of their greedy, self-interested family, “There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren’t Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country someday.” Both times I heard it, a sigh of recognition echoed in the theater. A sign of Trumpian times?

Linney: That’s the thing about a great classic. You can pick it up and move it from generation to generation, and it reverberates like crazy. This certainly does it in very surprising ways, and particularly today: what people value, what they spend money on, how they view themselves and other people, how they behave. It’s astonishing.

Nixon: This is a family in business together, and the play asks, where does business stop and family begin, and vice versa? It becomes impossible to tell. Are these business grudges or childhood grudges playing out? Living in our Trumpian era, these are also kids raised in this business. Regina is a woman who has ambition and who doesn’t have the ambition convenient for what the family wants. She has ambition to have ambition. Men see her and women too as a villain to be stopped, contained. Regina does some pretty nasty things, but she has the sense to keep moving forward. No one gives her anything.

What next for you both?

Linney: I’m doing a series for Netflix, Ozark.

TDB: Will another slice of Tales of the City ever happen?

Linney: I don’t know. One hopes. One lives in hope.

Nixon: I think I’ll take the summer off. I have a film coming out in August called The Only Living Boy in New York, with Pierce Brosnan, Jeff Bridges, and Kate Beckinsale.

Will we ever see more Sex and the City?

Nixon (mock-grandly): You may. Who knows? I think so. I think it would be fun.

Linney: It’s Tales of the City and Sex and the City!

Nixon: It’s wonderful to have successes, successes are great. But there is something about literally not stepping into the same river twice but reconnecting and going back to it with these people.

Linney: I met some of most important people in my life working on Tales. I named my son [Bennett Armistead Schauer] after Armistead Maupin, the author of the books. It’s not like I would have to be dragged there.

Nixon: One of the nicest things about Sex and the City, even when it was a TV show, was that they let us change and age and go through things. They didn’t try to do the same five funny situations over and over. They let us evolve, and so it makes it easy to go back, because we’re not supposed to be 30. That sounds really young now.

You’ve both been advocates for LGBTQ rights—how do you feel about them under Trump?

Nixon: I’m concerned, but there’s frankly so much more concerning things than that. I’m worried for LGBT people, especially for T people—but not anywhere near how I’m concerned for Latinos, Muslims, and Muslim Americans.

Linney: I have such a very hard time accepting or believing, or being able to hear, that what I have always believed of this country is suddenly not what it is about. It is very hard for me to witness. And it’s making me really sort of say to myself, “Who are we? Who are we now? What does it mean to be American now? What do we believe in, and [to Donald Trump] who are you?”

I find it a very deeply distressing, troubling time. I believe it will correct itself. I can’t accept that it won’t. At one point, some person in power in D.C., someone, has to come to their senses and not just think for themselves for the next 20 years; to just think, “What am I doing?” I don’t know how they turn out the light at night, making some of decisions they’re making. This is at the core what is our character and what we stand for.

Nixon: One thing I hope might come out of this is that we put some protections in place. I have always been aware of checks and balances. I thought there was a certain bar below which we thought people don’t go. Apparently we were wrong about that.

So, perhaps the president should not be able on a moment’s notice to be able to fire the head of the FBI at the same moment as he is being investigated. Perhaps there should be something put in place for that.

Linney: It’s mind-boggling.

Nixon: On a weekly basis, I wonder: “How long has it been, how much longer will it be?”

Linney: It feels like we’re traveling in an oil slick, or we’re on ice. It’s all happening so quickly, it’s all changed so fast. I get really heart-sick about all of it.

Do you feel what you do artistically has any special urgency because of how you feel about it?

Nixon: It’s good to be in a play that is so good for women, as women have had such a lousy year.

Linney: Women have been treated terribly this year. When you think about it, how women have been literally manhandled, thrown aside, and degraded.

Nixon: “Lock her up, lock her up.”

Linney: “Grab her by the pussy,” all those TV people and sexual harassment. The abuse of Michelle Obama. It is appalling. It is so beneath us.

Nixon: We’re lucky to be in a play by a communist saying, “This is what the country always was. Don’t kid yourselves.” America is not one thing, but this is one thing that America is. It’s so good to be in a play by a playwright who looks unflinchingly at that. You say it all out loud and the audience receives it, and goes [in recognition], “Oh.”

How do you both wind down?

Linney: We both have small children. So I rush home, and try to go to bed at night.

Nixon: I tried to do that last night, but my 14-year-old [Charles] is usually up and my wife [Christine Marinoni] wants to hang out.

Linney: I try to go to bed early, so I can take my child to school in the morning. One thing changes drastically when you have children as an actress. Before, when you don’t have children, you don’t get out of bed in the morning. You can rest your voice. When you have children, that changes, obviously. It’s a bit of a juggling act.

The women get up to leave to return to the theater.

Linney (looking down at the cleared table): That was really good.

Nixon: I feel really guilty. I didn’t eat my vegetables.

Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York City. Book tickets through July 2 here.