Being Miranda in Sex and the City? 'I'm very proud of it'
Cynthia Nixon on the legacy of the iconic TV show, playing poet Emily Dickinson in ‘A Quiet Passion’, and why Ireland's Marriage Equality referendum meant so much to her
Cynthia Nixon has been slaving before the camera for longer than you might have guessed. Now 50, she first spoke a line for money when she was 12 years old.
“Honestly, I never did stop,” she says in that elegant patrician timbre. “I was always able to make a living. By the time I graduated from college, I had been working for 10 years and I was supporting myself. I made enough money to pay for my own, very expensive college.”
Hang on. Didn’t she go to Barnard? That’s one of the elite “Seven Sisters”. My understanding is that it would be cheaper to fund the space programme for three years.
“I did go there,” she says. “My parents had gone to great lengths to explain that very few child actors make it when their time is up. But I had two offers when I graduated.”
By the time I graduated from college, I had been working for 10 years and I was supporting myself
The only child of Anne Elizabeth Knoll, an actor, and Walter Nixon, a radio journalist, Nixon can be spotted in Prince of the City and Amadeus. Nearly 30 years ago, she played Juliet in Central Park for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Next week, we see her as Emily Dickinson – she really has a look of that poet – in Terence Davies’s excellent A Quiet Passion.
It is at this point that we finally mention she is best known for playing the sensible Miranda in Sex and the City. But I’m betting Davies barely knew the show existed. That eccentric Liverpudlian loves being unaware of contemporary popular culture.
“I think that’s right,” she laughs. “We had met when he auditioned me for a film that never got made. He said he would write the script for A Quiet Passion and watch Sex and the City with the sound off. He feels I look a lot like Emily. That’s arguable. But I see what he means. He felt thoughts and feelings play across my face in a way that was right for the film.”
Sex and the City did not become a phenomenon overnight. Emerging in 1998, the show attracted much media attention, but it was not until the turn of the decade that it became a keystone of the zeitgeist. It reflected the development of a richer, less grimy Manhattan. It connected with underexplored notions of female friendship. I wonder if Nixon, at first, ever imagined it would become such a sensation.
“No, I was just thrilled to find a TV series that shot in New York,” she says. “There was Law and Order and The Cosby Show shooting there and that was about it. I was just thinking: ‘Great, something that’s shooting where I live.’”
The show was celebrated for offering shorthand representations of particular species of modern urban human. Many were the magazines that asked: “Which Sex and the City character are you?” Miranda was the dry, intelligent cynic among the group. Nixon is endlessly articulate and well catered-for in terms of intellectual hinterland, but there is no hint of Miranda’s brittleness.
There was this notion that it was just a way of trapping men into marriage. That’s gone
“The thing about a successful, groundbreaking show is not that it creates something new; it is that it reflects something that hasn’t made its way into discourse yet,” she says. “In our case it was this idea that women are going about their lives and careers, having a great time of it and not sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. Women now had a very different attitude to marriage. They were still interested in it. But they had a similar attitude to that which men had: it may happen; I would like that; but I’m in no hurry.”
And there was also a new openness about female sexuality. The notion, still palpable in many contemporaneous shows, that women only had sex to oblige men was blown away.
“That’s right. There was this notion that it was just a way of trapping men into marriage. That’s gone.”
Here we are talking about A Quiet Passion and Sex and the City still elbows its way to the table. I wonder if she ever resents the way Miranda hangs over her life.
“No. Not at all. It’s always been something I am very proud of. If it was Wheel of Fortune or something it would be different. Ha ha! But it stands up today.”
The renown has meant that details of Cynthia’s personal life have become public. For 15 years, she was in a relationship with Danny Mozes, a schoolteacher. The couple, who first met in high school, raised two children in relative calm. Nixon was never a tabloid target like SATC colleagues Kim Cattrall or Sarah Jessica Parker. That changed in 2003 when she broke up with Mozez and began a relationship with Christine Marinoni. The media was abuzz.
“It wasn’t a big deal to me,” she says calmly. “It was a big deal to other people for a while. But we rode it out and everybody calmed down. I think attitudes have changed.”
Nowhere more so than in Ireland. At mention of the 2015 referendum on marriage equality, Cynthia perks up and summons memories of hearing the news.
“Oh, I know all about it,” she laughs. “I was in Belgium. My wife and kids had come out the weekend when you guys voted. It was so amazingly exciting. My wife had friends in Dublin who were involved in the fight. We ended up celebrating in a gay bar in Antwerp. That was an enormous thing for us.”
Nixon has the sort of presence and flexibility that appeals to casting directors. One can imagine her slipping comfortably into character roles as the years progress. Her performance as Dickinson stretches all her acting muscles. We get the open-hearted, hopeful Emily in the surprisingly witty opening act. In the final sections, we see the despairing soul that watermarks the gloomier verse.
Nixon is also cornering the market in first ladies. She recently played Nancy Reagan in the TV movie Killing Reagan. She earlier played Eleanor Roosevelt. Wait until you hear what I’m about to say. Isn’t it time she played Pat Nixon? Huh? Huh?
“Well, you make a joke,” she says tolerantly. “But Rod Lurie, who made the Reagan film, just phoned me up and told me he is making one about Nixon. He wants me to play Pat.”
You couldn’t make it up. You couldn’t make it up.
- A Quiet Passion opens on April 7th