webnexttech | From Sex and the City to The Gilded Age, Cynthia Nixon looks back on her most memorable roles
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Cynthia Nixon has been acting professionally since she was a pre-teen. Best known for playing Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City (and in two movies and follow-up series, And Just Like That…), the actress has been a fixture on screen since she made her debut in 1980’s Little Darlings. Nixon already has two Emmy Awards to her credit, one for the original run of Sex and City and another for a guest stint on a 2008 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But this year, Nixon is likely to find her name in the mix again, thanks to the one-two punch of And Just Like That… and The Gilded Age. Ahead of this year’s Emmy nominations, which will be announced on July 12, we called up Nixon to take a walk down memory lane and reminisce about some of her most notable roles, including her screen debut, multiple iterations of Sex and the City and Law & Order, and The Gilded Age. Little Darlings (1980) Nixon made her screen debut in this tale of teen girls who make a pact to lose their virginity while away at summer camp. Only 13 at the time of filming, Nixon plays the quirky Sunshine, who is less interested in the sexcapades of her pals than she is in just being one of the gals. “I had never been to summer camp,” Nixon tells Entertainment Weekly. “For me, it was like the best summer camp ever. Because I was always too scared to go away to summer camp. I was an only child, and I was very attached to my mother. This was summer camp with Tatum O’Neal, who I idolized, and all these fun girls who were kind of my age. I got paid, and I was pretty much on my own, at 12 slash 13, so that was pretty fun.” Amadeus (1984) Nixon played a small but crucial role as Mozart’s maid Lorl in 1984’s Best Picture winner, Amadeus. For a girl enmeshed in the New York theater scene, it was a dream come true. “The play was so huge in London and then in New York, so it was a really big deal,” Nixon remembers of getting the chance to be in the film. That being said, even though she was still a teenager, she knew to advocate for herself on what would be a potentially lengthy shoot and her first time visiting Europe. “I was 16 turning 17 when I did that,” she says. “I was savvy enough to know that I was the low person on the totem pole, and that they were just going to put me in a hotel and I was going to languish there for months. So, I actually made a request of them that if I wasn’t working for more than two consecutive days, that they would send me home. And they agreed.” Murder, She Wrote (1993) Nixon memorably guested on the beloved cozy mystery series as Alice Morgan, an agoraphobic young woman who has not left her apartment in five years after witnessing the death of her mother. For Nixon, it was an opportunity to re-team with Angela Lansbury, who’d she been a huge fan of growing up after seeing her in Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Lansbury had handpicked Nixon to play a supporting role in 1990 TV movie The Green Journey, but that didn’t make Nixon any less intimidated by Lansbury’s stature. “She was this benevolent godmother in my life,” she admits. “And I was always too shy around her to be totally friendly and acknowledge that I was very intimidated.” Sex and the City (1998-2004) While Sex and the City ended up becoming the show that made Nixon a star (and an Emmy winner), she had nearly zero expectations for it when she signed on. “It was a really off-kilter show,” she explains. “It was on HBO. There weren’t really shows on HBO at that point. The Sopranos hadn’t happened. It was not like anything else, and the pilot, in particular, was very dark and cynical.” But Nixon realized the show was a veritable phenomenon when she and her three costars appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the headline, “Who Needs a Husband?” in 2000. “We left the entertainment world and we went into this greater zeitgeist,” she notes. Over the years, Miranda Hobbes has changed quite a bit, now identifying as queer after pursuing a relationship with Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez) on sequel series And Just Like That… Fans of the series will remember that Miranda once experimented with being a lesbian but decided it was not for her. For Nixon, who has had long-term relationships with both men and women, it seemed a perfectly reasonable pivot. “She gave it the old college try and she kissed the girl in the elevator, but it was like, ‘nope,'” Nixon reflects. “But the fact that you kissed one person and you don’t feel anything, and then you kiss another and you do at a totally different time of your life, that doesn’t seem strange to me. But we always used to say back in the old days that Samantha and Miranda were kind of the guys, and Carrie and Charlotte were kind of the girls.” ER and House (2005) Nixon guest starred on two medical dramas in 2005, as a stroke victim on ER and a woman with Munchausen syndrome on House.”That was fun,” Nixon recalls of the latter. “Because she was very sexy and dressed provocatively and had a lot of hair that she would swing around.” ER was a more intense experience, playing a woman immobilized by a stroke. Nixon appeared physically frozen on screen and delivered much of her dialogue in voiceover. “Most of the days I shot, I had many hours of makeup, and they would take my eye and my lip and they would glue them down so that they were sagging,” she remembers. “I looked a little Frankenstein-y, and every day I would go to the commissary and eat lunch by myself. Every day they would not bat an eye and they would seat me. I would do my best to eat through the little bit of my mouth that there was. Then, when we did all the scenes before she had the stroke and after she recovered, I showed up at the commissary and the maître d’ said, ‘You’re looking very well today, Ms. Nixon.’ That was the extent of mentioning the Frankenstein makeup.” Warm Springs (2005) Nixon followed up her Emmy win for Sex and the City with her first-ever historical figure, portraying Eleanor Roosevelt in this television movie. “It was completely daunting,” Nixon says of playing the iconic First Lady. “It was a dramatic role. It was opposite Kenneth Branagh, who was in a whole other stratosphere than I am. I felt very inadequate to be the Eleanor to his Franklin in particular. And everybody knows what Eleanor looks like, sounds like, and how she walks.” Because Roosevelt is such a well-documented figure, Nixon spent a great deal of time at the Museum of Television and Radio reviewing footage of Eleanor. At first, she was struck by Roosevelt’s more recognizable voice, bearing the extreme elocution of a transatlantic accent. But the real gold came in more unreserved moments. “She wasn’t making a speech,” Nixon says of a particularly useful tape. “She was in conversation about topics that mattered to her and that she was very opinionated and knowledgeable on. And so very quickly she moved out of that great lady elocution class to getting down and dirty with the boys. So much of the footage we have of public people is of course them in public. And so much of what you’re playing is them in private. So, how are they really in private? It’s entirely different.” Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2007) Nixon won her second Emmy, this one for Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series, for her portrayal of Janis Donovan, a suspect pretending to have dissociative identity disorder. It was an intriguing acting challenge for Nixon, who likens pretending to have such a disorder to the act of performance itself. She watched Sally Field’s breakout performance in Sybil to prepare, and also drew on lessons she had learned from legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen. “Uta said, ‘Don’t worry. If you’re a confident person and you’re playing a meek person or vice versa, don’t worry about it because think about the person around who you feel confident or the person who makes you feel inadequate, and just pretend that that’s the person you’re talking to,'” Nixon recalls. “‘And you’ll find that person inside of you.’ Because we all have the sexy person, the shy person, the confident person, the mean person, the superior person, the insecure — we have all of those. When you’re playing a multiple personality, those people might have different tones of voice, accents, or genders. It’s a great thing for an actor to be able to do, and we all do a much narrower, smaller, less discernible version of that [in our work all the time].” Sex and the City 2 (2010) Although the events of this film are set in Abu Dhabi, the cast actually shot in Morocco. But that was only after trying to shoot in Dubai first. “We were negotiating all these things, and then they finally said, ‘But you’re going to have to change the name. We can’t call it Sex in the City,'” she explains of working out their locations. “We were like, ‘Okay, well, it’s been nice talking to you. We’ve got to go find another place now.’ It was surreal being so far away from home.” Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2011) In this episode, titled “Icarus,” Nixon plays an ego-mad Broadway director who is overseeing one of the greatest disasters in Broadway history. Viewers saw clear parallels between the fiasco of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and likened Nixon’s character, Amanda Reese, to Spider-Man director Julie Taymor. However, Nixon has never met Taymor and has been advised to never make the link herself between the role and the real director. “But it was fun playing an artist,” she adds. “Certainly the clothes were great. I have a lot of them still. And I am now a director myself.” Nixon makes a habit of keeping clothes from some of her more fashionable characters (Miranda in particular), but she often still wears her wardrobe from this guest star gig. “It’s great stuff,” she says. “Other than workout wear, I never buy any clothes, because I have so many clothes, certainly from Sex and the City, and from other things too.” A Quiet Passion (2016) Nixon fulfilled a lifelong dream of portraying poet Emily Dickinson in this biographical film from Terence Davies. She’d held a long-time fascination with the poet, in part because of Nixon’s mother’s tendency to compare her to Julie Harris, who famously portrayed Dickinson in the one-woman show, The Belle of Amherst. Nixon grew up listening to a record of Harris reading some of Dickinson’s poems and letters. “I knew a lot of the poems by heart, and I even knew snatches of the letters by heart,” Nixon says of her connection to Dickinson. “I’m a very literary person. I was an English major, and I love poetry, and I particularly love poetry written by women.” Davies actually wrote the role with Nixon in mind, seeing something in her while watching reruns of Sex and the City with the sound off. And she was ecstatic to take on the task of portraying a woman she had always felt was a kindred spirit. “She’s rhapsodic,” Nixon gushes. “I’m a person of enormous — she’s more about nature and I’m more about Broadway — but that runaway enthusiasm. And also, I’m so much about my relationships to the people that I’m close to and that I’ve known for so long. I am a performer definitely, but I’m as much a homebody.” Ratched (2020) Nixon made her debut in the Ryan Murphy-verse as Gwendolyn Briggs, press secretary to the governor and closeted lover of Nurse Ratched (Sarah Paulson). The offer for the role came only a couple months after Nixon had lost her bid for governor of New York and provided a much-needed lifeline. “It was particularly meaningful to me because it was like, ‘How is my running for governor and taking a year off of my career going to impact me? What is there going to be waiting for me when I get back?'” she recalls. “And the part that he thought of me for was a person in the political world; it was such a lifeline to be offered. Any job would’ve been great at that point, but to be offered such a big, beautiful job was really incredible. I will always be so grateful to him, and so in his debt for being that first person who reached out with not just a single rose but a bouquet of roses.” Originally, Nixon had intended to do a follow-up to Warm Springs, centered on Eleanor Roosevelt’s torrid affair with journalist Lorena Hickok. That project never came to fruition, but Nixon injected much of her research about Hickok into Gwendolyn. “So much of what I had learned about Lorena Hickok, I just co-opted for Gwendolyn because but there was so much of being a woman in hard politics and journalism and being the only woman in that world in your group — it seemed very, very next door to each other.” The role also held particular significance for Nixon as she and the show’s star, Sarah Paulson, had been friends for several years prior. She adds, “Having two queer women playing these two queer characters was fantastic.” And Just Like That… (2021-present) Miranda Hobbes has received a second act and then some with HBO’s Sex and the City sequel series. Over the years, Nixon has watched perceptions of Miranda change, as many viewers initially complained that the character was boring and shrill. “Then, there was this whole thing about how she seemed really angry and strident, but now we look at all the things she was saying, and the culture has now moved to actually exactly where Miranda was,” Nixon says of how attitudes toward her character shifted. “So then there was this whole ‘We didn’t appreciate you then, but now we see you’re great.'” But Miranda 2.0 has been met with criticism, angering fans when she cheated on longtime paramour, Steve (David Eigenberg), with comic Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez). “Her trying to become more woke, for lack of a better word, people didn’t like that and felt like she did it clumsily,” Nixon reflects. “That wasn’t the Miranda that they thought they knew or loved and admired; their Miranda would be more smart or savvy. And I don’t see that. I feel like as a white person in this time who actually realizes they’ve been living in a white bubble and all their friends are white, all of these things are real. To try and undo some of that at this later stage of life, it’s awkward. It’s really awkward. If we’re going to face the unbelievable whiteness of the original series, we can’t just do it gracefully. Wouldn’t there be some growing pains?” Nixon is also an executive producer and director on the sequel series, but she largely stays out of narrative decisions. However, when creator Michael Patrick King came to her with the notion that they would make Miranda queer this go-round, she heartily approved — with one request. “He wanted her to fall in love with her professor,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I don’t mind her cheating on Steve, but sleeping with her professor, I don’t love, honestly.’ I don’t know why that bothered me, but it really did bother me. Also, that woman was going to be straight too. Neither of them were ever going to have had a gay thought, and then all of a sudden, they did.” Initially, Nixon had also wanted Miranda’s storyline to mirror her own life (she co-parents her children with her ex-partner, Danny Mozes, and her wife, Christine Marinoni). “I was like, ‘Can’t we just start it with her being divorced?'” Nixon reveals. “We can see Steve and Miranda co-parenting in a really nice way. But Michael was adamant that Miranda and Steve is a big love story and you don’t want to jump over the breakup. You want to actually go into that and mine that for all it’s worth.” Check out more from EW’s The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year’s best in TV. The Gilded Age (2022-present) Nixon is doing double-duty on HBO, also starring on Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age as old money heiress, Ada Brook. Ada is meek and gentle in contrast to Christine Baranski’s Agnes Van Rhijn, Ada’s elder sister. If the set-up sounds similar to The Little Foxes, that would be because it was Nixon’s Tony-winning run in that play that led director Michael Engler to suggest her for the series. “Ada and Birdie in The Little Foxes are exactly the kind of character I always used to play,” she says. “They’re shy and so eager for connection and for there to be good in the world, and so terrorized by the bad in the world. But Miranda is pretty much the antithesis of that. Once Miranda walked in, then those characters flew away from me, whereas before they had really been my bread and butter.” Nixon got to employ that eagerness for connection in season 2 of the series, which found Ada romanced by local clergyman, Luke Forte (Robert Sean Leonard). The two fell in love and married (against Agnes’ wishes), only for Luke to be diagnosed with cancer and die tragically quickly — a twist which broke Nixon’s heart. “It was devastating to me and to Robert and to many people in our cast that he went,” she says. “I don’t usually chime in on wishes for how the script will go, but I was like, ‘Could there be a ghost? Could there be a twin brother that we didn’t know?’ I just keep getting a whole lot of ‘no.'” While Ada’s romantic happiness was short-lived, it served another purpose: making her the financial head of the Van Rhijn household after Agnes’ son loses her fortune. “We were just trying to get to the reversal of who controls the money and who has the power,” Nixon adds. “But old habits die hard. Particularly the relationship as it has previously existed is basically from Ada’s birth. Agnes has always been the big sister. She’s always been the dominating one, the successful one, the bossy one, the one with the power. They’re almost like a mother and daughter. So, Ada has been emboldened, but I do not think it will come easily to her.”

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