EXCLUSIVE: Cynthia Nixon Sets Aside Politics to Play Nancy Reagan

by Valentina Valentini 7:02 AM PDT, October 05, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

Cynthia Nixon spent the first half of her 40s going through a de-Mirandafication, to borrow from a New York article written a decade ago. She had to take herself out of the Sex and the City game and put herself in the “mom” space, because as a 40-something female actress, that’s about the extent of the roles available to you.

Now, like SATC co-star and real-life bestie Sarah Jessica Parker is doing, she’s excited to take on juicier roles. Parker’s upcoming HBO show Divorce -- which Nixon doesn’t have any plans to guest on but would jump at the opportunity -- is about a woman who, in the midst of a life crisis, surprises her husband (Thomas Haden Church) by asking for a divorce.

“I like that,” she says, referring to Divorce, which she hasn’t seen yet. “In your 30s and 40s you just play moms. Let me tell you, they're not that interesting. Particularly moms of like, 8-year-olds or 12-year-olds. When you're the mother of those kids [in real life] it's really fun and wonderful and you love them, but you're not that interesting either because your whole being is sucked up by them. I turned 50 this year, and I have time to become interesting again.”

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And so art imitates life. The roles Nixon has taken on in her years post-SATC have been broad and scary and mean and hard -- even if some of those were mothers. She’s played a dying mother of a troubled young man in James White, the mother of a kidnapped child who returns home after a decade in Stockholm, Pennsylvania and she’s taking on Nancy Reagan in Killing Reagan, which premieres on National Geographic on October 16.

At TIFF, she premiered her most recent juicy role: Emily Dickinson, in a biopic showcasing the 19th-century poet who lived a life of near recluse and wrote over 1,800 poems, gaining deserved notoriety only decades after her death in 1886.

“In the same way with this film,” Nixon says, “last year’s James White was a very hard film to watch because it wasn't a tale where somebody's dying and then there's great redemption at the end. It was more like, dying sucks and we learn things from it and maybe we get some stuff that we can take with us, but it's not ultimately redemptive. This kind of suffering is not redemptive. That's sort of one of the hard truths I think that James White tells us [and again with A Quiet Passion] -- one of the hard truths of this movie is that life will crush you.”

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Nixon isn’t saying that there’s nothing to look forward to. She uses women from the Middle Ages as an example, describing how when they were out of the hustle and bustle of raising children, they could actually go somewhere and be quiet; they could process their lives. 

“That's where I feel like I am right now,” she says, “It’s amazing. The thing about that emotional kind of way you get when you're having your period -- or for me, I’m in perimenopause -- it's not your enemy [...] and it's not fake. It's that we're in touch with things that actually really bother us that the rest of the time we just push down and ignore. [Learning how to accept those emotions] teaches you things about yourself. That's how I feel about this point in my life. If you stay present, you actually learn all the stuff that you were too busy to pay attention to before.”

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While Nixon has slowed down her emotional process, she’s sped up her acting career in the historical nonfiction category. And she’s glad for it. Playing Eleanor Roosevelt in the 2005 TV movie Warm Springs, the upcoming Reagan role and Dickinson have all afforded her access to play interesting and complicated people, and allowed her to challenge herself as an actor and a person. 

“In some ways maybe it's harder to play someone you actually worship because you feel the distance between you and them is so great,” Nixon says on the subject.

She is not a fan of Reagan’s politics, or the woman herself, but that didn’t stop her from sinking her teeth into the role.

“There’s liking someone and then there's disapproving of them,” she says about her feelings on Reagan. “Let’s say you're playing a character that you disapprove of -- one of the dangers is that you condescend to that character and you do a more caricature-y version of them because you don't respect them.”

Nixon tried hard to play Reagan true to who she was, despite not understanding or agreeing with her politics.

“There was no question in my mind that Nancy Reagan worked very hard in her life and tried to be the absolute best person by her standards that she could be,” Nixon says. “There were all these tragic, painful things that happened early in her life that set her on a particular path.”

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