EXCLUSIVE: Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney Are Ready to Experiment on Stage

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When it comes to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s upcoming production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, which will see Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon playing Regina Hubbard Giddens and Birdie Hubbard in repertory appearing opposite each other during every performance, it’s anybody’s guess at how exactly it’s going to come together. “It’s a big experiment for everybody,” says Linney, who actually suggested that she and Nixon rotate the roles and, admittedly, has no idea if it’s actually going to work. “I love that I have no idea.” For both actors, it’s quite possible the greatest thing about it.

“The bizarre thing is trying to find your own Regina and your own Birdie while the actress across from you is also trying to find it,” Nixon says, while adding that the whole concept is “very liberating.”

“I’m sure Cynthia and I are going to play both parts differently, and who knows what that’s going to do to the cast,” Linney says of the experiment that goes beyond the two women and will affect the entire production, from their co-stars to the costume designers.

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Of course, it should be added that rehearsals for this highly anticipated experiment hadn’t even started when both talked to ET by phone in January. The two women will truly find out what happens in mid-February when they come together for the first time before the show starts in previews on March 29 and opens on April 19.

While not unheard of, the repertory concept is rare. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen did it 2013 with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot performed on different nights -- but to actually switch entire roles during the same production is virtually unheard of. And it’s even rarer for two women. “Someone might have somewhere,” Linney ponders, “but you don’t hear about it very often,” which is what it makes it all the more exciting for both actresses to take on Hellman’s classic 20th-century drama about a scheme to get rich that turns to blackmail and theft between family members.

Previously embodied by Tallulah Bankhead, Anne Bancroft, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing on stage and screen, Regina has become canon for women of a certain age -- and the chance to play the main antagonist excited both actresses. “Lillian Hellman takes all the things she doesn’t like about women and all the things she doesn’t like about capitalists and puts them together in one beautiful monstrous package,” Nixon says, adding: “Birdie has so much to her.”

“Roles like this are meant to be played. It’s just a testament to how good the play is,” Linney says, explaining that the play and Regina’s overarching theme of greed struck a nerve. “Since that’s something I’ve seen a lot of recently, I thought it was worth taking another look at.”

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Adding even more resonance to the story, Nixon compares the intrigue of The Little Foxes’ central character to the president of the United States. “With any good villain, you strive to understand what makes them that way -- even Donald Trump. You can’t just say he’s horrible or stupid or whatever,” the actress says, explaining that she wants to understand how he -- and Regina -- came to be.

Politics aside, “Cynthia and I are both very grateful that the timing is right for it to be done now,” Linney says, explaining that the casting -- while “happenstance,” according to Nixon -- of these two women, who have such respect and adoration for each other, will happen again. And that’s just the thing that will make this experiment work.

There’s a clear admiration between these two longtime actors and friends, who have most notably worked together before on The Big C. While Nixon is most famous for playing Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City, Linney speaks of her co-star’s early theater days, when Nixon would run back and forth between two concurrent Broadway productions, as if it were legend. “Cynthia was like this magical creature,” she says. And Nixon, who commends Linney’s “breathtaking” portrayal of Abigail Adams on the HBO miniseries John Adams, is looking forward to working with someone she has affection for. “There’s a sense we’d be able to do it without jockeying for position,” Nixon says. 

“I hear people use the phrase, ‘It ain't my first rodeo,’” Nixon continues. “Well, you can say that again in this case, because it's neither of our first rodeos. We love what we do and revere what we do.”