Cynthia Nixon may have played a seminal character on HBO’s Sex and the City for six years, but a résumè full of serious onscreen roles–as well as experience directing for the stage–have helped make her a bona fide storyteller.
Nixon plays a seriously ill mother in the critically acclaimed film James White, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and will hit theaters November 13. Steve–the off-Broadway play she’s directing–opens November 18.
From the Fast Company Innovation Festival stage in New York City on Monday, Nixon shared how she translates her own experiences into ultra-authentic performances–and manages to leave work behind to live a real life.
Nixon, who is famously vociferous on marriage equality and LGBTQ issues, surprisingly shared she wasn’t all that concerned about a pay gap between men and women in Hollywood.
That’s not to say she thinks women have equal footing on or offscreen.
“This is not something that concerns me so much, whether a person makes $10 million or $15 million for a film. I’d be more concerned with roles: getting women behind the camera and getting people in the room deciding which films are made,” Nixon told Fast Company. “Then the audiences get a picture of the world and everything a woman is and can be, not just the woman standing beside her husband and saying, ‘Great work.’”
She says there’s still an inherent belief that entertainment targeted to men is applicable to everyone, whereas entertainment that’s seen as female-focused usually enjoys an audience of women only. But until times change, the latter films still need to be made.
“Even if no men go, and only women go, this is still a film worth making. Because it’s still women, and there’s a lot of women in the world,” Nixon says.
In addition to her role as the terminally ill Gail White in James White, Nixon will play the American poet Emily Dickinson in the upcoming A Quiet Passion. To play those serious roles, Nixon has to look inward.
While she was working on James White, her own mother died of cancer.
“It was a good thing, I think, for me to work on,” Nixon says of the film and her own grieving process. She says her own loss helped her portray the complicated nature of illness and relationships; the forces that affected a mother and son, for example, are still there when the mother gets sick.
“These are really complicated combative characters, and the fact that they’re now having to deal with this illness–it’s not tidy at all. All of these issue between them are complicated by cancer,” Nixon says.
The forces in her own life helped her identify a creative process that worked for portraying crushing strife on screen: Instead of trying to channel big-picture emotions, she had to take herself through what a character in question would be trying to do or think in a moment, every moment of their lives. She knew what those moments were like because she’d already witnessed and felt them with her own mom.
“As human beings, really until we draw our last breath, we are trying to do something in every moment. When we’re dying, we’re not like Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights looking beautiful in her bed. In every moment of our lives–including when we’re sick–we’re just trying to get through that pain, or make it to the bathroom, or get a drink of water, or say what we’re trying to say,” says Nixon, whose own mother died before her dream of being a writer could be realized.
Nixon doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter profile. “I have a VCR,” she offers as further indication of her Luddite lifestyle. “I don’t subscribe to cable. I’m so not techie. Basically I don’t have reception on my television. So it’s like a monitor.”
Instead, she chooses a mindful approach to people she already treasures.
“Here’s the thing. I am surgically attached to my Blackberry. I can type without looking. To that extent, I am very connected. Those people I’m emailing and texting with, I know them. And still they take an enormous amount of my personal attention. If that much of my attention is being taken with people that I actually know and personally care about, I can’t imagine if I had this obligation that I would send this message to thousands of people that I don’t know and will never meet,” Nixon says. “That’s a beast that will never be sated. I would self-destruct.”
Nixon says part of her success comes from knowing her strengths and making the decision to pursue them fully.
“For a long time I thought I wanted to be a writer. But what I have come to realize about myself with almost no regret at all is that I am not a writer, because acting is actually a very good career for me. Acting is about communication with live people. I don’t want to spend that much time alone. And also I am best in motion, I really am,” Nixon says.
She had the same realization about directing: “If it does resonate with me, I want to be the person that brings that to life rather than the person who tells their own thing, because I’m not a thinker. I’m a doer. And the older I get, I understand that about myself.”
She says instead of being pigeonholed into a genre, she’s learned she prefers to tell stories that are meaningful to her, no matter the theme, á la the director Sidney Lumet. That variety has come to be how she approaches all of her work today.
“If you’re being given a number of takes. Trust that the thing that you were trying to do, you kind of did it. So why not try something else? In my earlier life I tried to do things super, super, super well that I know could do safely and deliberately,” Nixon says. “As I’m getting older, what I try to do is leave more up to chance.”
Nixon, who is a married mother of three, says she’s found parallels between directing and parenting.
“Being a director is sort of like being a mother. There’s never really a moment to rest. Except the people that you’re talking to are generally reasonable people—they’re not two-year-olds,” Nixon says. “When you’re an actor, you traffic in emotions all the time. So when you’re impassioned or angry or frustrated, you have more permission to do that than most people do at work. When you’re a director, not so much because you always have to be the grownup in the room.”
That’s not to say she has used her directorial instincts solely for serious roles. She’s already (mentally) cast the Sex and the City leading ladies as Greek gods and goddesses (she’s been inspired by Greek myth since reading the D’Aulaires anthology as a kid.) Miranda is Athena, Charlotte is Aphrodite, Samantha is Hera, and Carrie is Zeus, of course.