Whether dyeing her strawberry blonde hair a fiery red to play the career-obsessed Miranda Hobbes on HBO’s Sex and the City or shaving it off completely to embody the cancer-stricken Professor Vivian Bearing in the Broadway revival of Margaret Edson’s Wit, Cynthia Nixon is a chameleon. Her fearlessness on stage and screen has helped Nixon garner a Tony Award (Rabbit Hole) two Emmy Awards (Sex and the City, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) and a Grammy Award (Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth). Broadway.com recently chatted with the 45-year-old actress about life after Sex, why the moon rises over Blythe Danner and the advice she would give her children if they ever wanted to follow in Mommy's footsteps. (It's not what you may think.)
Is performing Wit eight times a week like being on an emotional roller coaster?
It’s actually blissfully not as hard as I thought it would be. I sleep a lot. You have to work hard to remember the depth, the height and the stakes of what you are talking about. Oftentimes friends of mine come backstage and look like they have been through a war. I’m all chipper and happy to see them, but it’s what we do as performers. You explore the pain of it, but by the end we give the audience the play. We’re free and they’re left holding the bag.
What has been the most meaningful part of doing Wit?
Wit is so strong on two different levels. On one level Wit is very strong talking about cancer. So many cancer patients, cancer survivors, doctors, nurses and people that have lost someone feel like their story is expressed artistically in a way they haven’t seen before. They feel like you are speaking directly to them. But on another level, it's just a beautiful piece of playwriting. The play exists on a very high level. It’s a perfect play. It’s so original and it’s so surprising. It takes you left and right and up and down. It takes you to these enormous heights and these very deep depths.
What are audiences taking away from Wit?
I think one thing is an appreciation for Margaret Edson and the amazing play she’s written. People take away the idea that doctors may be great scientists but they have a little to learn regarding humanity. That’s the thing that Vivian learns about herself. Her feeling of superiority makes her think she’s terrific, but when she really needs people, she realizes that her accomplishments don’t really matter when she’s sick, dying and alone.
Do you relate to the character?
Vivian, like myself, locates herself in her brain most of the time. That’s the part of herself that she feels very sure of, and I feel like that’s true of me too. She’s a very solitary person and I am a very, very social person. I have friends, family, three children and a partner [Christine Marinoni]. All these things Vivian doesn’t have. There’s a WASPy machismo that she and I both share. I think Margaret Edson probably shares this WASPy machismo too.
What exactly is a “WASPy machismo”?
One day when Margaret was speaking to our director Lynne Meadow she said, “Let me tell you what a WASP is. A WASP is someone who says, ‘This isn’t hell, and I am not hot.’” And I think that really perfectly expresses a lot about Vivian and I am both pleased and sorry to say it expresses a lot about me, as well.
Basically it allows you to deny, deny, deny?
Yes, deny! Denial is a very powerful and effective tool.
Are you getting used to shaving your head?
It’s one of those things you have to build into your day. You really should do it in the shower after running your head under hot water for a while. I like to put a moisturizer on my head afterwards, but if you are about to go out in the cold you probably shouldn’t put too much moisturizer because then your hat gets all gloppy. It’s all about the logistics.
As a breast cancer survivor, do you consider yourself an inspiration to women battling cancer?
No! I consider myself an example of how if you are lucky and if you catch it quick, cancer can be a bump in the road. The people who inspire me have really been through it. To me, having a double mastectomy or chemo is when cancer starts to get serious and I underwent neither of these things.
Has it been difficult juggling eight shows a week and taking care of your one-year-old son, Max Ellington?
I am very, very privileged because Max has two moms, and one of them is a stay-at-home mom. When I am running around or at my show, I know that he is with a babysitter, but more likely he’s with his other mom. There’s a great level of comfort about that.
Have your children expressed an interest in acting?
Oh, no! [Charles Ezekiel] is very much a natural performer, but he talks about soccer, chess and zombies.
What would you tell your children if they wanted to start acting?
I would do anything I can to help them, but I would say, “Make sure you have a backup. Make sure you go to college. I want you to have a life that’s rich and full, and it’s hard if you are an actor and you’re constantly pounding the pavement not getting cast. That’s a really tough existence.”
You made your Broadway debut 30 years ago. What did you enjoy most about being a teen actor on Broadway?
I didn’t think of myself so much as a teen actor. I felt like, “Wow! I’m on Broadway. I’m acting in this great play, with these actors that I admire so much. I am learning from them. I am in a big Broadway house.” Being on Broadway is fun at any age.
Who were your role models when you first started your career?
I thought and still think that the moon rose and set over Blythe Danner [Nixon's co-star in The Philadelphia Story]. I always admired her as an actress, but when I came to know her, I admired even more that she had this tremendous gift, fantastic career and very rich family life.
You’ve played so many strong characters. Which have you enjoyed most?
Oh, it’s so hard. Obviously you gravitate towards roles that have something in them that you can identify with. But the more you play them, the more there’s a symbiosis. In the case of Miranda [on Sex and the City], I would say we were not very much alike but by the end, she had changed a lot and I had changed some too, so we were actually much closer.
Did you become more like Miranda or did she become more like you?
When we started, she was this single, bitter, ironic, extremely weary and career-driven person who didn’t know if she wanted to have kids. That was absolutely the polar opposite of who I was: I wasn’t single. I had a child already. But by the end, I think I learned some things from her assertiveness and I think she came around to love, marriage and kids!
Did you fall in love with Miranda’s closet?
It’s not really me, but it was great. It’s lovely to have people, the best in the business, making sure you look the best you can possibly look at any given moment. That was terrific.
Ever watch old episodes of Sex and the City?
I don’t have TV, so no.
You don’t have a television? As an actor isn’t this blasphemous?
I haven’t had a TV since 1986. I got rid of it in college, and I never looked back. When I got rid of my cable it was $17.95 a month. So, yes, I am constantly out of the loop. When we used to go to the Emmys for Sex and the City, I wouldn’t know who anybody was.
Why did you get rid of your television?
I find that when there’s a TV, you end up watching stuff you are not really interested in just because it happens to be on at the moment.
Will there be a Sex and the City 3?
I don’t know. I thought it was over many times before, then it would spring like a phoenix from its own ashes [laughs].
After a show, how do you decompress?
So much happens to Vivian. She lives a whole life in front of you, so there’s no need to decompress. Usually when you need to decompress, it’s because your nerves are still jangling. Vivian’s nerves are not jangling. I die onstage, then I am ready to sleep!
See Cynthia Nixon in Wit at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.