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Sundance: Cynthia Nixon on Facing Death in ‘James White’ and the Hard Hours of ‘Sex and the City’

Sundance: Cynthia Nixon on Facing Death in 'James White' and the Hard Hours of 'Sex and the City'

Cynthia Nixon will forever be best known for HBO’s “Sex the City,” the cultural phenomenon that earned her an Emmy Award and fans worldwide. In the years since that show wrapped, the actress has turned in compelling performances on stage and screen that are equally worthy of attention; and no, we’re not referring her work in the “Sex and the City” movie and its sequel.

She’s currently at Sundance starring in “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” and “James White,” the latter of which has left audiences emotionally devastated. In “James White” — from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” producer Josh Mond, making his directorial debut — Nixon plays the cancer-stricken mother of the titular character (played by ex-“Girls” star Christopher Abbott), who slowly comes to terms with her impending death when her condition worsens.

Indiewire spoke with Nixon in Park City about the toll the role took on her, losing her own mother to cancer, and the legacy of “Sex and the City.”

You’re in the midst of a lot right now. You’re here promoting two films, just ended your Broadway run of “The Real Thing” and you’re currently directing another play, right?
Yes, we’re in tech right now. We have our first preview on Tuesday.
Is this the busiest you’ve ever felt?
No. It goes in waves. Remember I did two Broadway shows at the same time when I was 18. 
Jesus.
There’s always a lot of duplication, but no. This is really nice because these things are all so different from one another. Even these two films are really, really different from each other. They’re both intense. They’re both serious. But, one of them is incredibly female and one of them is incredibly male. The female one is very controlled and almost claustrophobic.
Yeah.
The male one, “James White” is just really, I don’t know. It just has such a young, male energy and I would say that’s almost what the movie is really about.  Taking all that young testosterone that’s kind of all over the place that’s kind of freaked out and scared and learning to sort of channel it and focus it and take control of your life.
I just caught it an hour ago and it took a toll.
Yeah. It really does suck you in right?
Yeah. About all that male testosterone; what was that like for you as a female on set, to be around that everyday?
Well, there’s testosterone then there’s testosterone. Both Josh [Mond], who wrote and directed the film, and Chris [Abbott] who stars in the film, are guys. But they’re also incredibly sweet and incredibly sensitive. I think in the case of Josh, he’s a guy who I think really feels like his mother made him who he is. Through her love, through her artistic sensibility, through her belief in him and her unwillingness to ever…not give up on him, but to stop bugging him to be the best he could be. I feel like it’s a very male world on the set, but with incredible respect for not just a woman, but also a woman of a certain age, like a mom-type.
Josh based the film on his own experience of losing his mother to cancer. How much did you rely upon him to inform your own process of playing his mother?
The year that we made it, in the late fall-early winter, my mother had died of cancer that January. I feel like my mother and his mother I think had a lot of things in common, so it certainly was great to hear stories about her from him. Then of course the way she’s drawn in the script is so strong.
But I drew a lot on my mother and not just her illness and her death. My mother and her moral code, her sense of what’s important in life and what you cannot worry about, but what you have to not fuck up on. 
Was it scary to go there so shortly after your mother’s death?
It really actually wasn’t. I don’t know, it felt like a good thing to do. It’s always nice when you get to play something where you really know what it is. You think, “Oh, not everyone knows what this is, but I’ve seen this so I think I can help show what this is.” I can bring back news from the front, from the cancer front. 
Because of your personal connections to the material — the fact that you yourself battled breast cancer, that your mother died of cancer — was this a role you took home with you, more so than others? 
No, I don’t think so. But, it was very intense on the set, but in a kind of a good way, in a kind of a cocoon way. I feel like so many people on the set were people that Josh had literally grown up with and who knew his mother. So, everything was very protected. Also, Josh and I both grew up in New York and while our mothers might not have been from New York, they’d been there for decades and New York was a big part of their personalities. I think that helped, knowing what that is, to grow up in a kind of artsy family. Not a family with money, but a family that really thrives in New York and all New York has to offer. 
Was it a cathartic experience for all of you?
I think it was. I really think it was for Josh, too. I know I’ve heard him say that one reason he wants to make films is to explore things he wants to understand better and I think his mother’s illness and death was something he wanted to understand better.
It’s one thing when you’re going through it, but to be able to reflect on what that really was, and what was the good of it and what was the bad of it and what do I know from it having got out of it that I didn’t know before.
You’ve played a character facing impending death before, onstage in “Wit.” What kind of perspective have the two projects given you on death? Does it scare you?
Death has always scared me, from a very young age. But, death scares me in the abstract of this thing that you know is waiting for you. I think I’m less scared than the average person about finding out tomorrow that I’m sick. That doesn’t really scare me so much; it’s just that I know that death is going to get me whenever it gets me. 
Look, nobody wants to get sick and nobody wants to die, ever, much less, too young. But I do think that there is something that we learn something from illness, whether we emerge healthy from it or whether we succumb to it. I do think there is a way in which, kind of like James [Christopher Abbott] in the film, whether it’s your illness or the illness of someone you care about very much, we can intellectually understand all we want that we’re not here forever and that we better make the most of things and we better do the things we want to do. But, we have to be slapped upside the head a number of times and we have to be taught that lesson again and again and again. Nothing like potentially terminal illness will do that. 
Okay, let’s get on a more cheery note [laughs].
Yeah [laughs].
I read a recent interview with you where you said you don’t own a TV.
Well, I own a television, but I don’t have cable, so I don’t have reception.
Why is that?
I haven’t had reception since 1986.
Do you have an Apple TV?
An Apple TV? I don’t know that is.
It’s a box that enables you to stream stuff on Netflix, Hulu and the like.
We have Netflix. I do the discs.
Yeah? Oh, the DVDs?
Yeah, if my daughter is around she can sometimes get it on the TV. I’m not above watching something on a computer. I know it’s very retrograde, but I have a very large selection of not only DVDs, but also VCR tapes. Sometimes I have the hankering to own something. I go on Amazon and maybe the DVD is eight bucks and the VHS tape is four. So I get the VHS tape.
So I guess you’re not staying up to date with what’s going on in TV right now.

Well I’ve seen a bunch of “Orange is the New Black,” which I love. I watched some “Girls” because I was doing an interview with Alison Williams so they sent me some of them and I loved them. Again we had some discs, we watch “Homeland” with my son, but we’re behind. We watched a little “Breaking Bad,” which we like, but we’ve only watched like six of them. 
The reason I asked about TV is because both you and Christopher [Abbott] are best known for your work on HBO shows.
Right.
Did you two ever bond over that fact, or even discuss it?

No. I don’t know what Chris would say about it, but for me, it’s a very happy thing because I’m so pleased with it.  Sometimes I think it would really be a pain to be on some sitcom you think is terrible and everybody knows. Or to be like, on “Wheel of Fortune.” Do you know what I mean? To be on some really dumb show would be hard. But the thing about “Sex and the City” is that people love it. They still love it and they don’t love it in a nostalgic way. I still feel like it’s completely relevant today. 
Yeah, I still watch it to this day. 
Yeah. There’s something about how dense it is. So much happens in every episode that it seems like a light show and it sort of is, but they’ve jam-packed so much actual stuff in it that you can watch it again and again because there’s always something that you didn’t see the first time. Or once you’re familiar with an episode you can kind of pull back from it and you watch how the themes of the episode sort of work through the different story lines. It’s very artfully constructed. 
What was the favorite theme that you got to explore on the show?
That marriage is not the be all and end all. And that it’s nice to find somebody that’s your person and to spend your life with and to be there and to check in constantly. Someone who has been there and knew you last year, and the year before that and the year before that. But, that we shouldn’t think of marriage as a goal. We’ll wind up with a lot better marriages if we wait for something to happen to us.
Yeah, something genuine. 
Rather than like, a five-year plan.
Do you miss the pace of working on a show like “Sex and the City?” Or did you find it grueling?
I didn’t find it grueling. The thing that was nice about “Sex and the City,” even though the hours were awful, I mean we would shoot between 15 and 18 hours a day, which is awful. We would have the occasional 20-hour day. We shot a 24-hour day one time. I mean, it was awful.
What season was that?
We shot a season with Susan Seidelman, maybe the third season. I think it was like the second or the third season where we shot a 24-hour day. 
Aren’t there union rules against something like that?
They just keep paying you more and more and more. 
[laughs]
There was one time we were shooting in Los Angeles where we started at like five in the afternoon because they have to give you a 12 hour turn-around, so they start later and later and later. We started at five or maybe six in the afternoon and we shot until noon the next day and we were shooting a scene in a bar! [laughs] So there’s nothing like you’ve been up all night, not having fun. You’ve just been up all night shooting with a cocktail in your hand [laughs] and it’s now nine in the morning. It’s just ugh.

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