As committed as she’s been to acting since she broke out in 1980’s “Little Darlings,” Cynthia Nixon is equally committed to political activism. In 2018 she took a break from a thriving career to challenge Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo in the New York State primary, and managed to score 34 percent of the vote. She’s pleased that in the years since she put forward her progressive platform, much of it has passed, forging a path for less wealthy states to follow. After Cuomo left office last year, Nixon tweeted: “The difference between me and Andrew Cuomo? Neither of us is governor, but I still have my Emmy.” (She has two.)
“I ran against Cuomo, because nobody else would,” she told me. “And it was important to show who he was and what he was hiding behind and the kind of New York that we could have. And I don’t have to run now that he’s gone. And other people will run now, because if you were actually in politics as your day job, he was a terrifying person to take on, because he would end your career.”
Meanwhile, Nixon returned to her first love, taking on juicy characters in three top-flight shows, scoring a Golden Globe nomination as the California governor’s press secretary in Netflix’s “Ratched,” and two HBO Max 2022 Emmy contenders that were so popular that they’re both filming second seasons. In the “Sex and the City” contemporary sequel “And Just Like That…,” the actress picked up her Emmy-winning role as hot-shot New York lawyer Miranda Hobbes, who falls for a non-binary comedian in her mid-50s, and in “The Gilded Age,” she kept her corsets tied in “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ latest exploration of the wealthy and entitled, this time set during the 1880s boom in New York City.
Nixon filmed “The Gilded Age” first, followed by “And Just Like That…,” but they aired back to back in reverse order. “The Gilded Age” was set to shoot in March 2020, until COVID-19 postponed production, which resumed in February 2021 in Newport, Rhode Island, followed by locations in upstate New York, including a mini-city built in the historic district of Troy.
Michael Patrick King’s “And Just Like That…,” returning to the HBO fold after two movie entries, also started filming later than planned due to the pandemic, in July, 2021 in New York City. “It came together so fast,” said Nixon. “It was like a bat out of hell, how fast we made that show. We finished shooting ‘And Just Like That’ in November, and then it was on the air in the first week of December. Luckily, it wasn’t something that dropped all at once. It was an incredibly fast turnaround.”
“The Gilded Age” is already back in production, while the writers room is still beavering away on scripts for “And Just Like That…,” which won’t shoot until October.
While she’s an East Sider now, Nixon grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, attending Hunter High School, and used her actors’ wages to pay her tuition at Barnard College. She reveled in the New York history behind “The Gilded Age,” reading reams of research. But she gleaned the most from novelists like Henry James and Edith Wharton. “The people are so colorful at the time,” she said, “but it was more useful to read the great fiction, because you got an interior sense too.”
While spinster Ada Brook is a stalwart upholder of old-money WASP traditions, along with her widowed sister Agnes (Christine Baranski), she also wages an underground resistance to the hidebound rules. “Characters like Ada, Bertha [the new-wealth upstart played by Carrie Coons] and Peggy [Denée Benton’s Black journalist] have nothing in common,” Nixon said, “but what they do share is that the world wasn’t built for them. And they are trying to push it as far as they can, and each in their own way. The rules can be very, very rigid. But there are people who can change things by the force of their personality, or just squeak by for themselves, and by squeaking by for themselves, change things.”
Nixon modeled Ada on her unmarried godmother, Violet Dennison. “Denny was an enthusiastic person who had all sorts of interests, traveled everywhere, and knew how to fly a plane as a young woman,” she said. “She had men that she was in love with, but it never worked out. Denny would say, ‘As you age as an unattached woman, you become more and more invisible in gatherings.’ But she was a person who had an enormous interest in young people.”
Clearly, Broadway veterans Nixon and Baranski (“The Real Thing”) enjoyed reuniting as fractious sisters. Even though Ada is the quieter, seemingly submissive sibling, she gets her licks in as she advocates for her niece Marian (Meryl Streep sprig Louisa Jacobson). “We have a lot of fun things happening this coming season,” said Nixon, who recently filmed in Newport. “Shocking and surprising things, including an enormous changer that upends Agnes and Ada’s relationship.”
When it came to bringing “And Just Like That…” into the modern world after 25 years, Nixon, showrunner King, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kristin Davis “all wanted to carry the spirit of what people had loved about ‘Sex and the City,'” said Nixon. “At the very least, the characters. But we wanted it to be very different, with new characters. It was almost an entirely white show the first time. We wanted these characters to grapple with the world that they’re in. We wanted to take them out of their comfort zone. ‘Sex and the City’ is so familiar that people think of it as this light, airy show, like a tame pet. But actually, it was a tiger in its day, in terms of what we what we showed, and the boundaries that we pushed, or broke. And how these characters originally went through hell. And so some people were taken aback by how far we went this time, but those people don’t remember the impact of the show when it first aired.”
Nixon revelled in the changes Miranda demanded in this chapter of her life as she feels the urge to escape the prison of her marriage to Steve Brady (David Eigenberg) and explores her sexuality during a sexy affair with podcaster Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez). Nixon also takes Miranda to some uncomfortable places, from leaning on alcohol to cringe-worthy scenes in a university classroom as she clumsily tries to adopt a woke sensibility.
“If we’re going to introduce these new, strong, dynamic characters of color,” said Nixon, “it shouldn’t be without bumps, it shouldn’t be all free and easy. Miranda just doesn’t want, in her mid-50s, to peter out. She wants to be in the thick of things, and she wants to grapple with the times that she’s living in. And she wants to be part of the change that she wants to see in the world. And when you want to change, it’s usually not graceful. As a white person trying to be a better citizen of the world, it’s a learning curve. We can try and do these things and put our foot in our mouths and do them badly. And that’s the only way we’re going to learn to do them better.”
There was audience blowback on Miranda stepping out on her husband. “There are people who didn’t like to see Miranda running around on Steve,” Nixon said, “and didn’t want to see that marriage end. Which is understandable. But it became clear to Miranda, if not to Steve, that they had come to a fork in the road. And that what he wanted out of the rest of his life and what she wanted out of the rest of her life were polar opposites. And as he pointed out, Miranda never was sure that Steve was really the one, or enough for her. He was an anchor for her and they had a wonderful marriage and raised this incredible kid. But when you’re 55 and you want to have an exciting new chapter and the person you’re married to really wants to sit at home and eat ice cream and watch TV, it seems to me that’s the end.”
While Nixon and Miranda are very different people, “she has always been very close to me,” she said. “She didn’t feel like it when we first started out, because she was so not a domestic person. And I’m such a domestic person. And I was already a mother when the show started. And she was barely interested in having a long term relationship, much less having a home and a child. But the wonderful secret about being a woman at this age, is we know about the unfun stuff: the hot flashes and the wrinkles and the aches and pains. But this time in a woman’s life is precious. If you’ve had children, they’re coming of age and going away. And if you have a career that you like, it’s a time when hopefully, it’s coming to fruition, or if you want to have an exciting next chapter, you have enough time to focus on yourself and do that.”
“And Just Like That…” offered Nixon a chance to be vulnerable and brave, sexy and insecure, bond with her girlfriends, and fight with them too. “Miranda always thinks she’s the smartest person in the room, or has the most power,” said Nixon, who married education activist Christine Marinoni in 2012. “In her marriage, she’s the powerful, decisive one, the leader. But in the classroom, she just didn’t quite know what she was doing. It was nice to see her with a person [Ramirez’s Che Diaz] that she was so overwhelmed and intimidated and thrilled by, who was living a life that she wanted for herself. It’s nice to see Miranda in awe, because disdain is a very easy place for her to go.”
Next up: While Nixon is happily returning to workshopping plays and going to the theater and prepping the continuation of her two series, she’s still active in partisan politics. She’s profoundly disturbed by the Supreme Court preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade. “There’s no silver lining in this in any way,” she said. “And, of course, many women are going to be in these deserts of reproductive care. But also it’s hard financially and in every way to travel to have an abortion if you need one. But what is particularly pernicious and horrifying and almost unbelievable to fathom is these laws that are encouraging citizens to police each other and get each other arrested for a woman seeking an abortion. You know, your rapist could actually take you to court if you try and abort his baby!”