It certainly wasn’t because of her role as the glamorous lawyer Miranda Hobbes in Sex and the City that Cynthia Nixon was cast as the poet Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies’s new film, A Quiet Passion, which premiered this week at the Berlin Film festival.
Davies freely admits that he detested the show. “I watched it one or twice and I was appalled. I did actually say to her [Nixon], ‘Please don’t be offended but I do think it [Sex and the City] is a very pernicious programme.
All they do is have sex, they eat and they shop.’ I just think that is an awful premise.”
The second time Davies watched Sex and the City, he did so with the sound turned down. “I said to her [Cynthia Nixon], ‘The only reactions that were true were yours.’”
Interviewed on a Sunday morning in an upmarket hotel in Berlin, Cynthia Nixon takes Davies’ waspish remarks about Sex and the City in good grace. She gives a superb performance in A Quiet Passion, capturing the reclusive poet’s peculiar mix of humour, ironic detachment, vulnerability and febrile intensity. She reads the verse beautifully, too.
Unlike Davies, Nixon sees at least a slight overlap between the New York portrayed in Sex and the City and the close-knit Massachusetts community in which Dickinson spent her entire life. She hopes at least some of the show’s fans will enjoy A Quiet Passion.
“Sex and the City fans really span a whole gamut of people. Of course, Emily’s world is very different than the world of Sex and the City and I don’t think she would recognise those women. I don’t think she would know what to make of them.
"I think she would be very confused by them but I think in some way, they’re thinking of many the same issues. They’re thinking about what there is about womanhood that is essential to them, and what there is about womanhood that is a trap, and that they want to divest themselves of.”
In Nixon’s eyes, Dickinson was an early feminist, questioning received ideas about marriage, career and parenthood. “Emily was concerned foremost with God and mortality but also with love and also with gender. I think she was very focused on her gender. I think she made very brave choices for a woman of that time.”
The actress has been reading Dickinson’s verse since she was a child. “I’ve always loved her as a poet ,” Nixon says of Dickinson, “and when you grow up in America, she is such a part of your life. Her poems span a really wide range. There are some that are very, very simple and some that are enormously dense and complex. You hear her voice so clearly and they are so personal, the poems. I see myself in Emily a lot, I always have.”
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This last remark can’t help but seem surprising. Nixon is the precocious former child actress who went on to play Miranda Hobbes. She lives in New York and is very open about everything: from her sexuality to the illness she has endured. Dickinson, by contrast, never married, never left home, had few of her poems published in her lifetime and only achieved fame posthumously.
“As a child, a teenager and a young person, I was very internalised,” Nixon says, explaining just why she felt such an affinity for the hermit-like poet from such an early age.
“I was... shy. She is the patron saint of shy persons! I was a person who didn’t feel extroverted, I didn’t feel able to present myself but I tried to give the world the impression that there was something really fascinating over here if you would just take the time to look. When I was a kid, I really identified with that painful shyness.”
Ask her to explain why she was so shy and she suggests it may have had something to do with being an only child. “I was raised by a single mother most of the time. My mother focused on me very much, so when I was out in the world, without my mother there for protection and support, it was sometimes very hard for me. So I would just sort of clam up.”
Her mother, a TV executive and writer who had been an actress herself, guided her toward acting, says Nixon: “I had a good stage mom.” She made her professional debut when she was only 12. Shortly afterwards, she appeared alongside Tatum O’Neal and Matt Dillon in Little Darlings (1980).
“I think I come from a family of worker bees. We work, we work, we work,” she says of her drive to become successful as an actress. For the first 10 years of her professional career, from when she was 12 to 22, she combined her acting with her studies: “I went to very demanding schools. I think that was really helpful to me. I was very focused on the idea of balancing these two things – that I would try and do the best I could by my career without letting my schooling slip.”
The great movie and stage director Mike Nichols saw her on stage when she was 15, then cast her in The Real Thing when she was 17 and, shortly afterwards, in Hurlyburly. “I did them both on Broadway at the same time, which was an amazing thing.”
She remembers Nichols, who died in 2014, as someone with an immense lust for life. “It was extraordinary that he made it, that he got out of Europe as a child; that he survived as a Jew. He was a person of tremendous brain and ambition but his enjoyment of life was immense.”
Nichols’ main quality as a director, she suggests, was that he fascinated and bewitched actors – and they then were desperate to do whatever he wanted.
As she had grown older, the once-shy Nixon says she has grown “sturdier” and become better at presenting herself.
She doesn’t agree that actors tend to be naturally gregarious. “There are some actors who are very extroverted, like Catherine Zeta-Jones, like a natural performer. But then there are people like Philip Seymour Hoffman who are very internalised.
"The thing that is amazing about their acting is not how they’re an exhibitionist but that they’re deeply private. When they show you a little bit of what is there, it is very fascinating because you understand it is very precious and that they are reluctant to part with it – that knowledge about themselves.”
I put it to Nixon that one of the advantages that Emily Dickinson’s anonymity gave her was freedom from the media intrusion that all the Sex and the City stars face. Nixon is phlegmatic in the face of such prying. “You know, it’s not too bad, I have to say,” she reflects. “Sometimes, I don’t like it but mostly it is not bad.”
Nixon isn’t too perturbed by the media fascination with her private life, including her marriage to Christine Marinoni and her well-chronicled battle with breast cancer, with which she was diagnosed in 2006.
“There are things in my life that I don’t necessarily think should be secret,” Nixon states. “I want to reveal them in their proper time. I don’t want the world to know I’ve got cancer when I have just been diagnosed and am undergoing treatment. That doesn’t seem appropriate or helpful. But once I’ve had it, I don’t think it is bad to keep it a secret but I don’t need to keep it a secret.
"Or when I am starting to date a woman for the first time, I don’t want a photographer there at the first date but I feel that once we are a solid couple and we are living together and stuff, I don’t know how one would try and hide that.
“There are some people who are stringently secretive about what their romantic status is – whether they have a permanent partner or are married. That is fine. It is admirable – and I think very hard to pull off. For most of us in our lives, whether we are public people or not, generally the person we go to bed with that night, that person is not a secret. You wouldn’t try to hide your husband or your wife or your girlfriend or your boyfriend, the person that you’re sharing your life with. That does seem public knowledge whether you’re a public person or not.”
As Nixon holds forth, you realise that she is formidably articulate and every bit as defiant and opinionated as Emily Dickinson. She is also unguarded and friendly, with no airs.
It has been a gruelling year for her. Not only did she star in A Quiet Passion. She also appeared in one play, directed three others and co-starred as a cancer patient in the film James White. “I am taking a break,” she declares, emphatically, when asked what is coming next.
‘A Quiet Passion’ will be released in the UK later in the year
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