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Indie Film ‘James White’ Showcases Strong Acting

Actress Cynthia Nixon talks about challenges of her role

Christopher Abbott stars as a son who must take care of his dying mother play...

Credit: The Film Arcade

Above: Christopher Abbott stars as a son who must take care of his dying mother played by Cynthia Nixon in "James White."

Episode 50: Cynthia Nixon on Acting and 'James White'

'Sex and the City' star Cynthia Nixon talks about acting and the new indie film 'James White' that's getting her some awards buzz.

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KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the independent film "James White."

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Companion viewing

"Tanner '88" (1988)

"Grandma" (2015)

"Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" (2015)

This year is turning out to be a good one for older actresses. Cynthia Nixon talks about her role in the new independent film “James White” (opening Dec. 4 at Arclight La Jolla).

This is an exciting year for actresses. After years of complaints that there were no good roles for older actresses, this year serves up some truly stunning work by actresses in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s.

Of course this didn’t happen overnight but this year we have actresses like Blythe Danner (“I’ll See You In My Dreams”), Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”), Maggie Smith (“Lady In The Van”), Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”), and Helen Mirren (“Woman In Gold”) all generating Oscar buzz with their performances. It’s refreshing. What’s also refreshing is that the range of roles and actresses is more diverse than we have sometimes seen. So young actresses in their 20s like Brie Larson in “Room” and Bel Powley in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” are also stirring talk of awards nominations.

One of the actresses already receiving attention for best supporting actress is Cynthia Nixon for her work in “James White.” Nixon may be best remembered for playing Miranda in “Sex and the City” on TV and in a pair of feature films. She also worked with Robert Altman on “Tanner ’88” and its sequel “Tanner on Tanner.”

Photo caption: Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon play a son and his dying mother in "Jame...

Photo credit: The Film Arcade

Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon play a son and his dying mother in "James White."

In “James White,” Nixon plays Gail, a woman dying of cancer and being cared for by her troubled son played by Christopher Abbott. The film marks the feature directing debut of Josh Mond.

“It has many autobiographical elements to it and he’s very hard on his main character,” Nixon told me by phone from New York. “We love his main character, at least I love him, and I think audiences really root for his main character whether they like him or not. But I think it’s a really merciless look at a person and his faults. I was really impressed that someone who obviously had some things in common with the main character would be so dry-eyed and so honest.”

One of those autobiographical elements involves Mond having had to care for his own mother who died of cancer.

“There are many differences but also many similarities such as James and Josh were both raised by these single mothers on the Upper West Side who were both very Bohemian, artistic people who didn’t really achieve things that they wanted to do,” Nixon explained. “The character in ‘James White’ is a writer, wanted to be a writer, but supported herself by being an English teacher, and I think her unfulfilled ambition she has passed onto her son through osmosis and through just the love of writing and literature and in some way in the hope that he will go farther than she did.”

That is probably why the scenes between James and his mother ring so true. Their relationship is the centerpiece of the film and its greatest strength. Mond, who also wrote the film, gives us a pair of flawed characters who obviously love and care for each other but in ways that are not always perfect.

Trailer: 'James White'

Adding to the honesty of Mond’s writing is Nixon’s performance, which had its own autobiographical aspects. Just before Nixon started working on the film, her own mother died.

“Being able to play this character made me feel really close to her,” Nixon recalled. “I actually wore a lot of her jewelry that I inherited and her things during the filming which made me look even more like her. But what I think was uncanny to the people in my family was they feel very much like they are watching my mother at times but for Josh Mond’s friends they actually feel like they’re watching Josh’s mom because I think Josh’s mom’s style and my mom’s style had a lot in common.”

That experience gave her insights into both Gail and James.

“When you are dealing with someone who is dying and particularly when you are the main person dealing with it, you’re the point person, I think it’s hard to ever feel like you’re doing enough or that you are doing a good job because you are fighting a losing battle in many ways, not in every way but many ways and so I think Josh’s view of James and the ways in which he feels he may have failed his mother is reflected by Josh,” Nixon said.

Both Nixon and Mond invest “James White” (rated R for drug use, some sexuality/nudity and language) with a raw honesty that makes "James White" a compelling drama about the demands and rewards of family.

Listen to the full interview with Cynthia Nixon on the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast.

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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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