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Cynthia Nixon On Acting And ‘James White’

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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” (opened Dec. 4 at Arclight La Jolla).

Show transcript

Beth: Welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I'm Beth Accomando.

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, Lily Tomlin, Maggie Smith, Charlotte Rampling and Helen Mirren all causing Oscar buzz with their performances. It's refreshing and what's also refreshing is that the range of roles and actresses is more diverse than we have sometimes seen. Young actresses in their 20s like Brie Larson in Room and Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenager are also winning critical acclaim. It's also nice to see that these are multi-dimensional female characters, not just role models. These are women who are flawed, intelligent, funny, vulnerable, tough and tender and there are women directors behind some of the film-stirring buzz too, like Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Crystal Moselle's The Wolfpack, Sarah Gavron's Suffragette and Mays Forbes' Infinitely Polar Bear.

One of the actresses already receiving awards 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. In James White, Nixon plays a woman dying of cancer and being cared for by her troubled son played by Christopher Abbott. The film marks the future directing debut of Josh Mond. Let's hear a scene between James White and his mother.

[Clip playing]
James White: "Why is the music so loud?"

Mum: "I don't know."

James White: "Are you okay? You're smoking?"

Mum: "Yes, I'm fine."

James White: "You called me. You left a message freaking out."

Mum: "Did I?"

James White: "Yeah."

Mum: "I'm fine."

James White: "What are you doing?"

Mum: "I'm moving to [indiscernible] [00:02:13]."

James White: "You decided to do that now?"

Mum: "Yes, now."

James White: "Well, you acted crazy."

Mum: "Don't James. Don't call me crazy. Don't do that."

James White: "I'm sorry."

Mum: "You know, you need to be here when you say you're going to be here because we have a care schedule and I am relying on you."

James White: "I am sorry. I was with Jane. I was writing, doing things."

Mum: "Right. I'm going to bed. When I wake up in the morning, either you're here or you're not."

James White: "Mum!"

Mum: "Your father was never satisfied either. He was selfish too."
[Clip end]

Beth: Here's my interview with Cynthia Nixon. To start with, tell me how you came into this project James White and how you got this role.

Cynthia: I have an amazing agent who really has a terrific nose for young film makers or they're not always young, I guess independent filmmakers that I might not know about and she sent me his script and I was quite taken with it. Initially it was a different script than the one we ended up filming. It had more surreal aspects to it. It played with what's real and what's not in larger ways than our final version done, but I really was taken with the character and with the story and particularly I was taken with Josh Mond who is the writer and director. This is his first film that he's ever directed. It has many autobiographical elements of it, the film and he's very hard on his main character. We love his main character or at least I love his main character 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 thoughts and I was really impressed that someone who obviously had some certain things at least in common with the main character would be so dry eyed and so honest to the point of maybe even making him—you look at Josh and – in common with the character, but I think that there is some truth underneath how Josh feels about himself sometimes that it reflects in the character.

Beth: Is one of the autobiographical elements that he had to deal with his mother having cancer?

Cynthia: Yes. Josh's mum did die of cancer I think four years ago or four and a half years ago. There are many things that are different in the film. For example, Josh has a larger family than this and he has a sister and in our film the character's an only child. There are many differences, but there are also many similarities in terms of James and Josh was raised by these single mothers on the Upper West Side who were both very Bohemian, artistic people who didn't really achieve the things that they wanted to in terms of the character in James White is a writer, but wanted to be a writer then support herself being an English Teacher and I think sort of her unfulfilled ambition, she has passed onto her son through osmosis and through just the love of writing and literature but also I think in some way and hopes that he will go further than she did.

[Clip playing]
Mum: "We used to go on vacations all the time. I took you to Paris."

James White: "I was ten. I want to go on vacation as an adult."

Mum: "Oh as an adult. An adult with no money and no job and no place to live."

James White: "What are you talking about? I have money."

Mum: "The insurance really isn't that much."

James White: "I'm just saying I need to get out. I need to get out of here."

Mum: "Yes you do. You need to grow up and get off of my couch."

James White: "Get off of your couch? I've been living here for four years taking care of you."

Mum: "Two years. Don't delude yourself and you haven't been taking care of me. You've been free-loading."

James White: "That is not right. When you were really sick and your stem cell transplants and your steroids and your moods, who fought for you? Who ran your errands? I'm your son and that is what I'm supposed to do and I'm happy to be here because I love you, but I need a break."

Mum: "That's all you do James, is take breaks."

James White: "Okay."

Mum: "You have been there and you have been amazing at times but you have got to get your act together and if you don't want to talk about dad, make sure you write it down."

James White: "It's not about dad. I don't give a shit about Barry."

"Yeah, you do."

James White: "You know dude, shut up. You don't know."

Mum: "Don't tell him to shut up. Yes you do and if you're not ready to talk about it yet, just make sure you write down your feelings."

James White: "Write down, it's the only advice for everything. Just write it down."

Mum: "That's right."
[Clip end]

Beth: There feels to be a high level of reality in terms of having to deal with someone who's ill, so I felt like it makes sense that that would have an autobiographical element to it?

Cynthia: Yeah, and I think also when you're dealing with someone who's dying and particularly when you're 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're doing a good job at it because you're fighting a losing battle in many ways. Not in every way but in many ways and so I think Josh's view of James and the ways in which he feels his mother and fails his mother in some way reflected the way Josh felt about it at the time and probably still feels about it in retrospect.

Beth: For you what was the most difficult aspect about bringing her to life and making this, the relationship with her son so vivid?

Cynthia: I think that I really identify with the character very much and my mother I should say died of cancer in the same year in which we made the film. She died in January of 2013 and we made the film in November of 2013, so that was very fresh for me as well, but I think that there were many things that I identified with personally and then I saw my mother in and not just the fact that she died of cancer, but I think a lot of her values and a lot of her love for me, but also that she was more than just a mother. She was a much more, she's a much bigger and more complicated person and while she was thrilled with a lot of stuff in her life, there was stuff that she didn't get to do. Not because she died of cancer but she just didn't, her life didn't work out exactly the way she had hoped.

Cynthia: I think being able to play this character, made me feel really close to her. I actually wore a lot of her jewelry that I inherited and some of her things during the filming which made me and look even more like her. I look like her very much. Anyways, she's my mother. I'm her daughter, but I think what was uncanny too, of course the people in my family and my close friends who see it, feel very much like they're watching my mother at times, but for Josh Mond and his friends, they actually feel like they're really were watching Josh's mum because I think Josh's mum's style and my mum's style had a lot in common.

Beth: I'm sorry about your mum passing away the same year. I'm wondering, was being able to play that role in some way therapeutic or was it more difficult because that memory was so fresh of her passing?

Cynthia: I don't think it was more difficult. I think it did. It was certainly painful, but your mum's death in the first year especially that it happened is painful whether you're playing her in the movie or not and in some ways it really did make me feel close to her. It made me feel like she was still here more. I was doing my best to, my own version of paying tribute to her and again not just her sickness and her death but it's so much of who she was, what she imparted to me about her values in life and how much I carry those with me and then how much my children carry those with them I think because I have passed them on to them and because she passed them on to them.

Beth: For many years, there have been complaints about not having enough roles for women and for a broad range of female characters, but this year seems especially good for having a broad range of actresses like yourself, but also for older actresses like Blythe Danner and Lilly Tomlin and Charlotte Rampling. How do see that? Do you feel that this year feels particularly strong for female roles?

Cynthia: I feel like it's been getting better and better. I feel like in the last few years it's been getting better for middle aged actresses who are more in my age bracket and I think this year in particular but also lately even for actresses, I'm going to be 50 next year, but I think even for actresses in their 60s and their 70s and even in their 80s. I have to say I think we're not the big blockbusters maybe but in the independent films at least, I think we're getting much better at telling many more people's stories in every category and I think frankly our culture is very youth driven at the moment but conversely our population is really aging and people are living much longer and people want to see that experience reflected. Also I think people are sort of evolving longer, if that's the right way to put it. I think young people are growing up more slowly. Certainly it has some negative aspects but I also think it has more positive aspects too. That it's not, you're not supposed to hit 21 or even 30 and be mature and done. There is this growing sense that people can keep changing and deepening and getting richer the older they get and that maybe that's not a new thing, but I think it's somewhat of a new thing that we're recognizing it and becoming more aware of it even for people who aren't that age.

Beth: You're well known for doing TV work for Sex and the City and I'm curious, as an actress, what's the difference between taking a character to the big screen after having played her for years and then tackling something that's completely fresh, is one easier or more difficult than the other?

Cynthia: The thing about playing a character for a long time, not just for yourself but for people watching you play that character over a number of years, is that however different that character might be from who you really are, once you played someone for years and years and years, that character becomes so like you and it was funny. It was really funny to me when I was doing Sex and the City, there're are certain things that Miranda and I have in common, but many more things that we didn't have in common when those things started out. I think I changed as the show went on and the movies and everything to become more like her and she's certainly, no question about it and the writing became more like me. I have to say I think that that, there's a way in which you can take a character that's very different from you and use all your strengths to hold up the sky for a certain amount of time, but once you're playing the character over years, and years and years, it's just inevitable that they move closer to you and you move closer to them.

Beth: Is that an easy thing to return to and come away from?

Cynthia: The character that you played for a long time?

Beth: Yeah, because it wasn't like you did the show and then immediately both films came right after.

Cynthia: No, it was great and also I think one of the wonderful things about Sex and the City that's given it such longevity is particularly Michael Patrick King, but all of our writers, how they insisted that the characters evolve and it was like, "Remember that funny thing that happened with Samantha you know, let's do that again." He was always, we were never allowed to sort of do the same thing again and we were really, our writers were really pushed to make the characters evolve and so we evolved. I also have a similar experience with the thing when I was just 20, 21, 22. I did a TV series with Robert Altman called Tanner 88 about a guy running for president and he was divorced and so his sort of first lady at his side was his daughter who was kind of a prominent part of the campaign like Amy Carter would have been even though the Carters were married obviously. Then we did that TV series for a year and then 16 years later, we returned to those characters and my character was now grown and you know 40 years or however old she was and she was making a film about her father's failed bid for the presidency because he didn't get elected. That was really fun too, which was the same character with the same, other characters surrounding her, but to really have a snap of someone who was young and supremely confident even arrogant and then to see her still sort of with the vestiges of that arrogance, but her life had really not panned out at all the way she hoped and so there was still that kind of overly with arrogance but it had absolutely no roots that she was just running scared. When you get to return to a character, even if it's literally the same, if it's literally like you played Juliet and then 20 years later, you get to play her again, it's really as an actor, it's an endlessly fascinating exercise to see where you were then and see where you are now and see how the character when filtered through your lens is affected by that.

Beth: Well, thank you for bringing up Tanner 88 because we're facing elections and that show still holds up. It still so accurate, it's surprising.

Cynthia: Altman just gets more and more timely.

Beth: James White is a smaller independent film compared to some of these big blockbusters that are coming out and I was very happy to have received award screener for it. Is the talk of awards and stuff something that gets your hopes up or is it something that is kind of not that important to you but it seems like there is some…

Cynthia: Oh! It's lovely. It's fantastic. The awards talk about it and the awards that we've won already and are being nominated for and we learnt yesterday we're being recognized by the national board of review and that's amazing. We were just at the Gotham Awards this week, where the movie was nominated in a bunch of categories. It's really lovely and it's also, I've got three kids and I'm very embroiled in New York theatre and I'm not a person who’s aware of a lot of movies out there big or small. It's just not where my head is at, so it's really exciting to get to go to these evenings where films and particularly independent films, but all films are being celebrated and you meet these people who maybe you know and some of whom you don't and it just gives you a tremendous sense of like, "Wow! That film is out there? That sounds amazing. I have to put that on my list." I think because James White and me and Chris and Josh are part of this award season which is very exciting, I don't know, I'm already making plans to see all these films which I'm sure would not have penetrated my conscience otherwise. I'm excited about that, my wife is excited about that and my older kids are excited about all the movies they're going to get to see.

Beth: Thank you very much for taking some time to speak with me.

Cynthia: Thank you. Okay. Take care.

Beth: You too. Bye-bye.

Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. Check back every week for more reviews, interviews and discussions about film. Till our next film fix, I'm Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place