Cynthia Nixon Zooms on to my screen from some decking in Long Island. The blue-grey sky is dramatically ominous, a sea breeze blows her hair into photogenic chaos and she is, of course, pretty damn famous – especially to those of us of the Sex and the City generation. So the overall effect is of watching a film, but one that is talking straight to you. Yet, within what feels like barely five seconds, we are discussing the end of democracy, with only the briefest detour to cover the impact wrought on her New York home by coronavirus.
“When you’re in New York City, what it reminds me of is the time right after September 11th. It was, in a way, less terrifying than it looked to people watching from the outside, just as it’s strangely less scary to have cancer than to watch someone you love have cancer.”
She packs a lot into a sentence – history, terrorism, love, cancer – and is clearly political to her bones: not at all interested in things that simply happen (pandemics and their attendant disruptions) but instead in systems, choices and worldviews. “In terms of the overall political scene across the country, it’s just terrifying. People keep writing these articles about the end of democracy, and it does feel like a real possibility when you have a president who’s trying to sink the Post Office.”
At 54, Nixon is a relatively recent discovery as a prominent advocate of the Democratic party’s furthest left: she stood against Andrew Cuomo in the 2018 election for the governor of New York, a race in which she now considers she was doomed from the start. “I was triply burdened,” she says. “I was a woman. I was a gay woman. I was a person who had been an activist for a long time, but had never held political office, and obviously the governor is a really big place to start. And I am an actress, which is a barely coded word for ‘bimbo’ or ‘ditz’. I don’t, in my personal life, ever call myself an actress – I call myself an actor. But Cuomo tried to use that word as often as he could, in a very derogatory way.”
But, as she points out, her political work pre-dated the gubernatorial challenge by many years. She has long been a fierce defender of public education, which is how she met her wife, the education activist Christine Marinoni, having separated from her previous partner, Danny Mozes, a teacher with whom she has two children, in 2003 (she has a third with Marinoni).
Her political stance was, originally, to defend public institutions from privatisation – a critique that will be very familiar on this side of the Atlantic. “We’ve been aware for decades how much politicians want to underfund the schools, partly because they don’t care, because they send their own children to private schools.” But through the intersection with her personal life, the tendrils of this progressive agenda reached into LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, trans rights – her oldest child is transgender – and Black Lives Matter (BLM). Six months ago, she made a video that went viral for Girls Girls Girls, the American feminist magazine. Be a Lady, They Said is a short, impassioned and caustic polemic, written by Camille Rainville, about the double (triple, infinite) standards applied to femininity (my favourite line: “Be a size zero. Be a double zero. Be nothing. You look emaciated!”).
She speaks powerfully about the BLM movement and the hope that it has brought in such dark times. “How many Americans of every ethnicity and race and age have come out in support of the BLM marches? The last estimate I heard was 20 million people, in every part of the country. Hope is hard. Every person who’s killed [by police] is really heart-wrenching for me, so I can’t imagine, if you’re a black person or you’re the mother of a black son, what it’s like. So it’s weird to say ‘hopeful’. But America has never reckoned with its slave past, with its Jim Crow past, with its white supremacist past. And now it is. The dichotomy is MAGA [Make America Great Again] versus BLM.” You could never mistake Nixon for a celebrity adding her voice to various movements out of disinterested goodwill: activism is her driving force; her fame when she talks about it – if she talks of it at all – seems more like an accident.
Perhaps that sounds counterintuitive, given how long she has spent in showbiz. Born in Manhattan to a journalist father and actor mother in 1966, she had her first role at the age of 12 in ABC’s children’s special The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid in 1978, and appeared on Broadway in a revival of The Philadelphia Story at 14. When she took the role of Miranda Hobbes in Sex and the City in 1998, it was on the back of an already very well-established career on stage.
Viewers were obsessed with SATC, to the extent that the tiniest details of the casts’ assorted lives were considered newsworthy (did they bicker off set? Did they hang out together? How like their characters were they really?) And much was made of the fact that Nixon was nothing like Miranda – she had a very happy family life, a man, kids, the works, while her character was a commitment-phobe, and she had had quite a seamless journey to success, while her character’s career arc was frantic and thwarted.
Looking back on that performance, though, there was something about it that was true to the actor’s own sensibility. She was the one who made it watchable for people who didn’t care about shoes or think that marriage was a goal in itself; she was the element of female friendship that didn’t correspond, or have much to say to, the heightened, camp versions of femininity that the show otherwise embodied.
Even though Nixon has a pretty staunch critique of her industry as a whole – “We have a long history in the entertainment business of putting marginalised people in front of a camera, but the people who are writing their lines have no idea about their experiences” – she talks warmly of her time as part of it. As well as many other things, acting is, for her, the place where the personal can have political impact, where the warmth that is generated by the creative process burns through to the audience. “That camaraderie that you have, not only with other actors but with the crew, it’s hard to describe,” she says, “but it creates a feeling that is transmitted on to the screen.” And, in turn, that changes the way people see one another.
This is a point she makes specifically about homophobia and its gradual extinction: “I was involved in the fight for marriage equality,” she explains. “And it was really interesting how finally, in the end game, the anti-LGBT forces had painted themselves into a corner. Their message was: ‘We are under attack, this is an anti-straight person movement. If this happens, your kindergarteners are going to have to watch pornographic films of same-sex couples going at it, your church is going to have to have disgusting weddings in their sanctuaries.’ And – I watched it happen – the vilification of gay people stopped working. In a way in which the vilification of black people never stopped working, and the presentation of abortion as murder never stopped working. Even if you live in such a conservative neighbourhood that no one has come out to you, television is full of us. Maybe you love Elton John, maybe you love Ellen DeGeneres. There are so many of us, and we are so popular, that it’s hard for people to believe that we are evil and twisted.”
She notes, however, that all that hostility didn’t just disappear: it has now been focused on trans people, and the fight has taken on the same contours. “There are many things that the right uses against trans people, and a lot of them have to do with a threat. ‘There’s going to be a man in your women’s bathroom.’ It’s the most preposterous thing in the world. ‘They’re going to rape you and they’re going to molest you and they’re going to make you use pronouns.’” If it is ever implied that she feels especially strongly about trans issues because her son is transgender, I feel moved to point out that she feels this strongly about everything.
Nixon was a very vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 democratic leadership race, and still maintains that he had a better chance against Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton ever did. “We had this weird swing voter who voted Obama but also voted for Trump. But maybe it wasn’t weird. These people are desperate for change, they didn’t want Hillary Clinton. They didn’t want continuity.”
She is no great fan of Clinton, nor the factions of the party that got her the leadership: “They did everything they could to make sure Sanders was not the candidate, they just jumped on him and killed him.” But she deplores the misogyny directed at Clinton as much as she would have had she shared her politics. “So much of the hatred of her was wrapped up in her femaleness. Insert adjective here – ‘coldness’, ‘aloofness’, ‘smugness’.”
You could similarly imagine Nixon being less than 100% behind Joe Biden – whichever way you cut it, he is not a left-wing firebrand – but, in the moment, she sounds as though she is very much sticking to the progressive hymn sheet on this: “He’s our candidate,” she says, trenchantly.
Looking back at the words themselves, though, she has a much more complicated stance, and I was struck by a skill that is more politician’s than actor’s: the ability to leave an impression of having said a thing that isn’t quite what you said. “There is a real war going on in the Democratic party,” she says. “And those of us who are, you know, supporters of Bernie and AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] are very sure that we are the future of the party. But there are so many retrograde forces trying to hold back the tidal wave.”
However, for anyone in the US who is not on the right, there are bigger problems than fighting one another: the prospect of Trump winning a second term, or even if he doesn’t, the peaceful transfer of power. “I do feel frightened about his malevolent high jinks,” she says. “I feel concerned about interference from other countries; I think everyone feels concerned about postal votes. Will he leave quietly? I don’t know.”
She also shares an anxiety that even quite optimistic Democrats are voicing; that Trump’s absurd positioning as the law-and-order candidate might actually work. “Trump’s only path to re-election is to position himself as defender of white people and white lives and white supremacy. To say; that’s one alternative, and the only other alternative is chaos, and looting and an end to the suburbs. The fact of the matter is, big cities almost always vote Democrat, particularly in national elections, because we’re very diverse and we have so many more poor people. But Trump is spinning this narrative that all our major cities are failing, because they’re run by Democrats.
“The Republicans have run out of solutions to big cities. They just say: ‘You’re Sodom and Gomorrah, may you all go up in flames.’” That doesn’t, however, amount to her repudiating protests – a lot of the violence is driven by rightwing provocateurs, she says – and still less has she given in to despair. “I do feel relatively optimistic. I do feel very encouraged by the polls.” It’s sometimes hard, as it is for so many of us, to distinguish between optimism and self-soothing.
Aside from politics, Nixon has a forthcoming role in Ratched, a Netflix drama series that conjures the backstory of the terrifying nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nixon plays Nurse Ratched’s nervy lover, in what might be her most on-brand casting ever: a feminist retelling of “this great movie, which has aged unbelievably well, but is also unbelievably misogynist – boys being boys and this humourless, castrating mother figure, abusing them. Nurse Ratched is always on the list of top 10 movie villainesses, so this series asks the question, is she a monster? And if she’s a monster, what happened to her? How did she become that monster?”
Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky’s show is set in the late 40s and early 50s, and it is, says Nixon, their “way of commenting on this period in American history that’s supposed to be our apex, our moment of tremendous prosperity and optimism and opportunity. When Trump says ‘make America great again’, this is the moment he wants to return to.
“But for so many Americans, it was deeply malevolent and sadistic. There was a complete betrayal of African Americans coming back from the war, the dressing down of women who had their power retaken from them, the lavender purge of gay and lesbian workers … And that’s before you consider mental illness, and who gets to define what is and isn’t mentally ill. As queer people, we’re very aware of the essence of us being defined as an illness for so long.”
This is, paradoxically, where the source of her optimism shines through, more than any talk about which way the polls are going – where her actorly and activist personalities meet, in creative curiosity.
• Ratched starts on Netflix on 18 September