Cynthia Nixon on Emily Dickinson and life after ‘Sex and the City’

Hannah Brown reports from the Berlin Film Festival.

February 16, 2016 22:29
4 minute read.
CYNTHIA NIXON (left) and Jennifer Ehle star in Terence Davies’ ‘A Quiet Passion.’

CYNTHIA NIXON (left) and Jennifer Ehle star in Terence Davies’ ‘A Quiet Passion.’. (photo credit: JOHAN VOETS)

You know Cynthia Nixon as Miranda, Carrie’s tough, redheaded lawyer friend on Sex and the City. But at the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival, she appears in Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, playing a very different role: Emily Dickinson, one of the world’s greatest poets, known for breaking both literary and social conventions.

Looking chic in a sleeveless black dress – “I’m a little cold,” the trim actress, who is actually blond, admitted – she spoke about the challenges and rewards of portraying an American icon who is both extremely well known and also a mystery.

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Dickinson, who refused to write poetry in the style and length that were the norm in the 19th century (which makes her work seem quite modern and ahead of its time today), published only a dozen of the 1,800 poems she wrote during her lifetime, and rarely left her house during the last decades of her life. She never married and died at age 55 in 1886, after suffering great pain from an illness for years.

Davies has directed several acclaimed literary adaptations, among them Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth starring Gillian Anderson. A Quiet Passion co-stars Jennifer Ehle as Dickinson’s sister Lavinia (Vinny) and Keith Carradine as Dickinson’s father.

For Nixon, playing Dickinson was not simply a challenge but also a very meaningful experience.

“I was a fan of hers, an admirer of hers, since I was a child. My mother loved her, and so not only would we read her poetry, and of course I read it in school, too, and we had a record growing up of the actress Julie Harris reading some of her poems and also some of her letters that we would listen to, that I almost memorized, I would listen to them so much. I felt a very real connection from a very early point.”

During the course of the interview, it turned out that both Nixon and I attended P.S. 75, aka the Emily Dickinson School, in Manhattan, where Dickinson’s poems were very much celebrated.

Nixon said she relished the opportunity to play a woman whose inner life was more complex and eventful than her day-to-day existence.

“It was a time when not only as a woman but as a middle-class woman I think she struggled with whether it was appropriate to publish her work, whether her work was good enough to publish, and I think that she drew a lot of strength from particularly the Brontes and also – we don’t mention her in the film– but also Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she drew a lot of inspiration from her. Not so much from Jane Austen, I think. I don’t think of her as a romanticist but she seems to have liked the romantic writers a lot. And I think that she felt she needed that encouragement of other people who had gone before to help along the way.”

“It was daunting to play a genius when you’re not a genius, and I tried to trust Terence [Davies, the director]... I thought the script was beautiful and I felt such a kinship with the poetry.”

Nixon said she had seen Julie Harris’ performance as Emily Dickinson in the play The Belle of Amherst years ago and was impressed by it, but that she was able to give a different interpretation of the role.

“[Harris is] so wonderful in Belle of Amherst, but it’s a very different Emily. That Emily was kind of an old, content lady, looking back on life and telling funny stories while she offers you banana bread. What’s amazing about this film is that I get to play Emily through so many stages of her life, and through such youthful optimism and hope and to the end of her life with real bitter disappointments... So there are a lot of different Emily Dickinsons. I didn’t feel haunted by Julie Harris’ Belle of Amherst because this is Terence’s Emily Dickinson.”

Nixon, who is nominated for an Independent Spirit Best Supporting Actress Award for the movie James White, said she was pleased by how her career has evolved since she finished working on both the Sex and the City television series and the two films based on the show.

“I turn 50 in a couple of months and I think that when you’re an actor and actress there are roles that have to do with you but they also have to do with the age bracket that you’re in and so I think when you’re 25 to 35, 40, you’re kind of in your leading lady category and once you sort of age out of that, all a sudden, the roles start to get a lot more interesting...

“I always remember this thing that Laurence Olivier was asked, which is, what advice would you give to a young actor, and he said, ‘The number one thing that a young actor should focus on is how to become an old actor.’ I couldn’t agree more. There have been some high points in my career and some low points but for me the focus was always on longevity. I feel lucky to be working at a point when there are more women’s stories starting to be told and more older women’s stories.”

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