Cynthia Nixon on confidence, parenting and her new film A Quiet Passion

The actress talks to Danielle Woodward about what makes her happy, as well as her new film in which she portrays reclusive poet, Emily Dickinson


Cynthia Nixon on confidence, parenting and her new film A Quiet Passion

Emily Dickinson was ahead of her time. She was a brave, clear-eyed explorer who wanted to understand the world and her psyche. She was individualistic at a time when being an individual wasn’t a ‘thing’. Her style of writing is so modern and direct, unlike the era in which she lived.

People like Dickinson loom so large you wonder if they ever had any doubts. It’s appealing to witness the time when she was following her dream, thinking she wouldn’t succeed. It’s painful to think how amazing she was, yet she felt as if no one acknowledged that. At least we have her poetry; she made her sister promise that she would burn it all – can you imagine?

Some people have an idea of the effect that they have on others but, as an only child, I don’t know how to do that. I think Dickinson and I share this feeling of, ‘I don’t know how to make you like me other than being who I am.’

When I was younger, I was more introverted. I didn’t have the confidence to fight for my point of view; I didn’t want the responsibility. What if I was wrong? I’m more confident now.

When I was growing up, my mother gave me a sense that I was a strong person and could fend for myself. I was raised feeling that I never wanted to be too dependent, and I’ve had to learn how to lean on other people and ask for help.

I’m amazed at how Sex And The City endures. I remember going to Japan and Korea and women would tell us how much pressure they’re under; how they’re raised to be deferential and not ask for things. To see women like us, with the power and freedom to assert ourselves, was showing them a different life.

SATC showed women earning their own money, enabling them to enjoy life. At the start, Miranda [Nixon’s character] was different from me – single, a workaholic and driven. As the series went on, I felt I absorbed her confidence and self-belief. Then, all these things happened to her that were more like my life: she became a mother [Nixon has three children, aged 20, 14 and six] and was in a long-term relationship, so my personal and professional lives became more balanced.

Actors have periods of unemployment and need a life to go back to. We can make the best parents – although we can work crazy hours, we can also not work for months, and be with our families. But, if you’ve had a heavy work period, and you go back to a heavy child-rearing period, it can take a while to adjust.

I don’t enjoy travelling; I like being home, walking into my pantry and seeing everything I need. I enjoy cooking for my family, and having guests. When I was growing up, we never had money to take vacations, so we’d go and stay with friends. I love being able to do that for my friends now.

Happiness is a hard thing to pursue. As an actor, one of the least successful routes to a good performance is to try and play an emotion; emotions are things that happen to you due to given circumstances. In life, I try to set up the circumstances that I think are best, then hope that happiness will follow.

I’m a city girl. I don’t crave being in nature. I have a house in a beautiful part of Long Island, surrounded by water and trees – but I can look out of the window; I don’t need to go hiking!

I believe in love at first sight; I felt a lightning bolt when I met my wife. I thought, ‘This person seems extraordinary.’ It’s about trusting yourself and knowing what you feel is real.

It’s useful for me to have a day when I can just stay in bed if I want to. Sometimes, I’m exhausted, so to reach the end of the day feeling rejuvenated, and not depleted, is so valuable.

A Quiet Passion is in UK cinemas now. 

Photograph (supplied): Maarten De Boer