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On a hot July day in Stamford, Conn.’s Woodland Cemetery, a picturesque graveyard dotted with family plots dating back to the 1800s, Cynthia Nixon is putting her finely honed heel-wearing skills to good use. In take after take, the actress is climbing up and down a grassy knoll in vertiginous stilettos that would be treacherous on the flattest of surfaces. And apparently she is doing so a little too skillfully.
“Work the heels,” says Michael Engler, a director and co-executive producer, instructing Nixon to exaggerate her unsteadiness to comedic effect, a feat she accomplishes with a mix of changed footing, hand movements and wobbling.
It is the second-to-last week of production for Showtime’s new series “The Big C,” premiering tonight, and the mood on set is playful. The show’s star, Laura Linney, entertains crew members by sucking the helium out of balloons and singing in falsetto while her on-screen husband, Oliver Platt, dons her floppy sun hat and has a serious chat with co-star John Benjamin Hickey.
In “The Big C,” Linney is Cathy, a Minnesota teacher who is diagnosed with terminal melanoma. Choosing to forgo treatment, she embarks on a reassessment of her less-than-exciting life. Platt is an overgrown child of a husband; Hickey, her homeless brother, and Gabourey Sidibe, a mean-girl student whom she befriends. And in her meatiest return to episodic television since “Sex and the City” ended in 2004, Nixon is a recurring guest star as Rebecca, Cathy’s crazy former college roommate, now a promiscuous, impulsive pharmaceutical saleswoman.
“She’s kind of a mess, really. I mean she’s fun — she’s loving in a certain way — but her behavior you could excuse in a 25-year-old, but for somebody who’s past the 40 mark? Not so appetizing, really,” says Nixon, hugging her legs to her on a sofa in her trailer. “She sleeps around too much, her clothes are a little young for her, she’s rootless and she has a job with a fair amount of disposable income.”
Dressed in a flowy, zebra-print blouse (a 40th birthday gift from Patricia Field) and “hand-me-down” white jeans, her blonde hair in curlers and Rebecca’s bubblegum pink polish on her nails, Nixon is almost disconcertingly vanity free, despite being one of the most recognizable actresses to any of the millions of followers of “SATC” (more on that later). It is a quality that clearly allows her to focus on the real task at hand: acting.
“Even though [Rebecca] is a woman who seems like her screws are loose, she gives you the sense that deep down, she’s just on a different path,” says Jenny Bicks, showrunner and an executive producer, who also worked with Nixon on “SATC.” “And I think Cynthia is very good at playing these characters who have chosen different ways to go. She gives them a truth and a confidence and a brittleness that really works. And something Cynthia plays so well, too, is the smart girl. Like the girl who’s brainy but still sexy and she won’t eat you alive, she’ll just challenge you in this very sassy way.”
“She is very far from who I am,” muses Nixon of Rebecca, who is also, it should be noted, very far from Miranda of “SATC.” It was a point of interest for her, as she readily admits that six seasons of playing that red-headed lawyer on HBO (and in two blockbusters) has had its impact on her career.
“I certainly have more money than I used to,” she says, frankly. “You kind of have to think more strategically. I got offered a million plays this year, any one of them I’d love to do, but they weren’t quite right for ‘my next play,’” she says, cringing. “That sounds horrible. On the one hand, you do have many opportunities, but on the other hand, you’re far more constricted and constrained.…So I have long periods of unemployment, which I also enjoy very much. I have a family. I have a partner [Christine Marinoni]. I have a home. I love the downtime.”
It’s probably not a scenario Nixon, 44, imagined when she was a young actress in New York who “never stopped working.…I used to do two or even three jobs at once,” she says. Born and raised in Manhattan to a radio journalist father and actress mother, she got an early start to her career, starring in the film “Little Darlings” when she was 12 years old. She had her first stage role at 14 in a Lincoln Center production of “The Philadelphia Story” with Blythe Danner and Edward Herrmann.
“My parents kept reminding me that most child actors do not become adult actors and if they become adult actors, they don’t become employed adult actors,” recalls Nixon. “[Acting] was sort of like a temporary gift.”
In her senior year at Barnard, while doing “Romeo and Juliet” at the Public Theater, a TV series with Robert Altman and juggling offers for two other plays that she realized she could, in fact, be an employed adult actor.
“I thought, Well, I seem to be working, I seem to have job offers, I must now actually be an actor,” says Nixon.
In addition to “SATC,” Nixon has made a name for herself on the stage, in “The Women,” “Rabbit Hole” and, more recently, “Distracted.” But today, it is not her theater work that draws stares on the streets.
“I was a little bit famous for 20 years…which was crazy but it was very manageable,” says Nixon. “It’s still relatively manageable in New York. It’s now just sort of white noise.”
That manageability of her celebrity is clearly a product of the actress’ calm, thoughtful approach to life more than of actual circumstances. At a recent photo shoot in Central Park, a large crowd gathered to watch her pose on a stone bench for a portrait. A mixture of curious pedicab drivers (some of whom didn’t actually recognize her, but just knew she was famous), day camp kids, Japanese tourists and “SATC” acolytes, waited, camera phones at the ready, for a chance shot with her.
“We love you!” cried two girls as they walked by, while a few feet from them one teenager looked like she was going to have a seizure from excitement.
“Thank you,” said Nixon graciously before turning to her publicist with an eye toward the gathering masses and saying matter-of-factly, “When this is over, I’m going to need your help getting out of here.”