Cynthia Nixon is currently running for governor of New York, but way back in 2002 she graced the cover of our Summer 2002 issue. In it, she talks about motherhood, her love for New York, and how Sex and the City fought the virgin/whore dichotomy.
We're bringing this piece online as part of the lead-up to our 25th anniversary this July.
In real life, Cynthia Nixon isn’t very much like her Sex and the City character, Miranda Hobbes—the career-driven, independent-to-a-fault, smart, sarcastic girl most of us are afraid to admit we relate to the most.
For one thing, although she is technically single, she hasn’t been without a boyfriend—the same boyfriend—since she was 21. (The two live together with their seven-year-old daughter, Samantha.) For another, she’s much less conservative and buttoned-up than Miranda, and is actually a lot more like the earthy flower child “Sunshine” Walker, the character she played at age 14 in the movie Little Darlings (in which she appeared with Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol).
The 36-year-old Nixon was born and raised in New York City, and still lives there today. She’s an accomplished thespian: besides starring in Sex and the City, she’s appeared in a number of films (Amadeus, Baby’s Day Out, The Pelican Brief), and recently performed in a Broadway production of The Women. And she’s no slouch in the citizenry department, either: she’s taken an active role in the fight to increase funding for the New York City Public School system, of which she is a graduate, and where her daughter is currently a student.
Nevertheless, getting to have lunch with Cynthia at a restaurant near her home allowed me to indulge, if only temporarily, in the fantasy that I was actually one of her TV gal pals. After all, she may not really be a sexually adventurous uptight lawyer, but, like Miranda, she’s a mom, she’s hip, she’s intelligent, and she’s deeply in love with the place she calls home: New York City.
Between Little Darlings, Sex and the City, and The Women, you’ve been in a lot of projects with other women. Is this a priority for you?
Well, I like working with other women. I mean, maybe this isn’t such a nice thing to say, but I think you're more likely to get along with your average woman than man. With men, it’s a little more of a crapshoot. [laughs] There are great ones and there are horrible ones, which doesn’t mean there aren’t horrible women. But, you know what I mean?
So you’re a real woman’s woman.
Yeah, I think so. And people typecast me. It’s partly my own inclination, and partly it’s the vibe that I give off. I didn’t spend a lot of time being, like, the girl in the guy movie.
But there are plenty of women out there who don’t like other women.
I think less and less, though. Don’t you? I mean, I think women used to be somewhat more isolated from each other than they are now.
Well, that’s something that comes up all the time about the importance of Sex and the City; how it shows women’s friendships to be so important.
You know, Kristin Davis always talks about that, because Kristin Davis was on Melrose Place. I never saw Melrose Place, but it was a soap opera and they were all about fighting over men and fighting over beauty and, you know, I just don’t think that’s a lot of women’s experience. Maybe for models and ballerinas, but I don’t think for the rest of us. And I apologize to the models and ballerinas.
So do you feel that Sex and the City is having an important influence on the culture at large?
[laughs] Well, we’re a comedy, you know? We’re a little light comedy that every now and then gets a little sad. I wouldn’t say that we’re important except in the way that people have embraced us. I think that people see themselves in us.
I actually think the show is important for more than that. I think shows like Sex and the City can help to change the way we think about women and sex.
I hope so, yeah. I hope we can get away from the virgin/whore split a little bit. And I do think that that’s one nice thing that our show does, ‘cause like, women have a lot of sex. Women nowadays stay single longer and they have a number of sexual partners, just like men. And we don’t show that to be particularly unusual or shocking or bad. But it can have its down sides, too.
What would you say is the downside?
I think the downside can be loneliness. It can [lead to] disposable attitudes towards relationships. Not giving the relationship the extra benefit of the doubt, or putting the work in because [women think], “I can just drop this guy, there’s another guy right over there.”
Well, you’ve been with the same guy since you were 21. Do you identify at all with the dating hell that the characters go through on the show?
I think dating is really hard. I haven’t done very much of it in my life, but the tiny little bit that I did was very awkward.
In what ways are you like Miranda, and in what ways are you different?
Well, I haven’t been out there. I’ve been home. [laughs] I guess I’m like Miranda in that my friends are really important to me, they really are kind of like my life support and who I go to for guidance. I’m an only child. My father is dead. He moved to Mexico when I was in college, so, basically in terms of family, I have my mother. I don’t have any aunts or uncles. I have a couple of half-brothers and their families and that’s wonderful, but I’ve only gotten to know them in the last five years or so; they live in other states. I have what I think is kind of an unusual situation in that I live where I grew up, so I have all of my friends nearby who are like my family, and we go back very, very far. Even my boyfriend. We’ve been together since we were 21, and we’ve known each other since we were 12.
In our culture there’s always been this issue with women either being sexual or being mothers. Now that your character is a mom, on a show that always deals with sexual issues, how is that going to be dealt with?
Well, I think that dichotomy is a really rich, funny, confusing dichotomy. I think it will make for a lot of comic moments because the baby’s father is gonna be a very active part of it. And I think there are going to be fairly large segments when Miranda doesn’t have the baby, when he’s with the dad. And that’s interesting, too. I remember when I was pregnant with my daughter for all those months, everywhere I would go, everyone would know I was pregnant. I mean, it was obvious. And people would comment on it and make conversation about it. And then when your baby is born and you’re with your baby all the time, people also know you’re a mother because there’s the baby. But I remember the first time I went out without my daughter. It was so weird, because there had been a certain modicum of courtesy that I had been shown as a pregnant woman, and as a mother of a baby, that I wasn’t shown anymore. And I kept wanting to say to people, like, on the subway: “Don’t you know that I’m a mother? Why aren’t you offering me that seat?” It was really so strange to me.
So did you always know that you wanted to be a mom?
I always wanted to be a mom. [laughs] It’s the only thing I really ever knew. And I always wanted to have a little girl. I’m sure I would have liked to have a little boy, but I was always scared about having a little boy.
Let’s talk about your mom. I read somewhere that she gave up her acting career when she got married and had children. Is that really how things went?
No, not really. My parents were married for a long time before they had me. They were married for nine years. I don’t think they were planning to have children. My mother was an actress, but I think she was really tired of pounding the pavement, and I think my dad wasn’t crazy about it, either. I think she made the decision based on her own frustration, and also I think she felt like she had to finally choose between her marriage and her life as an actress. And then I think once she had made that decision to stop acting she said it was like suddenly a light bulb went on over her head and she decided she wanted to have a kid.
I like working with other women. I mean, maybe this isn’t such a nice thing to say, but I think you're more likely to get along with your average woman than man. With men, it’s a little more of a crapshoot.
So when you were growing up was she a stay-at-home mom?
Nooooooo! My mother was the support of our family, completely. Actually, the way in which she literally decided to give up the acting [is interesting]. She always had office jobs, and she would do auditions on her lunch hour. One day she was up for an office job and she thought she would go in and ask for the most money she could possibly think of, as a test, like a cosmic test, and if they would give it to her, then she would take it and she would stop acting. And, my mother being a rather modest person, it probably wasn’t that much. But they said yes, and she couldn’t believe it. So, my mother went back to work when I was a month old. She always worked.
So who took care of you?
A woman named Etta, who was our housekeeper. She was there with me in the morning when my mom left and in the evening until she came home.
And was that cool?
It was cool. My mother always says that she was kind of like the dad. She’d get to be the fun parent and Etta had to do all the mommy scolding and the raising and the teaching.
That’s interesting. How do you work out your time with your daughter and all your work?
Well, I feel like being an actor is actually a really good thing to be if you’re a parent, because it’s so fluid, you know.
How do you mean?
Well, I mean, it’s not like you’re gonna be at work from 9-5, or nowadays, 10-7, or whatever hours people work. You have these periods where you’re unemployed. I mean, even if you’re Julia Roberts you go through those periods, partly because that’s the nature of the business, and partly because you need them because making a movie is exhausting and you need to take a break. And I think, for example, on Sex and the City, we shoot really long awful hours, but I don’t work every day. I work two, three days a week.
And do you have some time off between seasons?
Yeah, I have six months off. Also, frankly, having my mom available to me is really [helpful].
Does she live nearby?
She does, and she babysits twice a week, so that’s a break.
So do you also have another nanny take care of your daughter when your mom’s not available?
I have a babysitter, but she doesn’t work for us that much.
Did you work during your pregnancy or did you take time off?
I did. I worked completely. I was amazed by it.
What were you doing at that point?
Oh, let me tell ya.
I always had this fantasy that when I got pregnant, I would shave my head, ‘cause I wanted to be like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, but I mean, really shave it completely. Because I’d always wanted to shave my head and I never really could because I was always an actor, I thought, “When I’m pregnant, they can’t cast me anyway, what do they care?” But nothing could have been farther from the truth. When I was pregnant I was doing an independent film. In fact, I kind of realized I was pregnant by looking at dailies. I was watching the dailies and I thought, my breasts are very full. What’s that? And then I took off for L.A. as soon as that was over, when I was about a month-and-a-half pregnant, determined to get a pilot, before anybody knew, to get a chunk of change. But I thought, “I can’t really do this to these people.”
Wait, how does that work?
Well, I would be paid to do the pilot, but by the time it got picked up, I would already be five months along and they would be out of luck.
I think part of my strength as a person growing up was that my mother never placed any particular value on femininity or sexual attractiveness or being enticing. There’s so much cultural pressure to be like that.
Because they wouldn’t be able to use you for the series...
Right. So, I had to sort of come clean, but then there was actually a smaller part in the pilot that wasn’t the lead, who was already a mom. And I pointed it out to them. I said, ordinarily I wouldn’t want to do that part, but I could do it for you now and it wouldn’t matter if she was pregnant. So they let me do it. Then I got an offer to do A Doll’s House at the McCarter [theater in Princeton, NJ] for Emily Mann [the theatre director] and I couldn’t believe it; that was so exciting. I didn’t tell them. The very first day of rehearsal the costume people came in to measure us—by that point I was four months pregnant—and I said something. I had talked it over with my mother and she was like, you’ve got to let the wardrobe people know because they’ve got to be able to plan and hide it. Poor Emily Mann, you know, the color kind of drained from her face because [my character] Nora can’t be pregnant. But she’s a feminist and she was like, whatever, we’ll figure it out. So, I did A Doll’s House.
Was it difficult to be doing that stuff? I know being pregnant can take a lot out of you.
It was difficult. Luckily it was a very easy pregnancy, but it was [difficult]. Particularly the tarantella—[Nora] has to dance the tarantella. That was really hard. Also when you’re pregnant you overheat. It was bad.
You’re a trooper.
And then my theater company, that I had helped found two years before, we were doing our first production. We were gonna do this romantic little play called A Village Wooing, and I called them up as soon as I knew I was pregnant and said, “We can’t do that, because I’m pregnant and I’ll be big as a house and I can’t do the ingenue.” But we’d also been considering this Tennessee Williams play called The Kingdom of Earth in which my part was this Southern, over-the-hill, overweight showgirl. So they put me in a fat suit to try and make me not look pregnant, but just overweight. When that closed I was six months pregnant. You would think I would be done, but, in fact, when I was eight months pregnant I got a call from a TV show that had a plot line involving a woman who gives birth in an elevator. So I went and did that.
After you had the kid did you take some time off or did you rush straight from the maternity ward to the stage?
Well, the hilarious thing is, I had to loop that TV show—you know looping, voicing. And one thing I had to loop was my labor and by then I was eight days overdue and it sent me into labor. I mean, it was sort of like the bookends: I knew I was pregnant when I was watching the dailies, and the looping took me into labor. In a way, it was like a totally filmed pregnancy.
Well, speaking of working through your pregnancy, what kind of advice do you have for Sarah Jessica?
I’ve been telling her things. She’s nauseous, I was never particularly nauseous. Also, everybody on the street tells me their remedies for nausea and I pass them on to her. Sarah’s one of eight, so Sarah doesn’t know about being a mother yet, but she knows more about kids than I do.
Does she talk to you about it a lot? Being that you’re the only mother in the cast.
Yeah, we’ve been talking about it for years, believe me. It’s a major topic of conversation, ‘cause the age thing is so scary.
Are there things that you are trying to do as a mother exactly the way your mom did with you? And are there things that you want to try and not do the way your mom did them?
I think most of us try—unless we’ve had a really horrible experience—to replicate our own childhoods. It’s just so instinctual. There are so many things that I’m trying to do just exactly like my mother. There’s one thing I do differently—although I suppose it’s actually not something I’m trying to do, it just is—but my mother was at work all day, and then when she came home, she kind of did everything. And I’m very lucky that my daughter’s father takes care of her just as much as I do. That’s pretty different. Although I’ve got to give my dad credit. When my parents separated he had me at least a couple days every week. He tried really hard. I think it just comes more naturally to my boyfriend, and I think it’s just a different time. Expectations are higher on men.
Well, what do you think was your mother’s main influence on you?
I mean it’s complete, it’s hard—everything, you know.
Well, then, what about your father’s influence?
I find that my mother is a very easy person to be with and my father was not an easy person to be with, but I feel I inherited a lot from him just genetically. I also feel like my father had a lot of ideas about the world. And I think the older I get the more I find myself drawn to those ideas.
Now, obviously, at some point your daughter is gonna want to see the show that you’re in…
Oh, she’s seen it!
She used to watch it when she was a baby. And then it started to upset her and then I stopped showing it to her, but she goes to looping with me sometimes.
She got freaked out by watching the show?
She got freaked out when she would see me kissing men. That really bothered her. It confused the hell out of her, even though she understood it was not real. In a very primal way she was like, “I don’t understand. It makes me think you’re not gonna want to be with daddy anymore.” It was a real ownership kind of thing. And I mean she’s such a little girl; she has these very set gender roles. She’s always much happier if I’m in a dress. And I see her madly flirt with people.
I’m still basically where I always have been, with the same people. Only my circle’s gotten a bit bigger and people on the street know me.
So is there a certain way that you plan to talk to your daughter about sex?
Yes. I think a lot of things about that. One is, I don’t really have any desire to censor stuff from my daughter. Like, awhile back her great-grandmother died and she came to the funeral, and a lot of people, like my boyfriend’s family, called us and explained how they thought that was such a mistake, that we shouldn’t bring her. I just feel like, you know, if she wants to come, if she wants to see it, let her see it, and if it’s too much for her, she’ll tell me. She really will. My daughter is very different than [I was.] Of course I don’t really know what I was like at five, but she’s very sexual; she’s very flirtatious. But I have to say that I think part of my strength as a person growing up was that my mother never placed any particular value on femininity or sexual attractiveness or being enticing. There’s so much cultural pressure to be like that.
I knew a girl once whose mother gave her a diaphragm for her birthday when she turned 15. Would you ever do anything like that?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, my mother didn’t take me to get birth control but she would’ve if I’d asked her. My friend’s mom took us to get birth control and my mom knew it was happening.
How old were you then?
I was 16, almost 17.
So I’m sure your mom, then, doesn’t blanche at anything, like the show.
Nothing. People who don’t know her very well are always trying to probe that question with her and she just yawns in their faces.
You’ve been with your boyfriend for over 15 years, yet you’ve chosen not to be married. You certainly can’t still be harboring any doubts at this point?
No. We never had any doubts. The first few months that we were together, we knew we were gonna be together. It’s never been an issue.
So why have you chosen not to marry?
Well, it didn’t seem to matter to either one of us. But we’re not those people who say, “Oh, we just didn’t get married because it didn’t matter.” It matters very much. I think it’s a really powerful thing. Now, I’ve never been married, so I don’t know, but I think marriage helps some people, and other people I think not. It just struck me as, I would not be a person that marriage would help; I don’t feel like it would sustain me or buoy me up. I feel like marriage to me, anyway, is so much about roles and I don’t want any more roles. I don’t want to think of him as my husband. Do you know [the actor and writer] Wallace Shawn? His girlfriend, who he’s been with for a very long time, is Debra Eisenberg, and she’s a wonderful writer. The first time I ever met her—I was working with him —he said, “This is Debra Eisenberg.” He didn’t say, “This is my girlfriend, Debra” or “This is my wife.” He said, “This is Debra Eisenberg.” And I just think there’s something so lovely about that, about still being your own person. Not being defined in relation to someone else.
Do you think you’re down on marriage because your parents’ relationship didn’t work out?
No. I feel like I’m down on marriage because, around the time that Danny and I started to live together, I had two good friends who were both married and whose marriages were sort of falling apart, and they both said so much of the same stuff to me. One of them said, “We were fine until we got married and then I started thinking of him as my husband and I started thinking, ‘Why isn’t he earning more money? We have to have a kid.’” My friend knew it was crazy, what she was saying. She kept saying, “Why aren’t I thinking I have to earn more money if I want to have a kid?” Suddenly he became associated with all this baggage. And also, my mother has a boyfriend that she’s been with for almost 30 years and they don’t live together. It’s more like, you can have somebody and it doesn’t have to make people comfortable in its neatness, the configuration of your relationship.
How’s your daughter about it?
She doesn’t like it. She asks about it less than she used to, although she hasn’t brought it up in a while. And I’m sure it will come up at all different ages. But, you know, she also doesn’t like it when I wear pants. She’ll grow out of it.
What have been some of the most surprising things about being a mom?
One thing is that I wasn’t expecting my daughter; I was expecting myself and I didn’t get myself at all. I think there is some truth to [the idea of] personality skipping a generation. I think I got someone much more like my mother. And I think partly it’s reactive. I think my mother is a more powerful person and I was a more meek person, and that I, as a meek person, have allowed this powerful person to grow in response to my meekness.
So your mom was an actress, you’re an actress—do you want your daughter to be an actress?
I would like for her to be an actress if she could find work. I think being an actor and not being able to find work is an incredibly painful thing, and I would certainly not wish that for her.
So where do you see yourself in ten years?
In New York City?
Yeah. I don’t feel like I’ve moved very far. I’m still basically where I always have been, with the same people. Only my circle’s gotten a bit bigger and people on the street know me.
Is that annoying? You were in the business for so long but now you’re in something that’s so visible.
You know, it has its annoying moments and it has its wonderful moments. And it's not gonna go on forever. It’ll fade.
Story by Debbie Stoller
Photos by Danielle Levitt
This article first appeared in BUST's Summer 2002 issue. Subscribe now.
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