Cynthia Nixon is probably best known for her role as the sardonic realist Miranda on the iconic HBO series Sex And The City. But she’s almost as well-known for her political efforts: A breast-cancer survivor, she has become an ambassador for Susan G. Komen For The Cure. A New York native, she has campaigned strenuously for that city’s public schools (her wife Christine Marinoni is an education activist). And as a devout Democrat, it is somewhat surprising that her next big role is portraying a very famous Republican.
Like her SATC co-star Sarah Jessica Parker (Divorce), Nixon is returning to the small screen this fall; after some stops on shows like The Affair, Hannibal, and The Big C, she is portraying her second first lady (after a turn as Eleanor Roosevelt in 2005’s Warm Springs) in Killing Reagan, premiering October 16 on the National Geographic Channel. At the TCAs in August, Nixon sat down with The A.V. Club in her room at the Beverly Hilton to talk about her latest role, portraying Nancy Reagan in a year when Donald Trump is running for president and Reagan’s attempted assassin John Hinckley was up for parole. When the Killing Reagan TCA panel was asked about Hinckley’s parole effort, Nixon leaned into the mic and responded tersely, “Nancy wouldn’t like it.” (He was released a month later.)
The A.V. Club: You’re such a well-known political liberal, what is it like for you to portray a character on the other side of that?
Cynthia Nixon: It’s hard. It’s very, very hard. I feel like when I really did my research, I both came to hate Nancy Reagan more [Laughs.] and I also grew to love her in a certain way. I learned more—certainly I learned more bad stuff that I had known about in greater detail, but I also got a lot of empathy. I understood more what she and Ronald Reagan, what they were coming from. Kind of the horrors of their childhoods that they were coming from. When you experience such pain early on, some people really interface with that pain and try and unpack it, and some people just take it and squelch it down and try and be as successful as they can. And, you know, encourage everybody, “Don’t dwell on the negative! Come on, buck up!”
AVC: “Just say no to drugs! It’s so easy!”
AVC: Just walking through this particular hotel, and seeing all these classic Hollywood photos… Nancy had a big history with all those guys, like Sinatra–
CN: Yes, she did. She sort of downplayed that, you know—but she was quite successful. At the time she married Ronald Reagan, I think she was keenly aware that [Reagan’s first wife] Jane Wyman’s career had eclipsed Ronald Reagan’s, so she was very determined not to have that happen. She actually took some movies that she didn’t want to take because they were really strapped for cash. But she took that career, that obviously mattered to her, and just tucked it away in a box, because she thought, “That’s over with now. I’m going to make wifehood my career.”
AVC: In Killing Reagan, there’s so much affection between you and Tim Matheson. I was a kid in the Reagan ’80s, and very anti-Reagan, so I don’t remember that about their relationship, but you two really bring that across.
CN: I think she was a very controlled and controlling person, because she was so scared all the time and because she had such an inner sense of panic. But what is wonderful to see is, when she wasn’t feeling that, how incredibly affectionate and physically affectionate she was, you know? She was so on her guard, she was threatened by just about everybody. But it’s amazing—even in Kitty Kelley’s book, which is so negative, they talk about, as with all first ladies, that she’s constantly around to take photo ops with kids. Nancy Reagan, when presented with kids with really painful disabilities and deformities, she was completely undaunted. She would just run up to these kids and hold them and pick them up… because I think she felt so judged all the time and she felt so unlovable. When she was presented with people who she really felt like weren’t going to [judge her], there was such a floodgate of affection and warmth and physical affection that, most of the time, was kept at bay because, “Oh, someone’s going to say something.” I think that [because of] so many things that happened to her in her childhood, but also in the press. Like when she was newly the first lady of California, Joan Didion came and had an hour-long interview. She thought it went great, and then Joan Didion just eviscerated her in the most—possibly not inaccurate—but in the most devastating way.
AVC: That warmth really comes through. That’s surprising, because she’s remembered sometimes as a kind of Iron Lady. Did you work on that affection with Tim before? Did you know each other beforehand?
CN: We didn’t know each other before, but I just knew we would love each other. He’s such a—he’s not like Reagan—but he’s so commanding of respect but he’s also so sweet. You just want to love him and just cuddle him. He’s really—and he’s gorgeous. He has much in common with Reagan’s outward persona. I think he’s amazing and I think he’s amazing in this—I haven’t seen the film since we shot it, but I think he’s just incredible.
AVC: When you’re depicting actual people, like Eleanor Roosevelt, do you do a lot of research?
CN: Yes, I did. What was really great with Eleanor—I mean, of course, we all have this stereotypical, really satirical almost, version of how she speaks. What was really interesting to me was I found various radio and TV appearances of hers, but there was one talk show that I saw her on; she was the only woman, it was all men. They were talking about policy—I think it was after she was First Lady. I think it was more in the U.N. days. What was really interesting is [Affects an exaggerated Eleanor Roosevelt voice.] when she started, she was herself, that we think of her being. And then, as the interview went on, and she got more and more engaged with the men and the nitty-gritty stuff they were talking about, that just went away. [Affects a quieter Eleanor Roosevelt voice.] And you think, “Oh, that’s why I think [Switches back to exaggerated Eleanor Roosevelt voice.] She wants to be heard. And she’s making a speech.
AVC: Which wasn’t easy for women to do back then.
CN: And she was painfully shy, painfully shy. So she overcompensated. In the same way that Nancy felt unattractive and unlovable and so everything had to be—hair had to be perfect, and the makeup and the clothes. Because she thought, “They don’t think I’m pretty.” You know?
AVC: We’re huge fans of game shows at The A.V. Club, and I didn’t realize that you have this history with To Tell The Truth.
CN: Yes, my mother worked on a whole bunch of those; she worked on What’s My Line?, I’ve Got A Secret, Play Your Hunch… In my memory, she worked on To Tell The Truth. So it was her job to brief the imposters. [On that show, three people would come out and say they were all the same person, and the panel had to guess which contestant was telling the truth.—ed.] To try and make them convincing when they lied, to both give them the information that they needed, but also to school them in how to seem convincing. So she had me on four times. Four times. Only once as a contestant, but they had a bunch of kids on at the beginning [of some shows], playing with toys or things like that.
But I loved it. She worked in the Seagram’s Building; it’s kind of an iconic ’60s skyscraper on a floor so high that your ears popped. And all the women—the whole thing was so very Mad Men, very glamorous. Every Thursday or something, she would shoot it at NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center. And sometimes she would have me there when Morris The Cat was on, and Lassie was on. I was a huge Della Reese fan, when Della Reese was on. I idolized all the panelists. I was in love with Kitty Carlisle. Nipsey Russell, Bill Cullen, Peggy Cass, Gene Rayburn… yeah.
AVC: So sophisticated. Like on What’s My Line? I just wanted to hear about their weekends.
CN: So sophisticated. Smart, smart, smart. And it was interesting, too, because the panelists on To Tell The Truth, which is the one that I really knew, they cared about getting it right. They wanted to guess, you know? Although, when I was on as a contestant, the one time I was on as a contestant, apparently they had a rule, which was that when children were on, everybody would get a vote—and Kitty Carlisle voted for me.
AVC: What were you posing as?
CN: I was posing as a 9-year-old girl who was a blue-ribbon prizewinner; she rode on a Shetland pony, the small horse that was the appropriate size for her.
AVC: Is that what sparked your interest in acting? Because you were on the stage at a young age as well.
CN: I was in film before I was on stage. I started acting when I was like 12. But, no, I think my mother indoctrinated me very early, you know. She was taking me to Shakespeare In The Park when I was like 6. There was just a lot of theater-going and a lot of movie-going and a lot of discussion about it afterwards, dissecting it and stuff.
AVC: Your first movie was Little Darlings, right?
CN: But I had done a little bit of TV before that. I did an after-school special as my first big thing. It was starring Butterfly McQueen. She was the name. But the real star of it was Robbie Rist, who was that little blond kid who looked like John Denver.
AVC: Oliver. Brady Bunch.
AVC: Do you go back to the stage a lot?
CN: I do. I have directed three plays in the last few years, which has been really wonderful. And I’m going to do a play in the spring at The Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway. And then we’re doing The Little Foxes. Laura Linney and I are doing—you know there are two major female roles—there’s the lead, and then there’s Birdie, her sister-in-law. And so we’re alternating.
AVC: That must be fun.
CN: We haven’t even rehearsed it yet. But I think it will be very exciting, because those women—they’re kind of two sides of the feminine spectrum. One of them is beautiful and evil and powerful by any means necessary, and the other one is kind and sweet and broken and an alcoholic and a good person, but completely ineffective because she’s not ruthless.
AVC: Does something like that pervade your outside life when you’re steeped in it, especially when you’re doing it every night?
CN: Yeah. I haven’t really entered it. I have a cousin, a second cousin, who lives in L.A., and she was with me while I was getting ready. She was talking about her father and his brothers. And I remember my mother’s tales of how competitive they were with each other and how they would play for blood, you know. And I thought—I’m an only child, and I don’t know what that’s like. I have to figure out the Southern thing.
AVC: Would you consider going back to a series? It seems like you’re having so much fun doing all these other things.
CN: I am! I mean, a series that’s shot in New York.
AVC: I have to ask you how you’re feeling about the political situation. It must be interesting to be in a Reagan movie now with the election year that we have.
CN: It is really interesting. I think it was interesting to be steeped in that world. It was weird to be in a movie that’s very clearly a period piece, but that’s about a time that’s within my own memory. That’s really weird. And conscious memory, not just vague, you know. And it is interesting to see how far we’ve come as a society since then. But also how everybody keeps touching Reagan and trying to evoke him.
AVC: Like saying that the Republicans used to be a force for good, or not as evil.
CN: Right, right. And that there was a cohesiveness of vision, right? Even when the Reagan revolution happened, it was in large way, a “‘Let’s make America great again’ without saying that” kind of a movement, don’t you feel? It was kind of a throwback to an earlier generation.
AVC: I think Reagan actually did use that. I think it’s another thing that Trump stole.
CN: Make America great again? Right, but now it comes back to us in a completely twisted way. And in some ways they achieve that, or they at least achieve the appearance of that, but now you try and do it again and it’s just… it’s so out of sync with who we obviously are as a people. It just feels to me like the death throes of an America that had many great things about it, but had many negative things about it. I don’t want to go back. I don’t even want to go back to ’81.