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Interview: Cynthia Nixon on Playing Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion

Interview: Cynthia Nixon on Playing Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion


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Cynthia Nixon doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Presently, the 51-year-old New York City native and theater veteran is, along with Laura Linney, alternating the major female roles in the Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Nixon found great success with Sex and the City, for which she won an Emmy in 2004, and respects that Darren Star’s game-changing television show has opened more opportunities for her than she could have ever imagined. In 2008, she won a Tony for her performance in the Broadway production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, and a year later she earned a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for An Inconvenient Truth.

Nixon garnered considerable acclaim, including a mention on Slant’s list of the 20 Best Film Performances of 2015, for her turn in Josh Mond’s James White, and in a just world she would join the very exclusive rank of EGOT winners for her performance as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion. Terence Davies’s film about the beloved literary icon enjoyed its world premiere last year at Berlinale and is only now reaching American theaters, a long road that could be said to be in sync with Dickinson’s resilience throughout her life.

During an interview last year in Berlin, Nixon revealed that her passion for Dickinson could be traced all the way back to her youth. She also expressed her fondness for poetry, which is certainly evident in her multifaceted performance. Throughout A Quiet Passion, Nixon and Davies are united in emphatically queering the conventional form of your average biopic. And in this case, that meant finding the humor and joy in a life that’s popularly understood to have been a fundamentally tragic one. Naturally, then, defying expectations was very much a common thread throughout our conversation.

With James White and now with A Quiet Passion you seem to be increasingly gravitating toward roles on film that are of a different register than Sex and the City, and you seem to be enjoying the chance to flex your range.

I just really like the variety. For the past years I’ve been doing lots of different kinds of roles and the fact that it’s even happening is just really exciting. Not an easy thing to do these days anyway. After you turn 50, like I did, and particularly when you’re an actress, you start to realize there’s a certain pattern. There are roles for you but fewer every year. Hollywood just has these age brackets for a leading lady, and it’s probably about 25 to 35, maybe 40. I started to notice, though, that once you’re out of this sort of a cage, all of a sudden the roles tend to get more interesting and exciting. A paradox, wouldn’t you say? [laughs] I like to think that this has to do with me as well. I keep trying to grow as a person and as a performer. I guess I just start to fully realize something that Laurence Olivier once said. Probably on more than just one occasion he was asked about what advice he would give to a young actor. He replied that the first thing for a young actor is to focus on how to become an old actor. I couldn’t agree more. In my career there have been some high points, and there have been some low points. But the focus was always on longevity. I feel lucky to be living in times when there are more women’s stories being told and more older women’s stories being told as well.

Your Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion is strongly opinionated on gender roles, family matters, and religion. How much of that was in the script and how much of that can be tied to your own personal conviction?

It’s all Emily Dickinson! She was such an individual! She wasn’t a person that simply joined social movements, whether she even believed in them is another question. There was a time in her life when she—not only as a woman, but a middle-class woman—struggled with whether it was appropriate for her to publish her work and whether her work was even good enough to be published. I think she drew a lot of strength particularly from the Bröntes and Elizabeth Browning. Dickinson let herself be inspired by them, not so much by Jane Austen. I don’t think she was a romanticist, but she really liked romantic writers a lot. I guess she felt like her writing and trying to be taken seriously was all a real struggle to her, she felt she needed that encouragement, especially when at that time men and women both thought it was inappropriate for women to be writers.

What’s your personal relationship to Emily Dickinson?

I was a huge fan, and I admired her since I was a child, really. My mother did too, very much. We memorized and interpreted her poems. Growing up, we had a record of Julie Harris reading some of her poems and letters. She even won a Grammy for that. We listened to The Belle of Amherst so much we almost memorized it all “by absorption.” I felt a very deep connection to the recording and, through that, to Dickinson herself. And I still do.

After having listened to Julie Harris’s portrayal of Dickinson in your childhood so much, were you able to get her out of your head?

Not really, no. I didn’t feel haunted by Julie Harris because she’s just wonderful in The Belle of Amherst, but hers is a very different Emily. That’s the Emily who’s a kind of old, content lady, looking back on her life, telling funny stories, like she would to a bunch of grandchildren. She might as well be offering you banana bread! What’s amazing about A Quiet Passion is that we’re showing Emily in very different stages of her life. We begin with her youthful optimism and hope and we just follow her until the end of her life, when she’s already bitterly disappointed and in terrible pain, suffering from a horrible illness. There are a lot of different Emily Dickinsons out there. She and her poetry have such a following that it’s easy to find different camps of people who feel that they know Emily so well. But each of them knows a different version of their favorite poetess. In that spirit, The Belle of Amherst Emily is different from Terence’s and my Emily.

To viewers’ surprise, much of the comedic side of Emily Dickinson is explored through her interactions with Miss Vryling Buffam. How much of it is based on actual events and characters?

There was a real person named Miss Vryling Buffam, but she was actually a friend of Vinnie Dickinson’s. In reality, this character is an invention of Terence’s, a compilation of a number of Emily’s close literary female friends. Looking at other men and women of her time, seeing all the different paths they’ve taken, she tries to figure out her own. Emily’s surrounded by different women, like her depressive mother or her aunt who’s a little stuffy, brassy and not particularly very sensitive. Then there’s Miss Vryling Buffam, who’s so witty and charming and seemingly confident. In the end, seeing them all so close to her, so accomplished, she must have been astonished to find that she might be risking selling herself as short as she ultimately does.


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