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

Defying expectations was a common thread throughout our chat with the actress.

Interview: Cynthia Nixon on Playing Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion
Photo: Music Box Films

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.

How difficult was it to find the comedy in a film that’s about a tragic life?

I think the whole cast and crew are really relieved that everyone actually finds these funny bits and pieces for themselves and reacts to them. One of the first things that Terence said to me when we started work on this project was that he really didn’t want this Emily to be solemn. When you try to depict the historic person that’s very important in retrospect, whether or not they were important at the time, you sort of feel like George Washington crossing the Delaware. I think Emily had a very wicked sense of humor, not unlike Terence, and I think she was critical of a lot of things—certainly of herself—but also of things that she saw around her. It happens quite often that when one is critical of themselves, unless one is self-righteous and tiresome of course, that will inevitably lead to humor. And this is our case.

What drew you to this role? It must have been a combination of the challenge of playing one of our most iconic authors and getting to work with Davies. He’s known to present women very respectfully, thoughtfully, and truthfully.

There were a lot of things involved. Certainly the opportunity to play Emily Dickinson in any context would have been very exciting to me, then the idea that Terence would be behind the camera knowing that he wrote the script with me in mind. That’s not something you get to hear every day. He’s such an original filmmaker, and as you mentioned, he has a great track record of presenting female characters. I also loved the script. Well, I have to admit, I didn’t totally understand the script at first, but I was really astonished by it. It’s impossible to know everything about Emily Dickinson, but there’s so much we do know. In A Quiet Passion, we’re trying to synthesize that. In that way it’s a very ambitious project, because it shows almost her whole adult life. It’s not like “a year with Emily Dickinson.” [laughs]

How does one prepare to play icons? Here you portray Dickinson, but before you also played Eleanor Roosevelt in Warm Springs.

Good question. Both these roles were very different. Probably as different as both these women actually were. Everybody knows not only how Eleanor Roosevelt looked like but also sounded like, at least in public. It can actually be very daunting when you’re supposed to portray someone who’s such an enigma as Dickinson certainly was. Also, she was obviously a genius, so how do you play a genius when you’re not one? [laughs] I guess there are three things that eventually convinced me that we could pull this through. I tried to trust Terence and I thought the script was simply beautiful. The third thing is that I do feel such a kinship with poetry. I honestly believe I have a lot in common with Emily Dickinson. I will tell you exactly what I told my wife the other night: I just did the best I possibly could with her.

Do you consult your wife, who doesn’t work in the film industry, about your roles, or is it a private and completely separate part of your life?

My wife isn’t a theater person, not really. I consult with her a lot though, but it’s more like we’re discussing things that happen in our lives, at work, I guess. My mother, on the other hand, was a theater person and I used to consult with her a lot, when she was alive.

Your last two roles were also very demanding physically. Your characters struggle with a lot of pain, fighting physical disability.

I guess one of the things that I seem to have noticed about myself over the years is that as an actor is that so much of what you do is about the language. For Emily it’s certainly very important. It’s not just her business, but a reason for being. With time, though, I prefer to show the animal side of people. And believe me, there’s nothing more animalistic than the feeling of you being sick. We live in an illusion that we’re in control of our bodies, and many times that’s sort of true. But when you’re sick or you’re in pain, that illusion goes right out of the window. That part of the trade is something I really like. In this film, I got a chance to say poetry and be like an animal at the same time.

Would you say both of these things is what you have in common with Emily?

I think that less so now, but when I was a child, and I was an only child, I was very shy around groups of people, and I think that was the case with Emily too. I was very reluctant to sort of sell myself or present myself in a way that other people might have found attractive or even interesting.

So why did you choose acting then?

[laughs] I guess I just love the theater and I love the movies. I felt like everything that I saw, everything my mother took me to see was just worthwhile. Everyone was so beautiful and almost regal. Particularly the old Hollywood appealed to me. I was aware that most of the beauty is just closed in a fleeting moment, but I found that endearing. I thought that it was much more about people that were truthful and in some way emotionally connected. I felt emotionally connected to everything I saw and experienced.

The TV series that was a complete game-changer, Sex and the City, seems to be a closed chapter for you and your co-stars, but it certainly isn’t over for masses of fans around the world.

I do realize it’s certainly very much alive for people on the streets everywhere I go. What’s truly amazing for me is that it isn’t about people of a certain age. A lot of young people watch it these days. I’m very proud of that. But I’m also well aware that probably nine-tenths of all the tremendous opportunities that I have been offered right now wouldn’t even be possible without Sex and the City. Terence may not be a fan of the series, but without it we would have had an awfully tough time funding this film. They would have probably had to cast someone else instead. And I don’t think I could have lived with that.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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