BY DONNA FREYDKIN
Cynthia Nixon earned a Tony nomination and universal accolades for playing a cancer patient in the 2012 production of the play "Wit" on Broadway.
Now, she's Christopher Abbott's cancer-stricken mom in "James White," a raw, unflinching look at how a young man's life unravels when first his father dies, and he's faced with the debilitating illness ravaging his harshly loving mother.
"I was fascinated by her as a character apart from her cancer. She's very combative. She has a lot of unfulfilled wishes for herself. She didn't censor who she was in front of her child. I just really embraced that," says Nixon.
Plus, personal elements came into play.
"My mother died of cancer in the year we made the movie. She died in January. We made the film in November. One of the main things for me, sometimes when you see people die in the movies, it's beautiful and languid," says Nixon, when in reality, "everything is an effort and a struggle. We're always trying to do something until our last moment. People who are suffering, they're trying to do something."
Most refreshingly, "James White" doesn't sugarcoat the ugliness of disease, or the misery of slow death. There's no tearful reconciliation scenes, no emotive hugs.
"When they make these movies, it's all about the redemptive power of suffering. This movie doesn't fall into that trap," says Nixon.
Her character demands that her son step up and help her. He does, in halting, awkward steps.
"She feels terrible about having to ask it of him. She is terrified that he won't come through for her. And then she's stuck. This is the central relationship of her life. She puts a lot of pressure on him. And he does come through," says Nixon. "You can never do enough. As many right things to do, the wrong things outnumber the right ones."
Abbott's White shows up to a job interview reeking of last night's drinking spree, his writing sample a crumpled scrap of paper, his phone dead. His mother, meanwhile, is in hospice, her brain slowly unraveling. At one point, she tells him either get it together, or get off her couch. Nixon herself has never been that harsh with her own brood.
"I have three children and they're very different ages. I have a college student, I have an almost teenager, and I have an almost 5-year-old," she says. "Being a parent is very different at all these different stages. It's tricky navigating that. Gail does it well. She doesn't try and hide what she's thinking. My children don't do the kind of things to me, so far, that he's doing. My children have not disappointed me in that way. I'm honest with them about my past. I'm open with my kids."
Next up, Nixon plays poet Emily Dickinson in "A Quiet Passion."
"It's very intimidating. She is always a poet I felt a tremendous kinship with from an early age. I have many of her qualities. We don't really know who she was. Everyone has their own version of her," says Nixon.
And of course we had to ask whether there would be a third "Sex and the City" movie.
"I really don't know. It would be great if there were. But I really don't know," says the actress.
Here's more of Nixon, one of today's most gifted actors.