Like so many people, Cynthia Nixon had big plans for 2020. Her new series, Netflix’s “Ratched,” was to premiere (this plan, at least, remained unchanged, as the show launched in September). And her next series, Julian Fellowes’ HBO drama “The Gilded Age,” was meant to start shooting on March 17 in New York City. Instead, after a “last hurrah” birthday party for wife Christine Marinoni in their NoHo apartment, Nixon found herself suddenly out of work, with her youngest child, Max, homeschooling and her middle son, Charles, missing high school graduation. “As a die-hard New Yorker, it’s very hard for me to imagine what would make me leave the city, short of a nuclear bomb going off,” she says. But there have been easier times, both for an actor in the city and for a politically engaged resident.
“I’m 54 and I’ve been acting basically since I was 12,” she says. (Before “Sex and the City,” Nixon famously performed in two Broadway plays at once, dashing across Times Square to make it work, as a freshman at Barnard.) “I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs. And I love going to the theater, I love going to the movies, and I miss it in a really profound way, the ceremony of it and the beauty of it.” Nixon, who has been receiving updates from the “Gilded Age” production about precautions that will be taken — “I’m very heartened by how they have kept us updated about how we are going to navigate this brave new world,” she says — expresses some concern about what her job will be like upon return. “In the same way that Zoom conversations are not in-person conversations,” she says, “I do worry a little that socially distanced and masked relationships on set are going to be a pale imitation of what they have been before.”
It’s not the only, or the most impactful, change that Nixon has watched with dismay since this turbulent year began. The performer, who ran against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2018 Democratic primary, noted that living between the East Village, SoHo and Union Square, she was in “the nexus of a lot of the protests”: “For us, who are people who join protests, it was really horrifying to see how much police violence the largely peaceful protests were met with. When we tried to join protests, we could barely get out of our front door, and people would come staggering toward us who had been pepper-sprayed.”
As Nixon calls the police response to the demonstrations “chilling” or cites the need to tax New York’s 118 billionaires — “which is six more than we had last year, and they’ve earned $77 billion just since the pandemic” — it’s hard not to recall her 2018 run. Nixon earned some 34% of the vote against incumbent Cuomo and spawned viral “I’m a Miranda and I’m voting for Cynthia” campaign merch.
Nixon refers to that election — which saw Democrats retake the state Senate and a Democratic Socialists of America member win a state Senate seat — as one in which she was “part of a progressive blue wave that really took over New York, when we elected so many progressive people to the legislature.” But over the course of 2020, her once unpopular opponent has come to be celebrated nationally for his response to COVID-19, with his daily briefing videos must-see viewing across America. How did this make her feel?
“It’s just very much like what happened in 2001 with Rudolph Giuliani, a mayor that I was not a fan of,” she says. “He had a moment: He had a crisis when New York needed him. And in that moment, he showed bravery and he comforted people, but that didn’t change all the terrible things about when he was mayor. But it made him a symbol and a hero for people who needed and wanted to see bravery. Right then, the thing about Andrew Cuomo — as has always been true of him — is that he can inspire people with his rhetoric. I admire his broadcasts, and I think that was something he did well, but the fact of the matter is, he didn’t shut us down soon enough.”
Nixon, whose son Max, 9, is in New York City public school, reserves special ire for the state’s approach to reopening schools: “We spent so much money building hospitals out of thin air,” she says, “but there is none of that approach when it comes to making sure that when 1.1 mil- lion schoolchildren go back to school — that ride public transportation and carry germs home to their families. This seems to me like a perfect storm for a real eruption of the pandemic, because we’re not investing and we’re taking so few precautions.”
With Cuomo enjoying a boosted national profile, is Nixon considering a rematch against him in 2022? “You know, people have been trying to get me to run against Andrew Cuomo pretty much since he was elected,” she says. Having been inspired by activist Zephyr Teachout’s run four years prior, she took him on in 2018, knowing that “obviously I’m better disposed to get on television and in the newspapers.” Looking ahead, she says, “I know we will have a great challenger. I will be supporting whoever that challenger is. But I also think it would be really, really helpful to have a person of color challenge Andrew Cuomo.”
Beyond state government, Nixon is thinking of the future of the city in which she’s worked for 42 years. “That’s a blip in New York’s history,” she says, “but you never step into the same river twice. New York is New York — it is big and varied and has been through so many things over the hundreds of years that it has existed. I don’t think New York will be permanently harmed, but what may happen is like the seasons. We may go into winter for a while in New York, and a spring will come. But because of what we’ve been through, we may not see spring for a few years, or a bunch of years.”
For those inclined to see Nixon as Miranda, the pragmatist she played on “Sex and the City” for six seasons and two movies, there’s an echo of the HBO classic here. “Seasons change … so do cities,” Carrie intones wistfully in “I Heart NY,” the show’s last episode to be filmed before Sept. 11, 2001, and one viewed by fans as a sort of accidental response to the tragedy. Nixon, whose tastes in quarantine have run to “Watchmen” (“I am not a person who watches much television generally, but it’s such an extraordinary show, and I’m glad I watched it at this moment”), can see why, for some, “Sex and the City” has become a soothing bit of nostalgia in troubled times.
“It has an escapist part of it,” she says, “but it also has such a surprisingly real part of it, for a show in which so many outlandish things happen. ‘Sex and the City’ is so much about living life to the fullest, and experiencing and taking a bite out of life — all of the stuff that is not happening right now.”
For Nixon’s part, though, the on-screen New York she likes the best is that of her favorite movie ever: the 1974 subway thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” “My younger children indulged me the other night and watched it with me and my wife. New York is not like that in some ways — but in some ways, it’s exactly like that. And it was voyeuristic for me in that way to sit there and look at a New York City subway that was packed with people, all working together.”
It’s a New York to which Nixon is eager to return. Whenever it is that the city returns to a version of normal, she says, “I cannot wait to go see a Broadway show — or any piece of theater. And I cannot wait to take the subway to get there.”