Cynthia Nixon on playing Nancy Reagan, passing up the chance to play Carrie Brownstein’s girlfriend

Cynthia Nixon takes on the role of the “polarizing” first lady in National Geographic Channel’s adaptation of the Bill O’Reilly bestseller Killing Reagan.


Focusing on the time period surrounding the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (played convincingly enough by Tim Matheson), Killing Reagan doesn’t delve into the deeper, darker years of the Reagan’s White House reign, but allows Cynthia, having also played Eleanor Roosevelt in HBO’s Warm Springs and Emily Dickinson in this year’s feature film, A Quiet Passion, once again prove her ability to sink deep into the most recognizable of public figures.

We caught up with Cynthia to talk about nailing Nancy, her connection to Jodie Foster, and what it’s like to be cast, at times, portraying “unattractive” women.

GO Magazine: How choosy do you get to be with roles? I feel like you probably get sent so many things.

Cynthia Nixon: I don’t get so many things. But yeah, this one really appealed to me because I feel like she’s such a complicated person, and she’s such a polarizing figure, so it’s always interesting to get to play someone like that. Because the opinions we have of people—there’s always truth to them, but not the whole truth, you know? She’s a person of remarkable strength and remarkable tenacity, and love in certain ways. Love for her husband, certainly. But she’s also a person with a lot of blind spots and a lot of fears, I think. I think one of the things that really motivated her need for control was her sense of panic.

GM: Did you relate to anything about her?

CN: I do, I relate to that! You know, I relate to that—that sense you need to take care of everything before it happens. And I feel like my wife and I [laughs] We’re not like the Reagans, but my wife is much more—she feels like whatever happens, she’s going to be able to improvise. And I feel like [sucks her breath in] some tiny thing has happened and now it’s all going to hell.

GM: It’s a good balance to have. Someone’s doing damage control.

CN: It is a good balance to have. I mean, it presents its challenges. Also, I think one of the things Nancy and Ronnie have, too, was she embodied all the fear and so it made him feel confident because it made him able to reassure her. Because maybe he was feeling fearful but when he saw how nervous she was, he didn’t want to join her in that. He’s like “It’ll be okay.”

GM: Do you feel like you have to defend Nancy because she is so polarizing?

CN: I feel like it’s more—I don’t know. I feel like I don’t have so much trouble defending her. It’s more that I have to be careful not to focus on the negatives because of course there are a lot of negatives. There’s so much to tell about the Reagans and a lot of her negatives involving her spending, for example—we don’t have time for that. We’re not avoiding it; we just don’t have time for that. The White House china has nothing to do with the assassination, you know.

GM: While we’re on the association, was Jodie Foster involved with this in any way?

CN: No, I’m sure she doesn’t want to talk about it. I’m sure it was just—I mean, you know—I was not a fan of Reagan, my parents were not fans of Reagan, but I remember how scary it was for me as a teenager when he was shot. I found that really terrifying. And if it was terrifying for me, some random teenage girl in her apartment in New York, what must that have felt like for Jodie Foster? I mean, I can’t even imagine, and I’m a huge Jodie Foster fan. I think people give her a lot of grief and I think it’s really important to remember how famous she was from such an early age and how hard she had to fight to protect her privacy, but especially—we cannot know what that must have felt like. It’s not even just like having a stalker you were in danger from. It’s like you had a stalker, you were in danger from him, and he almost killed the President of the United States for you.

GM: You were acting at that time.

CN: I was—I started acting when I was about 12, and I was 15 when he was shot.

GM: So it might have even been a little more close to home for you because you were also in the public eye.

CN: Jodie’s a tiny bit older than me, but I felt like I was part of—there was a whole crop of us—certainly Jodie Foster and Tatum O’Neal—I mean, these were my idols, you know. So they’re sort of like your—I feel like Jodie and I were in school together. I mean, we weren’t, but you know what I mean? Part of the same crop.

GM: You played Eleanor Roosevelt, also, who I feel is less polarizing.

CN: Well, maybe she’s less polarizing to us because we’re left wing. I mean, I think the hatred and also I think one of the obsessions that Nancy had was her physical appearance because she didn’t feel like a particularly attractive person to herself, and so she was determined to never have anybody say anything negative; that she wasn’t pretty. And I think even Eleanor’s fondest supporters often said deprecating things about her physical appearance. And some of us are more vain, and some of us are less vain, but nobody wants to hear that.

GM: So how does it feel, then, to get cast as women who are not seen as conventionally beautiful?

CN: It’s alright. Beautiful women are boring!

GM: I can imagine how it feels to get sides that say “Not particularly attractive…”

CN: I remember reading an interview a few years ago with Cybil Shepperd, one of the most beautiful actresses, and she said it was such a curse for her, do you know? Because that’s all they thought of her as. And in some ways, that’s all she thought of herself as. So she felt like she never had to go beyond that. She just has to look her best, and that was it. And that when she started aging out of that, she said she started to discover all these different parts of herself and comedic parts of herself. So, you know, saying beauty is a curse is a bit like saying being rich is a curse. It’s like, really, smallest violin in the world, but there is a truth to it, I think.

GM: Do you see yourself as a kind of chameleon, because you are able to sink into characters that are people we know really well and also really inhabit fictional characters?

CN: I try. I mean I think it is one of the fun things about being an actor is being able to transform ourselves. Tim and I were doing this interview—and it’s true: When we were on set, and not even on set but when we were in hair and makeup, we had so many things going on in terms of wigs, contact lenses, and makeup, all of these things—the clothes, of course. But also there was the way we carried ourselves, totally different. And Tim said, “I feel like I don’t even know you!”… Tim seems about 15 years younger to me now than when we were shooting 15 months ago.

GM: You don’t seem to get cast in a lot of queer roles.

CN: Some. Well, you know it’s one of my great regrets—or disappointments, I guess, disappointments. When I played Eleanor, we tried very hard to get HBO to then make the sequel, and it would have been the first 100 days in the White House, and it would have included stuff about Lorena Hickok, Eleanor’s lover. I just think that’s, of course, an endlessly fascinating story. And you know, I was just offered—I played Emily Dickinson in this movie I’m going to start really promoting, and so I’m traveling all around to all these film festivals, and I had to turn down—I was offered to play Carrie Brownstein’s girlfriend on Portlandia.

GM: How could you do this to us?

CN: It would have been really fun.

GM: But Emily Dickinson was also said to be a lady lover.

CN: Yes!

GM: I’m assuming that maybe doesn’t show up in the film.

CN: You know, I feel like—I would be interested to hear what you thought after seeing it. The person that Emily seems to have loved is the woman who would become her sister-in-law—it preceded her being her sister-in-law. The wonderful English actress named Jodhi May plays her in our film, and it’s one of the best scenes in the film, I think, their big scene together and it’s a very subtextual scene. But Jodhi May’s character talks about the physical, sexual side of her marriage and how hard it is for her and the pain of it. And she and Emily—you don’t see the passionate love, but you see this barely subtextual conversation about “I don’t seem to work this way, and I don’t know why.”

GM: I know you directed StaceyAnn Chin’s Motherstruck—are you working on anything else in the theater world?

CN: I directed three plays in the last couple years, and I am looking for another one to direct. I don’t have one right now, but I’m also going to be doing The Little Foxes, which is a Lillian Hellman play, in the spring. Laura Linney and I are gonna do that. We’re switching roles.

GM: Do you have any dream roles?

CN: Yeah, not so much. I should do that more often—imagine what I would like to do. There are certain things that I have fought for and either gotten done or failed to get done—the first 100 days in the white house that I wish. But no, not really. I’m very happy to have reached this moment in my life. I’ve aged out of the mom of youngish children, and I mean, look, for a lot of women—myself included—it’s a big part of our lives. I have a 19-year-old, a 13-year-old and a five-year old—it’s a big part of my life but I don’t know, there are ways in which it’s not that interesting on screen, I feel like. It’s far more interesting to be the mother of an adult child, I think, and navigate that. Like I’m 50, and I feel like when you start to hit this kind of an age, I don’t know. You have permission to be so many different kinds of women that you are sort of not entitled to be when you’re younger. And somehow also you, I don’t know—like with Nancy. It’s not  like she’s not girlish and romantic and all of those things that she totally is, but she’s also controlling and vicious and aggressive. It’s nice to be able to play such a bigger palette of colors.

GM: As an LGBT person, how did you feel about the Reagans involvement, or lack thereof, with the AIDS crisis?

CN: Well, I mean I do feel like being the President is like being a parent—it’s an impossible job because everything in the world that could be asked of anyone is being asked of you at the moment simultaneously. And people focus on what they focus on. And I think it was, obviously, a tremendously terrible mistake for the Reagans not to pay attention to the AIDS crisis, and many different kinds of people, including people that were close to them, were begging them to, and I think it was a tragedy not only for the LGBT community, and not only for America, but on a worldwide level. There were things that perhaps could have been done to contain the crisis that were not done. Our movie doesn’t get that far. It’s a place where they really fell down. And as Hillary Clinton said—I mean Hillary Clinton obviously gave Nancy way too much credit—but I think, between the two of them, it was Nancy who finally had to push him hard enough that he would actually say something. I think that was the difference between them is that he followed his own internal compass, and you want that in a President. But Nancy was the one who would give him a reality check and say, “You have to say something. It’s doing too much damage.” And in some ways, I think she kept him much closer to public sentiment.

GM: The heart of it all?

CN: I wouldn’t say the heart. I would say the eye to public relations. I think he was the heart.

What Do You Think?