Out actor Cynthia Nixon is having a moment.
She is currently receiving raves — she was just nominated for an Independent Spirit Award — for her role as Gail White, the mother of the title character (played by Christopher Abbott) in “James White.” The drama, which involves Gail battling stage-four cancer, opens Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse.
Nixon is also earning praise for directing Mark Gerrard’s off-Broadway play “Steve,” about five gay men and a lesbian all having mid-life crises. This week, another off-Broadway production, “MotherStruck,” a one-woman show starring out poet and performance artist Staceyann Chin and directed by Nixon, begins previews.
Nixon chatted — literally while on her way to the Gotham Awards ceremony — with PGN about “James White,” “Steve” and other projects.
PGN: What appealed to you about playing Gail in “James White”?
CN: I identify with so much of the character — personally as a mother, and as the daughter of my own mother. I recognized myself and my mother in Gail. One of the things I like about the film is that, although that it has a disease in it, it is about James’ and Gail’s relationship, and his getting away from her intact and honoring her while moving from adolescence into adulthood. It was nice to play a mother whose universe doesn’t rise and set on her child. There are happy and unhappy things in her life, such as unfulfilled ambitions.
PGN: How was Gail different from Vivian Bearing, another terminally ill character you played in “Wit”?
CN: Vivian Bearing is at the top of her profession. Gail is a failed writer, whose life is unsuccessful. But what Gail has done that Vivian hasn’t is that she’s had deep, intense personal relationships with her husband and son. So when Gail looks back on her life, she has anxiety and concern about her son — if he’s going to be OK without her. She has faith that he will, since she’s invested so heavily in him, even though he is a fractured person. After years of giving, Gail has to learn to be selfish: “It’s my turn, you have to show up for me!” She has to assert her own individuality. Vivian is learning to have deep interpersonal relationships; she’s been selfish all her life. She needs to be vulnerable and fragile and she needs to connect with another person.
PGN: Is it tough, emotionally, physically portraying illness on screen (or stage)?
CN: What I find as an actor is that you can go through heavy, painful things if your character wins or earns something, comes away in some way richer than they started. Gail (and Viv) didn’t triumph, but they learned things that make them richer. They would gladly trade in what they learned to still be alive. I think the film says life is endlessly interesting, compelling, seductive, hard — really hard — and brutal. The best we can do is be honest and do right by the people we love. It’s not a movie about the redemptive power of suffering.
PGN: There is a very powerful scene in a bathroom between Gail and James that shows how they sometimes cope. Can you talk about that scene?
CN: I think that when you raise children, you want to be sure the lessons you had to convey are conveyed. Parents repeat themselves endlessly with these archetypal stories. That scene in the bathroom is an expression of love, and what James does is show her that he knows her values and shares them. At their root, Gail and James are both writers. He’s writing a short story for her, and she, being his teacher, is also his editor. In that scene, she has a line she wants him to change. It’s a moment of them collaborating together as if they were writing partners. Working with Chris, I threw him the ball, and he threw the ball back just as hard.
PGN: Shifting gears, you have received some very nice notices for “Steve,” playing off-Broadway right now. Can you talk about that project?
CN: It’s by Mark Gerard, a first-time playwright. It has comical and more tragic moments depicting the mid-life crisis of the LGBT movement. In the wake of all these new rights that were ungraspable, now that we’re at the table with them, we have to decide what we are going to do with our new options. It’s about the perils of assimilation. You’re gratified and proud, but you also think about the loss of community, and not being on the outside anymore.
PGN: As an out actor, do you have thoughts about taking queer roles?
CN: I would love to! I tried hard to play a lesbian character in a Neil LaBute play. I did Eleanor Roosevelt in “Warm Springs,” and we were going to do a sequel with her and [her relationship with] Lorena Hickok, but we never got HBO to produce it. It’s not for lack of trying. It’s a pleasure to be able to do “Steve,” but [queer content] is not the first thing I look for. The first thing is the part. The lesbian parts I’ve been in love with, and tried to push for, we haven’t pulled off yet.
PGN: You are up for an Independent Spirit Award and there is some Oscar buzz for your role in “James White.” How do you handle that attention?
CN: You just think it’s really nice that anyone thinks it’s a possibility. The idea that anyone is talking about it is nice. That’s something I can take home.