Laura Linney And Cynthia Nixon On Acting, Aging, And Empathy

    "I never felt like a happy-go-lucky ingenue to begin with." "We're serious people, god help us."

    Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are attempting a rare feat on Broadway: They’re switching roles every performance. In the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, the actors alternate between playing the lead role (the cunning, assertive Regina Giddens) and a supporting one (Regina’s timid, abused sister-in-law, Birdie). And sometimes — when there’s a matinee and an evening performance — they play both parts in one day.

    This is not the first time Nixon has performed two roles simultaneously: When she was a college freshman in 1984, she managed to appear in two Broadway shows at the same time, The Real Thing and Hurlyburly, running from one theater to the other between performances. Nevertheless, The Little Foxes is a daunting test for both actors. "We're both making a lot of mistakes, and we're both learning from the mistakes that we made and watching someone explore something on their own," Linney said. "I got to a point like the week before we moved into the theater when my brain basically exploded. I could not remember anything. It's like my brain just started to reject everything, because it had been so much to take in. Fortunately I worked past that."

    Linney and Nixon have both garnered acclaim for their range and their ability to master two roles. Both earned Tony Award nominations: Linney for Regina, and Nixon for Birdie.

    In a free-flowing conversation at BuzzFeed’s New York headquarters, the actors talked about taking on this unique challenge, as well as their thoughts on the theater at large, aging, and roles for women over 40.

    On sharing the lead role

    Cynthia Nixon: You know, Laura was the person who was really cast in this play, and then she very amazingly invited me in. So I also—

    Laura Linney: I just thought they made a mistake and they should have cast you in this play.

    CN: But I also had to get over the idea, which I'm still getting over a tiny bit, but it's hard to get over the idea that this is not really Laura's production, you know what I mean? And nobody made me feel that way, but it was such an amazing thing to be invited, and such an unexpected thing and lovely thing, but intimidating.

    LL: Oh, Cynthia.

    CN: Well, little bit.

    On when they first became aware of each other

    LL: I was aware of her long before she was aware of me, because Cynthia was a legend growing up. If you were a theater kid in New York City, I mean, you wanted to be her. You just did. She was doing two shows at the same time. She was a professional actress before any of the rest of us were. And it was dazzling. And I remember seeing you in both Hurlyburly and The Real Thing. ... So I was aware of Cynthia very, very early on.

    CN: Laura, I never told you this, but I passed on two roles at Manhattan Theatre Club, and it was Beggars in the House of Plenty and Sight Unseen.

    “Everything that I hold to be good and true and worthy, I learned in the theater.”

    LL: Thank you!

    CN: And I passed on these two parts, and she got ’em. I saw her in both of them, she was amazing in both of them, and I could never catch her after that.

    LL: MTC [Manhattan Theatre Club], which is where we are now.

    CN: Which is where we are now!

    On getting their starts in theater

    LL: It's the foundation of how I live my life, actually. My father was a playwright, so I was around it all the time and loved to talk shop with him, just loved it. And basically everything that I hold to be good and true and worthy, I learned in the theater. So not even just about the work, but just about life. Discipline, problem solving, creativity, how to get along with people.

    CN: Collaboration.

    LL: Collaboration. … For me, it has informed every move I've ever made. And it saved me in many ways and still does. When things get hard, you can cling to the work.

    CN: My mother was a failed actress, but that was our bread and butter — what we loved most to do was to go to the theater and talk about it and dissect it and understand it. I think that speech that Meryl Streep made at the Golden Globes recently, that just really hits it on the head in terms of why the arts — and just the arts in general, you know, movies-slash-theater-slash-television, the medium where you pretend to be somebody else and other people watch you do that — in terms of teaching you empathy for other people. And, whether you're the actor or the audience, trying to lose yourself in somebody else's story.

    I think what Laura was saying about teaching her all the lessons, you know, as a child actor, right, that's a whole ball of wax. That's a really mixed bag of stuff. I look at so many people that I knew personally or didn't know personally but who have ended badly, have died young, have been destitute — there are a lot of bad child-actor-gone-wrong stories, a very high percentage, but I think the thing about it is that a lot of those are Hollywood stories, and you don't have that same kind of a thing in the theater. And you have people like Sarah Jessica Parker — and it's also because of her mother and where she came from and all that stuff — but how you're taught to be responsible for yourself rather than endlessly people waiting for you and bringing you things.

    On competition (or the lack thereof)

    LL: There's a real passing down in the theater, almost ad nauseam. You have to listen to older people talk about their experience, but it makes you very aware of what has come before you or what is coming after you — that you're a part of a link in a chain. It's not all about you. I know that actors and actresses have a great reputation for being very, very selfish, and in some cases, that's very true. But in the theater I find it doesn't help you to be selfish. You sort of have to be selfless in the theater, and the more selfless you are — that doesn't mean don't take care of yourself — but the more you sort of surrender to the work, I find, the better the work is. That's just my experience.

    “I still know I have an awful lot to learn.”

    CN: And not to bash LA, but there is always a feeling in LA of where your stock is. Are you the top of the heap at the moment or do you have the blockbuster, did you get cast in that thing? And in New York — not to say New York isn't a competitive place — but there's much more of a sense of, we're all here and some of us are up and some of us are down and some of us are in the middle, but we have a longer view of history and how it works, rather than just this week.

    On taking on smaller projects

    LL: I think we just want to do good work, and you want to get better. I still know I have an awful lot to learn, and I hope I'm put in whatever situation it is that's gonna help me learn it, or that I'll get to watch really good people do what they do. Cynthia has Quiet Passion that's just come out, and I have The Dinner that's just come out, and these are both low-budget movies that are certainly not summer popcorn films, but I think movies that we're both very proud of and make us feel good to be a part of. … And some big movies are terrific, and some aren't. They're made for different reasons, and they have different impacts and they're very different experiences making them. But if they're good, if you're with good people, then hooray.

    CN: I mean Laura's been in a lot more big films than I have, but there's a way in which I feel like, when you're on an enormous film and there's an enormous crew and there are three cameras and there are like 20 setups for every scene, first of all, it's very... I find it very intimidating. And it's also sort of deadening in a way.

    LL: Yes, you get totally depersonalized.

    CN: It's like, you have to wait for the camera to come to you. It's also so much then about the camera and about the fancy things they're doing, and you're like a cog. When you're on a lower-budget film, with one guy who maybe has a camera strapped to him, you're a much bigger part of that pie. You can be a sliver in a big Hollywood movie, but you can be a quarter of that [indie movie] pie. And I feel like, first of all, there is a real freedom that you feel from that, because it's like, you know what, if this is terrible, nobody's gonna ever see it, so I can be more brave.

    On where the best roles are for women over 40

    CN: I feel that the thing about film and particularly about TV, actually, is it's being created now.

    LL: We're living in the best time, actually.

    CN: We're living in the best time so far because there are many more women writing and women directing, women producing, and people are finally catching on to [the fact that] women want to go and buy tickets to see female characters and more than one in a film. So I actually think it's a very fertile time to be a woman over 40. But having said that—

    “I never felt like a happy-go-lucky ingenue to begin with.”

    LL: Do you wish there was more? Of course.

    CN: Of course. So theater is still catching up. So roles like Regina that are in the canon, they're few and far between, ’cause it's written 80 years ago or whatever. There's Phaedra, there's Regina, there's Medea. But there's really a handful, and when you think about film actresses and film roles that there have been lately, there are many more. But as an actress, you can play a role that you are 22 years too old for and you can get away with it onstage.

    On the privilege of aging

    LL: I just find it a big relief. I never felt like a happy-go-lucky ingenue to begin with.

    CN: We're serious people, god help us.

    LL: And parts are written better when you're older. When you're young, you're written to be an ingenue, and you're written to be a quality. You're actually not written to be a person, you're written for your youth to inspire someone else, usually a man. So I find it just much more liberating.

    And I don't mind aging. I mean, my whole thing is, it's just a privilege to age. I've had too many friends die, I've watched too many people suffer, it is a total privilege to age. And I get very, very, very irritable with people who complain about getting old, because I know a lot of people who would gladly trade places with us. I'm not saying it's easy, I'm not saying it doesn't hurt your feelings, I'm not saying it's not painful — and physically as well as mentally and spiritually — and it's frightening at times. However, people have really lost perspective, and it's a really bizarre topic of conversation that it's become a cultural peg in our world that aging is a bad thing. It's not logical to me.

    CN: As the population is, in general, aging, there is more interest in what a 50-year-old, a 60-year-old, a 70-year-old, an 80-year-old is like. And one of the things that just naturally started to happen as I got older — and I could feel younger people looking up to me in a certain way and wanting to know things that I knew — I got interested in the women, in particular, who were 20 years older than me. Because when I was a kid, I wasn't interested in them — I maybe was like dazzled by them, but now, when I meet women in their sixties and their seventies, I'm really interested in hearing from them. Because I understand in a way that I didn't 20, 30 years ago, how much they know.

    LL: You also just have much more to offer. You have a lot more to give, the older you get. And you want to give it. I mean, some people want to give it. But there is a desire to pass down, to have a hand in the past and a hand in the future. There's a continuum.