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Around the time Sex and the City ended its tremendously successful run on HBO in 2004, Cynthia Nixon noticed a change in the way people responded to her on the street.
"I've been acting since I was 12, so there have always been a certain number of people who knew who I was, but it was small," says Nixon, who portrays the cynical, type A lawyer Miranda Hobbes on SATC. "There were a number of years when people would recognize me as Miranda, and suddenly people recognized me. They knew my name. We sort of jumped from just being those characters to actually people knowing us as actors."
Six years and one summer blockbuster later, Nixon's not the kind of TV and movie star you might expect. Despite the mania surrounding the 2008 SATC movie reunion--and the hype surrounding the May 27 premiere of Sex and the City 2, this Tony, Grammy, and two-time Emmy recipient walks the fine line between fame and discretion with ease. She maintains a calm, centered remove from the tabloid rumors (for the most part) and, at the same time, is candid and forthcoming about her life. She holds her privacy dear but refuses to let celebrity force her to abandon the workaday tasks around her Upper West Side Manhattan home that the nonfamous begrudgingly take for granted. It's that authenticity that makes Nixon a favorite among both gay men, drawn to SATC's archetypal women, and lesbians, who are thrilled to have her on their team.
When SATC writer and director Michael Patrick King presented Nixon with the Vito Russo Award at this year's GLAAD Awards, he described her as being out: out and proud as an actress, out as a breast cancer survivor, out as a woman who was with a man for 15 years, and out as a woman who is now in love with a woman. Nixon's been doing a lot of coming out in the past few years.
She met partner Christine Marinoni (then an education organizer) in 2001, when Nixon was campaigning to reduce public-school class sizes in New York City. The two women became friends and confidants during Nixon's 2003 split from Danny Mozes, her partner of 15 years and the father of her two children, 13-year-old Samantha and 7-year-old Charles. She and Marinoni started dating in 2004.
Nixon's either reluctant to talk about the tipping point--from friend to girlfriend--or there's simply not a clear delineation between the two. But her costar and close friend Kristin Davis, who plays SATC's proper Charlotte York, says there never really was "a coming-out moment." Although Davis says she'd "met and known Christine," she didn't have any inkling of their budding relationship until it dawned on her how much Nixon was devoting to the schools campaign--and to Marinoni. "They'd be on the phone and writing speeches," Davis says, "and I thought, She's really into this."
Her costars weren't the only ones to take notice. "Shortly after we started seeing each other--like a month after--we got a press inquiry about it," Nixon says. "And I thought, This is crazy."
Uninterested in addressing media questions about her new relationship (or the gender of her steady date), Nixon understood that she might need help managing the new attention, so she hired a publicist for the first time. He was "a very nice man who I won't name, but he does have a number of clients who are closeted," she says, adding that the publicist's approach was to kill all the rumors--to essentially deny that Nixon was seeing a woman.
More optimistic than Miranda ever was, Nixon anticipated the possibility of a sustained relationship with Marinoni and pushed the publicist for a long-term plan, beyond flat-out lies and hiding. "He just kept saying, 'It's your life, and it's private, and that's it.' And we kept asking, 'That's the whole thing? We never move past that? We're at the playground with the kids, and pictures are taken of us, and we say, 'No, she's my friend?' "
Nixon's relationship with that publicist wasn't long for the world, but her romance with Marinoni continued. Media scrutiny subsided a bit when the two women left the city with Nixon's kids for vacation over the summer of 2004. But it returned as soon as they were back in Manhattan. "My manager [Emily Saines], who is so wonderful, thought about this a little better," Nixon says. Saines introduced Nixon to Kelly Bush, herself openly gay and a publicist to Tobey Maguire, Dustin Hoffman, and Javier Bardem. Bush suggested that Nixon simply confirm the rumors. "And I was like, 'Really, we can just confirm?' So that's what we did. It was so fantastic."
Still, Nixon didn't want to go beyond confirming; she didn't want people to know Marinoni's name. "It was a little crazy for a while because there were people stationed outside my house," she says. But that only stoked speculation. "There was a mad scramble to figure out who she was. So many people I knew got calls." Most surprisingly, New York City council speaker Christine Quinn, an out lesbian whom Nixon didn't know at the time, was asked if she was the actress's new squeeze. "I'm always meeting people in my life who say, 'You know, they thought it was me; I got a call,' " Nixon says.
Since the initial acknowledgment, Nixon has opened up about Marinoni's identity and their life together, but she maintains that coming out wasn't the result of an earth-shattering personal revelation. There was no knock-you-down sense of shock, no Sturm und Drang about tiptoeing into queer territory. Nor does she think she was hardwired from birth to one day emerge from a sexual chrysalis as a lesbian. "I identify as gay as a political stance," she says. "If anybody, prior to my meeting and falling in love with Christine, had asked me about what I think about sexuality, I would have said I think we're all bisexual. But I had that point of view without ever having felt attracted to a woman. I had never met a woman I was attracted to [before Christine]. And maybe if I'd met her when I was 20, I would have fallen in love and only dated women. But maybe if I'd met her at 20, I wouldn't have responded at all. Who knows?
In fact, when she started to consider Marinoni as a possible partner, Nixon says she paid more attention to her girlfriend's capacity to care for Samantha and Charlie than she did any questions about her own sexual orientation. "Maybe I'm just lucky, but I feel like Christine is so amazing with our kids--because they're our kids," she says. "I feel like falling in love with her is part of being amazed at how she makes our family so much better."
If there was any surprise among Nixon's fans upon seeing her with Marinoni, it was that she's clearly different than the women we're used to seeing Nixon with. Marinoni dresses in men's clothes. She looks butch. She'd clearly be the odd woman out at brunch with Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte, and Carrie.
Six years into the relationship (they're now engaged to be married in New York as soon as it is legal), Marinoni now stays home with the children. They both adapted quickly to the new household structure, with Samantha being the first one to broach the idea of calling Marinoni something more familial than "Christine" (they call Nixon "Mommy" and Marinoni "Ma").
Charlie's processing of the relationship started at school. "His teachers were just so great about it," Nixon says, "because they were the first people that started referring to 'Charlie's moms,' which is so lovely, and we really hadn't done that yet. So Charlie came home one day and he said [to Marinoni], 'You're my mommy too!' " Deciding to seize the opportunity, Nixon began calling her partner Mama Christine. "I said, 'Charlie, where's Mama Christine? Is Mama Christine in the other room? Would you take this to Mama Christine? What does Mama Christine want for breakfast?' I did this a nauseating amount, and one morning we're at breakfast and Christine is in the shower and Charlie says, 'Where's Papa?' My daughter says 'Papa? You mean Daddy?' And he said 'No, Papa! Christine!' He'd come up with this masculine name for her. It's gone through a whole series of things." When Charlie's Russian barber told him to ask his daddy to give him a little brother, Nixon says she stood back to watch the preschool-age Charlie's reaction. "I was just going to let it go--what are you going to say? But I saw Charlie--I saw it land and how he thought about this, and he was quiet for a while. Then he very slowly said, 'Sometimes I call Christine Mommy.' It was like Charlie was trying to navigate what everybody's assumptions about him and his family were at age 3. It was so amazing."
Nixon's real life finds parallels with the fictional Samantha Jones's in two significant ways --becoming romantically involved with a woman and dealing with breast cancer. In another coming-out of sorts, two years ago Nixon announced on Good Morning America that she had been diagnosed during a routine mammogram in the fall of 2006 and had undergone a lumpectomy procedure and six-plus weeks of radiation treatment.
"I look to her as a rock, unshakable," says Davis, who didn't take the news of the diagnosis as calmly as Nixon had. Rather, Davis jumped up on a chair until Nixon coaxed her down. "Crying would have been too upsetting to her. I felt like we had to go to war--so I stood up on the chair!"
Nixon didn't want to discuss her cancer while in treatment and first spoke publicly about in spring 2008, just before the first SATC film premiered, just before the world saw her first big-screen nude scene. Was baring her breasts a political act in response to her cancer? "No! They didn't know about it at the time. Generally, my thoughts are, if they ask me to do [a nude scene], I'll do one," she says. "I mean, I won't do anything, but I feel like if Michael Patrick wants me to do it, there's a reason he wants me to do it." In good health now, she's become a spokeswoman for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast cancer education and research organization.
Despite those similarities to Samantha, Nixon, like everyone else in the world, has taken the Sex and the City test--and she's totally a Miranda. And yet, of course, she's also not. "My mother was asked one time, how is Miranda like me, and she said, 'Well, she looks very much like Cynthia.' "
So convincing is Nixon as Miranda and so dear is the character to fans that many still view the actress through a fog of cognitive dissonance--some seem to refuse to think of her as a lesbian. "With the first flurry of articles when I came out, there were kind of crazy quotes from people, just the average person on the street. One was like, 'I don't understand. Miranda's not the bisexual one; Samantha is the bisexual one.' I don't know what to tell you, that's a crazy comment. And they all said, "Oh, Miranda kissed a girl, and she didn't like it!"She takes being confused with her role in stride, as she does the attention celebrity brings. Nevertheless, she often manages to slip under the radar, even go unnoticed. "I don't have red hair in real life, so when we're not in production, I make my way back to blond. I also stubbornly go about my life the way I always did, and sometimes it's not the smartest thing to do. I'm in places people wouldn't expect to see me, like on the subway or in line at the post office. So they just sort of feel like I look like that person, but I'm probably not that person. I was standing on line making a deposit at the bank recently, and the teller was looking at me, and looking at my name, and she said, 'You know you have the same name as that woman on Sex and the City?' "
Like all the characters, by virtue of living beyond the pages of Candace Bushnell's source novel, Miranda has changed--if not to become more like Nixon herself, then surely in the direction of the actress's own temperament. "I think I'm softer than her, and she has become softer. In this particular film Miranda is more of a caretaker than we've seen before. I feel like [now] Miranda is a bit of a cheerleader among the four of us," she says, drawing a connection to her own persona. "I can be very loud and excited."
Davis confirms that the character displays more positivity in the new film, more like Nixon. "Cynthia is very enthusiastic, which you don't know if you only know her as Miranda. There were times when I'd be sitting with her at awards shows, and she'd pump her fist and scream" or raise her hands exuberantly if an actor friend was being lauded. The more demure Davis was occasionally embarrassed by her friend's expressiveness. "Sometimes I'd think, Just put your hands down!"
The cast members are tight-lipped about the plot of Sex and the City 2, though a look at the trailer gives some juicy clues. Troubles in marital paradise! Abu Dhabi! (Morocco, actually.) The designer caftans! Aidan is back! Liza! But because none of the actresses wants to lose a pinkie finger, or whatever contractual doom awaits spoiler-spillers, each is preparing for the publicity gauntlet and rapid-fire volley of questions--the questions they can answer. Promoting the film takes some preparation. Nixon says, "You exercise, watch what you eat, get a facial, try and spend all the time you can with your kids in the meantime, because you know you'll be in Europe a bit."
She's also prepared for the inevitable rumors about cast infighting. "They have so many negative things [written] about all of us not talking," Nixon laughs, "so we let each other know, 'Hey, did you know we're not speaking? I don't know if you knew this, but I can't talk to you today--we're not speaking.' " Though annoying, rarely does Nixon find the rumors egregious or damaging. "I don't get too much of it," she says with characteristic calm.
Then there's that other question all the fashion plates from SATC are routinely asked: "What are you wearing?" Nixon, who is dressed today in a black blouse with gunmetal beading, looks well put together, but she says she generally can't be bothered about fashion. "Christine is the clothes shopper. I hate it."