In January of last year, Cynthia Nixon’s mother died after her third battle with breast cancer. In October of that year, the Sex and the City star, herself a breast cancer survivor, began filming James White, a wrenching, quietly profound new indie drama in which she plays Gail, a mother who is dying of cancer and relying on her son to care for her.
Not many actors would willingly play a part that so viscerally mirrors much of the personal grief she just experienced in real life. But not only did Nixon dive into the role, she considered it cathartic.
“I think it made me feel close to my mother,” she says. The film is the directorial debut of Josh Mond (Martha Marcy May Marlene), who also wrote the script loosely based on his own experiences caring for his mother as she battled cancer—and his own insecurities about how fittingly he rose to the occasion.
“In some ways, Gail’s aesthetic—and by Gail, I mean both Gail and Josh’s mom—these are Upper West Side, bohemian, non-conformist women,” Nixon says. “They spoke the same language and their clothing spoke the language. I’m actually wearing my mother’s jewelry in the film that I inherited from her. And of course I look like her, too.”
Then, after a pause of reflection, she repeats it again: “I would say the main thing that it did was that it made me feel close to her.”
When we meet the title character of James White, which opened in limited release Friday, he is in the throes of panic. The trigger: adulthood.
His self-loathing over his lack of ambition is an amplifier; with each passing day of arrested development, James (played with visceral grit and soulfulness by Girls star Christopher Abbott) burrows deeper down the rabbit hole toward rock bottom: booze, belligerence, and irresponsibility. Abbott plays the journey with fear in his eyes, a terror not only about the forthcoming future, but his stalled progress towards it. James isn’t a jackass. He’s kind. And lost.
But one can only deny the reality of a situation for so long before reality seizes you. In this case, it’s the dire prognosis for his mother’s cancer battle and her sudden reliance on him as her caregiver. Maturity and responsibility are suddenly white-knuckling James by the shirt collar, demanding he grow up. He and his mother clearly have an intimate, loving relationship, but can that be enough to stop James from running away?
“Gail is really concerned for her son,” Nixon says. “She’s really anxious for him to get it together, but she knows it’s not as easy as snapping your fingers.”
But a dying woman, and a loving mother, can only have so much tolerance for arrested development.
“I think she’s a mother who’s really given him a lot of free rein,” she says. “She just doesn’t like jerking his chain. She doesn’t like getting him in line. That’s not who she is. But she’s desperate. She says, ‘You’re what I’ve got. And you better show up for me. You can’t keep disappointing me. You have to show up for me or else I have to write you off, because I can’t keep sitting here wondering if you’re going to show.’ I think that’s really hard for her.”
As acute and resonant as James White’s portrayal of coming of age is, it’s a remarkable and harrowingly real depiction of illness.
This isn’t a film that depicts cancer with sunlit sentimentality. Its cancer patient doesn’t wear flowing, fabulous scarves as she doles resplendent wisdom from the perch of her sickbed until her dying day. There are no perfectly crafted eulogies or letters to loved ones summing up the poetic beauty of suffering and the profundity of courage.
It is a film that shows the brutality, the ugliness, and the scariness of cancer. With the help of makeup artists, Nixon looks pallid and malnourished and sick. Gutting scene after gutting scene portray the toll it takes on her body, her sanity, and her dignity.
There’s the scene in which, with wide-eyed fright, Gail can’t remember how to move her tongue to speak. And the one in which she loses her mind, wanders the streets of New York, and has to be escorted home by the police, screaming the entire way. There are times when Gail is nasty to James, and there are times when Gail needs James—and sometimes that means needing James to literally carry her to the bathroom and avert his eyes while she uses it.
The result of this gritty, ultimately authentic depiction is that the film is able to explore the relationship at its center—between a mother and her son—with more clarity and richness than any film in recent memory. It helps it transcend “cancer movie” labels. It becomes a movie about healing, on multiple levels.
“I think cancer and illness and death, in general, scare the hell out of us,” Nixon says. “So our reaction to that is to try not to look at it. I think when we do try and look at it it’s so daunting and so scary that we want the suffering that comes with illness, particularly terminal illness, to have some sort of redemptive quality. We’re so anxious to find the sunny side, because it’s so bleak.”
Which again brings up the question of filming James White so soon after her mother’s own cancer death. Why didn’t she just say no to a role that would force her to relive all of the grief so quickly?
The simple answer is that she really liked the script.
“I think if my mother had died from cancer and I was given a script about a mother who dies of cancer that I felt was manipulative or untrue, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do that,” she says. “But this was so true. And it was so true to certain aspects of my experience. That’s what you want to do—that you’re lucky enough to do when you’re an actor. You want to do things that reflect your experience of the world and show them to people.”
If Nixon’s performance manages some wattage of the spotlight such an acting turn deserves, reviews indicate that she should find herself in the Oscar conversation. In his New York Times review, Stephen Holden calls it “one of the year’s most heart-rending screen performances.” Kyle Buchanan, who covers the Oscar race for Vulture, argues that the rave reviews Nixon is receiving should make her a formidable awards contender, but wonders, “Is the movie too small to land on Oscar voters’ radar?”
(Fun fact: Though an Academy Award is a longshot, winning one would earn Nixon status as an EGOT winner, someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.)
It’s impossible to talk with Nixon without bringing up the thing she is most known for, and is asked the most about. But the film finally presents the opportunity to discuss Sex and the City through a different prism than the “when will there be a reunion?” and “what is your favorite episode?” conversation she gamely suffers through eternally.
When I start to tell her about several friends who turned to watching Miranda, Carrie, Samantha, and Charlotte in marathon watching sessions while receiving treatment for their own illnesses, as a form of comfort and reassuring familiarity, Nixon cheerfully interrupts. “I know two people personally who that was true for,” she says. “And people on the street tell me that, too. It’s true. Really true.”
But could she ever have imagined that people would feel so intimately connected to these characters that they turn to them for solace?
More than film, she says, it makes sense for a person to have that kind of relationship with TV characters because, over the course of years, you develop a relationship with them to the point that they really do seem like friends you get to visit and know better as time goes on.
But in this particular instance, “it makes sense because one of the amazing things about Sex and the City is its unique combination of fantasy and reality.”
“All of the plot lines—literally every sexcapade that happens—actually happened to one of our writers or someone they knew personally,” she says. “There can only be one degree of separation. That’s the rule in the writers’ room.”
Every unbelievable thing actually happened. “So it was grounded reality, and then of course you have all the fantasy elements of how great we look all the time in the beautiful clothes and beautiful settings and beautiful cinematography,” she says. “But the human connections and all the things they’re going through are actually grounded in reality. It’s a very winning combination.”