Emmy, Grammy, SAG, and Tony Award-winning actress Cynthia Nixon had already directed three Off-Broadway productions—Rasheeda Speaking, Steve, and MotherStruck!—when she sat in the director’s chair on the first season of the Sex and the City spin-off series And Just Like That…. Nixon follows that assured television directorial debut with two back-to-back episodes as director on the second season of the show, which is currently debuting Thursdays on Max.
Both episodes helmed by Nixon—five, which premieres today and six, which launches on Thursday, July 20th—really sparkle, capturing much of the magic that made the original series so captivating and fun. Along with the laughter, fashion, and friendship, there are some raw, emotionally potent scenes in there too, with Nixon reprising the role of Miranda Hobbes, alongside her fellow executive producers, Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw and Kristin Davis as Charlotte York Goldenblatt. With the iconic New York characters all now in their mid-fifties, their lives have become intertwined with new friends, including philanthropist and documentary filmmaker Lisa Todd Wexley aka LTW (Nicole Ari Parker), Columbia professor Nya Wallace (Karen Pittman), high-end realtor Seema Patel (Sarita Choudhury), and comedian Che Diaz (Sara Ramírez).
Cynthia Nixon, who was recognized with GLAAD’s Vito Russo Award in 2010 and the Visibility Award from the Human Rights Campaign in 2018 for her LGBTQ+ activism, speaks exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about her approach to directing, how her thoughts on receiving direction were shaped by her mother’s guidance, what she’s gleaned from working with acclaimed directors such as Mike Nichols and Miloš Forman over her decades-spanning acting career, the challenges of shooting on the streets of New York, and her favourite LGBTQ+ culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: how did directing an episode on the first season of And Just Like That… come about and what was that experience like?
Cynthia Nixon: “It was terrifying and incredibly exciting. When we were deciding to do the new show, Sarah and Michael talked to me about me directing as something that they both very much wanted to happen. I was scared, but it was something that I wanted very much too and so I thought, ‘What am I going to do, just be scared and not do it?! I’ve got to do it!’ I had amazing support from our producers, our DPs, the actors, and everybody on set. So that made it less scary, but I think it’s always scary to be in charge of everything.”
How would you describe your collaboration with showrunner Michael Patrick King in your role as director?
“The thing is, nobody knows the show like Michael. He always says, very sweetly—and I guess he’s right—that nobody knows the characters like the people playing them because we’ve played them for so long. But he really knows the show. He knows the arc, not just of the scene, not just of the episode, but of the whole season. So he’s an incredible resource and I can always troubleshoot with him. Unless we’re shooting episodes simultaneously and he’s directing somewhere else, he’ll be on set, particularly if it’s an important scene. He’ll talk to me about everything, like if I’m unsure about how to cover a scene, the camera angles, we’ll walk through it in the morning and brainstorm.”
Your director of photography on both episodes was Wylda Bayrón. It’s such gorgeous work throughout, but the snowstorm sequences in episode six are particularly stunning. Carrie walking in the middle of the street with that extraordinary puffer coat, which you shoot from behind and above, then there’s LTW trudging through the snow on the way to MOMA, and that striking shot of Charlotte looking anxious after she’s given the condoms to Lily where the camera pulls up from her. It’s not only beautiful to look at, but you’re creating a mood and telling the story through the ways it’s shot. How did that all come together?
“There were so many people involved, including the people creating the actual snow and the people working on VFX in post. A lot of those sequences were filmed in a studio with green screen, so not just the snow, but buildings, cars, you name it, were all added later. Those snow sequences are expensive, so you really want to make the most of them and when you’re dealing with a costume like Sarah Jessica wears in the snow it’s so delicious that you want to be able to get it from every angle; from above, from behind, from the side, and from the front. Wylda and I plotted those things out, so we made sure that we had time for them. They make such a big impact, but those sequences aren’t actually that long and that was really helpful. They’re not giant, many-pages-of-dialogue scenes, so you’re really looking for the visual impact.”
“With that moment after Charlotte has given Lily the condoms, it is described in the script the way the camera goes up and Charlotte gets smaller and smaller and smaller, but Kristin’s expression on her face was so moving as she feels really small as her daughter is stepping out into this brave new world of adulthood. She’s so concerned and hopeful, but also scared. Then it was about trying to find the right amount of Nicole Ari Parker as LTW marching through the snow, defiant and determined.”
At one point during the blizzard, we see Charlotte, Harry, and Rock all snuggled up at home watching Edward Scissorhands, which feels like it’s in conversation with the tone and visual style of that part of the episode.
“That was my idea, because I thought it would be great to have something that was reflecting the snow, but they’re a Jewish family and so many of the classic films that you can think of that feature snow are about Christmas. We didn’t want them watching something Christmassy, so I was like, ‘Edward Scissorhands, let’s do it!'”
There’s a beautifully expressive shot from above of Steve and Miranda on their bed together between arguments that’s later mirrored with Miranda and Che. What was your thought process there?
“That was something that Wylda and I really discussed a lot, to have the echo of the two scenes, but I think they’re also very different. With Steve and Miranda spooning it’s tender, but it’s very careful and it’s sort of the beginning of that big fight. Whereas for Che and Miranda, it’s far more intimate and Che kisses her on the neck at a certain point. Those shots are very reflective of where the two relationships are. Steve and Miranda are really formal and careful with each other, while Che and Miranda are intimate.”
There is some fabulous work by costume designers Molly Rogers and Danny Santiago in these episodes. Was there anything specific that you discussed with them that stands out?
“Molly and Danny did an incredible job, as they always do with every episode. The Halloween party in episode five was such a feat because we had 200 background people and the vast majority of them were in these very fanciful costumes, not off-the-rack, but really high-end and wonderful. We wanted those costumes to be creative, but not completely steal the focus. So much work went into them. There’s LTW’s incredible Bride of Frankenstein outfit and then with Karen Pittman for Nya we spent a lot of time figuring out her Catwoman costume, which I love because she looks so amazing and sexy in it and it’s very like the Eartha Kitt Catwoman. That was noted in the script: ‘not Julie Newmar, not Michelle Pfeiffer, but Eartha Kitt’. Also, Nya doesn’t have a fortune to spend, the way LTW does, and so it looks like something that she’s put together herself.”
Having worked with Sarah and Kristin as a fellow actor for so many years playing these specific characters, what’s it like to now be directing them in scenes?
“It’s amazing because they’ve both been so supportive and we have a shorthand with each other. I’ve watched them work with many directors over the years, but it’s different when you are up close and personal and you’re in the driver’s seat. Every actor needs something slightly different or even wildly different. Sarita Choudhury and I for instance are more on the same page, where you can’t give us enough direction. Kristin is trained and Sarah and I are not, but Kristin and Sarah are both very intuitive, they want to be left alone to find it and then once they have their footing, then be given some direction. Whereas Sarita and I are right there at the beginning asking, ‘OK, what do you think? What do you want?'”
I love the meet-cute in episode five, where Peter Hermann as George falls off his bike at Carrie’s feet, what was that like to shoot on location on the street in New York?
“We were in control of some traffic, but obviously not the traffic on the avenue, just the traffic on the street and even with that we only had a limited time. So there was a big time crunch and we had a stunt driver, but we were very lucky in Peter Hermann because he’s so athletic and he wasn’t afraid to do it himself. We also had a stunt person standing by for Sarah, but she was brave and game and so we didn’t ever have to put the stunt person in for her, which was very good in terms of it looking like it was really happening and that it was the real person.”
Last season, the character of Che Diaz played by Sara Ramírez got a lot of people talking and in episode five there is a scene where Che’s new pilot is being discussed by a test audience with Che listening to their feedback, including a moment where everyone in the room puts their hand up to indicate that they’ve got something negative to say about the character and their portrayal. It feels like there’s a lot of pressure on them to represent all nonbinary people because we don’t see that much nonbinary representation on screen. What was that scene like to direct with Sara and what did you make of the meta aspect of it?
“That’s Michael Patrick King, along with all of our writers from the original series to this series. They had a rule in the writers’ room, that there couldn’t be a plot point that hadn’t happened to one of the writers directly or somebody that they actually knew. So it couldn’t be ‘my brother’s father-in-law’s dentist’s dog’, right?! It had to be someone close to you. Outrageous things happened on the original show, and outrageous things happen on this show, but it’s all something that has actually happened to someone. So we’ve always been very much in the groove of, let’s take all this biographical information of the writers, of the cast, of people who we know, and ground in reality, and in New York reality in particular. So putting that in there with Che was a natural, although bold, thing for Michael to do in that episode and I think it’s great.”
“It was a very tricky scene to shoot, not because of that, but because we were dealing with two rooms and we had to make sure that the audience understands the geography of where everybody is and that the people in Che’s room can see the panel, but the panel can’t see the people in Che’s room. All that was very challenging and Wylda and I spent so much time trying to figure out how we were going to show that and make that transition when we first discover where we are.”
Episode six in particular is a major episode for Miranda and you give a really exquisite acting performance in that emotionally charged scene with David Eigenberg as Steve. What is it like to be directing whilst you’re also acting, does it offer you a different perspective on the scene or lead you to approach it any differently or do compartmentalize?
“With that specific scene with David Eigenberg, as it was such an important and heavy scene, Michael Patrick actually came in and helped and worked with us on it because I felt like it would be very hard to try to direct the person that you’re having a big fight with. Although, the very first thing that I directed last season was actually the picnic with Sarah, Kristin, and I, where Miranda reveals that she’s had sex with Che in the kitchen and Miranda and Charlotte have a big fight. But that didn’t seem daunting, and strangely in some ways it was good to have a scene that I was in as the first thing I was directing.”
Are there aspects of your personality that you think make directing a good fit for you?
“Yeah, I think that I’m a very outside-in actor. I see the whole and I’ll have an external idea of what I want to do as an actor and then I’ll work to internalize it. I think that that’s very helpful as a director, somebody who is not discovering from the inside out, but from the outside in.”
“As an actor, but also as a director, I’m good with text. I think that’s important because the thing that I really understand now in a way that I never had before, is that amazing camerawork is fabulous to look at, but the incredible camera moves or camera angles that hit you and that make you go, ‘wow’, are never icing on the cake. They’re never just fancy and complicated for the sake of being fancy and complicated. What gives them their punch is that they’re not just cool to look at, but they’re actually revealing the story in a way. So one of the main things that I learned firsthand in a very personal way was that everything you do—whether it’s choosing a costume, choosing a prop, choosing a location, or giving an actor a note—has to be in service of telling the story and that’s when you can dress things up. But if you’re not moving the story forward the audience disconnects and you have to keep them with you all the time.”
As you direct, are you ever consciously drawing on experiences that you’ve had with any of the many incredible directors that you’ve worked with over the years?
“Certainly. I worked with Miloš Forman on Amadeus and I think of him often and the way he worked with actors. He made everybody so real all the time. I think about Mike Nichols and Dan Sullivan, a director who I’ve worked with on stage a lot. There are so many different techniques when it comes to directing. There’s the Freudian director where you never know what they’re thinking and they’re very spare; there’s the director who’s your friend; the director who’s your parent; and then there’s the director who is so cool that you just want to please them. There are a lot of different ways of being a director and all these directors that I have worked with live in my head.”
“There’s every kind of director just like there’s every kind of parent, so I guess it sort of gives you permission to do it your way. Just know what your own strengths are and lean into those. I focused so much in the first season on the camera because I was like, this is the thing I don’t really know, but in doing that I think I neglected a little bit the part that I do know, which is the actors. So with the second season, where I got to try again, I collaborated with the camera but I knew to rely on the people that are there on set because they have great ideas. It’s your job to confer and to decide and choose, but also don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel. There are people there and this is what they do, this is how they view things, so listen to that and use them.”
After your experience on And Just Like That… would you like to direct more TV and theatre, and perhaps a film?
“I would, very much so. I really enjoy it so much. I never went to acting school. My mother was my only real acting teacher and she and I worked together for many years. It’s really why I feel so comfortable with directors and want lots of direction from them because direction to me feels like love, it feels like the person who is sort of a parental figure who is watching and who saw when I tried that new thing and had an opinion about it and wanted to hurry back and tell me what they thought so we could work on it together.”
It’s like holding up a mirror in a way, to improve and make things better.
“Exactly. When I was really little, my mother would take me to see an enormous amount of theatre and old movies. It was great fun to see all those things, but the most fun was talking about it afterwards with her and being like, ‘Why didn’t that work and what should they have done instead?’ Or ‘Why did this work so well?’ Kind of dissecting what we’d just seen in that way. It’s like taking a watch apart and learning how it works.”
“My mother always said—and she’s very right—if you see a perfect show like Hamilton, it dazzles you and you love it, but it’s just magic when it all comes together and you can’t understand exactly how it happened. ‘How did they do that?’ Not just Lin-Manuel Miranda, but every element; the direction; the lighting; all of it. But when you see things that aren’t as successful, it’s like an autopsy. You can see, ‘Oh, here they should have done this’ or ‘This is where they went wrong’. In some ways, if you’re trying to learn about how to create a piece of art, it’s actually very useful to see a piece of art that doesn’t work because the structure is right there laid bare.”
Lastly, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Angels in America immediately comes to mind, which I was in on Broadway so it’s very dear to my heart. Also, the song “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home is something that I love dearly. I find it such a touchstone about how a young queer person sees an adult queer person and recognizes themselves in them and doors open up. I love Fun Home in general, but that one song really knocks me out.”
By James Kleinmann
Episode five of the second season of the Max Original series And Just Like That… directed by Cynthia Nixon is now streaming on Max and episode six, also directed by Nixon, will debut on Thursday, July 20th. The final five episodes of the season will premiere weekly on subsequent Thursdays on Max.