Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg sat down with actress Cynthia Nixon, who plays Charlotte in this production, to talk about her connection to and history with The Real Thing.
Ted Sod: You have a fascinating history with this play, having done it in the ‘80s. Will you tell our readers about that?
Cynthia Nixon: Yes. I was in this play exactly 30 years ago, in 1984, when Mike Nichols directed it on Broadway, which was the New York premiere, with Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Christine Baranski, Ken Welsh, Peter Gallagher and Vyto Ruginis.
TS: You were acting in two different Broadway plays at the same time: you performed in the first act of Hurlyburly and the second act of The Real Thing -- correct?
CN: Right. I was first asked to be in The Real Thing, and after we took it out of town to Boston, and brought it into New York, we were a big hit. Shortly thereafter Mike pulled me out of it to be in his production of Hurlyburly, which we took out of town to Chicago and then brought off- Broadway and then moved to Broadway. I started doing both plays in the fall of ’85 in my first semester of college.
TS: Tell us about the role of Charlotte in The Real Thing. Why did you want to play her?
CN: Charlotte’s a great character and I have strong memories of Christine Baranski playing the role in 1984, which actually don't bother me at all. I like hearing Christine's voice in my head but know my Charlotte will be its own thing because I'm so different from her and Sam Gold's production will be so different from Mike Nichols' one. Charlotte is an actress – very successful, appearing on the West End, which is like the London version of Broadway – and also a movie actress, a very glamorous person. And she's married to Ewan McGregor’s character, Henry, who is a playwright. It's his play she happens to be appearing in when The Real Thing starts. I think that one of the hilarious things about the play is that Charlotte complains about her part in the play her husband has written, because the male actor in the play (played by Josh Hamilton) gets all the zingers. He gets to be free and witty even though he thinks that I'm cheating on him. And instead of dissolving in a little puddle of tears he becomes very sarcastic and biting and ironic. And my character has a stiff upper lip and says things like, “I'm sorry you feel that way.” She gets no jokes. She's just basically wounded and noble.
TS: What would you say the play is about?
CN: The play is about a lot of things. It's about men and women who are really different. It’s about love, fidelity and how you make a marriage last. I think it’s also a battle of the sexes. And the different way men and women view relationships.
TS: How do you go about preparing for a role like Charlotte? Does she think she is Henry’s equal?
CN: She is his match even though he is the intellectual. She's just a lowly actress. I've been talking to Christine Baranski, who I'm still in touch with, and she was so tickled when she heard that I was going to be doing this part. “It's just the best part,” she said. She comes onstage and she gets to play all these different things. When the play starts, of course, you think that she's really that person she is portraying in the play – that sort of noble, long-suffering, beautiful but quiet woman. And then you realize she's not that at all. You see that she's sarcastic and sexy and in a marriage that's not really working. It's not the kind of damage George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? inflict on each other, but there's some marital barbing.
TS: Once Charlotte and Henry separate, she seems to soften a bit.
CN: In the second act -- two years later -- we see a very different aspect of Charlotte. We see her as a mother, but we also see her a little older and wiser. She's still very funny, and she's still very wicked, but has more regrets than she did in the earlier part of the play.
TS: How do you see the relationship between Charlotte and Debbie, her teenage daughter?
CN: I think they have a great mother/daughter relationship. And I think the Debbie character is very evolved. She has a bit of bravado and maybe she's a little bit of a smartass. She thinks she's a little more mature and sophisticated than she is. But she's actually pretty mature and sophisticated. I think Charlotte has a very liberated attitude toward sex and love. And I think Debbie inherited it. And it serves Debbie well. She’s watched her parents’ marriage collapse and she's made her own decisions. She's come up with her own philosophy of love.
TS: Do you have a sense of why Charlotte doesn't know what's going on between Henry and Annie?
CN: I don’t. We're not in rehearsal yet, so I don't actually know that she doesn't know.
I'm not sure about that yet. She's not saying anything to her husband about it, but what she might know or might wonder about it is unclear to me yet. If you think your spouse is cheating on you, and you decide not to confront them about it…I think that means you're not really sure. And by Charlotte's own admission, she thought he was having affairs with a dozen people during their marriage – none of which happened. I think it's very hard if you are possessive and jealous in that way – as I think Charlotte is – to be sure if your spouse is cheating. You think, oh, that's just me again. If he wasn't doing it the last 12 times, why would he be doing it this time? You stop trusting yourself when an affair is actually happening.
TS: How do you like to collaborate with a director?
CN: I like to collaborate very closely. The director/actor relationship is my favorite. I love other actors and working with designers and I love the interaction with the audience, but my favorite interaction is with the director.
CN: Do you look for specific things from a director, or does it change from text to text?
TS: It changes, but I certainly like to feel that I have a partner. I know there are a lot of actors who like to be left alone to sort of muck about and explore in their individual way. I like to explore in tandem with someone. I like to feel like we're on a search party together – I don’t like feeling as if I were sent out into the wilderness. I like to be in tandem with someone. I'm such a fan of Sam Gold’s work and we've been trying to work together for a while. I am really very excited to get into the rehearsal room next week. My wife said, “Oh my God. You're going into another play. You're going to be gone every evening, and it's going to be such a slog.” And I said, “But honey, I'm not dying from ovarian cancer in this one. No one's dying in this play. And I'm not trying to indoctrinate little girls into the ways of fascism in this play. It's a delicious play to be in.” I think all Tom Stoppard's plays are delicious to be in because of their artistry and language.
TS: What would you say to a young person who says, “I want to be an actor”?
CN: I would say keep your options open. Don't throw all your eggs in that basket. Follow your dream if that's your dream, but it's good to have a college education in something other than theater. And I would say that to the most talented 18-year-old actor in the world. I would say be around and create as much theater as you can. Get cast in things. And if you're not getting cast in things, make it happen yourself. Go see as much theater as you can. Theater is very expensive, obviously, but theatres like the Roundabout offer all kinds of discounts to students.
TS: You don't ever regret having started your career as young as you did, do you?
CN: I do not. I know there are certain things that maybe fell by the wayside. But by and large it was pretty much a win-win for me.
TS: I understand you will be directing later this season. You have cast two powerhouse actresses – Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pinkins. What made you want to direct?
CN: I feel like I've wanted to direct for a really long time and I just haven't been brave enough to do it. I feel that Scott Elliott at The New Group has just given me a tremendous chance and so much support and guidance. We haven't started rehearsal yet, of course, but I'm meeting with the designers, and I'm casting people. I'm sure there will be many unforeseen challenges along the way, but so far it seems like such a good fit for me. I'm friends with Lonny Price, who used to be an actor and is now primarily a director. I told him with great excitement a few months ago that I was going to be directing my first play. And he said, “You're going to be great. You're going to wonder what took you so long.”
The Real Thing plays October 2 through January 11 at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Real Thing, Upstage