Asked what single thing he would tell a young actor, Laurence Olivier is said to have answered "how to become an old actor."
At least, that's the way Cynthia Nixon knows the story. The extraordinary part is that she was smart enough to know what Olivier meant when she was 14.
That was in 1980, when the prodigy made her Broadway debut opposite Blythe Danner in "The Philadelphia Story" at Lincoln Center. In a heart-crushingly adorable interview at the time, she said her goal was "to be a New York theater person -- respected but not mobbed."
And here she is, still a New Yorker at 48, respected but potentially a little mobbed on Broadway in the revival of Tom Stoppard's dazzling dissection of love and theater, "The Real Thing," which opens Oct. 30 at the American Airlines Theatre. Asked about the quote during a recent phone interview, she said with all the levelheaded clarity one anticipates after seeing her many performances, "It's the length of the road -- the peaks and valleys -- and not the height."
Of course, "The Real Thing" is expected to be a peak. To be precise, this will make it two peaks. In 1984, while a freshman at Barnard, Nixon played Debbie, the 17-year-old daughter of Jeremy Irons, who leaves mom Christine Baranski for Glenn Close. Now she has Baranski's role of Charlotte, opposite Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Watching someone grow up in public is one of the pleasures of New York theatergoing. But watching someone grow up in public in the same play holds out possibility of even more riches.
"It is really wild," she said, clearly enjoying the chance to explore the same play from a different perspective. "And this has been one of my favorite plays since I first worked on it," going on about "Tom's words, the jokes and the profound truths between men and women. . . . I was with Christine Baranski a few nights ago. . . . She was so elegant and so funny as Charlotte that I didn't understand then how much pain she was in." Nixon asked Baranski to pick her top three plays. "This one was right there."
Nixon remembers every line from the original. "They're really so embedded," she muses, just a bit unnerved that Stoppard, who has been involved in "slews" of productions since its 1982 London premiere, changed lines through the years. "There are a lot of versions of the text around that are not the version in my head."
More important is the way the play about actors and playwrights "bleeds into your private life. All of us in the play spend a lot of time -- not just in rehearsal but on break -- talking about how much the play means to us."
"There's very little in the play I got at 17 and 18," she admits. "It's a whole different thing when you're a middle-aged person with children, a separation. . . . I now understand how hard it is to make relationships really work over time."
Nixon's private life -- a daughter, 18, and a son, 12, with her longtime ex-boyfriend, a 3-year-old son with her wife, Christine Marinoni -- is familiar gossip fodder. To New Yorkers, she is known (but not mobbed) as a lifelong neighbor who takes the bus, shops for groceries and campaigns for public schools.
To the world, however, she may forever be Miranda, the flinty but sensible lawyer with intimacy issues in "Sex and the City." Although she has consciously chosen such anti-Miranda roles as Eleanor Roosevelt on HBO, the acerbic dying professor in "Wit" and her Tony-winning portrayal of the grieving mother in "Rabbit Hole," Nixon seems resigned to people wondering what happened to Miranda's red hair.
Everyone who has watched her through the decades, of course, pictures her blond. We also picture her as the teen who made theater history by playing in two Broadway productions -- both directed by Mike Nichols -- at the same time in 1984. For acts one and three, she played a street waif opposite William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver in "Hurlyburly." In the middle, she rushed two blocks to "The Real Thing." It was timed so that she was onstage for curtain calls at each show.
Now she brushes off any suggestion that her return to an older character in the "Real Thing" is unique. "If you're an actor doing classics," she insisted, "you'd start as Horatio, move to Laertes, then Hamlet, then Claudius, then Polonius and then the Gravedigger. The thing would always be inside you."
Laura Linney's breakthrough was as the seductive young German journalist in "Sight Unseen" in 1992 and, 12 years later, she returned all grown-up as the main character's lost love. She was glad she had outgrown the ingénue, Linney said in an interview at the time of the revival about having been cast fresh from Juilliard. "You're playing that delicious, delectable quality about youth. . . . You're playing a quality, not a part."
Also, Billy Crudup, right out of NYU's Tisch Drama School, got his big break in 1995 as the young 19th century tutor in Stoppard's "Arcadia," returning 13 years later to play the 20th century academic. As the tutor, he told The Wall Street Journal in 2011, he felt he was playing the type of person who chooses "to hike up to the top of a mountain to see if when they jump, they can fly." The older man "is rushing up the mountain, not really having thought it through. . . . As soon as he jumps, he goes, 'What am I supposed to do?' "
It has, alarmingly, been 30 years since Nixon was in "The Real Thing" and she says she is "trying to find my own version of the balance, how pain can be funny until it's not funny anymore."
Also not funny are the changes in Broadway over those years. "The theater is like it was, only more so," she said thoughtfully. She repeats the familiar complaint that "you can't make a living in the theater but you can make a killing." Then she adds, "Look at those wildly large salaries that actors from film and television are getting.
"When I was a kid, Broadway was in danger of becoming a place to showcase art rather than to develop it. Now we have 15-week revivals that are sold out to the rafters with people who pay hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Seeing the face of a film or television actor live has become a real luxury item."