Cynthia Nixon and Christopher Abbott: Death becomes them

James White actors say experiences of grief fed their roles

JAMES WHITE written and directed by Josh Mond, with Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi and Ron Livingston. A FilmsWeLike release. 88 minutes. Opens Friday (November 27). See listings.

Cynthia Nixon has spent a lot of screen time with women.

She’s best known for her six seasons as high-maintenance attorney Miranda in HBO’s groundbreaking female-centric series Sex And The City, not to mention its spinoff movies.

So working on James White, first-time filmmaker Josh Mond’s indie feature dominated by men, came as a refreshing surprise.

“It was an extremely male production,” she says of the film, in which she plays Gail, a woman living with cancer who wants her 20-something son, James (Christopher Abbott), to find his way before she goes.

“It was lovely to see Chris and Scott [Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi, who plays one of James’s friends] onscreen, but also to have Josh and his producing partners around. There was this beautiful young straight male brotherhood. They were very physical with each other in a really lovely way. Very tactile. And I think you can see that in the film.”

Nixon heard about Mond’s script through her agent, and before signing on the two met and bonded over some similarities in their lives.

“He grew up in New York City, and I did, too,” she says. “His mother was an Upper West Side bohemian, and so was mine.”

And both had recently lost those mothers to cancer. In fact, when Nixon starred as a cancer patient in Wit on Broadway, a performance that earned her a Tony Award nomination, Mond’s mother saw the play, months before her own death.

“When I heard that, it felt like this real meta moment,” says Nixon, looking elegant before the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

In the 90s, two of her close friends died of AIDS-related illness two years apart.

“Everyone’s experience of death is different, of course, but it’s like raising a child. Each child is unique, but there are stages they go through.”

As the title suggests, the film’s events are mostly seen from James’s POV, especially at the beginning, when he’s experiencing levels of denial and self-destruction, the camera inches from his face.

“That stuff was choreographed almost like a dance,” says Abbott, who starred in the first couple of seasons of Lena Dunham’s Girls.

“Mátyás Erdély, the director of photography, would grab my shirt under the camera, I would tap him on the shoulder when I was going to turn,” he says. “I got used to it quickly and easily. It was like this performance art piece.”

Much of the film was shot in a Manhattan apartment, and Nixon says it almost felt like they lived there.

“I wouldn’t even go out – I’d bring my lunch and heat it up in the microwave.”

“It was very Grey Gardens,” jokes Abbott.

That closeness came in handy when it was time to film a harrowing warts-and-all sequence set in the washroom.

“Josh wanted it to be filmed a certain way, and we negotiated, saying it didn’t feel right,” says Nixon. “There was a compromise between being held up and sort of leaning on something.”

“It was kind of an awkward position you’d have in a bathroom,” says Abbott. “But man, was it intimate.”

Cynthia Nixon on getting the role:

Christopher Abbott on getting involved in the movie:

Nixon on whether to shave her head for the film:

Nixon on being recognized from Sex And The City:

See our review for James White here. Plus, don’t miss our interview with director Josh Mond here. | @glennsumi

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