Ratched's Cynthia Nixon reveals who was supposed to die, dishes on that sexy oyster-eating scene
WARNING: This article contains spoilers about Ratched.
Nurse Ratched is in good condition.
The character at the center of Netflix's Ratched has had good vitals ever since the Ryan Murphy-produced show debuted on Sept. 18, topping the streamer's chart for most of that time. ″Worldwide, it’s the No. 1 show," star Cynthia Nixon marvels about the popularity of the 8-episode first season. ″In all of the years of Sex and the City’s success, I don’t feel like anybody ever particularly said that to me before. So that’s a first for me!"
Perhaps the accomplishment isn't all that surprising though, given the popularity of the source material: the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Portrayed by Louise Fletcher in the movie, the menacing caretaker is played in this prequel series by Murphy go-to Sarah Paulson, who expertly forces her way into a job at Lucia State Hospital for reasons that become clear to the audience fairly early, but not those around Ratched until much later. Not long after starting work at the mental facility, she meets Gwendolyn Briggs — played by Nixon — campaign manager and press secretary for Governor Wilburn (Vincent D'Onofrio), who's made the hospital a cornerstone of his re-election campaign.
Nixon had just ended one of her own when Ratched came her way. ″It was the first thing that I did after I ran for governor,″ Nixon, who took on New York Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo in 2018, says when asked about her character's political likemindedness. ″I lost the primary in September and [Ryan] was calling me in December while I was out Christmas shopping saying, 'I know you've been hearing about this for a while but I want to make this offer and I want to tell you how great it’s going to be and why.'"
Nixon breaks down some of those reasons why while also dishing on one of the season's most talked-about scenes, and ponders the possibility of a Miranda Hobbes/Gwendolyn Briggs friendship.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This character goes on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. How much did you know about her arc before you even got scripts?
CYNTHIA NIXON: I think I read the first four scripts, I want to say, and I certainly knew that she was going to be Mildred’s love interest and that the path of true love never did run smooth. I knew there was going to be a lot of drama. But I was actually only hired for a year because they were supposed to kill me at the end. I thought it was going to be this really more tragic love story where I was going to die at the end of season 1. Well, that has not happened. They shot me and they gave me cancer but I'm still walking around! [Laughs]
Do you know what changed and why they kept Gwendolyn around?
I think there were a few of us they were going to kill – I think they were going to kill Judy Davis, too. And I think they were going to kill Finn Wittrock. I think they decided they liked having us around. I guess on some level maybe, it's such a trope of queer characters that when they do find love, then somebody up and dies or is killed. So I think Ryan Murphy is very aware of that trope and wanted to offer people something else.
Between her professional political life, witnessing what is happening at the hospital, her sexuality, falling in love with Mildred and everything that’s complicated there, what were you most excited to explore?
I often play people who are darker and more divided against themselves, and sometimes their own worst enemy. So to be asked by Ryan to play this person who is just so sure who she is and so confident and so optimistic about the world and what's possible and what's possible for her in it — she's a woman, she's a queer woman, and she wants to not only have a career in politics but someday runs for office herself, these are huge, almost impossible dreams. She wants to find love with another woman and in a lasting way. I feel like she's kind of not only the heart of Ratched but also the person advocating the path of light when there is so much darkness and so much malevolence. I don't think of myself as that kind of person — I mean, I think I’m that kind of person in life but I don’t often get to play that. So I guess that was sort of the big challenge — she’s just so purely straight ahead and who she is. Is that interesting enough, you know? I usually play people with a lot more locked rooms and hidden wings.
Largely because of her childhood, Mildred has this ability to disconnect from people, which becomes a big hurdle for her as an adult with intimate relationships. In breaking all of that down the creative team as well as Sarah, what was your main goal in the portrayal of their relationship?
When you start thinking about how few lesbians there are depicted on screen, and then how many fewer lesbian couples that are depicted on screen and then lesbian couples that are actually played by real-life lesbians, it becomes a very small pool. Even just doing it was major. But there were things that we, particularly when we got into the later episodes [and saw where] they had the romance going, we sat down and said, “We can't have this, we have to have this,” and they listened to us. That was really great. There wasn't even going to be an onscreen kiss. We were like, we've got to have some physical component to this.
When you have these two queer characters and have two queer actresses playing them, that kind of speaks for itself. We’re at a point in Hollywood where we're trying to be of greater representation to people who have been left out of the narrative, so I think it's really important that when you're telling people stories that either the writers or the actors actually have that experience. So in this case, they had me and Sarah and we spoke up when things didn't seem genuine to us.
Let's talk about that oyster-eating scene, which audiences can’t get enough of and have tweeted about a lot.
Yeah! That’s pure Ryan and that was great! [Laughs]
It’s a scene worth rewinding to watch again because of the wonderful chemistry between you and Sarah, and the sensuality of it all. But I have to imagine there were some laughs filming that scene.
Yeah! The whole thing is a little ripe. [Laughs] Sarah and I are great friends, so, on the one hand, it's very nice – if you have to be in that situation – to already be very close and comfortable with them. But it’s weird! It's like, I’m coming on to one of my good friends now. It’s a little strange. But a funny thing is, my wife and I don't encounter a lot of trouble in the world — we don't get harassed much in the world, but in our many years together we've only been harassed three times and two of them were around us eating oysters out at a restaurant. One of these times we were in Montauk and a very drunk man I think didn’t understand how loud he was being — he was like, “Lesbians eating oysters,” at the top of his lungs and his poor girlfriend was trying to shut him up. And the other time it happened in a fancier wine bar in Edinburgh, Scotland, and they were more subtle but it was actually sort of nastier and creepier because they were so unpleasant and laughing and it was very clear what they were doing. [But the scene] was very funny, and more than funny was smart of Ryan to think of having this scene. But it is a trope.
If they ever lived at the same time and place and had the opportunity to meet and know each other, would Gwendolyn Briggs and Miranda Hobbes be friends?
Hmmm… [long pause] I think they might. They have such a different sensibility. The 1940s – propriety is so important. Gwendolyn has pretty great, impeccable manners…Miranda really doesn’t. [Laughs] I think they would. I think Miranda would admire Gwendolyn. I'm not sure what Gwendolyn would make up of Miranda, but I imagine more if Miranda got to meet Gwendolyn as an old lady, she would totally revere her as a trailblazer and sit at her feet and learn from her. People like Gwendolyn, real-life people who tried to do these impossible things, we all stand on their shoulders. As women, as queer people, we would never be where we are if it hadn't been for them going against the odds.